Saturday, April 25, 2009

We Hate You. And Your Book Sucks, Too

As my prize for making it into the Quarterfinal round of Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Award contest, co-sponsored by Penguin Books and Publishers Weekly, I was to receive a professional review of my manuscript from a PW reviewer.

Even though I was eliminated from the contest during the last round, I was looking forward to receiving my review, because I felt it would give me some specific areas on which to work to improve my writing. Anyone who has tried to break into this field knows how difficult it is to get any kind of professional guidance without breaking the bank, and I already have that area covered more than adequately with three kids to put through college.

You know that expression, "Be careful what you ask for?" I'm pretty sure it was invented specifically to cover this situation. I received my review a few days ago, and suffice it to say there was NO danger of me advancing to the Semifinal Round if this review had anything to do with it.

Now, just in case there's any doubt in your mind, let me be clear about something: I have absolutely NO problem with getting a review that is critical of my work. None. In fact, I expected exactly that, since, after all, I was eliminated. But if this anonymous reviewer, whoever he is (The review is unsigned, which I feel is a little unfair - it's easy to lob grenades if nobody knows who you are), had his way, I'm guessing he would forbid me to write anything ever again, including a grocery list or anything else.

There were a couple of constructive things I could take out of the review - things I can look toward improving in my writing - such as some of my characterizations and dialogue, but for the most part, this review was, I felt, an unfair and unnecessarily harsh attack. Just in case I missed his point that he didn't like my manuscript, he concludes by calling it "an unnecessary litany of vomit." And, yes, that is the exact quote.

I will be the first to admit, reading something like those words, tossed off so cavalierly about the product I have spent literally hundreds of hours working on, hurts more than a little bit. It feels a little like, well, like that acidy taste you get in your throat when you, you know, vomit. It sucks to be ridiculed and made to feel small, and I believe that was the whole point of this review.

But I am nothing if not resilient. And determined. Because I know I can write; the fact that I am up for two Derringer Awards says something about that, just as much as this PW review does. I accept that not everyone will like my work. I accept that there is the very real chance hardly ANYONE will like my work; I'm not blind or stupid.

But I do not accept that my work is vomit, and this setback will make my ultimate success that much sweeter.

Thank you for putting up with my cathartic rant. I don't know about you, but I feel much better now. I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got to get busy. My vomitus doesn't write itself, you know...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Gimme Back My Plot Twist!

It's not hard to imagine how silly it sounds to most people when I say that sometimes the characters in my stories surprise me with the things they do; in fact, it sounds kind of silly to me right now as I type this. The fact of the matter is, though, that sometimes they do. And when that happens, it's kind of magical, because usually the story takes a turn for the better.

Case in point - a short story I've just finished. It's about a young man who takes his girlfriend to the lake for a late-afternoon swim on a lazy summer day. One thing leads to another and before the day is out, someone has been murdered and someone else is scrambling to cover up the killing.

I don't want to go into too much detail, because I'm hoping that at some point you'll have the opportunity to read this story somewhere. When and where you'll read it are still very much up in the air, as is the question of if you'll ever even read it. However, hope springs eternal as my dad used to say, so I don't want to give away my ending.

The point is, though, that the way this story eventually ends is very different from how I had envisioned it ending when I first started typing away. One of my main characters wrested control of the action away from me and wouldn't give it up, which seems only fair, since the whole thing directly affected him.

That sort of occurrence seems to happen a lot to me while I'm writing, and I wonder why that is. When that lightbulb goes on over my head, like Wile E. Coyote getting a great idea, some of the best plot twists and turns seem to follow. I guess the idea is somewhere inside my thick skull all along, but I'm just too dense to recognize it until a character hits me over the head with it.

That's one of the things I love about writing. You start out attempting to create something specific that you visualize in your mind's eye, and sometimes end up with a creation that looks completely different when you're all done. Like Frankenstein's Monster maybe. Not that I'm trying to compare myself to Mary Shelley, you understand. More like that poor schlub Frankenstein.

But what the hell. Frankenstein's creation made quite an impact anyway, right?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

I'm a Derringer Finalist, I'm a Derringer Finalist - Is There an Echo In Here?

It never ceases to amaze me how subjective the business of writing is; especially when it comes to the business of fiction writing and getting published, both in the long form and the short form. What may turn off one person completely could seem to be the best thing ever to someone else, and vice-versa.

I mention this because as someone who has been struggling to break into the ranks of published authorship in both long and short form, I was excited beyond the point of reasonableness (Reasonability? Reasonablosity?) to discover that two of my short stories published last year have been selected as finalists for a 2009 Derringer Award!

The Derringers are given out annually by the Short Mystery Fiction Society, "to honor excellence in the creative artform of short mystery and crime stories," according to their website. The awards were instituted in 1997 and have been given out annually ever since. Previous winners include Carol Kilgore, Clark Howard, J.A. Konrath and Patricia Harrington.

And get this: previous runners-up include names like Jeffrey Deaver, Bill Pronzini and Duane Swierczynski, so no matter what happens, as a finalist, I'm truly honored and excited to be in such great company.

Both of my stories selected as Derringer finalists reside in the same category - Best Short Story, defined by the SMFS as any story between 1001 and 4000 words - meaning they are competing against each other, as well as against four other finalists. Hopefully this means my chances of winning are twice as good, rather than half as good, but who really knows?

My two Derringer Finalists are: "Independence Day," originally published in the July/August 2008 issue of Crime and Suspense, and "Regrets, I've Had a Few," which appeared in the September 2008 issue of Trei Literary magazine, the only issue the magazine ever released before disappearing.

If you'd like to check them out, "Independence Day" is archived at the Crime and Suspense site, and I've posted "Regrets, I've Had a Few" at my own website. I'd be thrilled if you'd like to read them.

About the subjectivity involved in this writing gig, it's interesting to me that one of my Derringer finalist stories was accepted by the first venue to which I sent it, while the other one bounced around for a while, being rejected five times before finally finding a home.

I like to think that my lack of success at getting agents and publishers to read my novel manuscripts is similar to the situation regarding "Regrets, I've Had a Few." I continued submitting this story because I believed in it. I felt strongly that it was quality work and sooner or later someone would recognize that. Eventually someone did, and now it's a Derringer Award finalist.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is obvious, at least to me. Work hard and sooner or later the breaks will come. If you're writing and submitting and not getting anywhere, keep going! The next thing you send out might just be the one that takes off and sends you on your way. I really believe that, and you should too.

By the way, the Short Mystery Fiction Society is open to everyone, writers and readers alike. If you're reading this blog, you're probably a good candidate for membership. You can check them out here. And, no, I'm not trolling for votes for my stories - to be eligible to vote for this year's Derringer awards, you have to have been a member prior to February 1 of this year. But if you join now, you can vote for next year's most deserving stories...