Archive for November 2014

How I Got My Agent: An Interview with Samantha Joyce

I can’t tell you how excited I am to interview Samantha Joyce today. Not only is she a ridiculously awesome person (with an equally awesome bunny), but she agreed to have me interview her about the moment every author is waiting for: how she got her agent. Super-long post ahead, but absolutely worth the read.

Tell me about the book that got you agented.

It’s called Silent Fiction, and it’s the story of nineteen-year-old Elise, a secret best-selling author who was deafened and scarred in a freak accident years ago. Elise is so self-conscious about her scars, she sent her publisher another girl’s picture instead of her own for the back of her books.  When Hollywood decides to make a TV show based on her books (starring a hot young actor, of course), she tracks down the girl from the back of her books and convinces her to pretend to be her. Of course, it’s not so easy to have someone else be you, especially when said hot actor is involved.

 It’s a love story that is sort of a combination of Cyrano De Bergerac meets Fangirl. Really, it’s about learning to be comfortable in your own skin, no matter what challenges life throws your way.

Ah! I’m so excited for it! It sounds really good. How did you get the idea for it?

I actually had been toying with the idea for a couple years. I was thinking about pen names, and about how authors are able to hide a bit behind them. I wondered what would happen if someone went the extra mile and used a fake photo as well, and what circumstances would cause someone to go that far. That was when Elise was born.

 I also knew there had been a push recently for diverse books, and I’d wanted to write from the point of view of a deaf character for a while. I was fascinated by the idea that Elise’s world was silent, except when she heard the voices of her characters in her head. They, essentially, made her world loud again.  But it was also important that her deafness was only an aspect of her personality, as opposed to the main focus of the book. Her disability does not hinder her in any way. If anything, it makes her stronger.

Is it the first book you’ve written? What about queried? What were your previous experiences like in the Query Trenches?

This was the third book I’d written, and the second I’d queried (the first is hiding in a trunk somewhere). The two querying experiences were VERY different.

The first book I queried was a YA paranormal (angels/demons), which was a tough sell in a very saturated market. I got about 70 rejections in total, with a few requests and an R & R scattered throughout. I queried it for about seven months before coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t that book’s time. Besides, I’d just finished another book I was crazy in love with.

Querying Silent Fiction was the polar opposite. I knew who I wanted to target this time. I had a killer query letter. I knew to expect rejection. I had this down to a science. I started querying at the end of September. I sent out my first batch of queries, and by the end of the week, I had four full requests and three partials. Most of the requests came within twenty-four hours of sending the query. Things were happening FAST. In the meantime, my pitch and first 250 were accepted into PitchSlam, garnering three more partial requests the next week. I sent off the requested materials to all the agents and held my breath. This book felt different from the first, and the response was great, but rejection and I were old buddies. I was ready for whatever came.

I still got rejections, of course (it’s all part of the process), but then this magical email came in from this awesome agent, telling me how much she enjoyed my book, and she wanted to know more about me and my writing. What else had I written? What else was I working on? I think it took me two hours to compose a response, and I had at least three people read it before I hit “send” with a shaking hand. I pretty much wandered through the rest of the day blindly, wondering what it all meant. Maybe she kind of liked the book but was hoping I had something else instead. Maybe she was just being nice. Maybe she would hate my idea for my next book and wouldn’t want to work with me. The possibilities were endless in my self-doubting writer brain. The next day, I got a reply. Was I free to take a phone call?

I know you were involved in Pitch Wars 2013. Tell me about your experience. How did that help you now?

The manuscript that was accepted in last year’s Pitch Wars was actually the YA paranormal book I queried (the one with all the rejections). Querying the mentors in Pitch Wars were actually the first queries I’d ever sent. I knew the market was tough for my genre, so I was shocked when the amazing Molly Lee chose me as an alternate for her team. Working with Molly was fantastic. Although I was an alternate, which meant she only had to look at my first 250 words, Molly asked if she could see the whole book. I was floored when her critique rolled in not long after. She loved my book, she loved my writing, she believed in me. She was so encouraging. Even when the alternates over all received very few requests, she cheered us on and told us not to give up.

After Pitch Wars, she stayed in touch, asking how things were going with querying. When I was drowning in rejections, I was tempted to quit. But Molly wouldn’t let that happen. She asked what else I was working on. I told her my idea for Silent Fiction. She loved it, and offered some suggestions (like putting the main character in college) that made everything click in my mind. I wrote the book in about two months, with Molly cheering me on the whole way. She eagerly critiqued it for me (she’s excellent with her critiques). And when requests started rolling in (along with more rejections) she taught me that brownies are great for both celebrating and drowning your sorrows. She was there every step of the way both before, and after, the call. I’m not sure she knows how grateful I am for that. I had no idea, when I entered Pitch Wars that the mentor/mentee relationship would extend beyond the contest, but I am now honored to call Molly both a CP and friend. I tell her this a lot, but it bears repeating: Molly Lee rocks.

