Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Go Wolf Pack sistah!

Today, I’m bursting with pride.

That’s unfortunate, since I just mopped the floor.

Nevertheless, I’m thrilled to gush about the fact that one of my agency sistahs has a book hitting shelves today. PARANORMALCY is the debut novel from Kiersten White, and if you believe our agent, the reviewers, and pretty much everyone who’s read this book, it is the best thing since shirtless construction workers.

What I love about being represented by Wolfson Literary is the fact that many of Michelle’s clients have formed a sort of kinship. We call ourselves The Wolf Pack, and may or may not be working on a secret handshake.

I feel an added kinship with Kiersten, since I was peeing the first time we spoke.

What? She called me for a reference when she was thinking of signing with Michelle in November 2008, and though I was thrilled to talk with her, I really, really had to go.

I don’t feel so bad, since Kiersten’s son was wailing in the background while we talked. OK, fine – the fussing of an innocent toddler and the piddling of a rude adult are not the same thing. I was quiet, OK? She probably never even knew.

Where were we?

Right. Go buy PARANORMALCY. Support my amazing agency sistah.

Oh, and please tell me I’m not the only one who visits the restroom while talking on the phone. Please?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why I love being a trophy wife

On Friday night, I had a hot date with a guy who’s not my husband.

He’s a handsome, sophisticated, dashing older gentleman, and we enjoyed a fine evening of gourmet food and wine.

The fact that he’s my dad doesn’t make it any less scandalous. On the contrary, I saw several sets of raised eyebrows.

You see, my dad is a retired teacher who spent 30 years at the same school. Pretty much anywhere he goes in Salem, Oregon, there's a chance he'll run into a former student, parent, or colleague.

Since my mom prefers her wine to include the word “cooler,” it’s one of those things my dad and I enjoy together. We enjoy it best of all at the Celebration Oregon, an annual event that includes wines from 50+ wineries and food from 15 chefs.
Taking wine notes.

We’ve been attending for years, and without fail, we always run into someone who knows my dad.

On Saturday night, it was a perky 20-something pouring for one of the wineries.

“Mr. Fenske!” she called. “Hi, Mr. Fenske! Remember me?”

As always, there was a long pause. I could see the wheels turning in my dad’s head. I could see him trying hard to place her – maybe in the back of the classroom in 1999? No, no, maybe third seat from the front the last semester of 1997– did she have braces then?

“It’s Jane,” she announced. “You were my English and Social Studies teacher. I thought you were the best!”

As my dad continued to study her and wait for recognition to dawn, I watched the girl steal a look at me. That’s when I saw the wheels start to turn in her head:

Wait – that’s not his wife. I know that’s not his wife, he had a picture on his desk. Is she the mistress? Oh, man. Maybe I’m not supposed to see this. Or maybe his wife died and he got a younger one. Wow, that’s so sad, but good for him. I mean, a guy deserves to be happy, right?

If I were a nicer person, I’d step in every time this happens and clear the whole thing up by introducing myself as Mr. Fenske’s daughter.

But the fact is, I enjoy this. For all those times my dad went out of his way to embarrass me in middle school by calling me by my nickname in front of my classmates (Buzzard Snot, if you must know) this is payback.

Eventually, we wandered off with our wineglasses in hand. I was already scanning the crowd for the next former student. Just for fun, I reached up with my napkin to dab some barbecue sauce from my dad’s chin.

I’m a considerate sort of trophy wife.

Did you have parents who liked to embarrass you? Has the tide shifted now that you’re older, or are they still yelling across public places to ask if you need to use the bathroom? Please share in the comments.

I’ll be deciding whether my mom has something coming in return for all those early curfews.
Is he my dad, or is he my sugar daddy?

Friday, August 27, 2010

My book club got NUMB from something besides wine

I've been part of the same book club for over 10 years.

We've read some incredible books, and have had the opportunity to talk with a number of authors whose books we've chosen. Sometimes, the author joins us in person (as was the case with Diane Hammond, author of HANNAH'S DREAM) but usually we cluster tipsily around a speakerphone, giddy with excitement at getting to talk with a real, live author.

The author making us giddy last night was Sean Ferrell, debut author of NUMB. According to him, he phoned us from the floor of a bus station and wasn't wearing any pants.

According to us, we're all Swedish swimsuit models dressed for the occasion in fur bikinis with lion tails sewn to the back.

It's possible some of us were lying. Certainly Sean has a talent for storytelling, if NUMB is any indication.

Here's what the book is about:
Numb, a man who feels no pain and has no memory of how he came to be this way, travels to New York City after a short stint in the circus to search for the answers to his past. But when word of his condition spreads – sparked by the attention he attracts from letting people nail his hands to bars for money – he quickly finds himself hounded on all sides by those who would use his unique ability in their own pursuits of fame and fortune. There's the best friend who doesn't quite know how to handle Numb's newfound celebrity, the savvy talent agent who may or may not have Numb's best interests in mind, the sadistic supermodel whose idea of a good time involves lion claws and can openers, and the blind girlfriend who might actually see something in Numb others don't. As Numb navigates this strange world, and as he continues to search for clues from his past, he is forced to confront one of life's toughest questions: Who am I?

We loved it (and I'm not just saying that because Sean threatened to beat me up – dude, I could totally take him). The book was sweet, funny, thought-provoking, touching, and – at times – uncomfortable to read.

That was one of the things I loved best about it.

Several book club members brought lists of questions to ask Sean. What did you mean by this? How did you come up with that? What was the inspiration for this character? Have you spent significant time in an insane asylum?

And though he answered all of our questions cleverly and engagingly, he was quick to point out that the book is less about his intent as the writer and more about our experience as readers.

As the only writer in the bunch, that struck a chord with me. Weren't we just talking on this blog about the importance of getting outside perspectives on your writing? This is why that matters so much. When people pick up a book and start reading it, they filter everything through their own life experiences and viewpoints. How one person chooses to read something might be totally different from another reader's take on it.

At one point in the discussion last night, I asked Sean about the contents of a video in the story (I'm not saying more because I don't want to give anything away).

"Do you know what was in the video?" I asked.

"Yes," Sean answered.

"You're not going to tell us, are you?"

Nope. Not even if we held him down and tickled him until he peed (which we totally would have done if we'd found a good flight from Central Oregon to New York at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night).

But I get his point. It matters more what we think might be in the video then what Sean – in his warped twisted brilliant mind actually intended.

Oh, and if you're part of a book club and would like to talk with Sean about NUMB, I have it on good authority he's willing to do this again (though obviously he loves us best and all other book clubs will pale in comparison). You can contact Sean on his website to set it up, and you can buy the book here.

So what are your thoughts on the balance between what an author intends and how readers interpret things? Have you ever had the pleasure of talking with the author about his/her book? What was that like? Please share in the comments.

For now, I leave you with this lovely image of our book club after we changed out of the fur bikinis.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

One person's pleasure is another person's crotch pain

Pythagoras is shopping for a new bike seat.

Apparently, his nose is pressing uncomfortably against his man nuggets (I’ll pause for a moment while you laugh as hard as I did at the fact that “nose” is the technical term for the front of a bike seat. Done? Let’s continue).

For those who don’t know, my husband is a fitness junkie. A competitive cyclist who recently branched into triathlons, his idea of “a quick bike ride” is 90 miles up the side of a mountain.

The seat on his tri-bike looks a bit like a medieval torture device. This is the one he currently trains on:

Looks painful, no?

So when he said he wanted a more comfortable one, I was picturing the banana seat from the Schwinn I had as a kid.

