Pitch Contest Etiquette

I joined Twitter last year in the middle of the summer storm of pitch parties and contests. I know. I’m a bad millennial. Anyway, I joined Twitter so I could participate in said pitch parties and contests. My manuscript needed a lot of work, and some of the writers I met during the chats for those pitch contests became my critique partners who helped me see that. But I also learned some key things about pitch parties in general.

Every new baby writer makes mistakes when it comes to pitching their manuscript. Thanking an agent for their rejection on social media? Yeah. I did that. I was genuinely thanking them because they at least took the time to look at it and respond. Still. Awkward. But it’s letting those mistakes become habits that linger long after you stop being a “baby writer” that’s a problem. So as we gear up for another summer of pitch parties and contests, let’s review some of the rules of etiquette of Author Twitter.

  1. Be at least a little professional. Yes, it’s fun and good to joke around with other writers. It’s encouraged. But be aware that what you say, even as a joke, can and will be seen by people who you are hoping to work with in a professional capacity at some point. I’m not telling you not to be yourself, but be your semi-professional self.
  2. Don’t whine. You didn’t make it in the contest? Celebrate the winners in public. Convey your disappointment in private. Your CPs, your friends, your support system. They will understand. If you whine and cry on the hashtags, it looks bad. If you can’t handle rejection at the contest level, how will you handle a book that doesn’t sell? This stuff matters.
  3. Celebrate the successes of others. Someday that could be you with your name on a list of winners, or on that press release. You’ll want people to be happy for you. Be happy for them. Yes, even if you think your work is better than theirs. This isn’t kindergarten. You don’t get to stomp your feet and scream about it not being fair. It isn’t cute when a five-year-old does it, it’s worse when an adult does it.
  4. Be considerate. You don’t have triggers, painful secrets, or anything you’re scared to talk about? Congratulations. Other people do, though. Don’t belittle anyone. Don’t be that jerk.
  5. When you’re wrong, apologize. We all make mistakes. Just own up to it.
  6. Don’t hit on people like a creeper. Enough said.
  7. Do your due diligence. If you ask someone a question that can be answered by a simple Google search or by checking the event’s homepage, you not only look lazy but like you expect other people to do your work for you. If it is something you need clarified or help to find, that’s one thing. Don’t be afraid to ask anything, just make the effort before you ask someone else to do so.
  8. Don’t brag. Or humble brag. You are always allowed to be excited about your successes. Celebrate. Don’t gloat.

This list isn’t comprehensive. It’s also not written in stone. But, in truth, most of these rules can be summed up by saying “Don’t be a jerk.” It’s that simple.

For those of you who are about to jump into the wonderful world of pitch contests this summer, good luck! And welcome to Author Twitter!

10 Things About the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (Pt. 1)

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School is about to let out for summer vacation and all over the country (the United States), fairs and festivals are gearing up. From now through the fall, Ferris Wheels, funnel cakes, and (mostly) family-friendly fun are the orders of the day. To celebrate that, this month’s 10 Things post will be about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This will be part 1 of 2 because there are several fascinating things about the World’s Columbian Exposition and I plan to share more of them with you next month. Buckle up, my friends. It’s time to get your history on.

The Chicago World’s Fair, otherwise known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, was held in 1893. The area for the fair covered more than 600 acres and spawned such attractions as the Ferris Wheel, but that’s not all. There are some really interesting things associated with the Fair that you might not know, especially if you’re not a history geek like me, so I thought I would share a few things that might spark your interest.

  1. One of the principal designers and builders of the Chicago World’s Fair was Daniel Burnham, who also designed the Flatiron Building in New York City and Union Station in Washington, D.C. Frederick Law Olmsted was another principal designer (but he worked with the landscaping, while Mr. Burnham worked with architectural structures). Mr. Olmsted is most famous, however, for co-designing Central Park in New York City.
  1. The design of the “White City”, the nickname of the part of the Fair officially known as the Court of Honor because all of the buildings were white (and because of the extensive use of streetlights actually made it possible to use the area at night), was actually the inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. It also was the inspiration for the “alabaster cities” referenced in the poem “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates.
  1. The world’s first Ferris Wheel, so called because it was designed by George Ferris, debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was 264 feet high and had 36 cars, each car could carry 60 people. In fact, in some parts of the world today the Ferris Wheel is actually known as The Chicago Wheel.

