Monthly Archives: April 2015

My Descent into Publishing Purgatory:
Part 2—Winning the Contest

Writers Death Match2

I was in a vulnerable head space when I submitted my manuscript to an epic fantasy novel contest that I discovered online. Okay, I knew it was not a prestigious annual contest like L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future or the Amazon Breakthrough Novel award. (I’ve been rejected from them, too!)

This publisher was an unknown name, a start-up looking to establish itself in the rapidly changing landscape of e-books and print-on-demand. For anonymity’s sake, let’s call them A-to-Z Publishing.

I sent in my well-bruised query package one more time. What a relief! Not only was my novel accepted but they LOVED it!!

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Dear Denise,

I am writing to inform you that [title] is definitely a finalist in the Epic Fantasy contest. Contest winners will be announced on [date].

We are especially thrilled to write today to inform you that we are offering you a publishing contract with [A-to-Z Publishing] for [title], even before the contest has closed. We love the story, your writing and the characters.

We are excited to work with you and see your author career grow!

What attracted me to A-to-Z Publishing was their unique program of author-marketing seminars. They require all of their authors to undergo this training in promotion, publicity, and social media. They call it their commitment to success.

Writers hear this all the time. “You have to promote yourself! Even the big publishers don’t do anything for you unless you’re J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin!” It adds an extra layer of hopelessness on top of the despair, that even if you are lucky enough to be chosen from the slush pile, your book will never sell unless you hit the bricks to get your face out there.

My handicap is that I have zero marketing experience. I’m the little Girl Scout who only made a sale when her parents bought a box of cookies. As a bookworm nerd (a.k.a. introvert), I chose careers in secretarial jobs and word processing. Now I am a paralegal in immigration law where I concentrate on  government application forms. I have avoided careers that required customer-facing or public speaking skills. I thrive in jobs that require sitting quietly at a keyboard. Promoting myself would involve a huge mental leap and a transformation of my self-image. Just as I took courses to become a paralegal, I expected that marketing was a skill set that I could master if I worked hard enough. I was seeking a mentor, and I thought I had found one.

Regret Number One:  I should have had a publishing lawyer review the contract before I signed. Many of the clauses are not in my best interest. For example, A-to-Z got the rights not only to this book but to all future books in this series. They had right of first refusal on everything I would ever write for the rest of my life. They would own foreign translation rights, audio books, and movie or t.v. adaptions—as if a small e-book press could ever pitch this book to Hollywood? I guess they were hoping to discover the next Fifty Shades of Gray. The contract’s terms were life-of-copyright with no expiration date. Royalties would be calculated from “net” profits and not from the “list” or retail price of each book. It had all the classic traits of a boilerplate contract from a vanity press. But I had never seen a publisher’s contract in my life so I didn’t know better.

Frankly, at that moment, I did not care about being smart or well-informed. I was flattered and excited to be named the grand prize winner. I wanted to be published so badly that I would have signed anything they put in front of me.

Part 3: I Suck at Marketing

My Descent into Publishing Purgatory: Pitfalls of My Novel Contract

Part One: The Dream of an Acceptance Letter

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“At least they returned your novel with a personal rejection letter.”

I am happy to be not published.  Yes, you read that right: not. This is a difficult story to tell. It must sound crazy that I wanted to get out of a signed publishing contract. Isn’t that a struggling writer’s dream come true? Yet, today I am thrilled to hold a termination and rights-reversion letter in my hands.

A year ago, I would have felt differently: I did feel differently.

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I used to be desperate. It’s embarrassing to admit how long—and how badly—I have carried the burden of this dream. Turning fifty was painful because I had always imagined being on the other side of a successful author career by now. In my youth, I envisioned myself as an adult wearing dark turtleneck sweaters at bookstore signings and enjoying my well-earned fame.

My first self-publishing efforts in seventh grade used my dad’s electric typewriter and hand-drawn covers. A simple peasant girl discovers she belongs to a race of magical beings living secretly among us.  A female Tarzan dwells on a mystical island inhabited by space aliens and eloquent great apes. The margins of my school notebooks were full of amazing creatures and swashbuckling cavaliers.