When he showed me the new seat he has in mind, I choked on my wine.

“That’s your idea of comfortable?” I demanded.

“It’ll shift the pressure to my sit-bones in the aero position,” he explained. “A lot of urologists recommend this type of saddle.”

“Didn’t they use something like that to torture Mel Gibson in Braveheart?”

He ignored me and went back to his online search for bike seats (or “saddles” as I’ve been told I should call them).

Obviously, the nomenclature of cycling isn’t the only thing I fail to grasp. I honestly don’t get how any of those seats can be deemed “comfortable,” but I suppose it’s all in the eye of the nut holder.

I’ve seen the way Pythagoras looks at me after I’ve spent twelve straight hours at my computer performing a complex ritual of blogging, tweeting, and writing several chapters of a manuscript.

“I’d kill myself if I had to do your job,” he told me once.

Hey, at least I don’t have a nose in my crotch, but I do see his point. What seems like torture to one person is another person’s idea of fun.

Do you have people in your life who see your pursuit of writing as the equivalent of sticking bamboo up your nostrils and soaking your face in grapefruit juice? Is there anyone close to you who enjoys something you cringe just watching? Please share in the comments.

I have to go confirm with my husband’s doctor that his new bike seat won’t render him useless to me.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A word (or 584) on critiquing relationships

In addition to showing great enthusiasm for discussions of butt hair and garage porn, readers commenting on this blog ask a lot of questions about critique partners and beta readers.

What’s the difference? How do you find them? When do you need them? Is it normal to trade sexual favors for critiques, or did that dude just totally scam me?

I probably won’t answer everything in a single post (except the last one – perfectly normal). But I’ll give you the best overview I can in 584 words or less.

What the @#$% are you talking about?
Everyone uses the terms differently, but to me, a critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you exchange manuscript critiques and brainstorming. As writers, they’re capable of saying not just “this sucks” but “this sucks, and here’s how you might fix it.” Beta readers are just that – readers skilled at catching mistakes and giving you a gut check on how real readers might respond to your book. The three betas I’ve worked with since the dawn of time are exceptionally skilled at spotting specific issues – grammar, inconsistencies, and instances where my characters act like asshats.

How do I find them?
You could try standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, but I don’t recommend it. One of the best online resources for finding critique partners and beta readers is the forum at Absolute Write devoted to this purpose.

Another great option is trolling online discussion forums for your specific genre. I met longtime critique partner Cynthia Reese in the eHarlequin discussion forums when we were both newbie writers learning the ropes. Check out blogs and chat loops for your genre to find other authors in your shoes (which is a little gross, so spray some Lysol before putting your feet back in them).

Organized writing groups are another good resource. At my first meeting of Rose City Romance Writers, someone offered to connect me with critique partners. Sisters in Crime (SINC) offers an online group for new authors called The Guppies.

As for beta readers, all three of mine are former co-workers. It’s a perk of 10+ years working in marketing & corporate communications that I’ve connected with smart, savvy folks who like words, but you can find good betas in many places. Belong to a book club? Mine it for betas. Got a co-worker with his nose in a book on lunch breaks? Maybe he’d like to help an aspiring author.

How does it work?
There are no hard and fast rules about critiquing relationships, except to avoid being a jerk. While Cynthia Reese likes to feed me one chapter at a time and review my comments before writing the next chapter, critique partner Linda Brundage and I both prefer to finish the entire novel before swapping. There’s a fairly even trade of critiques, though slower writers can end up doing more critiques for faster ones.

Since beta readers aren’t getting the same benefit from the relationship, I make sure to let mine know how much I appreciate them. My appreciation usually has a cork protruding from the top, but a heartfelt thank you note will also suffice.

So that’s my quick-and-dirty overview. If you already have critiquing relationships, how did you find them? If you’re new to this, what questions do you have?

Oh, and feel free to use the comments section to connect with potential critique partners. Just try to avoid the whole sex-for-critiques arrangement, OK? Authorities tend to frown on that.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I've joined the Facebook cult

It's official. I have been lured into the crack den.

Yesterday morning, I gave up the good fight and became one of the last living humans to join Facebook.

You can visit me here (well, that's assuming you're a Facebook user as well, which is always what annoyed me most about it – the fact that you have to "join" to see anything, which means half the time I click some random link on Twitter, I'm taunted by a message saying, "don't you wish you could see this? Too bad you're not cool."

So I guess I'm cool now.

When I decided last winter that I wanted to start blogging and using Twitter, I researched neurotically. I read countless books and spent months lurking online to get a feel for what worked. I made lists and charts and probably prompted my poor agent to wonder how the hell I ever manage to get any books written.

With Facebook, I tried a different approach. I just dove in.

I had some hand-holding from blogger/author Sierra Godfrey (who was kind enough to respond to my comments about Facebook on her blog by emailing me to explain how she uses the tool) and from social media guru Kristen Lamb (whose terrific post about Facebook fan pages is what prompted me to finally click "join the cult" yesterday).

I'll admit, I always thought of Facebook less as a marketing tool and more as that thing everyone from my mother-in-law to my high school boyfriend uses to keep in touch. But I suppose that's the point, isn't it? Those people read, and so do their friends, and their friends, and their friends. Facebook is just one more way to connect with all of them and eventually say, "by the way, I wrote some smutty novels – maybe you'd like to buy one next August?"

So I drank the KoolAid, shaved my head, and now I'm part of Facebook. I'm still in that idiot phase where I don't know what I'm doing and probably just spammed all my mother's friends with jokes about vibrators.

But I did manage to master one important Facebook feature. Apparently I'll be posting my own pornography at some point. I clicked the box, so someone's just going to show up here with a video camera, right?
So do you use Facebook? Are there any tips you can offer a newbie user? Anything you can see that I'm already screwing up? Please share in the comments.

I'll be waiting for that camera crew to arrive.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The big, hairy butt of romance

Some friends of ours just moved to a house a few blocks away.

After lunch, we went to visit and point out the highlights of the neighborhood.

One of those highlights is a large wooded area ideal for hiking, biking, and snowshoeing. It’s also a shortcut to the school their pre-teen daughter attends, and our friends were eager to take a look.

The five of us set out toward the woods, with Pythagoras leading the way down the dirt trail. “It’s really peaceful,” he explained. “We rarely run into anyone else out here.”

“Lots of great trails, too,” I agreed.

That’s when we all noticed the red pickup truck at the trailhead. It was unremarkable except that we rarely see vehicles there. As I continued to prattle on about wildlife and foliage, Pythagoras got a funny look on his face.

“What?” I asked.

He nodded toward the truck. “I just saw a butt.”

I squinted through the windshield. “A butt like someone’s throwing cigarettes during fire season or a butt like – oh my God, my eyes!

And there it was, a big, white, hairy butt, appearing in the window briefly and then disappearing, then reappearing again, then disappearing in a rhythm that left little question what was transpiring in the cab of that truck. We had stumbled upon someone’s romantic interlude.

Well, as romantic as you can be in the cab of a dusty truck on a sweltering afternoon with the windows cracked and five strangers standing outside discussing methods for removing cheat-grass from a cat’s ear.

Not wanting her pre-teen daughter scarred for life by the sight of the butt pressed against the window, mom quickly herded her away while our friend stayed behind and Pythagoras and I continued chatting.

“Right up here is where the dog found the dead squirrel last week,” Pythagoras announced as the truck swayed gently.

“Couldn’t believe how fast he ate that squirrel,” I agreed, trying not to notice the butt was picking up speed. “Ate the fur and bones and maggots and everything.”

