Monday, November 30, 2015

The Value of Critique Groups

Today is November 30. The last day of #NaNoWriMo. My post today is going to be a little different as I’m close to winning. I know they say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. But what the hell do "they" know anyway? Let see *them* write forty-eight thousand words in a month!

Slapping 50K words in thirty days means all words will NEED to be revised. Revision is key. If I tried to fire off my NaNo Draft (which is probably even lower caliber than a First Draft) to agents or editors I could expect silence. If I sent it to my Critique Partner, I might expect a scathing reply along the lines of; “Did you send me a First Draft?!”

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

In my opinion, a first draft should be read by no one besides the author. Once revised (more than once) the manuscript must be vetted by a Critique Partner. I interviewed Lane Buckman, the Lane of Robyn Lane Books, to discuss the value of CPs.  

1. How long have you been writing with a purpose?

I have been writing with a purpose since elementary school.  I got an early start with a specialized program to develop young writers through Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia.  I took my first write-for-pay job doing campaign scripting when I was fourteen, and have been working freelance since then.  I do a lot of technical writing for hire, a lot of op-ed, and dabble in marketing materials.  Now, as far as writing novels goes, I got serious about that in the early 2000s.  I sold my first novel in 2010, then followed up in different genres in 2013, 2014, and 2015.  Now, I focus on my work as a publisher, so I spend most of my time offering editorial notes to the fantastic writers we have found.

2. What’s the best thing a critique partner can tell you?

The best thing a critique partner can tell me is, "This doesn't work."  If they can back that up with why it doesn't work, that's a lot more helpful, but if something isn't reading well, I need to know--no matter how painful.  The most painful feedback I've ever gotten was, "Oh, Lane.  No."

3. What’s the worst thing a critique partner can tell you?

The worst thing a critique partner can tell me is, "This is perfect!"  Because it never is. 

4. What’s one piece of advice you’d like to offer new writers/new critiquers?

 Don't ask your friends to read you to critique is my advice to new writers.  Your friends love you, and they won't tell you the problems with your work.  Find a reader you respect, and ask them to read as though they were going to review it to recommend to their most esteemed colleague.

My advice to those new to critique is pretty simple.   My critique motto is:  Imagine it's your work.  I offer the feedback in a way I would want to receive it.  That is, honestly and respectfully.  I don't pull punches, but I am kind.  Writing is hard work, and whether I'm reading James Joyce, or E.L. James, I keep that in mind, and I offer my feedback with respect to the effort, and the human being who did the writing.  We're all in the same boat, hoping for the same success, and we can all afford to be kind in how we deliver our messages.

5.  How many critique groups have you been in? What will keep you engaged? And what will have you running for the door?

I am active in three groups.  Each group was carefully cultivated (either by me, or another group member) to include published authors, copy editors, and people who love to read within the particular genre.  My favorites are the people who love the genre because they will tell you right off the bat if you are missing the mark.  Feedback keeps me engaged.  I run for the door when someone asks me to add in some erotica because I can't write that without laughing.

6. What can a critique group/partner offer that a writer can’t accomplish on her/his own?
Critique groups and partners offer honest, objective opinions in a safe environment.  I can't speak for anyone else, but my greatest fear in publishing is that my manuscript is the one the editorial team cracks up over because it is so bad.  I would rather run my work through thirty flesh-stripping critiques, than have one publisher laugh at me.  A friend recently posted that she'd just joined a critique group, and was thoroughly embarrassed by the feedback she'd received, but she was so glad she hadn't sent the book out to a publisher, or agent that way.  Critique groups help you hone your work, and help make you better.  I really can't say enough about how important it is to have someone else read your work.

KM Weiland has a great list of questions for Critique Partners.

What do you like to ask for in CPs?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Writer’s Guide to Black Friday

Shop for those must-have gifts. Get the best deals. Save money. Wear comfortable shoes, stay hydrated and for goodness sake, don’t get trampled. For better or worse, Black Friday is now a staple of the American culture. And sure, I suppose you could spend a perfectly good holiday braving the crowds and trying to find empty parking spaces…your mind focused on getting that list knocked out by noon while you mentally berate yourself for eating leftovers before bed. But if you haven’t discovered the secret world of Black Friday for writers, you’re missing out.