 What are your querying stats for Silent Fiction? (Queries/Partials/Fulls/Offers)

Yay stats! Here you go:

Number of queries sent: 32
Partial requests: 7
Full requests: 16 (including 5 partials bumped to full)
Rejections:8
No response: 6
Offers: 3

I started querying the book on Sept 30th, and received the first offer Oct 27th. Like I said, it all happened REALLY fast.

Hooray for multiple offers! That’s awesome! What were the phone calls like? What sort of questions did you ask? Did you manage to keep your cool (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to…)?

Oh gosh, I was a WRECK for the first one. The agent emailed me on a Thursday, saying she wanted to talk that week, but she was away on a conference. She wondered if we could speak on Monday. I already had the Monday off work, so that seemed perfect. The only downside was I had three whole days to agonize about the call. I wasn’t 100% sure it was going to be THE call. It was possible it was a revise & resubmit (which is always cool, too). Or it might have been a very personal rejection. Or perhaps she just wanted my brownie recipe. Seriously, my mind is a scary place sometimes.

 The good thing about having all that time was I was able to talk to agented author friends about their calls, research questions I should ask if it WAS the call, and try to figure out how I was going to sound calm and cool when I picked up the phone (friends suggested alcohol). I barely slept all weekend.

 I was a basket case by the time the phone rang. I was shaking. I couldn’t feel my extremities. I had no idea how I was going to take notes since my hands were numb. But the nerves dissipated within moments of talking to this agent. She was excited about my book. She wanted to offer representation on it. She had fantastic revision ideas. She knew how she wanted to pitch it. And she was easy to talk to. She’d obviously done this before, as she answered most of my questions before I even had the chance to ask them. By the time I’d gotten off the phone with her about an hour and a half later, we’d not only discussed the book, but also talked about where we lived, our pets, and life in general.

 I’d like to say I was less stressed out about the other two calls that followed that week, but I was always nervous before, and always put at ease by the agents during. Seriously, they know how to make it easier. I have to say, all three calls were a pleasant experience, even if they started out completely nerve-wracking. I cannot stress how incredible all three agents were.

 What made you choose Kathleen as your agent?

Deciding between three amazing agents was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They all loved my book. They all had wonderful visions for it. And they were all cool people I loved chatting with. When I made a pros and cons list, it was almost impossible to find cons for any of them. Knowing I was going to have to say no to two of them was nausea inducing. I would’ve been lucky with any one of them representing me.

 I spent the time I had to make my decision pouring over Publisher’s Marketplace, talking to author friends who’d been in the same predicament, googling everything I could about each agent, and sometimes talking to their clients. I‘m also pretty sure I drove my family and friends crazy, since it was all I could talk about. I didn’t sleep for a week. In the end, my gut kept insisting on Kathleen. I agreed with her vision for the book, and her clients were over the moon happy with her. She was also incredibly excited for my next book idea, and I could see having a career with her. I’m thrilled with my decision.

 What are the next steps for you and Silent Fiction?

I’ve just started revisions based on Kathleen’s suggestions. Once those are done, I’ll have a couple of my trusted CPs take another look at it. Then, I’ll send it back to Kathleen to see if anything else needs to be done before submission. I’m both excited and terrified by the submission process—kind of how I felt about the querying process. I’m pretty sure more brownies will be involved when we go on submission. Brownies have no calories, right?

Absolutely not! Nothing as delicious as brownies has calories. Do you have any advice for those who are still in the query trenches, or getting ready for them?

Research, research, research. Find agents who are looking for books like yours (https://mswlparagraph.wordpress.com/ is fantastic, and is actually how I found Kathleen. You also cannot go wrong with QueryTracker). Learn how to write a proper query and synopsis. There are so many resources out there for these things (Query Shark and QT are two of my favorites), and so many critique contests to help make them better. A well done query is your first step to getting an agent’s attention. The second is a polished manuscript. Get beta readers and critique partners. Read and edit your manuscript until you’re sick of it, but it’s so shiny an agent will need sunglasses to read it.

 Keep writing. By the time the last few rejections for my last book came in, they no longer hurt as much because I had Silent Fiction to love. Having something else to focus on makes the wait less difficult. And there’s a LOT of waiting in this industry.

 Don’t give up. A rejection isn’t an indication of your talent. Remember this industry is incredibly subjective, and agents have many things to consider before taking on a new client that go beyond how good the writing is. This includes things like market trends and similar books on their list. It may not happen for this book, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen (see: keep writing, above).

 Lastly, I’d advise you have a really great brownie recipe on hand for rejections and celebrations alike. You’ll need it.

 Good luck!

Could you share the query that got you your agent?

Nineteen-year-old Elise Jameson may live in a silent world, but that doesn’t stop her from hearing voices in her head.

Deafened and scarred in a freak accident when she was younger, Elise forgoes the probing eyes of her peers in favor of the characters she creates on her laptop. What started as a coping mechanism shockingly turned into a career when her novels hit the best-seller list. Society has since become obsessed with the books and their author, a striking girl on the back cover who bears zero resemblance to Elise. That’s exactly what she wanted when Elise sent the randomly Googled photo to her editor after only a minor panic attack.