Several minutes passed and the truck stopped rocking. The butt vanished, and the windows rolled up.

We were all relieved.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one to judge those who enjoy an amorous moment in a motor vehicle. I’m also not one of those romance authors who’ll tell you everything should be beautiful and tender and choreographed like a naked ballet.

But seriously? Must the thrusting continue with five strangers discussing carrion three feet away?

Eventually, our friend trudged back to his house while Pythagoras and I headed the other way toward ours.

“Think it was a couple teenagers, or an older guy having an affair?” I asked.

Pythagoras considered that. “Teenagers. There was a dirt bike in back.”

“I might've seen some gray butt hair,” I countered. “Maybe it's an older guy. Maybe the dirt bike belongs to his kid. He’s sneaking around on his wife and his marriage is already strained because he lost his job at the lumber mill and he’s pawning the bike so he can spring for a cheap motel room the next time he wants to bump uglies with his mistress.”

Pythagoras looked at me. “Please tell me the love scenes in your books are more romantic than that.”

I shrugged. “Sometimes.”

So what do you think? Teenagers or frisky adults? And where is the line between a fun afternoon romp and a disgusting image that shouldn’t be inflicted on the eyeballs of others?

Speaking of which, anyone know where I can get my retinas bleached?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sometimes, love just ain't enough

Last week, I invited readers to ask questions.

I answered most in the comments, but one caught my eye from blog reader Alexa. She asked:

If you believe in your book, but you've gotten a lot of rejections, at what point do you say, "It's not them, it's me" and revise or scrap the manuscript?

I told her I needed to mull it over, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Mulling. Did you know mulling involves copious amounts of Sauvignon Blanc?

After a full week of careful contemplation, here’s my answer:

It depends.

Don’t you hate that? And don’t you hate that I feel compelled to constantly remind you “every author’s journey is different, and you can’t judge yourself by someone else’s experience.”

Now that we got that out of the way, I’ll tell you my experience. And I’ll tell you the two things that can help you figure out the answer to that question for yourself.

In the last eight years, I’ve written nine full manuscripts and six partials. With every single one, I believed I had a shot at publication.

But the first thing that helps me determine if I’m right or I’m delusional is perspective – that is, input from people who are not emotionally tied to the story.

I get that from my two critique partners (writers themselves) and three beta readers (masters at spotting “issues”).

When I finished writing MAKING WAVES two years ago, I thought it was pretty solid. Then I handed it off to those guys.

They trashed it.

I thought my heroine was quirky. They thought she was immature and weird.

When I reread it, I had to admit they had a point. I revised the hell out of the story, adding scenes, tweaking descriptions, and working to make the heroine more sympathetic. The book eventually sold as part of my three-book deal with Sourcebooks, and it’s scheduled as my debut next August.

But that’s only half the story

Because recently, I opened MAKING WAVES for the first time in over a year. It’s due on my editor’s desk soon, and I wanted to do some final polishing.

And that’s when I got the second thing on my list – perspective. (For a writer, I suck at coming up with new words.)

But now I’m talking about the perspective you get when you take a break from your own work. When you set it aside, ignore it for awhile, and write a new manuscript or two.

This time around, I realized I hadn’t gone far enough rehabbing my heroine. Despite my critique partners’ feedback that first time, deep down I thought, “they just don’t get her.”

But with two years of distance between my brain and the original writing, I was able to separate myself from what I meant to write and what I actually wrote. I made new tweaks, added 5,000 words to the story, and am preparing to send it to my editor.

I’m sure she’ll have changes of her own. It’s possible she’ll insist my heroine would be more compelling with a third arm (in which case I will politely ask if she prefers it to protrude from her forehead or her stomach).

Does that answer your question? Not totally, right? Because it comes from the obnoxious, happily-ever-after perspective of an author who sold the novel.

So let me confess something:

While I adore MAKING WAVES with every fiber of my being, and I’m thrilled it’s being published, it’s not my favorite book I’ve written.

That honor belongs to a book I wrote in 2006 – the one that originally snagged offers of representation from four agents. Two of those agents shopped it to editors, and maybe a dozen of those editors professed to love it.

But the book never sold.

Was it me? Was it them? Was it aliens?

I honestly don’t know.

I still believe in that book. So does my brilliant and talented agent, Michelle Wolfson.

But we’ve both come to accept that the time isn't right for it.

You can work hard to get the perspective of others and the perspective of distance. That’s a crucial part of figuring out if your manuscript has problems.

But sadly, that’s not always enough.

And as gut-wrenching as it is, a smart writer learns how to move on, write something new, and set the beloved project on the back burner with the heat on low.

Have I depressed you all now? I feel like I should tell a penis joke to lighten the mood. Anyone know a good one?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Things in my garage that sound dirty but probably aren't

Yesterday, I went out to the garage to find...actually, I have no idea what I was looking for. It's the garage, so the odds of me ever finding what I'm after are the same as the odds I'll give up romance writing in favor of drafting texts on quantum harmonic oscillators.

Sometimes I like to just walk out there and stare at the shelves while scowling because that's what I see Pythagoras do from time to time (after which he stalks off to Home Depot to buy something else to set on the shelves and scowl at).

So there I was, staring and scowling, when I noticed that nearly everything on these shelves sounds dirty. Don't believe me? Consider the evidence:
I wasn't aware I had a stripper in my garage, let alone America's #1 stripper. I feel so fortunate.
Spray lubricant? Because sometimes the tube or the bottle just isn't quick enough?
You know, I think I just won't touch this one.
And here I was naively trusting Pythagoras' vasectomy to keep me safe, and all along we've had miracle impregnator on the premises? 
I don't know about you, but I'm pleased to know my wood finish penetrates. Not so happy about the staining, however.
So there are just a few things in my garage that sound dirty but probably aren't. Do you have similar products lying around your house? I challenge you to look at them in a new (and preferably demented) light.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go rifle through the bathroom drawers. There's gotta be something good in there.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I would do anything for love
(but I won't do that)

I have two confessions.

The first is that my refrigerator smells like something crawled inside, threw up, contracted a severe foot fungus, developed gangrene, and then died.

The second is that I refuse to do anything about it.

Oh sure, I removed a carton of takeout Thai that’s been in there since March, and I might’ve sniffed a few iffy perishables (and proceeded to eat them).

But the fact is, I hate cleaning the refrigerator. It’s one of the chores – along with mopping floors and mowing the lawn – I will avoid at all costs.

I might feel guilty about this if it weren’t for the fact that Pythagoras has a similar list of chores he refuses to perform. His list includes folding laundry and scrubbing tubs or toilets.

The funny thing is, we’ve never discussed this in 12+ years of marriage. He’s never openly declared, “I will let the clean clothes accumulate in the laundry room until I’m forced to dress myself beside the dryer each morning while standing shoulder-deep in a pile of socks and underwear.”

Nor have I confessed to him that I will wait until one of us actually loses consciousness in front of the refrigerator before I stoop to removing shelves and scrubbing bins to find the source of that god-awful smell.

It’s just an unspoken rule that the spouse who doesn’t abhor the chore will eventually tackle it for the one who does.

This fact – plus a shared love of ‘80s butt-rock – is why we’re a good match.

It’s also the reason I surround myself with writing and publishing professionals who compensate for my weaknesses.

Plotting is not my strength. My idea of plotting a book is declaring that I’d like to write about a heroine who owns a vineyard and then some stuff happens.

Fortunately, critique partner Cynthia Reese is a fabulously talented plotter. She’s always willing to help me brainstorm when I’ve backed my characters into a corner and removing their clothes won’t get them out this time.