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  1. Walt Disney’s father was one of the laborers who helped build and paint the buildings used for the World’s Fair.
  1. It was the Columbian Exposition because it was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World.
  1. When it was originally suggested to have such a celebration, it drew little interest. However, in 1889 Paris hosted a World’s Fair during which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled. At that time, the Eiffel Tower was taller than any American Building, and during the fair France made sure that their exhibits seemed more elegant than those of any other nation, including America. Wounded pride is a driving force, and soon the idea of having a World’s Fair, with the excuse of it being the Columbian Exposition, that would top anything France could offer seemed only right. It took a vote of Congress to decide where the Fair would be held and Chicago won over Washington, D. C., New York City, and St. Louis. Chicago lobbied for votes by saying that this was their chance to show the world they had rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871.
  1. The Decorations Director for the Chicago World’s Fair, Frank Millet, died in the sinking of the Titanic, while Daniel Burnham, by now his close friend, rode a sister ship, the Olympic, going the opposite direction across the Atlantic. The Olympic made an attempt to answer the distress call, but it was too late. Mr. Millet invented spray painting as a way to speed the process of painting all the building facades white for the Fair.
  1. Chicago’s Mayor, Carter Harrison, Sr., was assassinated two days before the Fair’s Closing Ceremonies. The Ceremonies were canceled in favor of a memorial service for the late mayor.
  1. Both General Electric (backed by Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan) and Westinghouse (backed by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla) made bids to provide the electricity for the event, but Westinghouse won, and the Tesla alternating current system was used, instead of General Electric’s direct current proposal.
  1. All of the 200 buildings that were built for the fair were intended to be temporary. Two of them, however, still stand in place today. One now houses the Museum of Science and Industry and the other is home to the Art Institute of Chicago.

To be continued…

It’s Never Too Late to Start

I thoroughly enjoy learning self-defense through mixed martial arts. Teaching it to newer students is even more fun. I’m both student and teacher, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I was a child, my father taught me the very basic concepts for self-defense. He worried. Rightly so, since his wife, my biological mother, had died and he was a single father–which he would remain until I was a teenager. I was the youngest of four children. He knew he couldn’t follow us around to keep us safe, so he taught us what he could about protecting ourselves.

With a beginning like that, you probably expect me to say that I started karate classes at eight and have my belts proudly displayed in my home today. But that didn’t happen. In fact, it would be years before I learned anything beyond the basic lessons my father taught me.

When I was in middle school a family down the street owned a kickboxing studio in town. They were the first step in my journey. They had a son one year my junior and a daughter one year my senior. Waiting for the school bus in the morning, we would goof around and I began to learn from them. It didn’t take long for me to want to learn more.

Unfortunately, we moved before I got to high school. It would be a number of years before I cared to pursue anything of that nature again. In fact, it wasn’t until after my eldest son was born that I got really involved in mixed martial arts. I attended a special moms group to try to meet other mothers in my area. I loved it and still attend it to this day. A few months in, we had a guest speaker come talk to us about some simple self-defense techniques that could help keep us, and by extension our children, safer. The speaker offered to start a class for those of us who wanted to know more.

So here we are, four years later and that speaker is now my mentor. Though, we both laugh that we’re more like family now. I still take his class every week. And when he teaches classes to newer, especially younger (and yes, that is a distinction), students, I help teach as well. We work together to teach my children, too.

I don’t know everything there is to know. I don’t know every technique. But I love learning. And I love teaching others. There is something about MMA that I didn’t get with other sports. I played basketball, ran track, and eventually played soccer. But when I spar and have to be aware of what my body is capable of with every move toward my opponent, it’s empowering in a way that nothing else has been.

Truthfully, if you were to look at me as I walked down the street you would never guess that my main hobby is MMA. I’ll be honest that my body type wouldn’t give that away. And yet, if you see me on the mats in class, you might not want to spar with me. I don’t say that to be arrogant, but more to point out that you don’t have to be shaped like a superhero to start training.