When they begin filming a television pilot of her books starring heartthrob Gavin Hartley—a lickable God of a man who makes her tingle in all the right places—Elise is horrified to learn they expect her on set. Elise tracks down the anonymous girl from the back of her books and begs her to take her place in the spotlight. To her surprise, Veronica Wilde has spent years reaping the rewards of her fake writing career. She jumps at the chance to continue the charade and hires Elise as her “assistant”. However, Elise soon realizes it’s not easy to watch someone else live her life and get everything she desires, including the surprisingly sweet actor of her dreams.

As she finds herself edged further and further onto the sidelines, Elise reconsiders her choice to stay in the shadows. But revealing her true identity could come at the cost of her career, her fans, and the only man to ever see beneath her scars.

More about Samantha:

Samantha Joyce is a self-described nerd, who spends far too much time discussing shows like Doctor Who or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and their adorable rabbit, Spike (see: obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Samantha is a sucker for romance and adorable pet videos and/or pictures. She is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter @SamJoyceBooks

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, Feminism, and Mockingjay Part 1

If you haven’t seen the latest installment in the Hunger Games film franchise, quit reading and go do that right now. I’m serious. There aren’t going to be major spoilers in this post, it’s just common sense to go see such a good movie.

Done? Good.

The Mockingjay

While I could probably go on and on about how wonderful the adaptation is, how magnificent the special effects, or how deep the symbolism, what I care about right now is the hot-button topic on the Interwebz as of late: representation in literature and in movies.

Before going to see Mockingjay, I read this excellent post about making Hollywood less sexist. Basically it said to do two things to the scripts you write:

  1. Take a few characters and change their names to female names.
  2. When a crowd gathers in the script, add, “which is half female”.

Boom. Women will be represented in multi-faceted roles. They will show up to crowds. And you know what? Suzanne Collins (who wrote her own adaptation, so we shouldn’t be surprised at how amazing it is) was there and listening.

To start out with, she laid an excellent foundation in the book. We have Cressida, the no-nonsense director in charge of the propos. President Coin, whose character is even more nuanced in the movie than in the books, with some background information the books didn’t have. Commander Paylor, the leader of District 8.

Cressida

But the movies could have ruined all that by oversexualizing the women, leaving them out of crowds, or making them all the same. Instead, what we get is phenomenal, as far as representation in Hollywood goes. Here’s a still of Commander Paylor.

Commander Paylor

I was so, so happy that they cast a Black woman into a leadership role, especially considering how Part 2 will play out. How many Black women do we see in movies at all, let alone in leadership? Paylor is compassionate, intelligent, and a strong leader. Probably the very best leader in the series. So to see her cast this way is fantastic.

Neither she nor President Coin (pictured below) are sexualized by the movies. President Coin wears a uniform similar to the one her people wear. She is also a competent leader, and a well-drawn character, if a bit more empathetic in the films than in the books.

President Coin

But what amazes me most is in the background. Take a look at this District 13 Headquarters screenshot. While the women-to-men ratio isn’t equal, it’s certainly far better than the typical shot would be in such a high-tech, high-profile background.

District 13 Headquarters

I can’t find image grabs of many other crowd scenes, but the representation of women and minorities, while not perfectly equal, didn’t fail to impress. Women were neither ignored nor sexualized (unless you count the scene where they fail to do Katniss’s propo in front of a green screen, and slather her in too much makeup, but that has a line that says “take off the makeup. She’s just a kid.” so…).

So if you’ve ignored my earlier advice and not seen Mockingjay yet, this post is over. Go see it. Now. I will be seeing it again as soon as I can.

Ancient History

While cleaning up my desk at work today, I found a notebook where I’d jotted the following down, about halfway through 2011:

Most days, I read for at least six hours. Right now, it’s “The Confessions of St. Augustine” for 45 minutes on the way to work, then, once at work, a mixture of environmental reports, Facebook statuses, and my favorite blogs. Some days I’ll read for the 45-minute ride home. If I’m in a particularly good book, I’ll read through dinner. Then there’s my 5 minutes of Bible reading per day, which usually turns into one 40-minute reading a week. And all the incidentals! I can’t see words and not read them. Street signs, URLs, papers scattered about my desk. I’m always reading. But in the past year and a half, I feel like I’ve forgotten that I went to school for seven and a half years to learn to write.

Sure I read nearly as much as now, especially in college. But in college I read for homework and the homework was writing. I read “Pride and Prejudice” so I could write about the importance Mr. Bennett plays in the plot and character development. I read Billy Collins and Mary Oliver to whet my appetite for modern poetry–and then to write an analysis or imitation of it. I read chapters in my science text books to answer the questions at the end. I read books, then essays about the books, and I wrote and analysed. Poetry was my first love, then analytical writing, then autobiography, then fiction, then journalism.

At first I was thrilled to graduate and be away from the confines of required reading. But before I even graduated I’d made a list of “books I should have been required to read.” I added to it books I’d always wanted to read and in 2010 I finished 59 books, most of which I’d never read before. So far this year I’m at 35. But what I really miss is the analysis.