Lest you think it’s a one-way relationship, I bring something to the table as well. I amuse her with fart jokes and point out when her scenes might benefit from the inclusion of one.

I will also freely admit I'm incapable of reading instructions and contracts. When I saw the first copy of my three-book contract with Sourcebooks, Inc, I made it through the first twelve words before succumbing to the overwhelming urge to polish my toenails.

Luckily, I have my amazing agent, Michelle Wolfson. She not only read the contract in its entirety, but fought hard for changes that benefited me (well, I assume they benefited me – it’s possible I just signed a contract to sell my liver on the black market).

Do you surround yourself with people who have strengths you don’t? Do you help tackle chores someone else abhors when you don’t mind doing them yourself?

Please share in the comments. I’ll be donning my gas mask in preparation for retrieving the milk from the fridge.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ask & I’ll give it up: my agent query stats

Last week, I mentioned a personal rule from my 2006 agent hunt, which was to send out two new queries for every rejection I received.

Some of you asked for details. How many queries did I send? How many rejections did I get? How many requests for fulls & partials? How many foot massages did I offer before finally landing the amazing Michelle Wolfson (who subsequently landed me a three-book deal)?

Fortunately, I saved all my original notes from my query days. It took awhile to compile statistics, and before I share, here’s some background:
  • I sent my first queries in late summer 2006 and my last mid-December 2006. Snail mail was common, and accounted for nearly 50% of my queries. Things have changed since then. Nearly everything is electronic now, and the only piece of printed correspondence I’ve swapped with my agent in 2.5 years is a contract.
  • Because I had already sold a book to Harlequin/Silhouette when the line collapsed and left me orphaned, I was considered “published” by two or three agents I queried. In a couple cases, this resulted in phone calls or an expedited query process, but in most cases, I was part of the regular slush pile.
  • As a result of the whole sold-a-book-that-never-got-published thing, several agents asked to see the orphaned novel (the rights were reverted to me). Since I knew I wanted to go a different direction with my career, I was more intent on querying a new book I’d written in a different genre. Know what’s interesting? Neither of those novels – not the one that originally sold to Harlequin/Silhouette, and not the one that snagged offers of representation from four agents – has sold today. I don’t say that to be discouraging. I say it to point out the publishing industry is fickle. Just because agents or editors love a book doesn’t mean it’s destined to land on bookshelves. This is one reason it’s crucial to find an agent who is passionate about your whole career – not just one book.

So without further ado, here are my stats from 2006:

Number of queries

Rejections of initial query

Zero response to initial query

Partials requested & rejected

Fulls requested & rejected

Fulls/partials requested, then zero agent response

Agents who quit or closed to queries

Agents who referred me to other agents

Agents who offered representation

Fulls/partials requested after I had already signed with another agent

Agents who requested full, then bowed out when I issued a deadline upon receiving other offers

Bizarre photocopied full request w/ no agent name, no mention of my name or my book, and no email address given for follow-up questions

Some random, interesting tidbits:
  • Of the 4 referrals I received from agents saying, “I’m not the right agent for this, but try my colleague so-and-so,” two resulted in offers of representation from so-and-so.
  • Prior to querying, I made a chart of agents and their requirements using agentquery. Then I cross-referenced it with info gathered from the agents’ own websites. If they differed, I trusted what was listed on the agent sites.
  • One of the agents who requested a full and ultimately rejected it contacted me out of the blue two years later to wish me well and say she always wonders if I’m “the one who got away.” (Totally made my day).
  • I did not, in fact, provide foot massages to any prospective agents (though I have a standing offer to Michelle to let my dog lick her feet if she so desires).
A few lessons learned:
  • No matter how polished your query is or how much homework you’ve done, you will screw something up. I guarantee it. Consider this when you send your initial queries. Do you want to contact your “dream agent” with a query you’ll kick yourself about in a month, or do you want to save him/her for when you’ve learned a few things by trial & error? I got a whole lot more requests in my third month of querying than I did in my first because my query got better. I thank my lucky stars Michelle Wolfson was in the last batch of agents I queried because she didn’t get to see what an idiot I could be (I saved the idiot thing for later in our relationship).
  • As I’ve shared before, I initially signed with another agent and then left amicably after a year upon realizing it just wasn’t the right fit. This happens, and it’s no one’s fault. Lucky for me, I knew Michelle was the right agent for me, and she was still willing to take me on a year after she made that initial offer.
So there you have it. All the numbers you ever wanted and some you probably didn’t. Feel free to hit me with questions in the comments. If something requires a long explanation, I may devote future blog posts to the topic.

Ready? Set? Go!

And happy querying to all!

Monday, August 16, 2010

On lost jewelry & crotch pockets

I’ve worn a ring on the thumb of my right hand since I was 10.

The habit started after my kid brother bought me a cheap ring at a garage sale and my thumb was the only digit big enough to keep it on.

Though I’ve cycled through a few different rings since then, my current configuration consists of one silver ring Pythagoras gave me when we moved to this town 13 years ago, and a second ring my brother gave me that’s still too big and must be worn with the other to keep it on.

There’s sentimental value attached to both, so you can imagine my frustration when I looked down Sunday morning to discover they’d vanished.

Well, vanished isn’t the right word. Flushed is more accurate, but I’m getting to that.

Pythagoras and I were visiting my parents, and we were all headed out for a hike. Since I’m not overly fond of squatting to pee in the woods, I dashed inside for one last potty break before we left.

I should note that the rings make a distinctive “clink” when they connect in a pocket or on a counter.

I vaguely recall hearing the “clink” as I zipped up, flushed, and turned to wash my hands. That’s when I realized the rings were gone. I fished in my pockets.


I checked the floor.


I peered into the toilet.

Gone. My rings were gone.

I knew exactly what had happened. Since the rings sometimes slip off when my hands are cold, I was certain they’d fallen into the toilet as I hurried to unbuckle and unzip.

And I also knew from an earlier experience losing a watch down the same toilet, that the odds of me retrieving flushed valuables were about the same as the odds of me growing a penis and enjoying the convenience of peeing upright.

I trudged out to the car with a heavy heart, trying not to think of the lost rings while we hiked (though I’ll admit they crossed my mind when I had to stop and tinkle in the woods after all).

I tried not to think of the rings at lunch when I missed their clink against my silverware.

I tried to pretend my thumb didn’t look naked every time I caught sight of it that afternoon, and even bought a cheap replacement just so I wouldn’t rub off my own knuckle feeling for the missing rings.

When we got ready to leave my parents’ house, I made a final trip to the little girls’ room.

That’s when I heard the “clink.”

I looked around. I peered under the sink, behind the toilet.


I frisked myself from head to toe.

Still nothing.

I sat back down.


And that’s when I noticed.

If you’re familiar with women’s undergarments, you know that regardless of style or fabric, there is a patch of cotton stitched into the crotch area.

Prior to this moment, I had never paid attention to the aforementioned stitching. Had I paid attention, I might have noticed that the makers of said undergarments occasionally opt not to stitch all the way around the cotton.

On this particular pair, a two inch span at the top was left unstitched. You’ll have to use your imagination, as I prefer to limit the number of underwear photos I post on this blog, but picture it as a sort of crotch pocket. Got it?

Now guess where the rings were.

Don’t spend too much time guessing. Also, don’t spend too much time trying to figure out how I went 8 hours not noticing two rings hidden in the crotch of my underwear. I’m still mulling that one myself.

