Surviving and Thriving: The Query Competitions

Preparing the Queries and Pitches: My Mad Dash Process
Last March while preparing to start the first draft on my second novel, I heard about Pit Madness, the day-long Twitter pitch aimed at connecting authors with literary agents and publishers. It sounded like a great idea, and edits and revisions were underway for my debut novel, “Hunter Green,” so I wrote a pitch and put it aside for June.

As Pit Madness, or #pitmad, approached (June 4!) I decided to review the rules. In doing so – hey, surprise! – I discovered that both The Writer’s Voice and Query Kombat were both running that very week. The day I checked up on things was the very day TWV was allowing people to become randomly selected for the competition. I assumed that nothing would come of it and decided I needed to look over my query, at least for QK.

I was shocked and pleased to discover I’d won a spot on The Writer’s Voice. Those feelings of joy dissipated as I reviewed an old query I’d written months ago, something jotted down to get some practice on the process. It was terrible. I erased nearly everything and started over.

With little time before my blog entry was due, I had a full work day, tutoring, and freelance work to think about before I could polish my query; there was no time to even run it by a friend. These are competitions people prepare for weeks or even months in advance. I was ill-prepared, with zero workshop experience and only scattered online tips to go by.

Still, I believed in the originality of my idea. After all, I am a writer. I spent what sleepless hours I could improving the query and, at the last possible entry time, posted my submission for TWV. I set a timer so I wouldn’t miss QK and prepared a draft email to send for that competition as well. Tutoring and freelance continued, but I was able to improve the QK query a bit more before hitting send.

With a week to go before I hear anything definite on either query, the waiting game is entirely nerve-wracking. However, this much I think I’ve determined from #QKSlush, an ongoing critique of the queries as they’re read- my query very likely bombed with at least one reviewer.

Lessons Learned and Still Learning
It was a little soul-crushing to see my query go down in flames- at first. I want to emphasize that I’m not 100% sure the comments were actually regarding my submission, but the criticisms were specific enough to make me feel glum. The bulk of submissions for both competitions were young adult, so when I hear someone referring to a “thriller,” it narrows the field somewhat. There are YA thrillers, too, but additional comments gave me pause.

However, I’m putting perspective on things, and I’ve learned some great things from the in-depth commentary that was provided for the title I presume to be mine. I have a clearer idea how I can improve my queries when I send to agents. If it’s hard to tell who the main character is by the end of the query, the onus is on me to explain that this is a dual perspective husband/wife story, and that the MC perspective shifts from husband to wife. The critique mentioned there were too many adverbs. They may be right.

A third and final critique; it was noted that the plot didn’t sound like a thriller, but there’s not much to do about that. On this count I’ll respectfully disagree. If I’m writing cross-genre fiction, I have to go with the best definition I can place, and I felt mine was accurate. It could also be a horror, but I think the thriller aspect is the stronger one. I’ll stand by it.

Now the good news: all of the comments weren’t bad! The person running the critique loved the first sentence and the first paragraph, and if that applies to my query, excellent.

The most important thing to take away from all of this is that even if I don’t “win” either competition, my goal as a writer wasn’t to conquer query competitions (grateful as I am to be in them and awesome as they are!) It’s to become published. Any steps or missteps along the way that I can learn from can only help. I’m very glad I jumped in and I win by improving my query.

No regrets.

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The Writer’s Voice Competition

Plot Summary

HUNTER GREEN is a completed 75,000 word thriller with supernatural and slow burn horror elements. It’s told from the dual perspective of a husband and a wife.

When Professor Philip Reeves dreams, he vanishes. Instead of waking up in his safe, suburban home, he’s sent all over the globe. Helplessness overwhelms him as the almost weekly night-time disappearances threaten his marriage, finances, and career.

Phil’s wife Becky digs deep into his family history and unearths a fairy curse that haunted his ancestors. But the motives of the fairy people can be misleading. Becky suspects the fairies are sending a message through an emerging, unusual destination pattern. While the Reeves try to untangle the fairy’s riddle, their six-year-old daughter Janie develops a deadly imaginary friendship with the Pied Piper. The ghost is stalking the final descendant of the Hamelin children.

