Posted in interviews

Interview with BL Jasper On Finishing a Novel, Querying and Finding an Agent

First, tell us about your novel. What is the story and what inspired you to tell it?

A Dance of Djinn (working title) is the story of Fern and Dahlia, two circus performers who grew up in the traveling Circus of Reveries. Dahlia is a bookish, anxious witch with PTSD from her mother’s death, and Fern is a charismatic yet nerdy Latinx guy who sees the memories of the dead when he touches bones. Intent on chasing down answers and sorting through past trauma, they’re separated across continents. But behind the scenes, a goddess and a djinn-king are battling for control of their lives.

This story is sort of the “book of my heart.” I’ve spent the last 10 years looking for a circus novel as compelling for me as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and I have always had a deep soft spot for djinn. Not like magic lamp genies but the kind based in Islamic scripture and lore, Creatures of sand and smokeless fire. I am also tired of narrative story arcs about two characters falling in love—so I set out to write a book where they were already in love, because what happens after that is so much more complicated, the feelings so much more intense, and the repercussions life-changing.

How long did it take you to finish your novel? What was your writing schedule like? How did you balance work, family, and writing?

I started this novel in July 2021 and finished my first draft in February 2022. About two-thirds of this novel was drafted while I was in craft classes, so I would write a new batch each week to submit, revising it about twice before sending it out for workshop.

I began the novel in Valerie Lute’s Writing the Strange class (from a character writing exercise), then took Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop taught by Michael McComas and continued writing. After that, I was lucky to be invited to a permanent writer’s workshop and continued to get feedback. I did a lot of my drafting in the evenings after my kids went to bed.

I subscribe to VE Schwab’s opinion that thinking about your novel is still writing. I spent a lot of time thinking about this book while cooking, driving, cleaning, and showering. My husband came to recognize the look on my face when I was no longer in this world but in the world of my book. He got used to me jumping out of the shower and yelling, “No one talk to me until I write this down!” 

After more than a year of writing regularly (I’m drafting my third book now), I’ve come to realize that I write best during certain times of day. I usually try to get in about 30 minutes minimum. I don’t do a word count goal, but a lot of times I’ll have a particular scene I want to get through, and I try to sit down with enough time to knock that out, even if it’s bare bones. 

 How many drafts did you write? Did you revise as you go or complete a draft at a time, or some mix of both?

I am what I like to call a “chaotic neutral plantser” which means that I plan (vaguely) about a third of my book, and then once I know the characters and the world, I let them tell me the story. That’s my favorite part of writing– sitting down for a scene and having it go sideways because the characters are being true to themselves, and not what I want for them.

For this book, which was my first, I did a lot of revision as I went. I read back through, perfected sentences, emotion, pacing, etc. before moving on to the next scene. So that left me with a pretty draft when I finished. I read through it a few times, making small edits before querying. However…

In May 2022, I attended the Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference, which was amazing. I attended a lot of sessions on finding an agent and querying, including First Impressions: How to Hook an Agent/Editor with Your Opening Pages with Amaryah Orenstein, the founder of Go Literary Agency. I also attended a couple of sessions that really changed things for me. The first was a session with Hank Phillippi Ryan on first pages. The second was a craft session on revision as a process by Ann Hood

After attending those sessions, I rewrote about half of the book, expanding my second POV character and tightening the action. I realized I had written a lot of “scaffolding” that was great for understanding the characters and the setting, but not so great for moving the story along. This revised draft is the one that landed me two indie press offers and an agent.

Since it’s NanoWriMo, do you have any advice for new writers who feel overwhelmed when they sit down to write or are struggling to find the time?

I love writing prompts to get the creativity flowing if you feel out of practice going into NANO. Even setting a timer for three minutes and either picking a word and free writing or looking at a picture and describing it can loosen you up. When it comes to actually getting your story on the page, I like to remind myself that nothing is permanent until it’s published.

I recently started doing this thing where, when I am trying to bust out a scene, I’ll add something like [INSERT EMOTION HERE] or [INSERT BACKSTORY HERE] or [BETTER ANALOGY HERE]. Sometimes I don’t have the capacity to be a poetic writer or to think of someone’s history on the spot. Sometimes I just need to get out the plot beats, and the magic happens in revision. Other times I sit down to write and the words that come out are perfect, and I never end up changing them. Both methods are valid, and both methods are me. You don’t have to be perfect the first go-through. You can write “Jane was scared.” and come back later to show instead of tell.