Sure, I scribble a few pages about my own reactions to the best of the best, but I miss the supplemental research, the time spent re-reading passages to support my claims, and most of all I miss writing. True writing is so much more than the journaling. I try to keep up on, and I feel so out of practice from it. I feel compelled to finalize my thesis for my theoretical dissertation about how good young adult novels are all about the paradigm shift away from fairy tales and into dystopias that challenge the adolescent mind into critical thinking. I feel compelled to write autobiography again. I want to write essays on Harry Potter and Augustine’s confessions. I want to compile a meditation on Scripture.

My 30 poems in 30 days was an appetizer, and good books are like wine to me. I feel like I’ll get drunk on them without the entree of writing at the same time. I should be careful how much I drink in with no output. It’s time to write again.

I love looking back at the thought process that got me to where I am today. Of the things I wanted to do, I am surprised at what I did and did not end up doing. I obviously didn’t write a dissertation for fun. I didn’t write about Augustine or compile a meditation on Scripture. I didn’t write a ton more poems. I definitely didn’t write autobiography (as I mentioned, my life is and always has been boring).

I did write an essay on Harry Potter, which got me onto a MuggleNet Academia podcast as an expert, and the essay is currently under consideration for publication. I also ignored my order of preferences for writing and I wrote fiction. I wrote FanFiction (281,044 words in three years), including one novel and three novellas. I wrote my first original novel. I started my second. I managed to keep a blog running and updated fairly regularly for almost an entire year (that’s this blog, in case that wasn’t obvious). I fell in love with writing again.

Not only that, but more than 400,000 words of fiction later, I know I’m a better writer. I’ve learned so much about telling stories, and now I never want to stop. I’m so glad I sat down more than three years ago and made that decision to write again. My life would be so different if I hadn’t.

NaNoWriMo 2014 Update — Week 3

Week three was a hard week for me. As you can tell by my NaNo calendar widget, it didn’t exactly go as well as it should have. I mentioned last week that I thought it would be difficult because of having to pick up my daughter from daycare again, but that ended up being not as big of a deal as something else I should have been prepared for: the 30,000-word wall. With that short introduction, here is the good, the bad, and the excerpt.

The Good

I managed to write something every single day. Even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I felt completely out of ideas. I still put my butt in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard every day without fail. With the help of one of my wonderful CPs, some side reading, and re-reading the beginning of the story, I got past my 30,000-word wall and kept writing. After about 33,000 words, it got easier again.

The Bad

I’m sure you know where this is going. I ended last week with 27,092 words. By Sunday, I was at 29,000 words and I. Was. Stuck. I’d written my way into the climax (unsurprisingly, because I always write sparse first drafts) and I hated what I’d written. I thought it was terrible and I knew it wasn’t the direction the story needed to take. Unfortunately, because endings are one of my biggest weaknesses, I had no idea what the right direction was. My total word count for the week was only 6,300.

The Excerpt

In this excerpt, Hayleigh and Treyton have just gotten a ride with a family of six, the parents and four adopted children, all of whom have or will have cancer and will die before their fifteenth birthdays. They’re obviously in a fairly rickety van...

There is a loud dinging noise coming from the front seat.

“Oh, heavens,” says Mr. Miller.

“Check engine again?” Margot says. “But we just did that!”

“I’m afraid this might be the end of the road for us.”

We haven’t even been in the car for twenty minutes. I mean, it’s twenty minutes of driving that probably saved us three hours of walking, but still.

Mr. Miller pulls over and everyone gets out of the car. Away from all the gear that cramped them, I see how skinny Elizabeth and Henry are. Both of them have their hair buzzed short, and I can see Elizabeth’s eyebrows are just starting to grow back in. I sit down beside her while Mr. Miller pulls out his cell phone, looking for service. “How long do you have?” I ask her.

“Until I’m twelve. Two more years.”

“Are you scared?”

“No. Last time I almost died and I remember how everyone around me in the hospital room was sad, but I was just kind of…floating. Like, I was ready to move on. But it wasn’t my time yet. I’m still here. How long do you have?”

“I don’t know,” I tell her. It feels nice. Better than saying a couple of hours.

“Why don’t you know?”

“The doctor screwed up. I outlived my expiration date already.”

She looks up at me, large brown eyes pensive. “What’s it like? Not knowing when you’re going to die? Is it like you’ll live forever?”

I shake my head. “It’s more like you’re worried every moment that you’ll die next. The scariest thing I had to do was reach the end of my expiration date and keep living.” She’s so young. Hardly older than Leilani. She doesn’t need to know that I’m still in the middle of the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do.

“I hope that doesn’t happen to me,” she says.

I smile and squeeze her shoulders. “I do. And I bet your siblings do, too. Where do you fall?”

“Second. Henry only has six months.”

“Can you imagine how awesome it would be for Margot and Elias if you got to keep living?”

She smiles. “Yeah, that would be pretty awesome. Maybe I’ll ask them that. If I’m in the hospital. Not to just give up on me.”

“Please do. I promise you it will be worth it.”

“Not get here until tomorrow?” Mr. Miller shouts into his phone. “But I need someone today! Do you know of anyone—”

Next to him, Mrs. Miller has her own phone out, frantically pressing buttons. At first I think she’s playing some kind of game, but she says, “Have you tried Kenai’s Best Auto yet, dear? They have a good rating on Yelp.”