In college, I majored in English lit and creative writing. My teachers praised my space operas and vampire stories, but I was rejected by the campus literary journal. Now I understand that they were probably looking for mainstream poetic literature, not SF/F genre, but at the time I took it personally.

Life happened. I got married. I worked a series of office jobs. I raised two daughters. I took night courses to become a paralegal. Somehow I squeezed in time to keep writing. I joined critique groups and workshops where I’ve met some of my dearest friends. In the days before email, I spent a fortune on postage and photocopies.  There’s an expression among us writers, that you can paper the walls with your rejection slips. Well, I need bigger walls!

I turned 30…then 40…then 45… The unfulfilled dream got heavier as the years went on. Going the self-publishing route was no better. I tossed a book up on Amazon in 2009 and, to date, it has netted a handful of sales. It weighed upon my soul, the longing to hear “yes” from a publisher. Instead I heard this:

  • After thoughtful consideration, however, we have concluded that unfortunately it didn’t work for us, so we’ll have to say no.
  • Unfortunately, we do not feel this piece is right for us at this time. We do wish you all the best.
  • I’m afraid it’s not quite right for us, but wish you the best of luck in your pursuit of publication.
  • Unfortunately, [title] is not quite right for us. I wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.
  • Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.
  • Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.
  • Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.

Part 2: Winning the Contest

I Rock at the Shock: Sex and Storytelling


Sex—passionate, hot. I know this because it’s burned me before. I’ve been in many a passionate, heated debate about it over the years. Sex and storytelling—do they belong together? Well let’s dive in; I haven’t been burned by the subject in a good two weeks. I’m overdue.

This recent debate was with an indie author who has been teaching me a lot about indie publishing…primarily respect and greater understanding. This writer was talking about a sex scene she intended to put into a book. I made the mistake of saying, “Be sure it belongs in the story.” Oh my, that did it!

Now, I will confess that I got something of a reputation in my writer’s groups over the years past as a prude. I often attacked sex scenes vehemently. What they didn’t know is that I love a good sex scene. Make it dark and problematic, and I love it all the more. But writers’ groups are often a mix of talent of beginning, intermediate, and, if you’re lucky, advanced writers come together to experiment and learn. For me, this translated into most manuscript sex scenes I saw were not good. The reason they weren’t good was because they were put in for the wrong reason. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer defend a sex scene by saying, “but sex sells!”

Good writing and storytelling sell better. So good sex in books needs to be good storytelling as well. The reason I like dark and problematic sex scenes is all tied up in the word problematic. Problems generate story. Generally, the manuscript sex scenes I saw didn’t.

Another argument I’ve heard from many writers is  “but it’s my story.” True, it is your story, and I’ve heard this defense in one form or another for years. I may have even said it early on. Today I answer that with this retort: yes, but it’s my money and my time you want from me and all of your potential readers. Stories that you write for yourself and without consideration for a reader are what I call high-risk manuscripts. These manuscripts run the risk of being more therapy than story. Once upon a time, we had a gal  join our writer’s group and waltz in proclaiming proudly that she had a 10,000 page manuscript. Someone in the group piped up, “you mean 10,000 words, right?” Nope. She didn’t. The group actually groaned (and not the good fun kind of groan). She was something of a traumatized individual, and she was quite obviously to me (though not to herself) working her issues out in her stories.

First, let me say, that’s great. If you can save on counseling sessions by writing 10,000 pages, go forth and do—but, don’t torture me with it. Therapy is not the same thing as viable commercial storytelling. You have an obligation as a writer who joins a writers group or gives your manuscript to a friend or sends one in to a publisher to consider the reader.

You remember the reader, yes? The person you want to come up with money to pay for your story? Once you decide to pass on your story, it is no longer yours. If you are a writer, you’ve heard people say that, but think about it for a moment. A story in a reader’s hands is not yours. Your book has not been shrink-wrapped with a free copy of the author included in every sale. What I mean by this is that you do not get to dictate a relationship for your reader to your work. You can only cajole a reader’s cooperation and enjoyment of your book through your skill. Once it passes on, the reader makes the rules for relating to your book. And you have a lot competing with your book when it is open in your reader’s hands in this hectic world.