I have a friend who is working on her next book. She has kids, a full-time job. Her goal is 300 words a day. And if she keeps it up, she’ll draft a book in under a year. Give yourself grace, and do what you can do.

I saw on Twitter that you queried this novel for 8 months and contacted 102 literary agents. What lessons did you learn from the process? Did you ever need to change your approach? Did you learn anything to impart to someone beginning the process? Were you ever tempted to give up?

There’s this intense rush you get when you finish a book. You want it out in the world immediately, and that can make you do some stupid things. I wish I had held off querying my first book. The number of agents who represent adult fantasy is so small, I really could have put my best foot forward by waiting.

One of the things I’ve learned about revision is that stepping away for weeks or months is key. When you think you’ve got it perfect, shelve it for a month or three. The things you notice when you aren’t neck-deep in your own story will help you make it better.

If I could give querying new authors tips, it’s this:

  1. Agents don’t know what they want half the time. They’re looking for that je ne sais quoi in a manuscript. So sometimes, even though you will perfectly match what they say they are looking for, you get a rejection. Often, it’s not you– it’s them.
  2. The podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing is invaluable for querying authors. Fantastic advice. I listened to so many episodes in the car, my kids still ask about it.
  3. Get free advice on your query at the subreddit R/PubTips. Take it with a grain of salt.
  4. Hone your “elevator pitch” to within an inch of its life, and use it to catch agent attention in your query, your twitter pitches, etc. It took me forever to figure out what that is, but if you were trying to describe a book to a friend, in relation to other things they might have seen or read, how would you do it? So for a rom-com it might be: It’s like Emma meets The Great British Baking Show, and the main character is trying to match the contestants in the tent without realizing she’s in love with the baker next to her. You kind of instantly know what you’re in for.

In terms of giving up, I did essentially shelve this project. I had one full manuscript out (with my now agent) and most agents had replied already. I had moved on to querying a second project when I decided to throw out a Twitter pitch into the world for DVPit. This got an agent manuscript request and a small press manuscript request, the small press request turned into an offer of publication, and that turned into a second small press offer of publication and my agent offer.

Posted in revision, writing habits

Why I Write By Hand

Earlier this year, I talked to Bair Hurley at the Writerly Bites podcast about writing by hand. I write all my first drafts by hand, sometimes my second drafts too. I often recommend writing by hand to my beginner writing students who are afraid of the blank page. When we’re writing on a computer, it seems very formal immediately. Because that Times New Roman looks so neat and perfect in the Word Processor, we want the writing to be perfect too. We start typing, that red squiggly line shows up. Now we’re going back.

When we’re writing by hand, it’s much easier to think of our draft as something impermanent, like a grocery list. It’s notes.

I often teach “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott, which is a very funny chapter from her book Bird by Bird. It’s all about turning off your inner critic and freeing yourself to write your first draft.

She says, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.”

In my experience, writing by hand can help us free that inner child. We can return to an earlier stage in our lives when we scrawled all over the page with abandon.

For me, the biggest benefit to writing by hand is avoiding the internet. The computer just has too many distractions. I’m one of those people who has all kinds of browser add-ons to limit my ability to use distracting websites. I have one that eliminates the feed of social media sites, and another that sets a time limit. Still, I keep finding new ways to waste time online.

What I have to do is go into a room with no devices, just a pencil and paper. Then I can only think about the words on the page.

I always dread finishing a draft, because then I have to go to my computer and face all those temptations again. Still, there are benefits to having to completely rewrite the story when I type it up. When you have a typed first draft, it’s easy to accept the major choices you’ve already made. Instead of thinking about if that scene is really necessary, you just fiddle around with the word choices. But if you have to type up the whole thing, why spend the time typing up a scene that’s not working at all? Plus you’ll find that you’ll make improvements to the word choice too, without even thinking about it.

Don’t take it from me. A lot of successful writers still write by hand: Joyce Carol Oats, Quentin Tarantino, and Neil Gaiman to name a few.

