Archive for the 'M.K. Hobson' Category

09
Sep
10

The Pregnancy of Elephants (annotated)

If anyone ever tells you that the process of publishing a book is like an elephant pregnancy, you tell them they’re dead wrong. It’s actually like FIVE elephant pregnancies back to back.[1]

As my debut novel THE NATIVE STAR just hit bookstore shelves a little over a week ago, I thought it might be fun to go back through my old LiveJournal posts to remind myself of the path it traveled to publication. Having done so, I find that “fun” is probably not quite the word to use. “Harrowing” is maybe a better one. And “instructive” is the best of all. I’m recording this for every writer laboring toward that first sale, that first publication—that first whatever—who has ever thought, “I must be crazy, I must be doing something wrong, it shouldn’t be taking this long!!”

Well I’m here to tell you, it takes a long time to make a baby elephant. And it takes even LONGER to make five of ’em. So sit back, relax, and try not to cringe in horror as we hit the instant (hah!) replay button:

I first mentioned the book on my blog on 1/3/2002. As are most writers who are enthralled with a shiny new project, I was full of starry-eyed optimism:

So this is my first post of 2002. Whoopee. I may be somewhat less attentive to my LJ over the coming months because I am writing quite a lot on the new novel (a lite magical realism romp set in 1876, for those keeping score) and have been spending every second of spare time on that instead of on LJ.

I spent most of January and February on an epic writing binge:

1/15/2002:

Every spare moment has been spent writing on the novel. I’m up to 130 pages (woo hoo!)

1/23/2002:

300 pages, double spaced, 12pt courier, 1 inch margins. 50,000 words. Still lost in my alternate version of the 19th Century.

Indeed, I was writing at such a fast and furious pace, I took a whole week off from work to write on the book:

Monday, Feb. 5 – 282 pages (55,588 words)
Monday, Feb. 11 – 351 pages (71,757 words)
A very productive week. It’s all about the words, baby.

By the end of February (2/21/2002) I was trudging laboriously toward the finish line:

Now I’m in the hard slogging.

I have to write the last few scenes where all the darling little furbelows and fripperies that I’ve left dangling throughout the book have to be gathered up and tied together. I have a pretty good idea of how I’m going to do it, which automatically puts me ahead of the game (especially compared to some of my other novelistic forays, where I came to Chapter 20 and said … “well, shit, NOW what happens?”) , but it’s like executing a complicated french braid—the hair is slippery and there’s just so many pieces of it wisping around. Once I get all that done (oh, Lord) then comes the big polish. It’s all very rough right now, and is full of little memos to myself along the lines of “insert brilliant description of the wharves of San Francisco in 1876 here.”

Urgh.

Must … finish …

The exact date I finished the novel is not recorded, but I expect it was sometime in March. So, keep that fun fact in your mind. The first draft of the novel was completed in March 2002. Once the first draft was finished, I sent it around to the writers’ groups I was in at the time and got lots of good feedback on it. I revised and rewrote. Sometime in 2003 I deemed it complete enough to start submitting. I sent the first few chapters to the late Chris Bunch who gave me some ideas for fixing up the prologue to make it more exciting. I took his advice (of course I did!) and he liked my revisions enough to ask his editor if I could send the book to her.

7/16/2003:

Bunch got me an in with Jennifer Heddle [of Roc.] I am to send her the MS of “Native Star” asap. Marked “Requested Materials”, no less! This is enormous! I can actually send something to an editor at a major house marked “Requested Materials” and not have it be a baldfaced lie! (not that I’ve ever REALLY done that, but I’m sure every writer has THOUGHT of it …) Now we play the waiting game.

The book sat at Roc for a few months, until finally I heard something back on 1/20/2004:

Anyway, the news is that last week, Jennifer Heddle contacted me and told me that while she wasn’t into Old West stuff, she’d passed the book onto another editor who’s going to give it a look. An editor to editor pass … that’s gotta be good.[2]

While I was waiting on Roc, I wasn’t letting any moss grow on this rolling stone. I was out looking for agents.

