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LLF Retreat, Day 7: Internet Stalking, Santa Monica, and Wilson Phillips

Day 7 contained a great discussion about querying/the business of publishing, a mild sunburn, and a perilous walk along a freeway access road.

Since our critiques were complete for the week, Malinda devoted Saturday’s workshop time to a discussion of querying and other aspects of publishing. She turned over the reins to the two among us who already have agents. Her rationale for that was that they had queried more recently, and things have changed a lot since she initially queried her debut, Ash, in 2007.

M-E Girard gave us a detailed process that she used for querying, and also taught us how to be stealthy online stalkers. Fortunately, my online dating life before marriage allowed me to hone those skills to a frightfully advanced level. It’s kind of fun to have a reason to put them to use again. Here are my notes on M-E’s steps for query success:

  1. Finish your manuscript.
  2. Revise until it is the best you can make it on your own (beta readers and critique partners highly recommended).
  3. Write your query and have it reviewed/critiqued by your writer friends.
  4. Compile a list of agents that represent the genre you are querying and sort them into tiers by preference (5-10 agents per tier).
  5. STALK THEM ALL. But only on the internet. And stealthily.
  6. Develop a unique personalization based on the information you learned while stalking. But don’t be creepy (I struggle with this in all aspects of life).
  7. Create a query tracking system or use something like QueryTracker.
  8. Send your query to Tier 1 and sit back to gnaw your nails to the quicks while you wait for responses.
  9. If you don’t get any responses or only get rejections, your query is probably not working. Revise your query and get more feedback, then submit to Tier 2, Tier 3, etc.

It was strange and sad to leave our workshop room for the last time, though I won’t miss the smell of dirty socks that always seemed to permeate it. However, I had an adventure to head off to. A friend of mine from Austin picked me up to take me down to Santa Monica. We decided to grab something to eat and then walked down to the pier. I took a few pictures on our walk:

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After our walk on the pier, my friend dropped me off to visit with my mentor from my day job. Hopefully my mentor has forgiven me for being completely feral by the time I saw her; work was but a distant dream after being out of the office for two weeks. We spent a couple of hours chatting in her beautiful back yard, which reminded me how much I love to be outside in places that aren’t Texas.

When it was finally time to head home, I caught the bus a few blocks from her house. The ride itself went relatively smoothly, but the stop at the end of my journey turned out to be on the opposite side of the highway from the campus. I walked across the overpass, but then the sidewalk disappeared, so I had to hoof it through the dirt or walk on the freeway access road for half a mile, which resulted in some dude shouting out his car to see if I needed a ride. I suppose it’s possible that he was trying to be polite, but signs on the bus had just warned me about the dangers of human trafficking in LA. Ending up in the trunk of a car bound up with duct tape alongside a bunch of weaponry didn’t seem like a good way to end the day.

I got back up to campus just in time for the farewell party, which was an epic affair involving plenty of cake, scotch, an open mic, and eventually karaoke. Everyone went completely batshit when Hold On by Wilson Phillips queued up, and the most majestic singalong of all time took place. I won’t post any pictures or video here to save your retinas and eardrums, but you can have your own little singalong to the original video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIbXvaE39wM]

I still can’t believe the retreat is over. A piece of me got left behind in Los Angeles. Still, I’m excited to see what the future holds, and am so grateful for the connections I made that I know are going to be amazing friendships.

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LLF Retreat, Day 6: Playing Hooky

Some sort of magic happened on Day 5, and by Day 6 of the retreat our cohort turned into a family. The final morning of critiques went well. There was another guest lecture in the afternoon, but in the spirit of the teenage audience we write for, most of the YA/Genre Fellows played hooky.

We sat outside in the gloriously pleasant afternoon, all pretending to work at first, but quickly getting distracted and talking instead.

Our view:

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It was strange to just kick back and relax. Most of the week was intensely busy between the workshops and having to read and prepare the critiques. Friday was really the first day we had an afternoon to decompress from it all. The only people who were still stressed out were the ones who hadn’t read yet.

Friday evening readings were just as good as Thursday’s. Lots of wine was consumed afterward, and we had a fun time goofing around and staying up much too late.