I’ll leave you with the words of Stephen King, who switched to writing by hand after years of typing. He said writing by hand “makes you think about each word as you write it[…]the sentences compose themselves in your head. It’s like hearing music, only its words. But you see more ahead because you can’t go as fast.”

Posted in Point of View, Uncategorized

The Difference Between Point-of-View in Books and Movies

We spend a lot of time consuming film-based entertainment. The average American watches nearly three hours of television a day. This influences how writers, especially beginner writers, imagine the scenes of their novel, memoir, or short story. Without even realizing it, they see the lens of their story like a camera panning across space. The characters become like actors, primarily expressing emotions through their facial expressions.

However, these techniques don’t work as well in books as they do in film. Books instead rely on different idioms, ones that don’t translate well into film. 

Interior Monologue 

Some movies do have a voice-over. You’ve all seen one. Here are the opening lines of the movie A Christmas Story (1983):

Ah, there it is. My house. And good old Cleveland Street. How could I ever forget it? And there I am, with that dumb round face and…that stupid stocking cap.

When a movie has a narrator, the narrator is usually commenting on what is happening on screen. In this case, the adult Ralphie is commenting on the image of his house and his appearance when he was nine years old. Narrators in movies wouldn’t start jumping around in time or talking about something unrelated to the current scene.

But how often are your thoughts perfectly linear? How long can you think about one topic without a random idea popping up? This is one part of the human experience that can be better captured in writing. 

Here’s an example from As I Lay Dying, a novel told through the stream of consciousness of several characters. In this chapter the son Jewel overhears his brother making their mother’s coffin from the room where the mother lies, still very much alive, for the moment.

It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.

While the narrator starts describing where his brother is and what he’s doing, he immediately starts making assumptions about his brother’s thoughts: “See what a good [coffin] I’m making for you.” Then the narrator jumps back in time. He’s comparing his brother’s actions to something he did as a young child. The mother had asked for fertilizer and the little boy unthinkingly used the bread pan to bring in some dung. The narrator doesn’t explain how these two scenes are alike, it is just where his mind went.

This isn’t the only way a narrator in a book can express more than the narrator in a movie. The narrator in a book can give lengthy judgements, express complex philosophical ideas, or give extensive historical background that would be too cumbersome to work on screen.

Unreliable Narrators

Movies and TV shows tell stories with cameras, and cameras don’t lie. If the camera shows Bud stealing a car, we know that Bud stole a car. However, if a first-person narrator in a short story tells us Bud stole a car, we don’t necessarily know that Bud stole a car, especially if the narrator is mad at Bud for winning over the girl the narrator loved. 

This is what happens in the T.C. Boyle story “Termination Dust.” I went along with the narrator at first, taking his word for everything. I believed him about how bad this guy Bud was and the negative consequences in store for the woman after she follows Bud to his remote Alaskan cabin. I believed the narrator until he bursts into the cabin where Bud and the woman are making love and gives this lame excuse when the dog attacks him:

And I should say here that I like dogs and that I’ve never lifted a finger to hurt any dog that I’ve ever owned, but I had to put this one down. I caught him as he left the floor and slammed him into the wall behind me until he collapsed in a heap.

When I got to this point in the story, I started to question everything the narrator had told me thus far. A person who would treat an animal like that is not to be trusted.

Word Choice and Syntax

In a film, the camera determines our impression of the setting. Whether or now we feel a setting is threatening or friendly depends primarily on the visual techniques of the filmmaker. However in books, the word choice and sentence structure can change how you feel about a location, and it may be in contrast to how the setting physically looks. Here is a bright, sunny day in suburban California, as described by Tom Wolfe in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”

…endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, taco drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plate-glass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forward on the sidewalk and throw up.

The long list of nouns in this sentence has a dizzying effect. The length of the sentence makes it hard to catch one’s breath, which is also reflected in the choice of adjective, “endless.” All these techniques, along with the simile about the building throwing up, make it clear that this is a hostile alien environment, despite being a normal Southern California suburb.

Internal Sensations

A film can show you a character’s face and body language better than a book can. A great actor can make even a sparsely written character come to life. However, books have an advantage when it comes to revealing the internal sensations of a character. 

