Rejection Feedback: “Wind”

I got some kind of interesting rejection feedback from a magazine that decided against publishing my short story “Wind,” and I’d like to share it here:

Cool story! I’m passing on it today mostly because I don’t think [magazine] is quite right for it, rather than the other way around. Our readership probably wouldn’t appreciate it the way a publisher with a wider reader demographic would. I’m always hesitant to give stylistic feedback, but if it’s not too forward of me, this could use a stronger opening section. Your narrative is smooth and your characterization is totally likable, but you need something happening right from the first page rather than five or six pages in, even in a longer story like this. Keep submitting it, though. This tone/content is very right-now, and I’m sure someone with broader content will bite.

I like personalized rejection letters.  Probably not as much as I’d like acceptances, but it’s nice when someone decides my stuff is worth their feedback.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2011, Semi-Finals: Finding Mulligan

Finding Mulligan was cut from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition at the semi-final round.  I will not be moving on.

Here is the (rather unflattering) Publishers Weekly review:

Cassandra is looking for an apartment for her freshman year of college when she sees a painting that seems extremely familiar. She immediately realizes that the painting is of someone she knows from her dreamland. Cassandra (Dia in the dreamworld) has been visiting the dreamland in her sleep ever since she was a child. But until she sees Mulligan, the man in the painting, she’s never met another resident in the real world. Cassandra quickly falls for Mulligan and decides she must track him down. Meanwhile, she also discovers that her dreamland is not the safe, perfect place she thought it was. Finding Mulligan has a simple enough solution, one that is actually clearly described in the first chapter. Yet the author insists on explaining the world in detail through tedious dialogue in the subsequent chapters. This heavy-handed and rambling style of prose permeates the manuscript, making it a clunky and repetitive read. On top of this, Cassandra isn’t especially likable, especially when she makes a habit of taunting her younger sister (who has kidney disease).

As the author of this novel, I actually have absolutely no idea what the reviewer means by “a simple enough solution.”  There isn’t actually a “solution” of any kind in the book, so I’m baffled.  But the rest of this stuff will be taken to heart and used to revise the book for next year.  Hooray!

Also, on the positive side, my customer reviews for the first chapter on Amazon:

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Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2011, Quarter-Finals: Finding Mulligan

Finding Mulligan has been chosen as one of 500 quarter-finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition.

My “prize” now is to go on to be judged in the semi-finals.  Publishers Weekly will be judging my novel—the full manuscript—and they will decide whether I get to be one of the 100 left in the semi-final round.

Rating me and recommending me were two Amazon Vine Reviewers.  Here is what they said about my first chapter:

Reviewer #1:

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
Pretty well-done and realistic, Cassie and her parents finding her first college apartment for her, her sister Haley whining about having been left home alone, all intelligently handled. Good treatment of the family situation and dynamics, and of the winning apartment. Unfortunately, no description of campus, or college town, or of the family home, no setting, not actually much description of apartment. Many high school girls will be going away to college, they might identify with the story this exerpt tells.
What aspect needs the most work?
I don’t see why this story has to have a supernatural element to it, why it can’t be a plain straightforward going away to college story. Am not very sympathetic to supernatural element, not interested in Cassie’s REAL nighttime self, think it’s a mistake, doubt author has the writing gifts to mesh supernatural tale with ordinary coming-of-age going away to college story.
What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
Author has lost me, I don’t want to know about Cassie’s alleged REAL life and existence, or her supernatural powers, have no patience for this sort of thing. Pity, because otherwise, author writes competently and intelligently, and has created intelligent character in her protagonist Cassie.

So, in other words, “I hate this genre and I wish you’d written something else because you write well.”  At least this reviewer must’ve given me good marks since I advanced.

Reviewer #2:

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?
All the elements are there for an interesting book. We know we are going to college with Cassandra. We know there is going to be a fantastical story ahead and that there are some above average characters.

All the technical elements are there, too – grammar, punctuation, word choice, sentence structure. The excerpt was a pleasure to read.

Wow! Finally, someone can write a YA novel that says “my parents and me” rather than the other way around (or even “myself and …”. Thank you.
What aspect needs the most work?
Unless Haley is a major part of the book, get rid of her (nicely). Just her brief interruption in the excerpt was annoying.

Not every story needs such a character. The secondary storyline is not mandatory if you have enough main story to keep the book rolling.

If you must keep her around, try to not stereotype her as a normal bratty attention seeker. That’s been overdone.

And, don’t feel required to have every element of society depicted .

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?
You are breaking the mold for YA novels, and I like it. You have a father (alive), a mother (alive). They not divorced and seemingly getting along with one another. It seems neither assaults their two daughters and, I’m betting, neither is out on parole.

Your ability to write well is a significant plus and the entire excerpt was very well proofread. I don’t doubt that the entire book is as technically well written. The “my parents and me” spoke volumes about your attitude toward writing – in the best way possible.

The story is interesting and the excerpt was far too short. I’m sensing an interesting take on some paranormal relationships. I wanted to keep reading.