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LLF Retreat, Day 5: The Loss of My Reading Virginity

On Day 5 of the writing retreat, I FINALLY GOT MY COMPUTER BACK! As it turns out, the problem was simply that the trackpad had failed, which made it impossible to wake the computer from sleep mode. *headdesk* I’m so happy to no longer be reading from a dodgy monitor that looks like something from an elementary school circa 1995. I hitched a ride with Tony, the director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, to get the computer. It was fun seeing a little of LA again and to get off campus for the afternoon, and I really enjoyed talking to Tony. I’m going to have to write another entire post when I get home about LA, and how so many things about it weren’t at all what I was expecting.

When we returned from lunch, the big decision loomed: what to read? The reading had to be between 3-4 minutes, which is approximately 2-3 pages. I decided to keep it extra short, because I like to feel like I have time to read and not have to rush through anything. I settled on the big kiss scene from my novel, since it didn’t require any major changes to be ready for the reading.

I also had my one-on-one with Malinda in the afternoon. She gave each YA/Genre Fellow the opportunity to ask her anything, whether related to our writing or to publishing. I talked to her about a few plot issues in my book, writing characters of color, and querying. Talking to her was such a pleasure; she always offers her thoughts with honesty and frankness, and I really appreciate that about her. She told me repeatedly that my book was nearly ready to query if I just work through some of the revision ideas that came up in my critique. Eep.

Readings began at 7pm with the help of some adult beverages. I’m not sure I have words yet for how much the readings blew me away. Every writer brought something different to the podium and kept me engaged with their words. Each reading provided a glimpse inside that writer, and the relationship between the readers and audience demonstrated the miracle of the simultaneous difference and sameness among us all.

The videos will eventually be posted online, and I highly recommend giving them a watch.

Also, I found out tonight that there will be an open mic at the farewell party on Friday. More unicorn antics are undoubtedly forthcoming…

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LLF Retreat, Day 4: Lesbian Death Riders

Day 4 was unexpectedly relaxing. I slept in a little and accidentally missed breakfast, but the mid-morning snack saved me from hunger-induced Hulk rage. We did three more critiques over the course of the morning. I continue to be amazed by the feedback people give, and how much value I get from hearing it. A lot of what is said in other critique sessions could just as easily apply to my book.

The one sad thing is that I’ve been so focused on critiquing that I haven’t had much time to work on my own writing. The good news is that I only have one critique left to do! I’m hoping that means I can spend tomorrow and Friday revising or working on a story.

After each person’s critique we’ve been playing the game “If My Book Was a T-Shirt…” This is what the Fellows came up with for mine:

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In the evening there was a guest lecture by the fantastic Kelley Eskridge. I did not attend because I was distracted by Indian food and wine, but I feel that I should let you know that there is more going on than a bunch of the YA/genre Fellows frolicking around in a creepy unicorn mask (though we did get one of the poetry Fellows to put it on today). Despite not attending the lecture, I did do the pre-reading Kelley left for us, and one piece especially captured the essence of being a writer. You can check it out on her website here. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Day 5 is going to be fun and scary. I have a one-on-one with Malinda in which I’m planning to ask some questions about race in my novel. It could prove awkward as I may have attacked her while wearing a unicorn head earlier this week.

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I’m not scared of Malinda, though.  She’s cool. The scary part is that I have to read an excerpt from my novel in front of 50 people and be videotaped. I think I peed a tiny bit just typing that. Trying to dig out two or three pages to read from my 280-page novel is like sifting through a cat box hoping to find a candy bar. We’ll see how it goes.

*Photo/design credits: Dave Ring. Follow him @slickhop on Twitter!

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LLF Retreat, Day 3: Unicorn in the Bushes

Day 3 was our first day of critiques. In an act of imbecilic self-sacrifice prior to the retreat, I offered to go first. Some method existed behind my madness; I hoped to get it over with quickly so that I could spend the rest of the week contemplating the feedback and working on revisions.

After two days getting to know everyone, I already had a good sense of the other Fellows and felt very comfortable with them in the critique environment. The comments and criticisms often made me smile, and always made me think. It’s a wonderful and valuable experience to be a fly on the wall in a room full of people who are discussing your work. Not only did I come away with a fantastic idea about how to fix a device that never worked properly in my book, I now have a great idea for a companion story to go along with my novel should I ever be fortunate enough to get published.