4/22/2004:

Hey, I got a letter from Lucienne Diver at the Spectrum Literary Agency today! She’s willing to take a look at my series package. Which is cool. Except now I have to actually put it together. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. Book One is solid as a rock, nothing left to do there but sell it.[3] I’ve got half of Book 2 written, but more importantly, I’ve got a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline for it. But she wants an outline for the rest of the series, and that’s going to take a little work. I’ve got a broad, sketchy idea of what I want to do in Books 3-6, but since this is an “alternate history” series, and since it advances through time and reinterprets actual historical events in the light of the existence of magic, I have to actually think through what the Russian Revolution would have been like if one threw magic into the mix. Or the Cold War. Or the McCarthy trials. Or the advertising scene in New York the 1950s. It’s going to be hard to write good solid outlines for these books without putting in the research. So I guess I’ll just have to keep it all very high level and figure out the details later.

But those concerns aside, this is pretty encouraging. She’s the first agent I sent a query to, I’ve heard so many good things about her, and she works for an agency which is well respected.

Now we play the package-preparing game. Then we play the going-to-the-post-office game. Then we play the waiting game.

(Aw, the waiting game *sucks*. Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos!)[4]

But the road to becoming agented, like the course of true love, never does run smooth. A couple of months later on 6/10/2004:

I also got a reply back from Spectrum Literary Agency today.

Lucienne Diver said that she “love[s] the world” I’ve created. She says the novel is “different, fresh, and well-written.”

“Clearly, you’re a very talented writer,” the letter goes on to say. So far, so good.

Then it goes on to drop the proverbial hammer:

“That said, the narrative didn’t seem to have quite the drive, fast pacing and overarching menace that would keep the pages turning late into the night.”

Sigh.

Well, at least the blow was blunted by the good news from F &SF yesterday. And she did recommend that I send it to Jennifer Jackson at the Donald Maass Agency, which I will now proceed to do (it’s always nice to have a name to drop when you’re making contact – “so & so suggested I send this to you”.)[5]

While history (or at least my blog) does not record when Jennifer Jackson rejected it, I seem to recall that it was a pretty generic form rejection. Which left me feeling like I was way farther away from my goal than ever. But I kept at it. One of the agents I’d targeted was Ginger Clark, then at Writers’ House. After licking my no-love-from-Jennifer wounds for a while, I sent it along to Ginger. I got my first rejection from her in June of 2005, with an invitation to look at the book again if I wanted to do a rewrite. This sent me into stormy turmoils of newbie author despair on 6/25/2005:

Ginger Clark likes the way I write, but not what I’ve written. But it’s not all bad news. She’s invited me to revise and resubmit. I hate revising. TNS is so ingrained in my head now that I don’t even know how I’d begin to revise it. It’s like, I’ve been over it so many times, it would be like trying to revise “The Cat in The Hat.” Any change just wouldn’t feel right. So what the hell do you do? I think I’ll write something new and just scrap the fucking book. No, I won’t really do that.[6]

Ultimately, I located a pair of big-girl panties and executed the rewrites as she requested. By the end of the year, a revision was on her desk. After a few months considering the rewrite, she rejected me again, suggesting that I tighten some stuff up in the last half of the book, and again offering to look at it again after additional changes. I had another private hissy fit. But I took comfort in the fact that I seemed to be getting closer. Then she asked for a synopsis of Book 2 (now titled THE HIDDEN GODDESS), which I sent. And all the while, I continued to freak out. Now, however, the subject of my freak-outs had moved on to nonsensical shit like whether people would still be interested in reading historical fantasy WAY IN THE INCONCEIVABLY DISTANT FUTURE, LIKE SAY IN 2010!

11/16/2007:

Sigh. Trying to stay positive and focused … I sent Ginger Clark the synopsis for book 2 a week ago (Friday?) and she said she’d read it over the weekend and get back to me on Tuesday or Wednesday … well, Tuesday and Wednesday passed, and now it’s Friday, and I don’t got no news to take to Orycon, and … I’m just chewing my nails. I’ve been waiting so long already! It’s wait wait wait. I want Ginger to take me as a client, and I want her to sell my goddamn book, because it’s going to be a year to two years before I hold a fucking book in my hand and if she doesn’t fucking hurry up, the time will have passed and people will be sick of historical fantasy …

AAAAAAAA!

Deep breath. Deep breath. Keep the crazy on the inside.

And I did keep the crazy on the inside, people. To my credit. It’s only now that I’m sharing it with the world.

In December of 2007, I traveled to NYC on business and met with Ginger. And, lo and behold … SHE OFFERED TO REPRESENT ME! It was a singularly sweet moment, but not without it’s annoying caveats:

I went over to see Ginger Clark, and she said, “I’d like to represent you.” Which was pretty exciting, but then she said “And I want you to cut 5k out of The Native Star” which was slightly less exciting, but I can cut it all out of the front. I know I can. Chapter 1 is 7k words … I can get it down to 5. That’s 2k right there. She also wants some taken out of the train ride. I just have to look for fat (even fat I like) and get rid of it.

