Thursday, June 30, 2016

Getting Down the Basics

Here we are, the first week back from residency at Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Masters in Fine Arts program. And while we're all simmering in the creative juices (alcohol) from a week of hanging around with other crazy people (writers), I figured now would be a good time to remind everyone of a simple truth:  If you're going to be a writer, or be in a MFA program (and keep in mind, technically, this is an MFA in English) you really should know the basics. I mean, if you want people to take you seriously, you want to come across as someone who knows what he's doing, right? I mean, if a mechanic opens the hood of your car and doesn't know what he or she's looking at, you wouldn't take him seriously, would you? If a doctor asked you to remind him where the lungs were in the body, you'd leave pretty quickly, wouldn't you? The same holds true if you are a writer. If you send your manuscript in to an agent, editor, or publisher, and you appear to not know the basics, your manuscript will find its way quickly to the circular filing cabinet.

Pictured: Rejected Manuscripts
So what are these "basics" of which I speak?  If you've ever been a student of mine, you already know the answer. It can be broken down in four simple terms:  Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, and Sentence Structure (GSPS). And, let's face it, if you find yourself in an MFA program and you don't have at least a basic understanding of this, you've got a lot of work to do. By which I mean outside work.

Buffalo Custardbath tells it like it is...

So, in case you don't really know what these things are, here's a helpful guide. 
  • Grammar - is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language.  The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.  Put simply, what are nouns, adjectives, adverbs, tenses, clauses, and the like? If you don't know, you should really figure it out. Things such as subject-verb agreement, irregular verbs, who vs. whom, prepositions, etc. are all part of grammar, and they're all tools in your writers' toolbox. 
  • Spelling - Right... Who needs it, write? I mean, owl are computers have spell-checker on them, right? Nobody kneads to no how to spell anymore, right? Read that sentence again. Realize every word in it is spelled correctly, and realize that spelling actually goes beyond just what letters make up a particular word.  It's also figuring out which word is the one you actually mean. 
  • Punctuation - Commas. They are the bane of my existence. Whoever started the whole "put a comma every time you take a breath" should be taken out back and beaten with a well-worn copy of Strunk & White. Punctuation deals with spacing, periods, semicolons and colons (never use them in popular fiction), quotation marks, hyphens, ellipses... As well as a thousand other little rules that you need to use to make yourself look like you know what you're talking about. And don't ever believe that's what the editor is for. Your work won't even get to the editor if you don't have a firm grasp on this. 
  • Sentence Structure - Quick!  How many sentence structures are there?  One? Ninety?  How about four?  Yep, four.  Can you name them? If you can't, you might have a problem. How about fragments? Run-ons? Comma splices? Any idea what I'm talking about? 
Didn't think so.
But wait, you say!  I'm a creative writer!  The rules of grammar (etc.) don't apply to me! It's art! Listen to me very carefully.  The rules. Still. Apply. You have to know the rules to know when and why to break them. Also, that's the difference between amateurs and professionals. Pros learn their craft. Pros take the time to improve their skill level. Pros never stop learning. Amateurs?  Not so much. So choose. Which one do you want to be? 

Two paths converged in the woods...

But where, you ask, can I learn such things? Glad you asked. There are so many books out there. Here are a few that I often recommend:
There are also a lot of FREE online resources that you can use to hone your sword of knowledge.  Here are a few:
And, of course, if all else fails, always trust in your good buddy "Weird Al" Yankovic to break it down for you.

Also, while we're at it, learn the proper expressions and idioms, unless the character is supposed to be a blithering idiot.  For example:

  • It's "For all intents and purposes," not "For all intensive purposes/porposes."
  • It's "I couldn't care less." "I could care less" means you do, in fact, care.
  • It's "Specifically," not "pacifically" unless you're referring to the ocean.
  • "Literally" means it actually happened. You've not been waiting "literally" a million years for this blog post. "Figuratively" is the word you want. 
  • It's not the "Statue of Limitations," it's the STATUTE of limitations. 
  • What the hell is a "mute point" anyway?  It's MOOT.  
So that's it.  Education is your weapon.  Use it. 