The evening unfolded with a post-dinner happy hour for our workshop group that began with some awesome conversation and ended with a great deal of silliness that resulted in this majestic photo taken by Malinda:

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Connecting with the other Fellows outside the workshop helped ease some of my anxiety around being at a retreat. I still struggle to take myself seriously as a writer, and feeling comfortable enough to assert myself in a writing community can be challenging. Being photographed in a unicorn mask may not seem like great example of me taking myself seriously, but spending some time goofing off helped me feel more at home. This is an amazing group of people, and I’m so happy to be here.

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LLF Retreat, Day 2: Worlds, Revision, and Digital Vomit

I forgot to mention that after the welcome on Sunday night (Day 1) we had brief meetings with our workshop groups. Malinda went over her plans for the week, and we each spoke briefly about how we became writers. Even through those short introductions it became quickly apparent how much we have in common. Many of us began with, “I was that weird kid who wrote a novel at ten…” or “I wrote a lot of horrible, angst-ridden love poems about the girl/guy I had a crush on.”

Day 2 began with another quick round table to identify what type of feedback each writer hopes to get. What I’m hoping for is to get a sense of where multiple people have the same points of criticism. That will tell me a lot about what I need to revise. I also asked for title assistance since “Gay Princess Pony Palooza” is probably not going to cut it, and my other working title is too similar to a couple of other books that have come out recently or are about to be released.

Most of Day 2 focused on an in-depth look at world building. Essentially, the five basic elements are:

  1. Rules
  2. Rituals
  3. Power
  4. Place
  5. Food

We read excerpts from several published books and discussed how each author effectively conveyed a sense of one of the above aspects of world building. It was a great exercise, and I already see ways that I can add depth to the world where my novel takes place.

After our world building discussion, Malinda walked us through revisions on a scene from her second book, Huntress. Seeing how a particular scene evolved was quite enlightening, and she’d highlighted different sections to show us why they were removed or changed. Cool stuff!

In other news, I am sad to report that my computer situation is still dire. I tried to use one of the prehistoric computers in the lab after lunch, but it puked a bunch of digital vomit onto the screen and wouldn’t even boot. I think my ages-old bathroom curse has somehow evolved into a technology curse instead.

For Day 3 I’m first on the list for critique. There will undoubtedly be more to report tomorrow!

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LLF Retreat, Day 1: Disasterville

Well, the first day of my writing retreat did not go quite as planned. I had a wonderful morning on an impromptu driving tour of Los Angeles thanks to a very generous friend, and then she dropped me off at the retreat around 1:30.

Within half an hour of arriving at the American Jewish University campus, two traumatic things happened:

Surprisingly, I managed not to panic right away. But after many failed attempts to revive my computer, my roommate offered to drive me to the Apple Store to send the thing off for repairs. So now I am computerless, likely for most of the retreat, and two of my critiques were lost. It’s proven a bit stressful so far, as most of the computer lab computers here are borked in some fashion and at best are running Windows XP circa 2001. One of them doesn’t even have Word installed.

At any rate, after returning from our quest for electronics, we had dinner around 5pm and then there was a welcome at 7. All of the fellows in every workshop (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and genre/YA) gathered together to introduce ourselves. We went around the room and shared our names, where we came from, our preferred pronoun, and a sentence or two about what we hope to accomplish this week. I can’t remember exactly what I said, because I have the memory of a developmentally disabled goldfish, but I believe it was something along the lines of “I hope to learn from my fellow writers and revise the end of my book this week.” Fortunately, the first part of that is already coming true. The second is a little more challenging, sans computer, but I’m sure I’ll get through with the support and generosity of all the other Fellows here.

On the bright side, I did manage to fix my flip flops due to a random tube of crazy glue that I obtained in Eugene when the horn fell off my unicorn mask last week.

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Onward to Los Angeles!

So I’m sitting in the airport right now, waiting to board my flight to Los Angeles for the Lambda Literary Foundation retreat. This past week I’ve been on vacation in Portland, Oregon. It was an extremely busy trip, and I still didn’t manage to see everyone I hoped to. It also means that I haven’t done as much pre-work as I’d hoped…but hey, there’s still time on the plane, right?

Our pre-work consisted of reading everyone else’s submissions and writing critiques. That’s eleven 40-page submissions and a one page critique for each. We’ll be discussing each person’s work during one-hour sessions, three per day. It’s going to be intense. I’m very impressed by everything I’ve read, and I can’t wait to meet the other Fellows.