Phil and Becky must unravel the fairy curse, find Janie, and stop the Piper from fulfilling his legacy.

I began my writing career as a music journalist for the Flint Journal in 1995. I moved on to write for the National Institutes of Health in 2005. I’m now the social media strategist for one of the Institutes. I received my Bachelor’s in English from the University of Michigan-Flint, where I focused on medieval literature and technical writing.

Like Philip, I’m a father with a young son. When I’m not writing, I’m learning jiu-jitsu, playing board games, hiking- I do this a lot and it helps me with outdoor scenes.

First 250

Philip sat up sharply. His temple slammed into the slat of an upper bunk.

“God-” He stopped short of blasphemy. He immediately grabbed at his head, trying to mute the pain.

Wooden slats shouldn’t have been there. He felt panic bubbling in his chest and fought to stamp it down. The bed didn’t feel right, he thought, as his head ached. He struggled to shake off a night’s worth of grogginess and sour dreams. His hand hadn’t been resting on his wife’s hip or the dip in her side as it should be. Becky should be there. As he lay back down, he realized the mattress was too thin to be his own, and the unfamiliar pillow weakly cradling his head housed a reminder of someone else’s cigarettes. In the pale, morning light, he saw that a threadbare bed sheet had gotten tangled up in his legs.

Inhaling slowly, exhaling with forced control, Phil set his mind to analyzing the problem. For starters, he was fully dressed. That much was good. In most situations, waking up fully clothed would be even more alarming. For most people, it would mean they’d blacked out the night before, leaving a wake of destruction behind drug or drink-fueled adventures. That didn’t describe Phil. He’d gone to his very sensible suburban bed dressed for this night’s potential event. It was the third time this had happened to him in two weeks, and he was officially over it.

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Four questions for writers

I was asked to jump into this meme and now I’m going to thanks to Allison Thurman. I’ll return to edit this tomorrow- I need to ask a couple of writers if they’d like to do the same, and then I’ll tag them and keep it going.

Please note I’m writing without air con on a hot evening when I’m tired so… don’t nit-pick the sloppy style, fellow writers. I’m just writing my thoughts off the top of my head, not trying to paint a picture.

What are you currently working on?

I’m developing a novel focused on the loss and rediscovery of a young woman’s personal identity when she becomes a full-time, professional gamer. The backdrop is a loosely defined, near future setting. The primary characters are largely facets of her online persona.

How does your work differ from others in the genre?

Several of the perspectives shown in the chapters are those of people who don’t exist, only living inside an online construct. My heroine, Julia, is largely addicted to her work and is anchored to our reality by her roommates and sister who emotionally support her while she financially keeps them all afloat. Yet many chapters take place inside her worlds where we find she can’t separate reality from fiction.

Of course- while all of her personas are nothing more than the characters she’s invented to cope with reality, even herself Julia is a fictional character I’m writing about.

Why do you write what you do?

The story has been something I’ve thought about for about ten years, but it didn’t really flow the first time. I think I became too caught up in the techy sci-fi research aspect of the story and stopped being driven by the characters. In this tale, there’s more urgency. Inside Julia’s world’s she’s living a Walter Mitty fantasy that’s rocketed her to fame and keeps the cashflow going. Though she cares about her ratings, she cares equally about her sister in the real world and her other sister in a medieval online world. The only way she can keep her emotional connections in check is to put up walls in her mind, and that is going to come back to haunt her fairly quickly.

But to be honest, most of the internal drama has come about organically. I’m definitely pantsing the writing and that’s been a good decision for me. The characters feel like they are better realized by themselves as events present themselves than if I were to orchestrate them.

How does your writing process work?

I have a rough outline in my mind of what I want to see happen, then I write. I research on the fly, then fill in gaps during a second chapter rewrite. I consider each chapter- which I’m calling episodes- to be finite goals. While the story may carry over to a future chapter and require resolution, I prefer to wind the characters up, set them on the stage, and watch what happens when they bump into each other. If anything feels even slightly stilted, I mark it up and and resolve to clean it up.