The important thing is, I have my rings back. I also have a nifty new pocket that should come in handy if I need an extra place to store valuables.

Have you ever lost something and then found it again? It doesn’t have to be in your underwear – it’s probably best if it’s not – but please share in the comments.

I’ll be busy trying to figure out how I can capitalize on this if I become a jewel thief.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Why authors love stupid questions

I know I’m supposed to repeat the refrain, “there are no stupid questions.”

And while I believe that’s true, there are always questions you feel stupid asking, especially in publishing where learning curves are steep and the rules are printed on tablets hidden somewhere in the New York City sewer system.

Last week, I attended a meeting of the Mid-Willamette Valley Romance Writers of America. Unlike the Rose City RWA group I belong to (which has 150-200 members), the Mid-Willamette group is tiny.

There were only two other people last week, both authors working on their first novels. At first glance, you might assume that I – with three books scheduled for publication starting next August – would be the most knowledgeable about our genre.

You would be wrong.

Like most romance writers, I spent the previous week following news from the national RWA convention, listening to updates about awards and lectures and rubber chicken dinners.

But unlike seemingly every romance writer on the planet, I was clueless about the Golden Hearts and RITA awards. Oh sure, I understood they're the big awards in the genre and we should all be willing to mud wrestle to get one, but what’s the difference between them? How do writers get nominated? Who decides the winners?

When I posed the questions to one of the women at that tiny Mid-Willamette RWA meeting, there was a moment where she just blinked at me.

And then she answered the questions – thoughtfully, knowledgeably, and without a touch of condescension.

Because the fact is, she had attended several conventions and understood that aspect of RWA much better than I did. She had knowledge I didn’t, and she was happy to share it.

I don’t know what was running through her mind, but I can guess. I imagine it felt damn good to help a fellow author.

Why do I think this? Because a few minutes later, the third author spoke up. Brand new to writing, she studied the information on my business card and fired off some questions for me:

You have an agent? How did you meet her? Is she local? How do agents get paid? How do you get an agent? How did you know how to write a query letter?

And you know what went through my mind?

It wasn’t frustration at the volume of questions or a mental eye roll at the notion that authors and agents might connect over cantaloupe on the produce aisle at an Oregon grocery store.

It was, holy crap, I know the answers, this is so cool!

I don’t care how long you’ve run the publishing gauntlet – there will always be things others know that you don’t, and knowledge you have that others want.

And how freakin’ amazing is it that we can gather at meetings and in online communities to share what we know?

It can be scary to ask a question you fear might be stupid, but the fact is, someone will feel good being able to answer it. I’m not suggesting you run out and badger every author with 100 questions before making an attempt to do some research on your own, but don’t be afraid to speak up if there’s something you’re wondering.

I know I’m glad I asked about those awards, and I’m doubly glad the other author was brave enough to ask me her questions.

Oh, and in case you share my previous ignorance, here’s some info about the Golden Heart and RITA awards.

And here’s the gist of what I told the other author about agents:
• Yes, I have an agent. I connected with her by writing a query letter.
• I learned to write a query letter from a variety of online resources, but my favorite is agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark.
• I’ve never met in-person with my agent, the brilliant and talented Michelle Wolfson, but I learned about her and hundreds of other agents through agentquery.
• Reputable agents never charge up-front fees, and only get paid when they sell your work. They earn a commission, typically around 15% (a bargain for the authors, in my opinion – agents work damn hard). There's more great info here about what agents do.

So how do you feel asking or answering so-called stupid questions? Are there any you’ve been afraid to ask? Any you summoned the courage to ask elsewhere and want to share with others? Please discuss in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer when I can, and will try to tackle some of the bigger ones in future blog posts.

Have at it – bring on the stupid questions!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A birthday gift from Hot Lips

For much of my adult life, I've felt uncomfortable receiving presents.

(If you've already gone out and purchased the hippopotamus I asked for, don't worry – I'll still accept it).

Most of the time, I don't feel right accepting gifts. I already have the most amazing family on the planet, an incredible husband, a great house, and a really nice bra collection. I'd rather have people just donate their money to charity.

Sometimes though, a loved one will surprise me with something that makes me laugh so hard I totally get over myself and my aversion to gifts.

Case in point, here's the birthday card I received from my 80-year-old grandmother, the woman I've affectionately called Hot Lips for as long as I can remember:

And the inside of the card...

In case you can't read it, Hot Lips is asking me to take her with me to see the male strippers. Seriously, is she the coolest grandma in the world or what?

Then there's the gift. This is intended to hang next to my front door, something that will happen just as soon as I convince Pythagoras I wasn't requesting birthday nookie when I said, "can you please nail this?"

Suffice it to say, I've been giggling all morning.

What are some of your favorite birthday gifts? Did you ever get something so clever or so bizarre that you just have to share? Please do in the comments!

I'll be supervising the hammering.

Um, wait...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Getting lucky (with or without stars)

Each year, they hold a big meteor shower for my birthday.

I know, I know…you’re welcome.

The Perseids meteor shower hits its peak each year between August 9-14. If clouds and city lights don’t obscure your view of the sky, you can celebrate my birthday (August 12) wishing on about 60 shooting stars per hour.

I’ve already mentioned I’m a bit superstitious. And though I’ll freely admit using my birthday meteor shower to rack up a few shooting star wishes, I’m also a big believer in making your own luck when it comes to your writing career.

Here my three favorite strategies:

Keep balls in the air
Yes, I did say balls. Done giggling? OK then.

Back when I queried agents, I had a rule – for every rejection I got, I’d send out two new queries. Not only did it keep me from dwelling on the most recent blow (snicker) but it ensured I always had plenty of possibilities in the pipeline. I ended up with offers from four agents, and eventual representation from the best agent on the planet, Michelle Wolfson.

This is also what I love about Michelle. When she shops my work, she doesn’t forward an editor rejection with a note that says, “bummer, oh well.” She’s always thinking ahead, letting me know there’s a plan. The plan might involve submitting elsewhere or tweaking the manuscript or even just sitting on it for awhile, but there’s always a plan.

It’s a good way to improve the odds that good news might come in the wake of bad.

Did your manuscript get slaughtered by critique partners? Start a new one. Queries didn’t land you an agent? Send new queries. Daniel Craig rejected your marriage proposal? Stalk George Clooney. Having a plan not only gives you hope, but ups your odds that your luck will improve.

Imagine the best thing, then the worst
No, this isn’t a suggestion that you picture Daniel Craig in his underwear being lit on fire (wait, give me a sec to dwell on the underwear thing).

In the eight years leading up to my three-book deal, I had a lot of time to visualize outcomes for every scenario. Is it better to await word from an editor thinking, “this is SO going to happen!” in hopes that your positive energy might make a difference? Or is it best to think, “I don’t have a wanker’s chance in a convent” so you’re braced for bad news?

The short answer: it doesn’t matter.

Bad news will come whether you envision a twelve-figure book deal or your keyboard being devoured by locusts. Good things can happen no matter what dirty images are flashing through your mind.

But it does help to picture both scenarios – the very best outcome and the very worst, plus a few things in between. That way, your brain is braced for everything, and you’re less likely to shout surprised obscenities when your news comes.

Stay busy
Waiting can be brutal. It doesn’t matter if you’re waiting for feedback from critique partners, responses to queries, or news on a submission to an editor. Waiting is the roughest part of the publishing biz, and it can make you bat-sh*t crazy if you let it.

Don’t. Keep your mind and your body occupied. Start an exercise routine. Spend time with friends. Begin a new manuscript. Download dirty pictures educational materials off the Internet. Whatever you do, don’t spend your days wearing a hole in your mouse by repeatedly hitting “refresh” on your email in-box.

