Monday, March 29, 2010

Courtney Milan Spends the Day with the Eight... and You

The Rockville Eight is pleased to host 2010 RWA® RITA® Finalist Courtney Milan as our guest blogger for March's Last Monday of the Month.

Courtney earned RITA's nod this year with her novella, "This Wicked Gift," featured in The Heart of Christmas. Her debut historical romance, Proof by Seduction, is in stores now. For more with Courtney, visit her website,

Right now, though, she's all ours... and yours. The Heart of Christmas and Proof by Seduction can be yours, too. Courtney will pop in throughout the day to chat – and she'll select one commenter to win a copy of both books – so keep those comments coming!

And now, take it away, Courtney...


We've all heard the horror story about the person who sells and then discovers they are so busy writing books that they don't have time to do promotion. I have to admit, the person who tells this story is usually someone who sells promotional services. But honestly, I think this is an urban legend, and I think that people can focus to much on promotion before publication. I have not met a single published author who discovered that she did not have time to do promotion, if she started taking care of things when her book sold. (Promotion can take lots of time--but the vast majority of it is not things that you can frontload prior to publication. For instance, I spent 5 hours this morning working on new bookmarks--but you can't make bookmarks until you have a book cover.)

I did worry about promotion before publication, though--I worried about it a lot. And in my mind, I spent too much time and money on it.

So, here's how I see things:

1. Do the free stuff now. Start a facebook page (but please, dear God, do not ask all your friends to be fans.) Get a blog--most are free. (And if you enjoy blogging, blogging can be good practice writing on a schedule--just make sure that it's not cutting into book-writing time!) If you want, find a place with cheap hosting and put up a wordpress site, using a free template. When you publish, you can get someone to design it--just make sure that you're on the ball about that, because good web designers have a backlog (this is the only place where people get in trouble, I think: failing to realize that good web designers have 6 month to 1 year backlogs, and so you need to get on their schedule as soon as you've accepted an offer of publication). But don't freak out about any of this. Some bestselling authors use nothing more than a free blog as their entire web presence, even after they are published. See, for instance, Kristin Cashore. Her first two books hit the NYT list in hardcover; her debut novel, now available in paperback, has been sitting on the NYT children's list for 21 weeks. Her web presence is a free blog--and she writes YA books, and young adult readers are more likely to want to interact with the author online.

2. Get cheap business cards. Vistaprint is great for unpublished authors. You'll find that you adjust your card based on the book you're writing, so 100 of them is all you need. I bought business cards in the 1000s, printing my book on the back, and paid lots of money for them. I gave out about 10 of them.

3. The only thing that I think you do have to spend money on now is this: if you know the name you will be using (for instance, because it is your own), or if you think you know the pseudonym you want, buy your own domain name. They are cheap ($9.95 a year) and it's better to have it than not--it sucks to be known on the contest circuit or by your free blog by one name, only to discover that the name is unavailable. You want to be able to get, and it's cheap to lock it in.

4. Other than that, I believe in the cheap. Do not buy personalized stationary. You don't need it. Nobody will think less of you for using the regular old letter paper from Office Depot. It's true that you should dress for the job that you have, but authors wear yoga pants. Act professionally, and use clean paper (and don't use blinking graphics on your website) and you will be just fine.So where should you spend your money, if you are burning to spend it? Spend it on conferences--networking and meeting authors who might introduce you to agents and editors will help more than personalized stationary. You'll also get to know people who may one day provide blurbs for your debut novel, and that's always a good thing! I got some great mileage from author critiques that I won from contests, and Brenda Novak's Diabetes Auction has a huge number of author critiques available.

It is really easy to fall prey to the notion of sympathetic magic: that if you spend a lot of time or money on something, that it must help. There is so much uncertainty in the publishing world, and so little that authors can control, that we look for anything to think "if I do that, I will get published." But it is simply not true that a pretty website or personalized professionally printed stationary will help you get published. If you write a good book, and carry yourself as a professional, you're doing enough promotion.

But speaking of promotion: I have a novella that just finaled in the RITA. One commenter will get a copy of both my novella and my debut novel, PROOF BY SEDUCTION. Who wants it?

Monday, March 22, 2010

When Agents Call... Or the Art of the Phone Call Rejection

I know the most discouraging word in the English language. If you’re a writer, you know it, too. What is it? Shh! Don’t say it out loud. I’ll type it for you. Ready? Here it is: Rejection.