“Yes, Rebecca. I have. They’re the ones who can’t get here until tomorrow. Think of someone else!”

“Big Joe’s?” she says, more meek.

“What’s the number?” Mr. Miller calms down and types the number into his own phone. Margot and Henry play hopscotch through the path on the side.

Hayleigh and Elias are deep in conversation nearby. I wonder why we don’t leave. Neither of us seems to feel inclined to. Despite the parents arguing, the dynamic is nice. Strong. It’s wonderful to see kids slated to die so young who still have lives to live. Whose parents don’t just leave them alone to do their own thing.

I leave Elizabeth and join Hayleigh and Elias. “Don’t worry,” Hayleigh is saying. “I lost a brother earlier this year. It’s hard, but you’ll do great. You have your two sisters, and I bet they’ll take great care of you.” I’m glad to see Hayleigh lying just like I did.

“Yes,” he says. He must be about six. “But they’re girls.”

Hayleigh looks at him, smirking. “So am I, you know. And you did a good job talking to me. I bet you Elizabeth and Margot would love to listen to you.”

“Sometimes they’re good listeners,” he admits. “But sometimes they think I’m annoying. Because I’m the littlest.”

I squat down in front of him. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have the best kid sister probably in the whole universe. And sometimes I think she’s annoying. But sometimes she thinks I’m annoying, too. Do you ever think your sisters are annoying?”

“Yes! But when I think it I’m right!”

Hayleigh and I laugh and our eyes meet over the top of his head. When they lock, it’s like magnets. I can’t look away even if I want to. “Why are we staying?” I ask her.

“We don’t have to.”

“I know. I don’t know what we should do. We could keep heading home, but…”

She nods, understanding my unfinished thought. “It’s the most fun I’ve had all day, too.”

“I’m taking that as an insult,” I say.

National Radio, Traffic Reports, and Colloquialisms

One of my favorite radio stations is a nationally syndicated station based in Nashville. I listen to it on the drive home from work, and every now and then, they cut to a traffic report. This is basically what I heard yesterday:

Traffic is slow on the 5 near State Route 500 and again northbound on the 5 from Terwilliger through downtown. Southbound 5 is slow just south of the Interstate Bridge. Highway 26 eastbound is slow from Canyon to the 405.

And, like always, it made me facepalm. Because while I’m sure she was right about where traffic was slow, if someone had given the same report on a local station, it would sound like this:

Traffic is slow I-5 southbound near SR 500 and northbound from the curves to the Marquam Bridge. Sunset eastbound is slow to stop and go from the zoo through the tunnel.

Why’s that? Colloquialisms. We don’t say “the 5” here. It’s I-5. Washington State Routes are S-Rs. The Terwilliger curves are always called curves, and the “Terwilliger” part is unnecessary. Highway 26 is “the Sunset” by itself and “Sunset” with no “the” if followed by a direction.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the traffic report was followed by a weather report.

Tomorrow will be warmer, with a low of 38 and a high of 45. Don’t forget your umbrella because it will be raining off and on all day.

No. Just… no. Portlanders do not use umbrellas. Especially not for just a little rain. Like, it’s almost taboo to use them. Or you can use them, just don’t tell anyone, and let the people on the street think you’re a tourist.

Every time I listen to the station, I become painfully aware that the people giving local reports are not local themselves.

What’s this have to do with anything?

Writing, of course. And writing believable settings. Since my novel is set in Alaska, I’m going to have to talk to the family I have who lives there as I’m polishing. Research can show me the road that leads from Kenai to Anchorage, but the map won’t tell me what locals call it. Is the road they travel the Soldotna Highway? The 1? Something else entirely? I don’t know. I do know that being wrong will pull anyone familiar with Alaska straight out of the story, and have them facepalming at how wrong I am.

What sort of research do you do for your setting to make sure your colloquialisms are right? Have you ever talked to someone who was technically right about something, but they didn’t use your local word for it? What happened?

A Writing Issue: Passing the Bechdel Test

First things first: If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel test, it’s a simple test invented in a comic strip in 1985 that originally applied to movies. In order to pass, the work in question must:

  1. Have at least two named female characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

That’s it. And it’s surprising the films that can fail it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II fails the test. So does the entire original Star Wars trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The test itself is problematic. Feminist films can fail it. Films that portray women absolutely one-dimensionally can pass. But it’s supposed to be a simple test. A baseline assumption about whether women are being represented in movies.

And it’s something I’m struggling with in my WIP. My main character is male. He’s always been male. I tried gender-bending him in my mind to see if a female protag would work, and it just… doesn’t. My antagonist is also male. I thought about making him female as well. But part of what drives him mad is his inability to relate to his teenage daughter.

So far, I have two parts of my book that make it pass the Bechdel test, or at least will pass once I go through and do revisions. Both times, the main character and his love interest, Hayleigh, are hitchhiking. First they’re picked up by a female truck driver. Right now, I don’t have any conversation (I don’t think. My WIP isn’t with me.) between the truck driver and Hayleigh, but it’s something I intend to add. The second time, they’re picked up by a family of six, split in gender 50/50. And I’m fairly certain I already have a conversation between Hayleigh and one of the girls. If I don’t, I will after revision.