There is nothing better than writing on Black Friday. It’s indulgent. Blissful. Revolutionary, even. There are two main ways for writers to win Black Friday.

Black Friday Secret #1. Stay at home. All that hustle and bustle. All those people standing in lines, wallets ready…while you brew a pot of strong black coffee and curl up on the couch with your laptop. No shoes, no trampling. Less debt. More words. It’s better than extra whipped cream on your favorite kind of pie.

Black Friday Secret #2. Go to a café. Take your laptop or whatever device you use these days for mobile writing, and find a cozy corner in a coffeeshop or café. There will be chaos all around—shoppers losing their minds, babies crying, families chattering about where to go next—but it won’t matter. You won’t care because you’ll be writing, lost in your own little world, the words going down fast on the page.

As these things go, sometimes it’s not that simple. Maybe you can’t stay home or be alone at a café during Black Friday. You’d love to write all day, but for whatever reason, it’s just not possible this year. Never fear.

If you must go to a store on Black Friday—there’s a gaming system on sale that your teenager wants for Christmas, or perhaps it’s a family tradition to hit the stores at five in the morning and you’ll be written out of the will if you don’t participate—all is not lost. Here’s what to do.

Plan B Tip #1. Listen carefully and take notes. Black Friday is prime time for overhearing juicy conversations and studying human behavior. Why? Because of the turkey coma. Thanksgiving’s over but people everywhere still feel the effects of that turkey. Plus, they’re in a tense pressure-cooker of a situation, trying to get the best deal before other customers snatch it out from under them. It’s gold, I tell you. Writing gold.

Plan B Tip #2. Bring a book. Keep it with you at all times and read whenever you want, wherever you want. Offer to keep the car safe from vandals while everyone else shops, then go park directly under one of those elevated police boxes, kick up your feet and read.

Plan B Tip #3. Dress in character. What better way to understand your characters? Of course, this option is not for the faint of heart. In full disclosure, I’ve never done it. It’s one of those things I think about, but don’t have the guts to actually follow through. So if you decide to dress up as one of your characters for Black Friday, please let me know what happens so I can live vicariously through you. And don’t forget to send pics.

Happy Writing, everyone!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Self Publishing and A Literary Agent

"Do you accept self-published books?"