Until next time...


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It's That Time Again!

Twice every year (January and June), I travel to the wooded wilds of Pennsylvania to the quaint village of Greensburg. There, I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program at glorious Seton Hill University. During the week-long residency, I (along with people far better published than me) attempt to take students and mold them into something that they most desire: Professional writers of popular fiction.  Aspirations of sci-fi, romance, horror, children's lit, mystery, steampunk... You name it, we have someone who writes it. We take those aspirations and distill them down into something workable. We take the unpolished turd, as it were, and polish that sucker up nice and shiny, until it's something that a student can submit to an editor or agent with pride. And we break egos and dreams by the dozen.
Hello, Ones...
Just kidding about that last part. Our job is to nurture, and that's what we do. Students draw on various experience levels to try to make it in this disturbing profession. Its a unique and remarkable blend of creativity and chaos when the students are in town, and from workshops to modules, there are always ears to listen to pitches, human backstops against whom to bounce ideas, and opinions about how to improve your manuscript.
Pictured:  Workshop
But this term, the June residency, is always special. It's always something a little different. See, this is the term when all the alumni come back to throw themselves back into the volley of insanity, and that's something truly special. See, a few years back (I've been teaching with the program for nigh-on twelve years, so I can't remember when it happened), a bunch of graduating students realized how special the program was, and also that they didn't actually want to leave. They realized that Seton Hill doesn't just look like Hogwarts, it is really a magical place. So they began showing up anyway. Remember that creepy guy who graduated from high school and just never left? Same thing, only with insane writers. 
So out of this need to still be involved with the cadre of writers, the alumni founded the In Your Write Mind (IYWM) Writer's Retreat. And boy did it grow. They now feature modules of their own, guest speakers, an ENORMOUS book signing, agents, publishers, fellow writers, editors... It's become quite a to-do. And it's fabulous. And I look forward to it every year. Why? Because I missed all these crazy bastards. Many of them were once my students, and they've gone on to publish extensively. And I couldn't be more proud for them. But they're not my students anymore. They're my colleagues. They're my friends. They are my tribe. We are cut from the same cloth, which, oddly, is made from paper. And just being around them gives my creativity a boost. 
Pictured: Recharging my Creative Batteries
I love these people. They're the family I never knew I wanted, until I got them. 

Which brings me to my point: Every year about this time, I publish a blog full of helpful hints for all the incoming ones. The points become more and more important as time goes by. So I just wanted to reiterate a few of my favorites:
  • Listen - There are people in the program with more experience than you. Also with less experience. Open your ears and you'll get gold in the form of sage like wisdom from everywhere, and from places you least expect it. 
  • Socialize - Don't sequester yourself with your fellow ones. By the end of the first full day, you should know the names of at least five people who are not in your incoming class. They can show you the ropes. 
  • Be Nice to EVERYONE - Because you never know who you're talking to. Wondering the halls in the past have been editors, famous authors, Hollywood producers (no kidding... Sweetest guy in the world), and other people who will remember you. You want them to remember you in a good way, not as that asshole who was so full of himself. 
  • Check the Ego at the Door - Listen, everyone in the program is after the same thing:  To get better. And they also have another goal in mind:  To help you get better. Take the advice in the spirit in which it is given and don't swell up that someone dared to not like your high-fantasy-elfquest-ripoff-story-about-a-fish-out-of-water-girl-with-big-purple-wings. Listen, learn, and accept the words with humility. It doesn't mean everyone gives good advice... There are some real nut jobs. But you have to decided what advice is good or bad on your own. Just try not to burn any bridges while you're at it.  
Pictured:  Your relationships.

This term, I'm teaching several courses: The Language of Fear, Characterization and Dialogue, Using Magic in Popular Fiction, Worldbuilding 101, and Primary Research: Why You Need It. I'm also leading four workshops and attending at least three thesis defenses. It's going to be a busy week for me, but worth it. So very worth it. 