Rejections are the necessary evil of our profession. Of course, you can learn a lot about your writing from one. But I believe you can learn something more – especially from the best kind of rejection.

“What?” you say. “Rejections are all alike. They all mean no!”

You are so right. But not entirely. Sure, a rejection means your manuscript isn’t going to find a home with that particular editor or agent. However, a rejection can benefit your craft. More than that, though, it can benefit your career – especially if that rejection is a Phone Call Rejection.

If you’ve ever written a manuscript, polished it, described it in a query letter, and sent that query to an editor or agent, chances are your first brush with rejection didn’t involve a phone call. You received a Form Rejection. You know the one. It’s the letter or e-mail that began “Dear Author” and ended with “All the best...”

The Form Rejection is a good rejection. After all, it gets the job done. But you can’t glean a lot of useful information from it. Is this agent rejecting because she thinks your writing is flawed? Or does she simply have a full client list? You’ll never know from the Form Rejection. But keep writing and keep querying. Snag some requests. Because with those requests come a better kind of rejection – the Personalized Rejection.

In the Personalized Rejection, the editor or agent has been extremely kind. Though she hasn’t been paid for her time, she’s outlined a few comments about your work and sent them to you. She’s noted your strengths. More importantly, she’s highlighted a couple problems. A Personalized Rejection can be extremely helpful.

But the Phone Call Rejection can be more helpful still.

Because a Phone Call Rejection can be about more than just your writing.

In the relatively short time I’ve been querying, I’ve had the good fortune to receive Phone Call Rejections. When an editor or agent calls me, the first thing I do is pick myself up from the floor. The second thing I do is take notes. I jot down every bit of her critique. But the most important thing I can do is listen, because before this phone call, I only knew this publishing professional on paper. Naturally, she looks great in black and white. Her project list and her sales record are dazzling. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have queried her. But the Phone Call Rejection can breathe life into that profile.

And that can breathe life into your career.

So as you chat with this editor or agent, ask yourself...

Does she see your work in the same vein you do?
Her suggestion to add drunken werewolf zombies to your sweet, inspirational romance may mean she firmly believes you have the talent and skill to write outside the box and excel in the marketplace. Having an editor or agent who encourages you to step outside your comfort zone, and backs you with her abilities, can be a real asset. However, she may be trying to force you into a mold that doesn’t fit you, but that produces a product she’s used to selling. Finding an editor or agent who shares your goals is the key to a successful long-term working relationship.

Is she tactful?
Certainly, you’ll want an agent or editor who will tell you the truth. But the agent who is gruff with you may be gruff with editors. Alienated editors probably won’t be eager to work with her – or her clients. Perhaps you’d be better off removing her from your query list, despite her excellent sales statistics. After all, you want other publishing professionals to welcome your work, not to kill the messenger carrying it. You’ll come out ahead by recognizing this early on.

Is she presenting you with an opportunity?
Though she’s rejecting this project, she may invite you to revise this piece and resubmit it to her. Or, she may indicate she likes your style, though she doesn’t hold out much hope for this story. If that’s the case, she may be open to your sending her something new in the future. Either way, you’re in a better position than you were before – and that can take some of the sting out of the rejection.

Last but not least, keep in mind she’s forming impressions of you, too. Did you argue with her when she said your villain needed stronger motivation? She probably won’t look forward to talking to you again. Or did you thank her for her suggestions? To her, it’ll matter for next time. Because, chances are, if she’s given you a Phone Call Rejection, there will be a next time. And the next time won’t just be about your craft, or even your latest manuscript. It probably won’t be about rejection either. It’ll be about your career.

In the meantime, let the Eight know... What qualities are you looking for in an agent or editor?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In the Game

If RWA were a contact sport, making the finals of the Golden Heart Contest would be like making it to the playoffs.

On March 25th, I find out whether or not I made it to the playoffs.

Part of me, the very cynical part of me, is absolutely positive that I will. But that's got nothing to do with the writing.

My youngest is expecting her first child—and my first grandchild—right smack dab in the middle of the big RWA conference in July. Which means this will be the first RWA conference in six years that I'm going to miss. And since that's where they announce the Golden Heart awards, I'm virtually guaranteed to win. If you follow my logic.