If you were one of three people reading this blog back in February, you may have noticed I visited my grandma the day before my book deal was announced. That wasn’t an accident. It was my way of getting myself out of the house and away from the computer on the day the Sourcebooks editorial board was deciding my fate.

It was the smartest thing I could have done (well, besides bribing the editors with wine and chocolate, though things worked out OK anyway).

So what are your strategies for making your own luck? Do you clutch a four-leaf clover in one hand while polishing your query with the other? Please share in the comments.

I’ll be lying in my hammock, waiting for the sky to get dark and my meteor show to begin.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why I'm stroking my husband's...leg

Yesterday, my husband shaved his legs.

No, he didn’t follow up by donning my best negligee and asking me to call him Katie. Believe it or not, there’s a fairly manly reason for it.

If you’re new to this blog, you should know Pythagoras is obsessive about exercise. He starts to twitch if he doesn’t run every day. When he tells me he’s going for a “quick bike ride,” he means he’ll be riding 90 miles straight up the side of a mountain.

This is actually the reason for the leg shaving. It’s a trademark of competitive cyclists. Watch the Tour de France or any high-level cycling event and you won’t see a leg hair anywhere.

Reasons for this vary. Some say it’s for aerodynamics. Others claim it makes road rash easier to treat after crashes. Another theory is that it facilitates post-ride leg massage.

But let’s face it – if it were an issue of aerodynamics or wound cleaning, wouldn’t they shave their arms as well? And while Pythagoras might wish for daily post-ride leg massage, the odds I’ll be providing this are about the same as the odds he’ll learn to rub my shoulders without copping a feel.

Which leaves you with the real reason cyclists shave their legs – because cyclists shave their legs.

Simple enough.

Cyclists have always shaved their legs, so cyclists continue to shave their legs because that’s what they do. It’s how they pick each other out of a lineup.

I thought about this last week when I attended the monthly meeting of the Mid-Willamette Valley Romance Writers of America and realized I am largely ignorant about the habits of romance writers. I didn’t join the group until after I landed my book deal in February, and I’m still trying to learn the ropes.

Is there a secret handshake? A hairstyle I should adopt? A special way I’m supposed to pat my colleagues on the butt at the end of each meeting?

I’m only half joking here, because I really don’t know. While everything I’ve written over the last eight years has had elements of romance, it wasn’t until this book deal came along that I really thought of myself as a romance author. I’m still not sure what that means, so I mostly feel like the weird kid in the back of the room worrying someone will notice she’s not wearing the right socks.

If you’re a romance author, can you clue me in? Are there any habits I should be aware of or secrets I should know? If you don’t write romance, what are the trademarks of authors in your genre? Can I spot a paranormal author by the antennae sprouting from her forehead or a thriller writer by her muscle shirt and big tattoos? Please share in the comments.

I’ll be waiting with my razor at ready, just in case there’s a rule requiring me to shave my pinkie toes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The power of poo

I’m not a terribly spiritual person, but I do have one very deeply held belief I cling to above all others. It is my belief in Dog Doo Karma.

If you own a canine companion, you know what I’m talking about.

For those without four-legged friends, the principle of Dog Doo Karma dictates that all humans shall clean up their furry friends’ canine landmines. Do so, and your shoes and soul shall remain poo free.

Fail to do so, and the universe will make sure you get what’s coming to you.

Pythagoras and I have the utmost respect for Dog Doo Karma, and travel everywhere with little doodie baggies tucked in our pockets. Even if we don’t have a dog with us. Even if we’re dressed in formal attire or swimwear, you can pat us down and find baggies.

But we had a momentary, regrettable lapse last week. We were visiting the Oregon Coast near Warrenton, and as we trudged along a desolate stretch of beach hunting for sand dollars, our dog hunched up performed her duty.

I looked one direction, then the other. Not a soul for miles and miles.

“Maybe we should leave it,” Pythagoras said. “The tide’s coming in, it’ll be gone in a few minutes.”

I hesitated. Did we dare tempt Dog Doo Karma?

But we were planning a long hike, and the thought of toting a smelly baggie for several hours didn’t hold much appeal.

“I’ll just make sure no one will step in it,” I said. I found an empty crab shell and used it as a makeshift scooper to fling the business out to sea. The seagulls were delighted. The dog was angry she wasn’t allowed to fetch it.

We looked around. No one had witnessed the sin.

We continued our walk, with the dog racing ahead and Pythagoras lagging behind in search of sand dollars. Maybe an hour passed. I had almost forgotten the incident when I heard a colorful string of curses behind me.

I knew without turning around what had happened.

Well, not exactly what had happened.

To protect your delicate sensibilities, I shall refer to the substance in question as peanut butter.

“First I stepped in this huge pile of @#$% peanut butter,” Pythagoras snarled as he did a one-legged dance to get his sandal off. “Then I lifted my @#$% foot and a big chunk of peanut butter fell off onto my other sandal. Now I’ve got peanut butter all over my toes and under my foot and—”

I tried very hard to be supportive. Apparently “supportive” does not include falling down in the sand laughing hysterically as your spouse drags one foot through the water and scrapes the other with a stick while the dog dances around waiting for the stick to be thrown.

Finally, Pythagoras got cleaned up. Our mood was somber as we continued down the beach.

“So the Dog Doo Karma got us,” I said.

Pythagoras glared at me. “Us?”

“I feel your pain,” I told him solemnly.

“I could sense that from your maniacal laughter.”

So do you believe in Dog Doo Karma? What about other closely related beliefs like Shopping Cart Karma and Last Square of Toilet Paper Karma?

Please share in the comments. I’ll be busy burning my husband’s sandals.
Poor Pythagoras tends to his poo-covered sandals while the dog assists.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

People who are smarter than me

Insert joke here about how this is going to be a long post. Go on, I’ll wait.

In all seriousness, a lot of what I’ve learned about blogging these last six months comes from other bloggers who’ve been kind enough to share their wisdom.

I can’t possibly list every post that’s made an impression on me, but here are my top three:

From Jamie Harrington at Totally the Bomb
Jamie did an entire week of posts on building your online platform, but my favorite of the series was this one about Gravatars.

What’s a Gravatar?

It’s a globally-recognized avatar, and if you’re commenting on blogs or interacting in online communities, I can’t tell you how much you need one.

Until I jumped into the social media circus, I didn’t realize how crucial it is that people use consistent photos, user names, and Twitter handles to identify themselves. If you’re commenting on my blog as Jane Smith using a picture of a frog, but chatting with me on Twitter as Spudeatingmama with an avatar that looks like a potato, I might like adore both of you very much, but I will have no earthly idea you’re the same person. Not even if you tell me. Sorry, but my brain has a limited capacity for faces and names. You don’t get more than one.

Get a Gravatar. Be consistent with your user names. And go read Jamie’s blog post.

From my beloved agency sistah, Kiersten White
(and if you haven’t yet preordered her debut, PARANORMALCY, what are you waiting for?)

This post on the difference between blogs, blahgs, and blarghs clicked with me the instant I read it last November. I had it tattooed on my forearm so I could remember every word of it when the time came to start a blog of my own.

In addition to giving great information about tone and content in blogging, she provides an important wake-up call for writers – editors and agents WILL read your blog if they’re considering working with you. Keep that in mind with every single post you write. Every. Single. One.