I get this question a lot from authors. The answer, unfortunately, is no. It's not that I have anything against self-published projects, indeed, I've self-published myself. But as a literary agent there are two reasons why I do not consider representing self-published books. The first is a hard simple truth: I probably can't sell it. Most of the bigger publishers are not taking the risks on self-published books as they once were. Even those books that were moderately successful as a self-pub, are harder to find homes for, as the publishers are discovering by the time they reissue the book, it's already peaked. The second reason, which is by far one of the most frustrating and sad scenarios in my line of work is more complicated. Authors self-publish due to a variety of scenarios, many of them good reasons. I self-published because I had a manuscript, my second finished full-length novel, which I had written during my MFA program, turned into my thesis, and subsequently turned into a novel. It had been workshopped heavily, edited by two professors, and generally followed all the "rules" that are required of a polished manuscript. I was feeling pretty confident I could get this one past the gates. 
I sent ANGELUS out to over 75 agents, researching each carefully, following all submission guidelines with a simple and professional query letter. Although I got the usual round of form rejections and no responses, I did get enough positive feedback that I remained hopeful. However, after the fifth or sixth, "I like your writing, I just don't do angels," I realized I was stuck. I had written a book that was within a trope that no one wanted to touch. (Side note, now as an agent, I'm not all that interested in angel books either, the irony.) I sometimes wonder what would have happened if, during my time in my MFA, I had written something different; perhaps I would have found representation. But then again if I had, I probably would have never ended up as an intern at a literary agency to discover I loved being a lit agent as much, if not more so, than being a writer. So after enough feedback telling me my angel-themed book was not going to fly, I self-published. Happy to report it was successful enough that I earned back the money I had spent publishing it, but not much more than that. But I'm glad I did it, so as an agent I understand how hard, how much work, and how emotional the experience is, and I can relate to those authors who approach me with their self-published work. But I also know that 90% of the time they are approaching me because they weren't prepared for the experience nor was their manuscript. They were impatient to get their work out there, they were convinced by the few success stories that are constantly circulated online, they felt they knew better than the industry professionals, they believed that agents and editors were evil cackling creatures bent on never allowing them into the world of publishing. 
Then they threw their book out there, and with bated breath, waited for the sales that never came. So now they are at a conference, or online, reaching out to me because, "they want to take their book to the next level." And it is my heartbreaking job to tell them, how sorry I am, but that it is still up to them. Because I know their book being "not at that level" means it wasn't ready for me pre-publication either, and now it's too late for the traditional route. They have chosen to be the publisher of their own work, which means they have to be the one to take it to the next level, whether it's hiring a cover artist to design a more professional cover, or an editor to revise it, or a proofreader to get rid of errors, or a publicist to help them navigate the market. Self-publishing is exactly what it sounds like, publishing by self. Alone. And it is one of the hardest things you can do. So think carefully before you self-publish, and make sure your reasons are not for fame and fortune, and be prepared for a lot of work. That's not to say it won't be successful, or that you won't find that unicorn agent/publisher that would be willing to work with it post-publication. But it won't be me. And yet, if I can give a little advice and hope, if you are not cut out to take your self-pub to that "next level," then move on, shelve that book, let it sit online, or better yet, take it down. Because your story isn't over, you are still an author. Write a new book, and using your newfound experience, make that book the best you can. Send it out to agents utilizing the hard-learned lessons to show them you understand the industry and writing from a professional viewpoint. Keep on fighting for your writing.
And for those of you who are curious, yes ANGELUS is still available as an eBook, still selling more or less, but I have moved on, writing and publishing short stories, novellas, and working on a new novel. I'd like to release a paperback version of it again, but it needs a redesign. I'd also like to finish and self-publish the rest of the series, you know, in all that spare time I have as a literary agent. Doing these things would certainly revitalize sales. But I have other priorities currently, and sadly as I am the publisher, it's up to me to find the energy. However, I have no illusions that anyone else will discover it and do it for me. So I'll keep fighting for it. Eventually.

Interested in reading ANGELUS? Go here.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Life After Blogging

I recognize the irony of writing a blog post to talk about how I'm going to be blogging less.

I do.

But...I'm going to write this anyway, despite the self-consciousness inherent in public proclamations. It's uncomfortable, but I'll deal.

"And From Here Onward, I Will Be Doing Thus And So"

Yeah, whatever. Just get on with it already. And I will get on with my revised approach to blogging   just as soon as I take a couple minutes to explain why.

I've been blogging more-or-less consistently for six years, and overall, it's fun. I like it. I mean, some days it's like pulling teeth, but capturing my thoughts on a subject and condensing them to 500 - 1000 words is a good exercise.

And when people read and respond, it's golden!

So why do I want to do less of something I obviously enjoy? Because I'm primarily a fiction writer, not a blogger, and if I'm going to be writing 500 - 1000 words on a regular basis, I'd like to be working on books, not blog posts.

There are only so many hours in a day.

Blogging was my way of easing myself into writing fiction. Back in 2009 - 2010 I had a couple of blogs I posted to infrequently, and as far as I could tell, no one read them but me. They got me writing, and more importantly, they got me used to the idea that others might read my writing, so they served their purpose.

My first novella was published in 2012, and to help promote it I took a blogging class with Kristen Lamb. I learned a ton from her and made some long-standing friends in that class. Kristen teaches her students to build their audience by blogging regularly about the things they're passionate about. Over the last few years I've tried to follow that model, but it's a challenge.

At the end of last year, my blogging energy was low, but I renewed my commitment by developing a business plan (jump HERE to check it out). I started  posting to my blogger site several times a week as part of my strategy to broaden my social media reach. In addition, I'm part of two group blogs, here with the RelentlessWriters and with the SpellboundScribes so I had plenty of opportunity to throw my words up on the interwebs and let people know I'm here.