The Ben Lerner short story “Cafe Loup” takes place in the brief moments while the narrator is choking to death. A film could show a person choking—his face turning colors, his rigid hands coming toward his neck—but it would be impossible to convey in the visual medium what choking feels like. As the narrator’s friend begins the Heimlich maneuver, this is what he experiences:

Aaron was behind me, his breath on my neck, trying to figure out where to put his hands. Instead of my life “flashing before my eyes,” a series of odors were doing whatever the olfactory equivalent of flashing is, all of them intensified by the fact that I couldn’t inhale. Childhood cut grass (nothing is a cliché when you’re dying), the sulfur of strike-anywhere matches, asphalt after rain, fresh paint in a room whose windows are open in the spring, movie-theatre popcorn, the sexual smell (that is, the vaginal smell) of a woman who broke my heart in my late twenties, hyacinth, watermelon candy (in the throat of Mrs. Sackett’s student?), my first cat (Felix), grilled peaches at my brother’s in Seattle […] as Aaron performed his first ineffectual thrust, tears finally in my eyes, haloing all the tabletop candles, my little aleph, little star, my asterisk, and even as my peripheral vision began to contract and my ears started to ring and I was begging my daughter to forgive me in my mind, I was surprised—and surprised that I was surprised, that in my last moments on earth, as I was flooded with terror and love, I had the mental space to note how the world failed to conform to my expectations of it…

Conclusion 

Sometimes I see beginner writers use techniques from film in their stories—montages that slice a bunch of scenes together, or dialogue that is said to be inaudible to the reader. In literature, these techniques don’t make sense and only create confusion. But when an author uses techniques that are especially for the written form, they can create a unique artistic experience that no movie can imitate. The best way to learn these techniques is to read—read widely and frequently.

If you’re looking for more techniques for bringing your story to life, subscribe to the blog or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted in career, Uncategorized

Should You Get an MFA in Creative Writing?

I used to tell everyone not to get an MFA. My personal experience gave me a negative view of the whole academic field. But in the years since grad school, my attitude has softened. I learned skills in my MFA that I use now that I teach writing classes, and for that I’m very appreciative. The biggest mistake I made was choosing a program that wasn’t a good fit for me.

Now, when my students or other writers ask me about MFA programs, I give more targeted advice. You need to look at your life and your needs to figure out if an MFA program makes sense. Here are the five most important criteria to consider.

1. Why do you want an MFA?

This question may sound obvious, but it should not be overlooked. You shouldn’t get an MFA just because your friends are doing it or you are bored with your job (or, as McSweeney’s puts it, you need a snack).

An MFA in creative writing won’t automatically get your book published or get you a tenure-track teaching job. But it can give you time to write and provide feedback that can improve your writing. What’s said less often, MFA programs are finishing schools for the literary set. There are a lot of subtle rules about cover letters and proper reading etiquette. Knowing how to play the game can give you a leg up when submitting, querying or networking.

But please don’t get an MFA if you lack the discipline to write and think that getting an MFA will change that. I had too many classmates, some of them brilliant writers, who never wrote a word after graduation.

2. Can you get funding?

Full funding is rare for MFA programs. In 2016, only 7% of MFA graduates were fully funded, meaning the student paid nothing for the degree. Yet in many other fields, funding is much more common.

Fine arts degrees have a poor return on investment in terms of income after graduation. This means that you really want to reduce the price of getting your degree as much as possible. Look for programs that offer fellowships and other opportunities to reduce your tuition. Even partial funding can help reduce your final bill.

3. What are your other priorities?

Are you going to be working full-time while you’re in school? Do you have children or aging parents to take care of? Make sure you find programs that can accommodate your needs.

Many MFA programs offer multiple formats. A hi-res (high residential) program provides a traditional on-campus experience, which in some cases may offer more opportunities for teaching fellowships or networking. However, a low-res option, which will be primarily online, may be more flexible for juggling multiple priorities. Some low-res options provide more one-on-one mentoring, which may make up for fewer opportunities in other areas.