When I started thinking about the topic, though, I thought I had written almost 30,000 words without passing the Bechdel test, and that embarrassed me. As a feminist, it’s important to me that I write something that passes such a simple test. But writing a male protagonist makes it more difficult. Especially in first person present. And especially after he and Hayleigh get separated. Is this something you pay attention to as you write? How do you work on consciously passing the Bechdel test in stories that are narrated by men or boys?

Is the Bechdel test something you notice when you’re reading or watching movies? How does it affect your moviegoing/book reading experience?

NaNoWriMo 2014 Update — Week 2

This week was an important week for me. It was the last week that my mom’s out of town, which means it’s the last week I don’t have to drive to pick my daughter up from daycare. Starting Monday, I lose at least 2 hours of free time per weekday. So we’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, the good, the bad, and the excerpt.

The Good

We had a Winter Storm Watch advisory on Thursday, and we were supposed to get between 4 and 6 inches of snow according to national weather services. Local meteorologists were less optimistic (or more, depending on how you feel about snow) and were thinking maybe an inch or two. Both forecasts called for a majority of the snow to come in the afternoon.

So despite waking up to absolutely nothing wintery, I decided to stay home that day. After all, my job involves a lot of working for other people and four people out of thirty had “braved the weather.” It was the worst snow day ever. I saw a few snowflakes once. What that meant was I got mostly an extra day of writing in! I also passed 25,000 words two days early, and got more retweets and favorites on Twitter than I ever have before. So that was cool.

I also met some people via Twitter involved in Susan Dennard’s forum who are actually up as late as I am (and on PST, like me!), and we’ve had nightly sprints all week, which is when I’ve been doing the majority of my writing.

My story’s hardly turning out like I expected to, but I’m loving the changes and thrilled about where it will go as I polish and revise next year!

My total word count as of the end of November 14th was 27,062, for a total of 12,949 words written this week.

The Bad

I am so. freaking. behind. on my freelance work. It’s insane. I feel terrible about it, too, every time I decide to write instead of edit. And in good-news-that’s-also-bad, dissertation season has started and I’ve been getting a lot of requests. Thankfully, all but one can wait until at least December first. But my December will be crazy busy, too.

Quite possibly from stress, I got so sick this week. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I just had a really bad cold and couldn’t breathe. Not that that’s any fun or anything, but so sick is passed-out-on-the-couch-can’t-eat sick, and I wasn’t that sick. (It was part of why I stayed home for our sNow-pocalypse.)

I’m still a little behind my personal goals, but I caught up a lot, and I tend to write about 1,500 words a day, which means I might even make it to 50k after all! (Wait that’s good news. oh well.)

The Excerpt

Choosing an excerpt this week was a lot harder. I hope the voice is consistent with what I showed you last week…

In this scene, they’ve just left an Alaskan Native shaman, who could’ve told Trey what his real death date was, but chose not to. Yes, the spelling of Hayleigh’s name changed. Anyone have a preference? Y or no y?

***

“Talk about pointless,” I say to Hayleigh as we make our way down the hill. “Was he really what you were looking for? Was that conversation what you decided I should spend my last day doing? I should’ve stuck to my original plan.”

“Which was?”

“Self-portraits until I found one good enough. You know how they have the huge pictures enlarged at the funeral?”

“You were planning on spending your last day taking selfies?” she asks, incredulous.

“Not selfies. Self-portraits.”

“Remind me the difference.”

“Self-portraits are… wait. I guess people would say selfies can be artistic. Well, self-portraits capture… never mind. Um… the quality of the camera.”

She laughs. “That’s really what you wanted to do with your time? Nothing else?”

“I’ve already done everything else.”

“You hadn’t taken a walk through the sleet to find a shaman, or pet a moose, or hitchhiked with a crazy trucker.”

I hate it when she makes sense. I’m dying. I have every right to be right. Shouldn’t she just defer to me for the next ten hours or so? It shouldn’t be that hard. “Well? What now? Go home?”

“I don’t see why not. There might actually be cars on the road by now.”

“Which way to the road?” I ask, looking around. All I see is trees and more trees and dirt and one lonely squirrel. He scampers up a tree before I can point my camera at him.

She shrugs. “Down.”

“Will you ever tell me why you really decided I needed to live?”

She kicks loose rocks out of her way as we head downhill. She winds her way through the trees so comfortably, swinging an arm from one place to another as she goes. I envy her ease. “I don’t know. Probably not. It’s stupid.”

“You’re right,” I say darkly. “Me living is completely stupid.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know. But you’re not wrong.”

“I thought you were ready to live.” She makes it sound like dying would be a personal assault against her.

“It’s not that simple,” I say. I don’t know what I’m ready to do. I haven’t slept at all in nearly thirty-six hours. I haven’t slept well in weeks. Maybe months. Mostly I’m ready to lie down and take a nap. I don’t know if I could get away with that, though. Could I still die in my sleep? I haven’t ruled out a heart attack, either. “Your brother told me something before he died.”