Should you not advance in the contest, please don’t rush to self-publish – this has too much going for it. Work hard to find an agent or mainstream publisher.

And, keep writing. I read dozens of debut, mainly international, authors yearly. This was as polished a beginning as the majority of those I’ve read in the last several months. None of them was self-published. Good job.

Yep, Haley’s essential to the plot, #2; I can’t get rid of her.  I’m glad this reviewer liked what I wrote and said all that stuff about self-publishing.  Yeah, I wasn’t considering it.  🙂

On Mary Sues

Mary Sue: a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional. [x]

“Wow, what a Sue!” is thrown around a lot these days in literary criticism.  It’s always insulting.  It always implies that the author did something wrong.  And if it’s applied to an amateur or developing work, it generally means the author needs to do something to reduce the “Sueishness” of the character.

The problem arises when any character who’s exceptional is labeled a Sue.  But wait, don’t we like reading about extraordinary people?  Having a character who’s truly unique in her world can’t be the mark of incompetence, can it?

Recently, in a completely unrelated-to-writing forum, I received a nice message from someone who appreciated one of my articles online, and she added this at the end of the message:

Also, your webcomic rocks. Actual plotlines and character development? Yes please.

After I thanked her, she said a little more about it, mentioning one of my characters in particular:

Too many stories—especially webcomics—are filled with cheap action and universe-spanning prophecies, but the whole thing is ruined by the one-dimensional cardboard cutouts the author pushes around. I’m especially in awe of how you manage to handle Ivy—with all her unbelievably Mary-Sueish characteristics—in a way that makes her realistic and likable. Seriously… how do you manage it?? I try to work with characters that have half her Sueishness and every time they wind up devouring half the story like some sparkly black hole.

So, I thought about it. Hey, how do I manage it?

The character she’s talking about is indeed in the red as far as Mary Sues go. I’ve been well aware of that for a long time. To give you some idea:

  • Author self-insert: When I named the character, she got my nickname, and I didn’t realize it was going to stick to both of us. . . .
  • Exotic and attractive appearance: She’s biracial (half Chinese, half white American mutt) but somehow ended up with features you don’t often see come out of that combination: blonde hair, huge tilty green eyes. Annnnd is randomly missing the pinkies on her hands and feet and has pointy ears for no reason.
  • Has unusual powers that aren’t commonplace for the character’s race: She has an unexplained and unprecedented gigantic case of telekinesis. Why? Got me!

At this point in the webcomic story, my character was a two-year-old, so she’s too young to really do most of the Sueish things people in her situation are prone to doing (e.g., angsting, being sought after by people who are drawn in by curiosity or attraction or greed, making some kind of Epic Plot based around superpowers, etc.). But she’s still got a LOT of the warning signs of Suedom, and yet the compliment above suggests I’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls somehow. Well, what’s up with that?

Here is my somewhat rambly and surely incomplete guide to making your characters not suck, even if they are, by some definitions, Sues:

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Finding Mulligan: Murder Your Darlings

I EDITED AND THE BOOK GOT SHORTER.

This is unprecedented! Hahaha.

Written in my journal December 30, 2007:

“I’m thinking a bunch of it might be cut later. This is a special case and all, but I’m not sure how many people want to watch my character go to the hair salon.”

Verdict from others:

Mom: The hair salon part is BORING. You need two paragraphs about that, tops.
Rob: There was one part I thought was really slow and unnecessary. It’s this part where she goes to the hair salon?

Uh . . . surprise. There are also two other scenes just like this (though neither of them are a whole chapter long, so this was public enemy #1), where I went on for a long time just dilly-dallying over a concept.

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Results of Querying: Finding Mulligan 2009

Really struck out on Finding Mulligan queries in 2009.

Agents queried: 24.

  • Non-responses: 9
  • Form rejections: 13
  • Partial requests: 1

. . . Most of the form rejections contained the phrase “publishing is a subjective business.”  Well, I hope so!

One of the rejections said this:

If I may offer a tip, you may want to consider your word count as this genre is usually more like 70,000 words.

::shrug::

The guy who rejected my three-chapter partial had this to say:

While I thought the premise to be unique, I just did not get enough sense of the paranormal.  Along the same lines, I simply did not find myself drawn to the characters as much as I had hoped to.  It seemed as if the story was lacking a depth that I wanted to see in the early pages.

Hmm, boo.  Though I will say I’m surprised to see disappointment over lack of “the paranormal” because my book isn’t paranormal.  I’m still using this advice to try to make my stuff better.  I’m continuing to tweak and edit here and there.

 

Bad Fairy: Thoughts on redevelopment as a trilogy

So I’m rewriting Bad Fairy as a trilogy. The book does not naturally divide into three parts, unfortunately. Its original version was in five parts of unequal length. The new version, Book 1, is protagonist Delia’s childhood and education.