Since I'm passionate about all things writing, I did opinion pieces, discussed craft, wrote book reviews, and serialized a couple short stories. My blog was linked to Triberr, and when I published a post there'd be 30-40 other bloggers who'd tweet the link. So yay! My brand was getting out there, but despite some success, again my enthusiasm sputtered.

Actually, the sputtering started after King Stud came out. See, I love that book, and I'm absolutely pleased and excited by everyone who bought a copy. It's just that there weren't very many of you. The reviews were solid, the cover art rocks, and I was blogging my butt off to support it, but not getting a whole lot of return.

I had a new publisher, Evernight, and the authors' group enthusiastically supports each other, so I started posting new release promos from other authors. As much as I love spreading the news when my friends have new releases, I started to feel like my blog was mostly about advertising, and not about ME.

And really, it's all about ME.

Maybe? Yeah, no. It's not all about me, but when it came down to it, I felt like my efforts were contributing a lot of noise without saying very much. At the same time, I've noticed that the writers I admire most only blog when they have something to say. They don't apologize for posting infrequently, either. Their best  posts are framed as "this caught my attention and this is what I think about it". And then they write something really good.

Sorry I forgot my blog again!
There may be some writers who've found success with the blogsalot strategy, but it's not working for me. I don't know if the problem is consistency or quality or maybe it's my expectations. At any rate, the framework I built my business plan around was plan-do-check-act, which gives me the flexibility to try something new if I'm not meeting my goals.

For the next few months, at least, I'm only going to blog when I have something to say, and I'm not going to feel bad about it. I'm going to focus on writing and improving my craft. I'll honor my group blog commitments, and I'll blog to support my upcoming releases, but I've disconnected from Triberr and I'm not going to stack promo posts.

I do feel a little guilty (eldest child of an Irish-Catholic family and all) but overall I'm relieved. I've got two upcoming releases - Home for the Holidays, a benefit anthology supporting the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth in NYC, and The Secret of Obedience, an m/m novella that'll be out at the end of the month from Evernight so I'll be busy with promotion and working on my next project.

I also recently started a mailing list, figuring that would be a way of letting interested people know what Liv Rancourt is up to. Jump HERE if you'd like to sign up. (No spam, I promise! Just excerpts and freebies and giveaways!) Again, it's about flexibility. I'm going to keep trying new ideas till I find something that clicks.

What works for you? Blogging? Facebook? Twitter? Leave me a comment so I can steal your ideas. (lol!)

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Next BIG Thing

"A hero knows it takes hard work and a long time to get published; a fool thinks it should happen immediately, because he thinks he's a hero already.

A hero learns the craft; a fool doesn't think there's much to learn.

A hero keeps growing all his writing life; a fool thinks he's fully grown already.

A hero fights to make his writing worthy, even when no one's noticing; a fool demands to be noticed all the time, even if his writing stinks.

A hero is persistent and a professional; a fool is insistent and annoying.

A hero gets knocked down and quietly regroups to write again; a fool gets knocked down and whines about it ever after.

A hero makes his luck; a fool cries about how unlucky he is.

A hero recognizes the worth in others; a fool can't believe others are worth more than he.

A hero keeps writing, no matter what, knowing effort is its own reward; a fool eventually quits and complains that the world is unfair.

Be a hero." -James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers
Gilmore Girls

NaNoWriMo is upon us. For many that means plucking away with a group of like-minded individuals, in whatever space of time we can manage to free up to hit that 50,000 word goal. Many published novels have come from NaNo origins. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for one. I don't know about you, but when I go into NaNo, I wonder just what I'll write. I'm not a plotter, so most of the writing I do during NaNo is pantsing. I enjoy envisioning a character and letting the words fly. Is it harder to clean up the words afterward? Sometimes. But at least the words are down.

Recently, I've heard a lot of discouraging chatter from one of my writers groups. Some wonder how the effort will ever be worth it if they don't come out the next big thing. THE NEXT BIG THING. They want to be the next JK Rowling, the next Stephenie Meyer, the next Stephen King. That's the only goal that they can see.

They won't be The Next Big Thing. I won't be The Next Big Thing.