4. What programs provide the opportunities you need?

You may be considering a specific emphasis, like teaching or publishing. Make sure the programs you are applying to not only offer the emphasis you want, but provide opportunities for hands-on experience as well. You may learn a lot from a pedagogy class, but if you don’t have actual teaching experience, you’ll have a hard time finding a job.

5. What can you learn about the faculty?

When looking at programs, make sure you learn as much about the faculty as you can. Ideally, you want to look for professors who write in a similar genre and have work that excites you. However, it’s also true that not all good writers are good teachers. I like the writing of Joyce Carol Oates, but I’ve heard she hardly shows up to her classes. You want to investigate both the faculty’s writing, and also reviews of their teaching.

Getting an MFA has helped some writers make connections and gain experience that they wouldn’t otherwise have gotten. But many more MFA graduates end up in debt for a degree they never use again, and there may be cheaper ways to learn the same material. By reading this blog post, you’ve already done more research than I did when applying to grad programs, so I trust that you can make the right choice for yourself.

Posted in publishing, Uncategorized

Should you pay a submission fee to literary journals?

When I started submitting short fiction to literary journals, over a decade ago, submission fees were rare, usually limited to big contest. Over the past few years, however, it has become nearly ubiquitous to pay money to have your short story considered for publication in a literary magazine.

It can be intimidating for new writers who finally feel ready to put their work out there, only to discover they have to pay money just to have their work looked at. Is it even worth it? Well, sometimes. You want to take a long look at the website of the publication you are considering submitting your work to and ask the following questions.

Is the fee only a few dollars?

Most submission fees are between $2 and $5 USD, however some charge over $20. You probably don’t want to pay more than a few dollars unless it is a special contest. You can usually find this information on the “Submit” page of the journal’s website.

Does this journal regularly publish unsolicited pieces?

The name for a story that you send to an open submission call is an “unsolicited manuscript.” This isn’t the only way that magazines and journals find stories to publish. They might also contact establish writers directly and ask them for pieces, and this is called a “solicited manuscript.” There are journals that put out open calls for submissions that actually rarely publish unsolicited manuscripts, instead relying on the stories they solicited directly.

You can often determine how often a journal publishes unsolicited manuscripts by having a look at who they have published in the past. Most literary journals publish short biographical statements of their writers. Are all the writers they published famous with books out, or do they publish a mix of established an emerging writers? Look to see if any of the biographical statements mention if this is their first published work, or if they only list a few literary journals in their publication history.

Has this journal been around for a while?

The internet has lowered the barrier for starting a new publication. While this is great in many ways, it also means sometimes people start a literary journals without thinking about how long they will be able to maintain the project. This results in a lot of online literary journals that only produce a couple issues before disappearing. Make sure that the journals you are submitting to have put out a few issues already and that they have a regular publication schedule.

Does this journal have a professional looking website?

This is related to our previous criteria. Online literary journals that put effort into their web design and branding are more invested in their continued existence. Plus, if you get published, you will feel more pride if you can direct your friend and family to a nice looking website to read your piece.

Is this journal transparent about where the fee is going?

A journal should always be up front about where the fee is going. Is it covering their printing costs or web servers? Are they paying their editors or contributors?

Does this journal pay its writers?

Most literary journals don’t pay writers, even many that charge a submission fee. If they do pay their writers, you have a chance to earn back what you paid in submission fees. Journals that pay their writers also tend to be more established and have a larger readership.

Does this journal nominate for any awards?

There are journals that don’t pay their writers, but still nominate for prestigious awards. If you don’t make any money, but have a chance to be nominated for the Best American Short Fiction, Best of the Net or the Pushcart Prize, it may be worth it.

Will this publication help your writing career?

If your goal is to publish a short story collection or literary novel, getting stories in reputable literary journals like Ploughshares or Black Warrior can get the attention of literary agents or look good in a query letter. For MFA graduates looking for professorships in creative writing, these sorts of publications can also impress a hiring committee.

But if your goal is to have fun sharing your stories or if you’re more interested in another genre of writing, like mystery or young adult novels, you might not need to spend money on submission fees to realize your dreams.

I also made a PDF checklist so you can always remember to consider these important questions when sending your stories into the world.

If you’re looking for more advice on getting your work ready for publication, follow this blog on Facebook or Twitter. Thanks for joining me today. I look forward to writing with you again!