From social media guru Kristen Lamb
Her post on whether authors must blog only went up a week ago, and it quickly became one of my favorites on the subject. Here’s a highlight:

Words are our “product.” And blogs are the samples to taste. Just like at Costco, I have a choice of 20 different frozen pizzas. Totino’s doesn’t have to hire some lady with a hairnet to fill the air with the smell of pizza yumminess, but they are smart enough to know that it will make people buy pizza who had no plans of buying pizza that day in the first place. Better yet, free samples will encourage consumers not just to buy pizza, but to buy their pizza.

Amen, a million times AMEN!

Go read the rest of the post for more words of wisdom.

How about you? Do you have any favorite blog posts about the fine art of blogging? Any tips or tricks that have really resonated with you? Please share in the comments.

And lastly, I want to thank you all for making my first six months as a blogger truly, truly amazing. Without you, I’d just be sitting here talking to myself, and that would be – well, that would be like any other day.

So thank you. I love you. Don’t forget to brush and floss.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lies, lies, and more dirty lies

Before I began blogging, I went a little nuts doing research. I read about what makes good posts, considered what I liked about other blogs, and drank a lot of wine.

OK, so the wine wasn’t part of the research.

Still, I uncovered a lot of good advice and some…well, not so good advice.

Here are a few myths I’ve stumbled upon as I’ve worked to find my way with this blog:

MYTH #1: Unless you have a book deal, no one will read your blog. I kicked off my blog on February 1 with a post that was well-received by…um, my cousin. At that point, I was crossing my fingers, toes, and several unmentionable body parts my book would sell soon. Because my agent rocks so hard she makes me seasick is a brilliant and talented professional, she landed me a three-book deal on February 25.

It’s probably no coincidence my readership started climbing after that.

At the same time, a book deal isn’t a mandatory part of drawing a readership. Take a look at The Misadventures in Candyland, a blog maintained by Candace Ganger.

Candace doesn’t have an agent. She doesn’t have a book deal. She’s only been blogging for seven months, yet she has over 250 registered followers and her posts almost always draw 25-30 comments. Why?

Here’s what I think: she’s funny. She’s honest. She’s edgy. She’s sassy. She writes her posts in ways that prompt discussion, and she participates in that discussion in her comment trail. She’s consistent, blogging every weekday and wrapping each week with her hysterical Feel Me Up Friday feature.

There are plenty of other bloggers out there like Candace. Who are they? What’s their magic formula?

MYTH #2: Size doesn’t matter. Sorry, guys – I know you’d desperately like to believe otherwise, but length is crucial.

I read a lot of blogs, and I have a short attention span. If I click a post and the first thing I see is a giant block of text followed by twenty more giant blocks of text, guess what I’m going to do? (Hint: the answer is not “read it six times before forwarding the link to my friends.")

When it comes to blogging, size matters. Blog readers are busy, and if your post doesn’t grab attention in the first few sentences, you’re screwed.

Paragraphs should be short. White space should be plentiful. The total number of words shouldn’t exceed 500. I know there are exceptions to these rules (some of this week’s posts will definitely exceed 500) but the fact remains – one of the greatest writing skills you can develop is the ability to make your point in the fewest words possible.

MYTH #3: Social media is for celebrities and socialites – not serious authors. A year ago, the only thing I knew about Twitter is that it had something to do with Ashton Kutcher.

When my wise agent suggested I try it, I did my homework. I read Shel Isreal’s TWITTERVILLE and Joel Comm’s TWITTER POWER, and I spent a few months lurking to learn how it worked.

In a nutshell, you make friends. Pretty simple concept. Friends like to do business with other friends, so they visit each other’s blogs and buy each other’s books and braid each other’s hair (sorry, Bill Cameron – we missed that part).

Show of hands, how many of you originally found this blog through Twitter? I’m going to guess it’s somewhere around 80%. It may not be what keeps you coming back, but it was likely the first point of contact.

I’ve gone from skepticism about Twitter to being a devout fan. I’m seriously considering tattooing the bluebird logo on my left breast.

What blogging myths have I forgotten here? Do you disagree with any of mine? If so, let’s fight by the bike rack after school. That would make an AWESOME blog post.

Playing nice with others

I’ll warn you now, I'm going to break yesterday’s rule on keeping posts under 500 words.

But it’s perhaps the most important topic I want to cover in my week of blogging about blogs, so bear with me.

One aspect of the blogiverse I didn’t grasp six months ago is the social side of things. In the last six months, I’ve learned a lot. Some good things, some bad things, and some things that make me want to slap myself in the forehead with a celery stalk.

Allow me to share:

A comment on comments
Six months ago, I’d read plenty of blogs. I had even commented on some, and seen blog authors reply back in the comment trail.

What I’d never grasped is how much that matters – maybe more than the content of the blog posts themselves.

From the start, I tried to reply to anyone who left a comment on my blog. I didn’t know at first if it made a difference, but when people began emailing to say how much they appreciated it, I knew it was the right thing to do.

A lot of people mistakenly think of blogs as the author standing on a soapbox shouting words of silliness or wisdom at loyal readers, but the true beauty of a blog – at least the sort of blog I want to have – is what happens after the post goes up. The discussion in the comments, the back-and-forth volley of ideas and dirty jokes – that’s every bit as important as what I write each day.

I didn’t know that six months ago. Now I do.

Are you following along?
See that little follower widget on the side of the page? Until Blogger asked if I wanted one, I’d never noticed them on other blogs. I had never “followed” a blog, and never noticed who followed the blogs I read.

Once I started noticing it, the concept seemed simple enough. I would read a blog I liked, click “follow,” and we’re all friends, right?

Sort of. My wake up call came a couple months later when I got a private message. The gist of it was this: I’m unfollowing your blog because you aren’t following mine.

Wait – what?

I naively assumed “following” was about which blogs you like to read and want to keep tabs on. While that’s true to some degree, there’s a social side I hadn’t anticipated. An element of I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine, and if something changes, we scratch each other’s eyes out.

I don’t like that.

Look, I do my damndest to visit the blogs of people who comment here. It’s not because I “owe” you, but because you’re part of my circle of friends and I like knowing what my friends are up to. I may or may not comment, I may or may not remember to click “follow.” I may go for months without visiting someone’s blog (if it’s yours, I’m sorry – please raise your hand in the comments so I can stop by).

I’m uncomfortable with this idea that Jane will only read Susie’s blog if Susie reads Jane’s blog. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that there's a retaliatory element in play.

Maybe I’m naïve in hoping people come here because they’re interested in what I say. Hell, maybe half of you are here because you secretly hope my amazing agent will notice you (she rocks, so I don’t blame you, but still). Maybe I should just shut up and play the game.

But the fact that there is a game? That surprised me. And I don’t like surprises.

The numbers don’t add up
Anyone want to guess which of my blog posts had the most readers in the last three months?

If you judged by the number of comments, you’d assume it’s the July 26 post titled Are you calling my name?, which got close to 50 comments.

But that didn’t even make the top 10.

My most visited post in the last three months was the June 22 one titled How not to be an email goober. It got almost 400 more visitors than the name one, yet it had fewer comments – 39, to be exact.

The second most viewed post was The monkey business of social media, which had double the number of hits as the name one, but generated 20 fewer comments.

What gives?

For starters, the email goober post and the monkey one were tweeted and blogged about by others who were either amused, disturbed, or some combination of the two.

But the name post or What writers put in their mouths generated lots of comments because they invited readers to share simple, fun facts about themselves.

There are a few lessons in this experiment, but here’s one for new bloggers: if people aren’t commenting, don’t assume they aren’t reading. Download a tool like Google Analytics and check it out for yourself. You may be surprised.