Okay, never say never. They could. I could. It's always a possibility. The problem with their kind of thinking is that it's discouraging. Big Things happen because they were at the right place in the market at the right time in the market with the right agent and editor. Do you realize how many stars have to align for something like that to happen?
Lindsey Stirling, Stars Align

My son is nine years old, and the oldest. He was born 5 weeks early and was only 3lbs 3oz. I had to have an emergency c-section because I would have contractions and sleep through them, but his heart rate would drop from 160 to 90 every time. We were blessed. He didn't have any health problems other than needing a feeding tube for several weeks. He is small. He will be small until that one growth spurt hits and he shoots up to the stars. The other day I caught him and his 6-year-old sister trying to see who was taller with the help of their 5-year-old sister.

The inevitable happened. His sister has grown taller than he is. We knew this would happen. His pediatrician informed us the first time he saw our 3lb bundle of joy. Preemies struggle to catch up sometimes and one day he will shoot up. The Dr. has seen it happen a million times. Both of his sister's were born at 6 lbs 13 oz and 6lbs 8oz. They had a better chance of being bigger faster than he did. My son was upset. Why is his sister taller than he is? Why is she stronger than he is? I sat him down. I asked him what he thought the world would be like if everyone were the same height and strength? He said everyone would be like daddy. I asked him what he could do that his sister couldn't. He told me that he could build portals in Minecraft (yes, our world currently revolves around Minecraft).

So, I put things in Minecraft terms. I asked him,  "What if no one could build portals? What if they could only build houses?"

He thought on this for a few minutes. I don't know the importance of portals in Minecraft, I've never played, but this seemed to be a big deal to him. He replied, "That would be boring. No one would be able to create anything."

I told him to continue to be a creator. Height and strength would come later, but creativity could never be replaced. He's since taken to drawing and creating more things on Minecraft. Apparently kissing cats creates babies. Who knew.

There will never be another writer like you. Stop trying to be The Next Big Thing. Focus on your writing, your style. Read what you love, write what you love and do your best to learn and grow. Learn from those authors you adore. Cultivate a career. Suzanne Collins had published the Underland Chronicles before The Hunger Games came out. Not every book your write is going to be a Big Thing. But every book you write could be a career. Continue to write because every time you do, your skills improve.

Be a squire struggling to prove himself a knight.
Heath Ledger, A Knight's Tale
Run with velociraptors.
Jurassic World

Be a hobbit struggling to make their way to Mount Doom. Be you. No one will ever know the formula for a Big Thing. No one can predict what will take off and earn millions. It isn't possible. But you can focus your energy on writing the best novel you possibly can. And who knows. Maybe the stars will align.
Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings

Thursday, November 5, 2015

No No NaNo

Go ahead, Olivia. Admit it. @NaNoWriMo’s a bust. Today is Day Five and already you are four days behind.

The problem? I can’t seem to summon the oomph to take the leap forward, to write the second half of Book Two until Book One rewrites are complete.


This was NOT the plan, but the more I lean in to the (overly-optimistic) @NaNoWriMo plan – to complete beta edits/rewrites on Book One, then pound out the second half of Book Two – the harder it is to comply. Hell. The harder it is to even get NEAR my laptop. And the more frightening the scope of my story becomes.

What to do? What to do?

The logical? Remove the NaNo chains, forge ahead with Book One rewrites, then tackle Book Two with whatever month is left.

The star-reacher? Keep the NaNo commitment, forge ahead with Book One, then continue on with Book Two, driving myself in front of the NaNo whip to pound out 50K words in whatever time is left.

I could do this. Time-wise, I could. But my muse (and apparently the stars) are not on board. I’m not feeling it. Writing is torturous. Plodding. One paragraph at a time. The joy is gone. I want to see a movie. Go shopping. Anything to avoid both manuscripts.

So now what?

I've been writing long enough to know the answer. Whether I like it or not, I must give in to the muse. Without her, this writer is nothing. Without her, the story languishes. So “logical” it is.

To wit: I hereby (unofficially) remove the NaNo chains and give my muse free rein to do as she will. AND in that vein, I will keep showing up to Book One rewrites until more is revealed.

~ Olivia J. Herrell

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A day in the life of a writer...