So, to the ones, welcome aboard. This is a tough program, and people do wash out. It's time to get serious about your craft. But if you work hard, you will never have more fun in your life. I look forward to meeting you. And to the rest of you still in the program, a few of you still owe me a blood sacrifice. I'm coming to collect. 

And to all the alumni... Gods, how I've missed you all. I hope you came with your chaos-boots on. It's going to get weird. 

Until next time...


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Few Words on Agents

Writers depend on a lot of people to do their jobs. Sure, the actual writing part of it may be a largely solitary endeavor, but once the first draft is done, we need help. We need our beta readers, critique partners, editors, significant-others, and a host of others to help us achieve our collective dreams of getting on the NYT Bestseller List, and eventually conquering the world. And one of the most important people to that process can be your agent.

It's said a good agent can make an author's career while a bad one can surely break it. Sage advice. So here's me, you're good-old-uncle Scott, to let you know what an agent actually does, and how to tell the good ones from the bad ones.

What an Agent Does
A common misconception is that agents are the keys to success, and that once you've landed one, you're on your way to international fame (and world domination). Not true. The real key to success is still your own manuscript, hard work, honing your craft, etc. And once you've landed an agent, the publishers are not going to come knocking on your door waving suitcases full of cash and offers of possibly unethical and immoral favors. Sorry to destroy the fantasy, but that's just not how it happens.

What an agent actually does, however, is an insane amount of work that you will probably never see. Their job is to sell your manuscript, sure. But it goes beyond that because an agent does things that you, the writer, can't do. First thing's first: The agent takes your manuscript, evaluates it, then gives you notes on how to make it more marketable. For some, that's line-editing. For others, it's a "keep-or-crap" mentality. It's their job to know what's trending, what sells, and who buys the most of it.

Once the manuscript is ship-shape (or shit-shape, depending...) they start the arduous process of submission. Y'know how many publishers put a clause in their submission guidelines that say "3-6 months reply time" or something of the like? Yeah... Agents aren't immune to that. Editors get gobs of manuscripts every day, and it takes time to weed through them all. And, if you send your manuscript in, you have to sit patiently and wait for the rejection letter to come in the mail before you send it out again. But the agent can do a little thing that you can't do: NAG. My agent is the queen of the nags. If she thinks an editor has had a manuscript for too long, she has no qualms about sending out the nagging e-mail. Just a gentle "hey, did you read it yet?" or something of the like.  Now, if you or I try that, our manuscript will never get read. But the agent? Yeah... it's in her job description, and the good ones?  They are damned good at it.
Pictured: Agent to Editor
Not only that, but they can get your manuscript in front of editors that you can't. Take a look at many of the biggest publishing houses' submission guidelines and you'll see the phrase "agented submissions only." Why? Because everyone thinks they can be a writer. Everyone thinks their story is the one that will change the world. and, frankly, everyone is wrong. It takes skill, education, and determination to be a writer, and not a small amount of blind stupid luck. The agent acts as a gate-keeper to these publishers. "I've read this work," says the agent. "And I certify that the person who wrote it isn't crazy, untalented, or illiterate." The editors take the agent at her word.

Acceptance isn't the end of the agent's job either, hoo no. The agent's job is to act on the behalf of the author. Negotiation is key here. What do you think a writer gets when his book gets sold? An advance, right, along with a percentage of the book sales? Sure.  But there's more.  The agent is there to negotiate how much of an advance the writer gets, as well as how much of a percentage he gets. See, the advance is a lump-sum payout based on how many books the publisher thinks the writer can sell.  It's an advance against royalties. But that's not all. How many copies of the book in question does the writer get to distribute as he sees fit? Bet you didn't think of that one. See, when we go to conventions, signings, car-washes... We need to be able to give away or sell copies of our book to build our audience. The agent negotiates that number. In fact, the agent negotiates every aspect of the contract. Why? Well, it's in the agent's best interest. See the agent doesn't get paid until you do.