“Something he never told me?”

“I think so. He talked about ghosts. Did you two ever talk about ghosts?”

“We talked about what happened to your soul when you die. Did you know that in Russian Orthodoxy they don’t believe that a soul goes straight to heaven? It wanders earth for forty days. You’re supposed to make it a home to live in while it waits to ascend to heaven. I keep looking for Hunter. Wondering if I can feel him.”

“You can’t,” I guess. She shakes her head. “I’m not surprised. Why would the soul hang around? To make sure everything is going well? To see how their loved ones handle coping? To re-visit their favorite places before they go on? Hunter didn’t need to do any of that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s what he told me. That he thought ghosts disappeared when expiration dates appeared. That they used to be real things but they aren’t anymore. Because when you know when you’re going to die, you don’t have any unfinished business left to tie you to earth. You’re just… ready.”

Hayleigh pauses, squats down, picks up a rock. She throws it down the hill. Hard. “You’re ready to die?”

“I thought I was,” I say. I don’t elaborate. It sure would be easy, though. To be done. I am ready for oblivion. Or heaven. Or hell. I’m ready for forty days of wandering earth as a bodyless soul, although I’m not sure I believe in that either. But for the first time in my life, I don’t know if easy is what I want after all. “It turns out living isn’t so bad.”

“What would happen to you if you live?”

“I imagine I would keep breathing and eventually die anyway.”

***

How’s NaNo going for all of you?

Goal/Motivation/Conflict in “The One Where No One’s Ready”

My husband and I are very slowly making our way through the Friends DVDs. He’s never seen them before. I have. Neither of these facts are relevant. Because last night, we watched Season 3, Episode 2: The One Where No One’s Ready.

Tonight I watched the commentary for it and found out this episode was originally written because of budget constraints. It takes place almost exclusively in Monica and Rachel’s apartment (just 30 seconds at the end are elsewhere), and it’s the only Friends episode to take place in real time. Twenty-two minutes of a show, twenty-two minutes of their lives.

When I got to the end of watching it last night, with my writer’s brain on, I told my husband, “This is absolute genius.” The Unofficial Guide to Friends calls it forgettable, but it is considered the third most popular episode with fans. (source) As a fan, and not a writer of the guide, I side with the public. (Look at the reviews here, for instance) And I think the script is written beautifully.

In this episode, there are four different story lines, although Phoebe’s is minor and I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. Five of the six characters have perfect goal/motivation/conflicts set up, and the writing intertwines the three main plots and the five different motivations perfectly.

Let’s start with Ross and Rachel.

Ross gets snubbed.

Ross is the driving force in this episode, and therefore the protagonist, albeit one that isn’t always likable. His GMCs are very clear.

Ross

Goal: Get to the dinner on time.

Motivation: “Look, our table is down in front, okay, my boss is gonna be there, everyone will see if we arrive after it starts.” (source)

Conflict: Literally everyone else. Except Phoebe at first. Joey and Chandler are too busy having their own fight to get dressed, Monica’s in the middle of an emotional breakdown because she’s not over Richard and she thinks he might have left a message, and Rachel wants to look good for Ross, to the detriment of not getting ready at all.

Rachel

Goal: Find the best outfit to wear to the dinner.

Motivation: “Well, honey. I’m just trying to look nice for your big night.” (source)

Conflict: She can’t find the perfect outfit, the right shoes for the perfect dress, etc. As Ross’s conflict escalates, he ends up in direct conflict with her, wanting her to wear literally anything (a towel and a Halloween costume are both mentioned) as long as she gets ready (and thus fulfills Ross’s goal).

Next up, we have the story that follows Monica.

Monica and Richard, when they were happy.

Goal: Find out if Richard called her.

Motivation: She’s still in love with him.

Conflict: Herself. She’s scared to call him, does anyway, leaves a message, is scared that is wrong, and hacks into his answering machine to listen to the message she leaves. Things get worse from there. (and also very telling of the 1990s setting.)

That leaves the funniest and most nonsensical conflict of the episode: Joey and Chandler.

The source of conflict

Chandler

Goal: At first, to get his seat back.

Motivation: “The big deal is I was sitting there last, so, that’s my seat.”

Conflict: Joey is in his seat.

Joey

Goal: To keep the seat he was in, and pay Chandler back for stealing his underwear (which is Chandler’s solution to his conflict).

Motivation: “How is this your seat? … you left.”

Conflict: Chandler stole Joey’s underwear (he had gone commando before that) as retribution for Joey stealing Chandler’s chair. Now he needs underwear back so he thinks of retribution for that.

Hi, my name is Chandler. Could I BE wearing any more clothes?

The best part of the show is how everything intertwines. On the commentary, the executive producers talk about how hard it was, weaving four different stories (including Phoebe’s) into the dialogue. But it works perfectly. Take this part:

ROSS: Yeah, see Mon, listen, listen. When Carol and I broke up, I went through the same thing. And you know what I did?

MONICA: Huh?

ROSS: I…..got…..dressed. Really, really quickly. Okay, okay. [Rachel starts to follow Monica into her room, but Ross stops her and sends her back to her room.] There we go, there we go.