So it's time for NaNoWriMo, that annual event where something on the order of 300,000 writers set themselves the goal of completing a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.

300,000 writers, but I'm not one of them.

I'm tempted, but in the five years since I've been writing more-or-less seriously, it always seems like I've got a big revision project planned for November, rather than drafting something new. I'm a great #NaNo cheerleader, though!

One of the other Relentless Writers was on our Facebook page looking for writing companionship this morning, and my comment was a laundry list of all the reasons I wouldn't be writing today. Which got me thinking about all the things that go into being a working writer, the things that DON'T involve putting words on the page.

With that in mind, here's my to-do list for today...

Quick background...Here at Chez Rancourt we're in the middle of a major remodel, and this week we're having the hardwoods on the main floor refinished. I'm typing this on my son's gaming desktop in the basement, my lovely king-sized Sleep Number bed is set up a couple feet behind me, and the whole place is vibrating with the sound of heavy machinery. Granted, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event (I HOPE!), but it does illustrate how you sometimes have to fit your passion in and around real life...

0400 - I'm awake because my brain hasn't made the leap to standard time. I check my phone - yes, I'm one of those freaks - and see there's a message from a free-lance editor I've been trying to contact. Yay! I lay back down and try to get more sleep, but end up reading the book I've agreed to review.

0600 - The son's alarm goes off. He's in the guest room so I hear it and get up. He just turned sixteen and he's getting ready for his driving test, which means I get to ride in the passenger seat while he drives to school. Riding in the rain at rush hour with a teen driver is not for the faint of heart, however I do appreciate the fact that it's daylight. Thank you, time change. Before we leave the house I reply to the editor, and on the way to school she emails me back. That project moves a step further.

0800 - After dropping the kid off, I drive across town to our veterinarian's office, where Ed the puppy is going to have his manhood revised. Sorry Ed. I get there early and coax the little dude into a kennel, then do some more reading while I wait for the vet to arrive. She assures me they can manage him so I take off, and right about the time I get home she calls to tell me he's freaking out and won't let them near the kennel. Did I mention he's a feisty German Shepherd? I drive back to the vet's but this time I bring my secret weapon, my oldest kid, the Puppy Whisperer. Within about 12 seconds of our arrival, she's got a muzzle on the puppy and things are back on track. I read - I'm only to about the 40% point and the book releases today - and then take my kid out for breakfast as a reward.

1000 - Back home to write a blog post. I download Gimp to the desktop so I can make a thematically appropriate image for the post, and also so I can work on some teaser promos for one of my two upcoming releases. I've got the edits back on one of the releases, but going through them will take longer than I have right now.

From here I'm going to describe how I think things will happen. This is all subject to change...

1200 - I'll pick the oldest up from her volunteer gig at the feral cat rescue and take her to catch the bus for school. Then I'll go to my BFFs house to wait for the furnace guy to show up, since she has to work today. I'll have my laptop with me, and with any luck I'll make some headway on the edits while I'm waiting.

1400 - I should be back home, and I should be editing. I've gotta get this project turned around, because tomorrow I'll be working the day job and the rest of the week will be complicated by the fact that we're going to have to move to my parents' house while they stain the floors. I've got two day jobs, technically. One's about 3/4 time and the other is per diem, and it seems like the busier I am with writing, the more they want me to work. Because that's how life rolls.

1600 - Pick up the Puppy Whisperer from school so she can come with me bring Ed home. I expect we'll all have a mellow evening huddled together in the basement. At least there won't be heavy machinery operating overhead. I'll finish the review book and maybe poke at some edits or work on some teasers. There's always something to do.

And that's the bottom line. There's always something to do. In the course of the day, I'll have exercised my people-management skills, my editing brain, my (limited) graphics talent, and (arguably) my humor-writing chops. I'll throw in some parenting and - since the husband has the flu - a little nursing on the side. I will also buy toilet paper, because we're out.


But I won't be putting down 1600 words, which is what you need to average daily to make your NaNo goal. Maybe if they ran it in February...

Peace out!

So what about you? Are you doing NaNoWriMo? What's your secret for balancing work and writing and life?