Bad Fairy is a Sleeping Beauty retelling from the bad fairy’s point of view, but the princess isn’t even born yet in the first book.  Book 1 is entirely about her fairy school years.  Is Delia’s magickal education interesting enough to carry a story? I don’t think it was originally, though I did receive the following ego boost from my friend Jeremy while he was reading the bit about her elemental studies:

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Negative One: Open Window

Last week’s issue of my webcomic Negative One involved a storyline that smashed my audience over the head with a mostly unexpected sudden tragedy.  You don’t get much more horrible than missing children without involving death.

I was pretty depressed about it, even though I knew it was coming.  This is me after I finished drawing it.

So it’s been nearly a week since I posted the update and people are still e-mailing me with tales of woe. Most notably, I’m receiving e-mails from parents who have had close calls with their children similar to what I’ve depicted in #0159, and they’re all talking about how much they hope Amanda’s parents find her.

Gulp. . . .

Looks like we are all in for a really hard couple of months here, ’cause the comic is going to continue to be about this. What choice do I have? I have to deal with what I spawned now.

One parent posted a comment about the issue leaving them “sobbing at the keyboard.”

Another shared a similar experience of losing (but finding) their kid.

And one person’s just mailed to plead for Amanda’s safe return as well as to ask how this couple ended up with an “Elfquest Glider baby.” (I don’t get this reference. Er?)

Well, I cried over this, but I knew I would. I’m the author. I go through whatever the characters go through, sorta-kinda. (Sometimes it can seem pretty real.) It was touching and rewarding and . . . a little disturbing . . . to get so much mail about people crying over my work. I didn’t WANT to upset people, but I guess it’s also a sign that there are tons of people I don’t even know whose lives I am touching once a week by posting this.

I could tell from the hundreds of hits per week, but it’s more real to me when I get the letters.

I hope I have a chance to do this with my novels sometime in the near future.

Negative One: Several Reviews

My webcomic got featured in Top Webcomics, so I started getting a few more readers and, consequently, more mail about the story than usual.  Reading the mail, I have noticed several themes and things people tend to like about the comic.

  1. They tend to like the characters.
  2. They normally point out that it’s different from every other webcomic they read.
  3. And they like the realness and sincerity and inventiveness of my plot.

Some of them mention they like the art, too, but mostly almost everyone who writes me says something about having experienced a personal connection with the characters or relating to their situation.

One thing I think I do well is write convincingly about things I’ve never been through. I was discussing this with a person who contacted me about the comic recently, and after I told her I’ve never had a baby or gone to another dimension like the characters in the story have, she reacted with surprise, saying, “WHAT? I thought *sure* from this story that you were a mother!” (Paraphrased.) That’s awesome. I guess we’ll never know how convincingly I write about traveling to other dimensions. I don’t think there are any people out there who can say whether I’m doing it right or wrong. Heh.

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Gather Contest: Bad Fairy

I entered a contest at Gather.com back on February 13.  It was called “First Chapters” and novelists with a completed manuscript were allowed to enter and possibly win a publishing contract.  I figured I had nothing to lose, but the experience was pretty terrible.  Because whoever came up with the rules for the contest must have been smoking something toxic.

Contestants were allowed to vote on each other’s entries.

The “points” everyone was getting were visible to everyone, with the site adjusting the top entries to always be at the beginning.  (This was not only unfair, but it encouraged people to vote down whoever was in the lead.)

The reviews were visible for every entry.  This was especially bad because Gather was bribing people to offer reviews by saying star reviewers would be chosen to receive $500 in store credit to Borders, and you were supposed to be able to win by being “insightful,” so having the previous reviews visible to readers obviously influences the opinion AND gives reviewers tips on what to say for their own review.

Can I just say again that contestants were allowed to vote on each other’s entries?  And that the rules specifically said they were allowed to do so as long as they did it “in the spirit of the competition”?

A vote-decided competition absolutely cannot have its participants voting on each other.  I was appalled.  Especially since every single entry in the contest had a 3 or 4 out of 10 by the time the voting closed because of all the really determined serial downvoters.

And yet, without addressing these issues whatsoever, Gather announced their 20 winners—one of whom was a guy whose profile page said he was a paid contributor for Gather—and opened the next round with all the same rules.  (I wasn’t picked, but that doesn’t surprise me.  My entry was regularly on the front page of highest-rated entries, and then it would get attacked with downvotes and disappear, and then it would appear again every time I got a good review.)

Anyway, I also got some grumpy guy telling me I was obviously ripping off Wicked—yeah, man, that’s likely, since I wrote the story before I’d heard of it, and after all Gregory Maguire invented the concept of a retelling, right?  And then some other snotty reviewer tried to tear me a new one claiming I’d contradicted myself because I suggested it’s possible to be original while still telling a technically derivative story (like a fairy tale retelling).  “Well if it’s derived from another story then it can’t really be original then CAN IT??”  Uh, I sure hope there’s a degree program in Missing the Point, because that guy’s got a Bachelor’s.  I’m pretty certain nobody who reads Bad Fairy is going to come out of it thinking what a copycat piece of crap it is.

So . . . yeah, good riddance to THAT contest.