Chapters needn’t be perfect, but they do need to feel complete before I move on. Consequently, I find I’m writing each chapter as its own project. When one is finished, I’m not in a hurry to start writing the next.

I like long, uninterupted writing periods with good music to keep my mind focused.

If I finish it, this will be my first completed novel in my own name. I’ve ghostwritten four serials that are the equivalent of a novel. That process convinced me it could be done.

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A Slacktivist’s Guide to Effective Communication

Or “So you just watched the KONY 2012 video”

Shawn Humphrey

I did too, and may I add- good for you! I’m going to share some of my social media and communications wisdom with those of you who are all charged up and, to a lesser degree, the justifiable anti-slacktivism skeptics out there who read this for entertainment purposes. I’ll use a Q&A format to make this easier to read.

(Note: This is not a take-down or endorsement of Invisible Children. We agree something must be done, but I disagree on the how part. They’re to be congratulated for getting the conversation started globally.)

What’s slacktivism?

The pressing of an online button to share a link or email spam your friends. The action is believed to have little to no effect in making a difference on any given cause. It’s a derisive term.

Is slacktivism worthless?

Only if you believe the instantaneous sharing of potentially life-affecting or life-saving information is useless, in which case you’re reading this in the wrong medium. However, being ill-informed on the subject you say you support and spamming people with information doesn’t have a lot of value since it causes people to tune out.

How can it be effective?

Sharing information is most effective when you have a clear communications goal. I recommend one of two focuses; you should first inform from a place of authority and you should then provide a call to action.

How can I be considered a recognized authority?

If you’re a recognized authority on a subject- that is, if you have clearly read up on the issues and can converse as readily about the topic on the phone as you can with Wikipedia to back you up, you may be an authority in your audience’s eyes. In the social media age, you don’t necessarily have to have a degree, though as always, it helps if that’s your primary career or educational focus; having something on your resume always carries more weight. You should be well aware of what those who oppose your view think and be prepared to counter that argument. You should have read material from good sources, primary sources whenever possible. It’s often good to be level-headed and concise.

What’s a call to action?

Petitions are usually a form of call to action. Painting houses, going on a march, feeding the homeless are all forms of action. Spreading the word is another, though that has limited value if “awareness” doesn’t result in some secondary activity. One of the most effective for a situation like that described in “KONY 2012”, in my opinion, is good-old fashioned letter writing. Anyone can fill out a pre-written email or sign a petition. It takes thought and passion to write a letter on paper. I’ve heard that legislative aides give 25 hand-written letters more weight than dozens of emails.

What should we make of “KONY 2012”?

I don’t know, to be honest. I am versed on the subject of the LRA and I support one of Invisible Children’s partners, the Enough Project. But I’m skeptical of giving money to a charity for wristbands, stickers and posters. Couldn’t that money be better focused on building early warning systems for communities at risk from the LRA? (Note: Later research found that IC does partner to support this exact system.)

How could we stop Joseph Kony and the LRA?

If you’ve seen the second half of “Che” and how they got him, tightening the noose does work against small insurgencies. I don’t think bolstering and arming the Ugandan Army will work for two reasons; the LRA largely operates in Central African Republic, South Sudan, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda shouldn’t be crossing borders to take on militias. Secondly, Uganda is not a free country (see Freedom House 2012 report) and has a fairly robust military largely deployed in Somalia. Over focusing poor African nations on military expenditures is a bad practice that helps entrench dictatorships such as that of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and it encourages bad governance, that is, corruption and a dearth of social services.

For something like this, the countries in question would probably be best served to receive a combination of UN Security Forces – those can be tricky too – a beefed up early warning system for communities at risk from the LRA, a dedicated focus from the global community to improve infrastructure so that remote areas become less remote, and tightened, less porous border crossings.

Why should anyone even care about any of this?