CHANDLER: You know what, okay, fine. Don’t get up, you just sit right there. I just hope, you don’t mind, you know, my hand right here. [holds his hand a couple of inches in front of Joey’s face] Op, not touching, can’t get mad! Not touching can’t get mad! Not touching can’t get mad!

[Joey flings some dip onto Phoebe’s dress]

PHOEBE: Ah! Oh my God! You r-r-rotten boys!

CHANDLER and JOEY: Sorry Phoebe.

JOEY: I’m so sorry.

And just like that. Seven lines of dialogue that touch on every single plot line in the episode. As I head off for another writing sprint, let me ask you two things:

  1. How have you done with combining plots in your writing?
  2. What have you learned from watching television?

NaNoWriMo 2014 Update — Week 1

It’s been seven days since NaNoWriMo started, and an interesting seven days they have been. As far as the official tracker for word count is concerned, I’m ahead of schedule (the par for day 7 is 11,666, and I hit that word count on day 5), but I am behind on my own schedule.

Karyne introduced me to this wonderful program called Susanna’s Pacemaker, and I used that program to input my personal goal of 40,000 words. I put in parameters that I wanted to write more toward the beginning of the month and more on weekends. By that schedule, I should have 16,002 words. I actually have 14,113. So not bad, but not perfectly on track, either.

The Good

Being able to keep my word count nearly on track. I’m surprised at how many words I keep managing to eke out. When I’m focused, I am very focused. I’ve also had a few awesome things happen as far as plot is concerned (i.e., I very nearly have one!). I’m pretty much pantsing this time around (I have my theme and my premise, and I’m letting the rest of it fall into shape around those), so it’s nice to see a bit of progress as far as that is concerned.

The Bad

So far, I’ve done most of my writing in half-hour sprints. I can’t seem to stay focused for much longer than that, even though my daughter has been hugely cooperative and has been taking super long naps and going to bed on time. Instead, I have watched all 67 Behind the Team videos that USA Gymnastics has posted to YouTube (time wasted: at least 6 hours); gone through my photo albums and minimalized the bookshelf in my bedroom, including browsing old yearbooks (time wasted: about 2 hours); completed plenty of Facebook browsing (time wasted: at least 2 hours over the week); and made sure to check blogs that only post once a week multiple times (time wasted: unknown, likely at least 1 hour).

I worked from home three days this week, and didn’t do much writing during that time. And my daughter got her first taste of rice cereal, and lots of playing time. (Time wasted: absolutely none).

The Excerpt

Each week, I’ll post a little preview of what I’ve been writing. This week’s preview is from what’s currently the opening scene. Since it’s the beginning, you don’t get any context.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2     a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3     a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4     a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance.

We say “Amen” in unison. Hunter’s funeral is so predictable I shouldn’t have bothered coming. Everyone wears black. No one cries. No one except Haleigh, who’s sitting in the front row and trying to hide it. In front of the cross, the pastor takes another deep breath. I bet he’s about to start on Jesus. How he embraced his expiration date, and everyone else should, too. How Hunter was a Good Christian for pressing that gun into his chin.

Not that anyone but his family and me knows how he died. The obituaries come out a week in advance.

“In John 17:1, it says…” Here it comes. I grab my phone from my pocket and open the file called “My Funeral Notes.” For the love of God, don’t mention Jesus, I write. I’m aware of the irony. The pastor continues. “No one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come.” It’s not like that verse even applies. People get run over by buses. They get in car accidents. Those funerals are sad. I get why people go to those funerals. You don’t have closure yet.

I’d been distancing myself from Hunter for weeks before his expiration date. He understood it; he’d been distancing himself from everyone, too. Haleigh hated it, but what could you do? Someone has to die earlier, right? Even if you’re twins.

“Treyton,” my mother hisses. “Put your phone away. Show Jesus some respect.” I wish she’d said to show Hunter some respect. I came to church for Jesus on Sundays. It’s Tuesday. Before I put my phone back into my pocket, I check the counter on the home screen. Four months exactly. Ugh. I might as well stop breathing now.

But Hunter and I are the weird ones. Most kids with expiration dates before eighteen are withering away. Cancer fights them. Muscular dystrophy. With four months to go, it should be obvious I’m expiring. It’s not. No signs of anything degenerative. Even my heart, which is enlarged, has been working fine. According to my life certificate, it was supposed to be my heart that killed me. But heart attacks happen in an instant. Maybe that will be it.

“Hunter Hoffman was a brave soul. He lived his sixteen years in obedience to the Lord, and I know we will see him again in heaven,” the pastor says. “Let us pray.”

We don’t stay long. The funeral started at 7 and my sister will need to be in bed soon. We shared all our memories of Hunter two weeks before he died, anyway. “Trey, wait!” Haleigh says as we near the doors.

I send my mom a questioning glance. She nods curtly. “We’ll get Leilani in the car. Hurry.”

“What is it?”

“Please don’t have a funeral like that.”

~~~~~~

Well? What do you think? How are your NaNos going so far? Any passages you would like to share?