And if you want comments, try sprinkling your posts with questions that prompt readers to share their own ideas and experiences.

Speaking of comments, I’d love to hear yours on the social aspect of blogging. Is there anything I missed? Any secret handshakes I haven’t learned? Tell me now so I can start practicing for the one-year blogiversary.

I’m a slow learner.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Making blog love outta nothing at all

Last Tuesday morning, I sat staring at the blank screen with no idea what to blog about.

I’d spent the previous day editing the first book in my contract, and my brain resembled a sun-dried tomato stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

Panicked, I grabbed the list of topics I keep for desperate times. Tuesday morning was a desperate time, yet nothing on the list grabbed me.

I finally gave up and wrote about the first thing that came to mind – my own name.

“What are you muttering about?” Pythagoras asked when he walked past.

“This is the stupidest post I’ve written,” I told him. “People will stop coming to my blog after this. They’ll all hate me and write my name on bathroom walls with little cartoon pictures of me with a knife through my throat.”

“OK,” he said, backing away slowly. “Good luck with that.”

I was wrong. Well, it’s possible you drew the pictures, but I was wrong about the blog post. It racked up nearly 50 comments and prompted the following feedback from regular blog reader Elizabeth Ryann:

“This is actually one of my favorite posts of yours, and the comments have been so fascinating.”

So what gives? After six month of doing this, how can I still not tell a good post from a bad one?

Though there’s no exact science, I’ll share a few things I’ve figured out about blog topics:

Keep a list. Before I began blogging, I made a list of 50 things to blog about. Since then, the list has grown to over 150. My goal is to use the list no more than once a week, and I’ve stuck to that. But just knowing it’s there gives me a much-appreciated safety net.

Realize your list sucks. Looking at the earliest ideas on my list, I giggle at things I thought might make good blog posts. Not that they’re terrible ideas – they’re just too broad to be interesting. On the flipside, there are the topics I jotted later after an unexpected brainstorm or a few glasses of wine. Topics like #127: Gewürztraminer increment wiener disarray sloppily. (Believe it or not, I do know what that means, and I plan to use it). My point is that your list should contain every random idea that pops into your head. The individual topics might not be usable, but they might spark something that will be.

The silliest things make the best topics. I’m sure I’m not the only writer whose life is full of goofiness. I write those things down and look for ways to relate them to writing. My husband losing his pants, my decision to stick a cabbage in my shirt for a bike ride, the time I accidentally spit gristle in someone’s purse, the time the neighbors saw us having fake sex in the car – all of these things made for entertaining blog posts. Look for ways to make fun of yourself or your loved ones. That’s what they’re there for, right?

Create opportunities for discussion
. Though I was surprised by the popularity of Tuesday’s blog post on names, I know it wasn’t any particular brilliance on my part that made it happen. That post worked because it was a topic everyone could contribute to – who can’t share a thought about his or her own name? You guys created that post, not me. If a blogger provides a topic and asks questions that spark conversation, the posts can take on a life of their own.

Blog about things that rub you wrong. One of the most popular posts I’ve written went up over three months ago, and it’s still being re-tweeted and re-linked even now. You ARE a real author, dammit was the result of several uncomfortable instances when I realized people treated me differently since I snagged a three-book deal. I sat down and thought about why it bothered me, and that post was born. Just be careful to keep ranting to a minimum. Well-measured pondering is thought provoking, but whining is just annoying.

Marinate. Some posts take awhile to gel in my brain. I have a folder containing a dozen half-written blog posts just waiting for something to click. If a post isn’t coming together for you, set it aside and come back later.

So how do you come up with subjects for your blog posts? What do you like to read about on other blogs?

Please discuss in the comments. I’ll be over here trying to teach Pythagoras to perform yoga poses in a wetsuit. I’m pretty sure it’ll make a great blog post.

Monday, August 2, 2010

If you blog it, they will come

First off, I must point out that I said come.

Now that we’ve covered the requisite immature joke, welcome to my six-month blogiversary!

As I mentioned in yesterday’s SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT, I’m thrilled not only to make it through my first six months of blogging with minimal therapy, but also to be chosen as one of five debut authors blogging for the 2011 Debutante Ball.

To celebrate, I’m devoting the entire week to the subject of blogging.

Let me start with the caveat that I don’t claim to be an expert, and I know there are hundreds of authors with much better blogs and much bigger followings.

But I am pleased with how much this blog has grown in six months, and I want to share some of what I’ve learned so far.

In the beginning, my only readers were my mom, my agent, and a handful of kind souls who arrived by accident after googling “pet me.”

Things have changed a bit.

Last month, I had nearly 6,000 total page views, 4,300 actual visits, and about 1,800 unique visitors. On a typical day, 150-200 people stopped by. On good days, there were 300-400 unique visitors. The posts averaged 20-25 reader comments, with some prompting 50+.

Those numbers make me giddy, grateful, and a little incontinent.

But mostly, they make me ponder what brings readers here. I’ve had several people email me recently seeking advice on how to draw and keep blog readers.

Here’s what I’ve told them:

Give it to me, baby. We don’t like to admit it, but we’re selfish creatures. We want blog posts that GIVE us something. Maybe it’s a writing tip or a link to another good site. Before I click “publish” on any post, I ask myself, what am I giving readers?

I write romantic comedy, so cheap laughs is my first answer, but I don’t want it to be the only one. What else can I give? Advice? Inspiration? Discussion? Gonorrhea? If I’m not giving you two things every day, you have my permission to stomp away grumbling that I’m not putting out.

You may not write comedy, but consider what you do have to offer. Is there a subject you know well? An amusing story you can share? A list of tips for identifying toenail fungus? Give people something they want, and you’ve given them a reason to keep coming back.

Stick to a schedule.
From the start, I knew I wanted to blog every weekday. Not all writers have time for this, and to be honest, it’s not necessary. What’s important is that you keep some schedule. Kristina Martin has a delightful blog she posts to twice a week on Mondays and Fridays. I always know when to pop by for a new post and a chuckle about one-armed strippers.

If you’re committed to doing it daily, I commend your libido suggest you take a tip from Cynthia Reese’s playbook. Cynthia juggles a full-time job, motherhood, and a writing career. Clearly she has oodles of free time on her hands to sit around eating bon-bons and writing blog posts. Though she has a new post up each weekday, she accomplishes it by writing several posts in advance and setting them to go up automatically in Blogger.

Consider how often you want to blog, and then commit to keeping that schedule. Consistency is key!

Give a little, get a little. I know there are writers who can dash off a clever blog post and kick back with a cigar to watch the readers stampede. I’m not one of them. Unless your name is preceded by the words, “New York Times Bestseller," you may have to work a bit harder to let potential readers know you exist.

Interact with people on Twitter. Find blogs similar to yours and leave comments that show you’re engaged. (Note: commenting, “ur blog is cool, want a fake Rolex?” does not show you’re engaged). Branch out and explore blogs that are nothing like yours. You might be surprised at the readers you draw if you step outside your comfort zone. Perhaps there’s a network of gay Jewish lion tamers just dying to read your post on choosing an antiperspirant.

Tell me about your blog habits. If you’re a blogger, how do you draw readers? If you’re a reader, what keeps you returning to your favorite blogs? Please share in the comments.

And please come back tomorrow to discuss the fine art of picking blog topics.

Oh, and one last thing. The Debutante Ball? I’m taking it very seriously. Very seriously indeed.
Me in my debutante ball tiara. Technically, the tiara belongs to Pythagoras. No, I'm not kidding. I'm really not.