Beyond humanitarian concerns, unchecked, long-running militia and insurgent activities destabilize countries and in places like Africa help to breed poverty, extremism, disease, and bad governance practices. We are not untouched by what happens in Africa, just as we will never be an island from bad things that happen anywhere in the world. One may question the value of intervention given that it can have unforseen consequences. However, an informed decision made in the face of clearly unacceptable conditions such as the Syrian massacres, the activites of Boko Haram in Nigeria, or the lawlessness in Somalia is essential and should be everyone’s business. On one level, we have some vested self-interest. On the other, it’s just the right thing to do.

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London Whinging

I found out some years after visiting London that my family emigrated from Croydon, a working class suburb south of the city. I’d like to see it some time, presuming it isn’t burned to the ground.

Today we’ll be talking about two cities- Croydon, England and Hama, Syria. I’ve heard the troubles in these two places compared recently, though the comparison (in terms of civil disobedience, not cities) is really between a slug and a phoenix.

Like the London neighborhoods of Tottenham, Ealing, and Clapham Junction as well as Nottingham, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool, Croydon saw riots and looting this weekend, sparked by the shooting of a young man in Tottenham on Saturday by the police. Many of the places where the violence began are poor, ethnically diverse, and are beginning to feel the affects of austerity measures instituted under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. There’s also a great deal of anger over perceived racial profiling and accusations of police brutality.

If there are injustices, and I certainly don’t dispute them, they’ve been silenced by people victimizing their neighbors.

I guess I’m over this idea of “rioting”. Not that I’ve ever done so, but I respect the idea that people need to have a voice, need to speak out against injustice, and must make themselves heard by those in power. I’m all for that- but somehow I don’t think this latest episode is about that and I believe there are things people can and should do to make themselves heard, like peaceful demonstration. This isn’t what we’re seeing, though. It’s really, if we’re honest, about “getting mine.”

As happened in France in 2005, there will be a political crisis and the politician who demonstrates the most backbone will be the one who profits most (this is where Sarkozy really rose to prominence). The point that young, suburban, marginalized youth had unequal access to employment in France, something I’ve seen first-hand, was utterly lost in the chaos. It will be here too.

Then there’s Hama.

We don’t know many facts about Hama, Syria, because the government has shut down all access to the city. Citizens there and across Syria, as they did across the Middle East and Africa, stood up to bullying through peaceful demonstrations. In return, they’ve been fired at by snipers and tanks.

The atrocities being committed in Syria are so severe Russia was moved to actually allow a statement to be made against President Bashar al-Assad. I know- a statement of condemnation, wow! But having the U. N. Security Council condemn you, and to have the King of Saudi Arabia also follow on with his own demands that you must stop (the Sauds, mind you, were the ones who gave American allies Bahrain the tanks to crush their Arab Spring) is a bit embarrassing to the say the least. The struggle for the regime to survive puts Assad and his ilk on common ground with Gaddafi, a pariah.

While it is too early to say with any certainty, the ICC may eventually put out a warrant against a non-African warlord or leader for once as a result of his actions against his fellow citizens. That won’t likely result in an arrest, but it will isolate Syria’s leadership more and firmly puts them in the camp of Sudan, Libya, and self-imposed isolationists Burma, North Korea, and Eritrea. This is not good company to keep, and the Syrian people and even the rank and file military may eventually best their disgusting leadership.

There is tremendous anger here in America as well at our political leadership for their collective idiocy in endangering the economy. I am sure if you asked a Syrian, or a Bahraini, or a Libyan, if they’d prefer the status quo to the opportunity to vote for mediocre leaders, they’d still choose democracy. A working democracy, one that isn’t window-dressing, reflects the decisions of the people, and poor leadership is, unfortunately, a reflection on the electorate. We have no one to blame but ourselves for our predicament, and that’s as it should be.

The youth in London have a choice. Clearly, one choice is to steal trainers and TVs. Another would be to organize, demonstrate, and take back the government so it is reflective of their views.

To end on an encouraging note, plenty of people in Clapham Junction, at least, were out to try to take their city back. Let’s hope there are enough brooms to sweep away the idiocy that allowed this to happen too, roots of the problem and all.

Plenty of brooms to get the job done.

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