Back to the sex (because well, we always want to come back to that, right?). The next argument raised in the discussion was realism: “Sex is part of everyone’s life in some fashion or another. Why can’t characters just have sex? You wouldn’t throw out a bar scene just because it was a bar scene.” She almost got me on this one because it is two different points.

First, sex thrown in for real life’s sake: if it furthers your character development, promotes plot, or establishes a point in your story, then do so. Maybe a middle aged housewife is having her regular Friday night sex and just doesn’t feel it anymore. That ennui is now part of where the story is going. Then average ordinary everyday sex is appropriate.

Second, for a moment, I thought maybe she was right about the bar, maybe I’m just hard on sex scenes…then I realized, what am I saying? Am I going soft in the head? Of course I’d be down on a bar scene that didn’t further the goals or address the needs of a story. In fact, I’d just dealt with exactly that question in my own writing. I had a tavern across the street from an inn where my protagonist was hiding, then the antagonist gets close but is drawn off to the tavern at the last minute. As one of the my writer’s group so succinctly put it: “Squirrel!”

So I axed that tavern and used the tavern I’d already mentioned in the inn, and when the antagonist goes into it, he is getting closer to the protagonist, not farther. I had an extra unneeded bar in my story, and I axed it. Although I’m focusing on the sex question here,  this advice is true for any scene or element. They all have to pull their weight in your story.

But she was right about one thing, I probably pay more attention to sex scenes, but I have a reason. Sex is actually a very powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It resonates in some way with us all. It annoys me and throws me out of the story to see sex turned into something light and unimportant when in fact, it should be a story driver. Sex. Money. Power—these three things drive the world. Scandals in the real world always revolve around one or more of these three issues. So sex is one of your big guns.

So what do you do? Do you never write a sex scene? Of course not. Here is a bell weather test to try. Ask yourself then a trusted reader this question: How would the story change without the sex scene? If you don’t have a good clear strong story-driven answer, then maybe it doesn’t belong. And if you do have a clear reason, set it up right. Take your time. Remember that tool in your writer’s toolbox called foreshadowing. Don’t bring that big gun out (in either figurative sense) until the time is right, until you’ve covered a good deal of story real estate with groundwork and building sexual tension. Make me want the culmination, the consummation of reader and story, for a long time. Make me want it as much as or maybe even more than the characters do. Foreplay, my dear writers, it’s as important in writing about sex as it is in sex itself.

Title is from a W. H. Auden poem. Picture is available at AliExpress.


They Preach that I Should Save the World;
They Pray that I Won’t Do a Better Job of it*

By Lindsey S. Johnson

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Rhiannon has the Sight—the ability to glimpse the hearts and minds of others. Branded a witch, her family is executed and she is turned over to a powerful kirche where the bishop wants to use her power toward his own endsthe throne. Thrust into intrigue and danger, Rhiannon must learn to control her growing power, and master … 

Now that I have a book published, and I am talking to people about it, I’m starting to get some of those author questions that I’ve heard so much about. Since I write YA (young adult) fantasy, one of the questions I’m getting a lot is: Why? Why YA? Why teenagers?

Not to be flippant, but why not? I like YA. I have read it since before there was even a YA category in most bookstores. I love it—the intensity, the pacing, the protagonists. Teenagers make great main characters. They’re full of everything—they’re trying everything. Even when the protag is lost or depressed or feels broken, they have a capacity for so much change because they are in the midst of so much change in themselves. They are in the midst of becoming, like most of us, but they don’t have the history of themselves to guide or to distract them. I love that about teenagers, even while I remember how hard it was to be in that place.

YA authors write for young readers because we like teenagers, we care about them. We want to have conversations with them, with ourselves, with our society. I feel a little like the question “why write YA?” (sometimes paired with an implied sneer, because why aren’t you writing real books for real people) is so short-sighted. Why not write for teenagers? Why not write about them? Teenagers are real people.