Of course, the less cynical, and far less confident part of me, has no idea what my chances are of making the finals.

But I do know this: I'm in the game.

I finished writing the book and I entered it in the contest.

I showed up. I suited up. And I got in the game.

Now, this isn't my first time entering the Golden Heart. In fact, it's my fourth time. But it's the first time I feel competitive about it. It's the first time I really, truly feel like "I left it all on the field." Because this book is my best work yet.

And I want to win.

I want it bad.

Maybe I'm not supposed to say that out loud. As one of the Rockville 8 said recently, you're supposed to play it cool. You're not supposed to look like you care. But I don't understand that. There's no shame in losing, just heartbreak. And if I don't get a call on the 25th, I'm telling you now, my heart will break.

Luckily, I'm not the only GH contestant in the Rockville 8. There are five of us, in five different categories. And whether we win or lose, we'll be meeting the night of the 25th to celebrate.

Because writing is our dream.

And we got in the game.

As far as I'm concerned, that makes all of us winners.

Clear eyes.

Full hearts.

Can't lose . . .

(Images from the television series, Friday Night Lights)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Controlling the Silent Notes

Have you had one of these days at work recently? A day with a full desk, a dozen ongoing tasks, at least 3 immediate ones, access to email, jefe leaning over your shoulder, and the attention span of a three-month old golden retriever combined with the energy level of your average possum? Classic symptoms of adult-onset attention deficit inactivity disorder - ADID.

Yes. This was me on Friday. Currently, my office is whichever fine dining or drinking establishment that comes equipped with outlets and wifi. This allows me to move about and get refills, look at sale merchandise, or perhaps order another orange scone. And my current task - this combines the dozen ongoing and the three immediate - is to fill in 20 thousand blanks.

Each blank, of course, is a word. A word that must be plucked out of thin air (or as Dr. Galvin insisted, my collective past) and placed carefully on the page. Of course, there will surely be the requisite thes, ands, hes and mobiles, plus a smattering of queridas and Dios' (sometimes accompanying madre de). There will be phrases like "golden eyes gone molten" and "with shaking hands." Easy-peasy, some would say. They are the same ones who exclaimed how on earth I could possibly write a novel "complete with character arcs" with only 50 thousand words. As though that weren't enough to get the characters across a street let alone to evolve. Of course, right then, on Friday, I almost wanted to throw in a scene or two of them walking back and forth across some street or boulevard because I couldn't find the next sentence that would move the story forward.

I sat there, staring up into Saint-Exupery's cluttered atmosphere and wondered how I could possibly make that chaos into not only coherent sentences, but satisfying scenes that culminated into a happily ever after. (HEA, for those in the know.) Because much is dependent on that HEA. You may even feel a little pitty for the 20K blanks for having so much riding on them. The reader's satisfaction and trust. The writer's ability to pay rent. The editor's trust in the writer...

Last night, I attended a Berta Rojas concert, a classical guitarist from Paraguay. It was extraordinary. Amazing. Before Rojas performed each piece, she would first still the strings. Because if she didn't, they would hum, softly. And that hum is not part of the song. Maybe only she could feel them as she held the guitar, but as soon as she stilled them, the air became silent.

She would begin each song with a silent guitar and end each song with a note's full vibration. When she finished and struck the final note, she allowed it to continue and continue, and her face and her body would curl into her instrument and I would want to shout Is that it? because the anticipation was too much and I didn't know if I should clap or breathe or listen harder. I had to wait for her to raise her head because even if I could no longer hear the note, Berta could still feel its vibration and until it was completely silent, the song had not yet ended.

When I look at those 20K blanks in my immediate future, I feel as though the page is humming. I am past the mid-point of my novel, the stakes have continued to rise, and my characters need to be twisted even tighter so that the climax will carry the reader straight through to anticipating my next book. I think my ADID has stymied my ability to differentiate between the need to simply lay my hand across a page and silence the past whispers or find the actual thread of my last note and coax it into an audible sound. I realized, listening to Berta Rojas play, that like her and her guitar, I am the only one in control of my pages; I can silence them or fill them with words. Or I can get up and get another refill of Pepsi.

What do you do when you find yourself in this place - of knowing that you are the only available to complete the task, that you actually can complete it, but are immobilized by what is riding on its outcome?