You read that right. Agents live off commission. They take a standard 10-15% of whatever you get. So, for the sake of argument, the agent negotiates an up-front advance of $10,000. Of that, they get up to 15% ($1,500), which leaves you with $8,500.  "But wait!" you shout. "That's my money!" Yes, and if it weren't for the hard work of the agent, you wouldn't be getting a thin dime of it, would you? No. So sit down and shut up. They earn it. But now you can see why they work so hard to negotiate. 10-15% isn't a whole lot of money, so they make sure to get you the best deal they can so they can get the best deal they can.  Get it?

Good Vs. Bad
So how can you tell the difference between a good agent and a bad agent? Glad you asked. There are lots of ways to tell if an agent is legit or not.

  • Client List - Any agent will be able to tell you who they represent, and will be able to show you a list of sales for the last year. 
  • Agency - Are they part of an agency, or do they lone-wolf it? Either way, you can find out about them or their agency. 
  • Google - Google is your friend. If I look up my agent's name, I find all sorts of interviews, message board posts, and other sorts of documentation that she is, in fact, a real person and an agent of merit. 
  • Predators and Editors - If you do not know this site already, bookmark it. Not only do they list editors, but agents, publishers, and scam artists. 
Choose wisely...

Other things you should know...
  • Agents do not charge the writer up front. Period. They get paid when you do. Remember, money flows to the author, never away
  • Agents are not your keepers. If they are representing you, you need to do your best to represent them. You want people to think of you in the best possible way? So does your agent. If your agent acted like a maniac, you wouldn't get into any door. If you act like one, your agent will lose credibility, and you'll lose said agent really fast. Follow the golden rule:  Don't be an asshole
  • Agents are not your friends. You may become friends, but the truth is, an agent doesn't need to placate your ego or smooth ruffled feathers by telling you what you want to hear. They, like all of us, are in the business of making money. And if your latest opus won't do that, they have the obligation to tell you point-blank. 
  • Agents are the experts. You hired them. You're paying them 10-15% of your contract. SO LISTEN TO THEM. Look, you hire someone to rewire your house, are you going to stand over them and badger them about how poorly they're doing their job? No. So, once you've got your agent, let them do their job. Listen to their expert advice. And, again, don't be an asshole. 
So how do I find an agent?
I know several ways, and they all boil down to the same technique: Query, wait, lather-rinse-repeat. Ah, but how do you find the right agent? Well, that's a bit more complicated, though less of a mystery. 

  • Search - Look at your favorite authors. Check them out on the web. Look for other authors who write similar things to what you write. Chances are, those are the ones you're looking for. 
  • More Searching - Go to writer's market or (again) Predators and Editors and look up the agents you're thinking of querying. 
  • Networking - Y'know those things that I attend called "writer's conferences?"  Yeah... Agents go to those.  And they look for people to represent there. They're called "pitch sessions." And even if you don't land an agent there, you do have the best chance of getting to know one or two and picking their brains to see what they're looking for. 
  • More Networking - My agent was introduced to me by a friend. No, I'm not going to namedrop, but he (an author of considerable respect) handed me her name and number and told me to give her a call and drop his name. That was the first and last time I've name-dropped to get ahead in the world, and it worked out. 
We approach the Agent cautiously...

But do I really need an agent?
Yes. And no. 

If you're looking for mainstream success with one of the major publishers, then yes. You absolutely need one.  If you're content to send your work to smaller publishers or to self-publish, then no, you don't. It depends on the kind of writer you want to be and what your goals are. My goals are to publish in the major markets and live next door to Stephen King and become recognized as the dark entity of evil that I like to pretend to be, but that my wife and kid refuse to acknowledge me to be.

The point is, it's up to you. Agent, no agent, it's your choice. I love mine, though. And that says a lot. 
What you can do with my advice. 

Until next time...