I had lessons here and there, but my training began as an adult. Moreover, my training began while I was desperately trying (and, honestly, failing) to lose the baby weight after giving birth. I trained, with caution, all through my second pregnancy. In fact, I was helping teach a kids’ class less than a week before I went into labor. There are students in class with me who joined in their 40s or 50s. My mentor’s teenaged daughter is also in class with us. She began her training at 4. Yes, she’s better than me. A lot better. I’m in no way ashamed to admit that.

The point is, it’s never too late to start. You don’t have to wait until you’re in shape. You don’t have to wait until you’ve established a gym routine (it’s a workout on its own, I assure you). And you didn’t miss your window because you aren’t a teenager anymore.

You can start any time. You should. It’s fun and empowering. It’s cathartic, too. How many other hobbies let you take out your frustrations by punching a training dummy in the face repeatedly? I highly recommend it.

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Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.

The Value of a DNF

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A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I had DNF’ed several books that week and ended up writing a review on one I revisited instead of something new. Last week, I didn’t write a review because of several more DNFs (and also because my anniversary was in the middle of the week and I chose to forego my review writing time to celebrate).

I’ve put down a lot of books without finishing them lately. At least, it feels like a lot. But this is coming from someone who, until about six months ago, would finish a book no matter what–barring any triggering issues. I always felt like I owed it to myself to see if the book got better. I needed to know for sure how it ended. To DNF was to give up. I’m not a quitter.

I’m still not a quitter, but I do place a little more value on my time. I wrote that post last week about finding a balance. Learning to appreciate a DNF is part of that balance. It took me a while to realize this, but it’s true. When I DNF I’m not giving up. I’m placing more value on my time than on the rest of the book. It might sound harsh, but it isn’t.

To DNF a book is not always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s an opportunity.

Stick with me here.

As a writer, if someone DNFs my work it tells me something. Immediately, I know that there is an aspect of the story that isn’t working. I may have to ask questions to find out what, but knowing there is an issue is valuable information. The questions I ask will help me understand whether it is a small issue, a much larger one, or something beyond my control (e.g. just not their cup of tea). Whatever it is, it’s something I didn’t know before.

As a reader, if I ask some of those same questions I can learn a little bit more about:

1 – Myself. If it just wasn’t my cup of tea, why did I pick it up in the first place? What drew me to it? Is there a subject matter or style of writing I’m gravitating towards? A trope? A twist? Or, am I overwhelmed and a book that normally would have been fine is a turn off because the subject matter or main character are hitting a little too close to home right now?

2 – Editing. Okay, the book is something I would normally enjoy, so what’s the deal? Perhaps the book is too dialogue heavy. Or perhaps the interactions between characters are stilted. These are things that I might not have noticed as much before or at least been more forgiving of. But now, all I can see is a subpar editing job and it ruins my book experience.

3 – Self-care. My time is valuable. It’s also limited. I’m not going to waste it by making myself read something I don’t like. Especially not when I could be checking something else off my to-do list or getting some sleep. Or reading something that I love. Also, if there is something even remotely triggering, it’s always okay to put it down. I don’t owe the author anything.

4 – Publishers. If there is something glaringly wrong with or offensive in a book, I will look to see who published it. If it was self-published, that author will go on my mental list of writers to avoid. If it was published by a someone else, I’ll be more wary of their offerings going forward, since they didn’t see a big enough problem with the story to refuse to peddle it.

I’m sure given time I could think of other reasons that DNFs can be valuable, but I’ll stop here for now. What are some ways that you find a DNF valuable?

 

Finding a Balance

For most of us, writing is not our primary job. It is something we love and work hard for, but it isn’t what pays our bills. Or cleans the house. Or the other million and one things that make up daily life. For the majority of writers, writing is something we have to make time for before, after, and/or in between the other necessities of life. It can be difficult and daunting.

We give up our nights, weekends, lunch breaks, our children’s naps, anything that will give us a little more time at the keyboard. That doesn’t mean we don’t have families, friends, jobs, hobbies, chores, or special events that we can’t and won’t neglect.

And it doesn’t mean we should neglect ourselves either.

My writing is important to me. It’s a part of who I am. But it is only one part. I’m also a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, etc. Beyond that, I am also someone who loves sports, board games, learning–and teaching–self-defense through mixed martial arts, and volunteering with local groups/organizations of my choice.