Teenagers are pretty cool. It’s a hard attitude to promote, because our society is hell-bent on saying otherwise. I remember as a teen that my age group and class were constantly told how terrible we were, how badly behaved, how much worse we were than the class before. We were The Worst, always. But I also remember that being said about the classes before me, the classes after me, and I see now how every class or generation that comes next is always The Worst: the laziest, the cruelest, the pettiest, the most horrible and entitled. (Throughout all of written history, so many people who have grown up are in love with the shaking of canes and saying “kids these days” as though that same thing wasn’t said about them when they were kids.) Despite the belittling and concern-trolling, I see evidence of such kindness and growth and responsibility in teens. Teenagers are not adults, it’s true, and their brains aren’t finished forming, or their bodies, or their emotional capacity. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of great things, either individually or as a group.

And I think those stories should be told. I think teens need to see themselves in story and also see others—people they aren’t like. Teens, like all humans, need story to teach them empathy, to teach them bravery, to teach them compassion; story to teach them how to think about things and reason through problems. And also just for sheer entertainment—a good story is one which makes you want to read and makes you glad you did. Why shouldn’t teens have such stories? Stories made with them in mind?

I think it’s important to tell teens that we see them, that we’re listening, and then actually listen. It’s important to show boys who have empathy, girls who are the strong, silent type; to see all our differences and acknowledge and embrace them; and to listen to people who are new to us. It’s important for kids—girls, boys, gay kids, lesbian kids, bi kids, trans kids, Black kids, Latin@ kids, Native kids, Asian kids, disabled kids, mentally ill kids, nerdy kids, jock kids, theater kids, migrant kids, complex combinations of any and all those things and more kids—that we see them, and they see themselves mirrored in story. They can be heroes, can be villains, can be both and in between; can be complex and confused and brilliant and stupid and full of life and lying on the ground in the muck, just really, really sick of life, and it’s OK. You get to make mistakes, fall down big time, and have to learn how to get back up again. It’s true for everyone sometimes: children, teenagers, young adults, adults, the elderly—all of us. And we can reach out to each other and help each other and learn from each other. You can see yourself reflected in whatever bits and pieces of culture you choose, and other people don’t get to tell you that you don’t matter. You do matter. You get to be you, and be awful and great all at once, both/and.

I like teenagers. I like writing about them, I like writing for them, and I like reading about them. If you survive to adulthood, you were a teenager—it might be hard to tap back into those moments, that newness, that intensity, that “everything is important because it’s the first time, and everything is off the charts because that’s how my brain processes life,” because let’s face it, it is exhausting being so much of an emotional lightning rod all of the time. When I say “survive to adulthood,” I mean it can be pretty fraught to be a kid sometimes. It’s important to remember how you felt, how you thought, how you functioned then. You might be able to look at it from your adult perspective and say “Wow, I was a jerk, or I was confused, or I was an emotional mess, or I was so very wrong.” But I think it’s important to remember that you didn’t know that, you couldn’t know that yet, and you were doing the best you could, like most everybody, moment by moment. You were just trying to live a life that was baffling and fantastic and horrible and infuriating and wondrous by turns, tossed about on the tide of your changing physical and emotional body, learning, growing, changing, and charging ahead. Just like now, but with a lot more tossing tides and information being flung at you everywhere you turned.

Which is part of what makes it fun to write about. All those changes, all that information, all that intensity—how can I resist exploring it? Why would I want to? Throw in sociopolitical unrest and religious upheaval and magic, and I’m hooked every time. So I write my protagonists as teenagers and young adults, and I explore what happens when people who are still learning how to be people try to figure out what that means. I hope as I explore and open the conversation, others are reading and exploring and conversing with me. It’s a good ride, and I plan to keep on it for awhile longer.

Lindsey S. Johnson has an appreciation for dramatic flair paired with a sense of the ridiculous, which leads to things like getting a black eye via accidentally setting her sweater on fire when reaching for the wonton soup. She started telling stories to her best friend at an early age, mostly to justify creating elaborate forts for dolls.

Lindsey lives in Seattle with her significant other and two cats named after sorceresses. Why have one black cat named after a villainous magic-wielder, when you can have two? A Ragged Magic is her first published novel; she is currently at work on the second book in The Runebound series.

*Title is from the song “Are You Out There” by Dar Williams.