Throughout the week I’ll be doing my best to blog about what we do and how it goes. I know I got a lot out of reading the blogs of past Fellows, and hope that whatever I write here will let the next generation of Fellows find out what they’re getting into.

You can also follow our adventures on Twitter using the hashtag #LLFellows2013. Onward to LA!

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LLF Retreat Homework: The Dreaded Synopsis

The sick thing about receiving homework after being out of school for eons is that it’s actually rather exciting. Last week, our mentor for the YA/Genre workshop of the Lambda Literary Foundation Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices, Malinda Lo, emailed us information about how she plans to run the workshop and what we need to send in advance. We were asked to submit the first 40 pages of our novels along with a synopsis. My thought process went as follows: 40 pages? Awesome! I’ve got those right here. Synopsis? Synopsis…? Bueller?

Frell me with a frelling flagpole.

Deadlines, however, are extremely motivating. I asked the other members of the LLF retreat group if they had any tips or resources for synopsis writing. Tess Sharpe posted a link to this fabulous article, which completely saved my ass.

The most important thing I noticed myself needing to do as I wrote and edited was to delete every sentence that didn’t essentially say, “character X did Y, which resulted in Z.” While some tone of the novel should be preserved in the synopsis, a 500-word overview does not leave room for excessive description or complex subplots like the dim pools of sorrowful lamplight swathing the cobblestones of a city street or the fourteen-legged mutant octopus that is a metaphor for the time your main character ran for school president twenty years ago.

Things to include in a synopsis:

The list and examples provided by the following link are much better (Star Wars!), so I highly recommend checking it out.

The funny thing is, after all the initial stress and angst, I feel good about my synopsis now that it is done. It’s not perfect, but I gained some important things from writing it. Now I know that I am capable of condensing my entire novel into 500-600 words. Also, looking at my novel at a macro level clarified the revisions I need to make to the ending. Guess I’d better get back to work!

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Keeping the Balance: Professional Life and Writing (and cow shit)

Please try not to weep bitter tears of woe, but there won’t be a Leveraging Misutilized Words post this week. I’m deep in the throes of quarter end hell at work, which means that I work a lot of 10-hour days. Right now the only thing I want to do with a computer after I leave the office is smash it with a baseball bat. In addition, we got our pre-work for the Lambda Literary Foundation retreat, and I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a club newsletter that I do every two months. In case you can’t tell, I tend to overcommit, which means this is a good time to talk about work/writing balance.

Writing novels while working full-time is similar to simultaneously balancing a plate full of wet cow shit on top of one’s head and dancing the masochism tango with an enraged jellyfish. The cow shit is a day job, or maybe school—something that isn’t always very fun, but helps give you survival skills for the world in which we live. Balancing that plate is awfully important though, because having zero income is no fun (much like winding up covered in cow shit). The jellyfish is writing—that thing that fills you with doubt and self-loathing on occasion, and throttles you with the stinging tentacles of guilt if you don’t work on it, but is also bioluminescent and beautiful and feeds the soul you spend forty hours per week denying that you have.

Here are a few tips for any writers trying to balance a professional life with a creative one:

Say no, sometimes even to things that sound like fun projects. This is one of the hardest things for me, but the truth is that it is impossible to do it all no matter how overachieving you are and how little you need to sleep.

Make time. It is hard to get in a writing frame of mind in just one hour at lunch, but it can be done. Even if you only eke out 100 words, it’s still forward progress.

Seek a day job you enjoy. Everyone slaves through some unfortunate jobs in the course of a lifetime, but once you’ve worked your way up the ladder to something you like, it is amazing how much more positive energy you will have to devote to something you love—like writing.

Get support. Surround yourself with friends and family who support and motivate you to keep writing, both through encouragement and by giving you the time and space you need. I am constantly overwhelmed with gratitude for my friends and family.

Take a break. Every once in a while it is necessary to have a break from everything. Writing is hard work just like a day job. It’s okay to vegetate in front of the television or go out and have fun with friends. In fact, those things can sometimes be the only lifeline back to sanity.

There are a lot of ways to succeed as a writer, and many of them don’t involve being a working professional. But if you do have a day job, keep these things in mind…and don’t lose your shit.

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