If I abandon the other things in life I enjoy, or my other responsibilities, I feel guilty and my writing suffers. If I neglect my writing, I feel guilty and my sense of self-worth suffers. I have to find a balance. It’s not easy. If ever I perfect it, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, I have to be intent on carving out time for writing and for the other parts of me. Because my experiences fuel my writing. And, frankly, sleep is non-negotiable. I’ve tried.

A lot of writing blogs I’ve read in the last few months have stressed the importance of taking a step back from your work during editing. Walk away from the project for a short while so your eyes are fresh when you come back and you’re more likely to notice things that escaped you before. Use that time in between to do something for yourself. Rent a movie. Run a race. Play a game. Take a long bath. Read something with no intent to critique or edit. Go to the gym. Do whatever it is that helps you feel human again.

You write, so you’re a writer. But it will never be the only thing you are. I’m sure even the overwhelmingly successful authors would say that they are more than their job. Don’t forget to let yourself be more. It’s okay to give yourself a night off once in a while. Your writing will probably be better for it and so will you.

It doesn’t mean you aren’t dedicated. You don’t have to be superhuman to be a successful writer. Nobody will doubt your dedication if you go on a date with your significant other, go see a sporting event with your kids, or go to bed early. You’re allowed to be human. You’re allowed to be you.

Your writing will still be here when you get back.

 

Book Review: Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant

I had a few DNFs this week, but was reminded of this gem when I recommended it to someone and don’t regret revisiting it.

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Richard Grant is an English ex-pat who has been living in the United States for a number of years. While living in a small New York apartment, Richard took a trip with a friend of his to Mississippi. On a whim, he buys an old plantation house and moves into it with his girlfriend. And thus is the start of hilarity and truth.

Neither Richard nor his girlfriend are familiar with Mississippi, much less the Delta–not named for a geographical delta, but actually an alluvial plain. He is now a resident of Pluto, a town named for the mythological lord of the Underworld. And after stories for critters in the walls, battling bugs, and his initial feelings of complete isolation it doesn’t take much to figure out why.

He meets many interesting people along the way and starts to unravel the mystery of why the Delta is so different not just from the rest of the Mississippi, but the rest of the country. It is its own beast, something that fascinates Grant enough that he becomes enamored of his new home. A self-proclaimed nomad, he puts down roots.

But his transition is not without difficulty, and he relays stories as only an outsider can. Making friends with a Blues legend, an eccentric millionaire, a Hollywood celebrity, a local hunter, a cookbook queen, and many more, Grant doesn’t shy away from his observations about the racial tensions of the area or the major structural problems of the small towns throughout the region.

Despite its lingering problems, Grant declares that Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America.

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I was born in the Mississippi Delta. The pictures across the top of my blog all come from places and events near my hometown. My entire family, including my step-family, originates from the same area. And this book brilliantly captures what makes the Delta so utterly unique.

The book barely scratches the surface on a lot of issues, both because it would take thousands of pages to delve deeply and the friendships with locals that help make the book what it is were still developing while he wrote it. But as I read it, I laughed until I cried. And on a couple of occasions, I just cried.

I moved out of the Delta when I was still in elementary school, but returned to visit family frequently throughout my childhood and young adult life. I can say with honesty, that it’s hard to recognize how weird of a place it is until you step outside of it. And seeing it through an outsider’s eyes is always both hilarious and humbling.

That’s the essence of this book. It’s a true account of this man’s experience as he tries to figure out how we, the people of the Delta, came to be the way we are. He talks about how his revelations affect his view of Mississippi in general and the Delta in particular. And let me assure you, the Delta is indeed a space all its own. I noticed in college at Mississippi State that most kids say things like “I’m from the coast,” or “I’m from Jackson,” with the same voice inflection that most people would say “I brushed my teeth this morning.” It’s just a fact. But when people say “I’m from the Delta,” it’s different. It’s a story. And Richard Grant wrote his book based on his attempts to figure out that story.

I didn’t read this book alone. My sisters and my stepmother read it and we would text each other back and forth about things we read. Mostly we were laughing at what the author thought was so utterly strange that was completely familiar to us. So if you want a pretty spot-on account of what makes the Delta tick, this is a great resource.