Sigh.

I promised her a revision by February. I’ll probably get it to her sooner than that, but at least I have 2 months. I wanted to avoid the holidays.

In February, I sent the revisions to Ginger as promised (I am nothing if not punctual.) She took a couple of months to read them, and by May of 2008 she deemed the book was ready to send out. Finally, things really started moving.

Jun. 9th, 2008:

Today is a red letter day. I received word from my agent that Juliet Ulman at Bantam has made an offer on my novels — she wants to buy them both. We haven’t heard back from any of the other editors yet. If we do, it will go to some kind of auction situation. If we don’t, we still have an awesome offer on the table.

This is the day I’ve been waiting for since … 1990? 1989? Since I had a novel to sell? And it feels good. But like revenge, it doesn’t really change anything. Life goes on, onward and upward.

But what would a red-letter day be without a bit of hand-wringing from me?

I have been waiting for this day for years and years. And yet here it is, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve gotten to the mountaintop, it feels like I’ve just seen how much more there is to climb. It’s not a discouraging feeling, precisely. But I thought I’d be more thrilled than this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not *unthrilled* … it’s just that this didn’t hit me all at once in a blast, it was one email, then another, then some banter … and it all built up into a book deal. And then it was like, “OK, we’re done, we have a deal” and I’m like … oh! Well! Good!

6/28/2008:

I just got off the phone with Juliet, and she is just as cool as everyone says she is. I am so excited to be working with her! (I mean, look at the awesome writers she works with: Barth Anderson, Tim Pratt, Eliot Fintushel, Greg Van Eekhout … the list goes on and on.) She gave me a quick rundown of what to expect from the publishing process. The first book will probably be coming out in Spring ’10, which means we won’t actually get started working until early ’09. Which seems an eternity now, but I have lots of stuff to work on between now and then, and I’m sure it will go faster than I expect.[7]

I signed the book contracts on Sept. 8, 2008. Six years after I completed the first draft of the book. And yet, the journey was by no means over. It would still be 2 more years before the first book came out. On November 20, 2008, I got the bad news that Juliet Ulman (who had acquired my book) had been the unfortunate victim of a round of layoffs. But the good news was that I had a new editor, Anne Groell. But the bad news was that she was going on maternity leave and wouldn’t be able to get started on my book until she got back. So I sat down to play the waiting game again. By this time I was getting pretty good at it.

The rest hardly bears reporting … there were copyedits and pageproofs, wranglings about the title for Book 2, but finally we got to the place where we are today. The novel ultimately hit the shelves just a couple of “seasons” later than originally predicted (the original pub date was Spring ’10, I ended up with a Fall ’10 release … considering all we went through, not too shabby.) I have copies that I can hold in my hand and love and hug and call George. It wasn’t fast, that’s for sure.

But like any elephant momma can tell you, it was certainly worth the wait.


#


[1]]The point being, of course, that elephant pregnancies take upwards of two years to come to term. Those poor, majestic beasts!
[2]]It wasn’t. The editor she passed it along never got back to me!
[3]]Ahem. As you’ll see, not everyone (*coughGINGERCLARKcough*) agreed with my assessment. And looking back, I am so goddamn glad of that. THE NATIVE STAR in 2004 was a far less accomplished product than the book that ended up being published in 2010. It’s called gestation for a reason, people!
[4]Yes, I was sick of the waiting game all the way back in 2004. Which just goes to show, you’d better learn to like the waiting game.
[5] It may be “nice” to have a name to drop, but it didn’t help much in this case.
[6] Once again proving the benefits of psychotic persistence!
[7] It didn’t, actually.

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31
Jul
10

Stranger in a strange land

If there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s feeling like a tourist. Before traveling anywhere, I will go to great lengths to research my destination, making myself a detailed folder containing transportation schedules, step-by-step directions to meeting locations, the hours of operation of each and every sight I wish to see. There’s more to this behavior than simple garden variety control-freakism. Namely, I don’t want to be seen as a tourist because being a tourist is dangerous. Being a tourist makes you vulnerable.

With the launch of my debut novel exactly a month away, I am feeling very vulnerable these days. Like one itty-bitty slipup, one small failure of planning, one saunter down the wrong dark alley, and everything could go horribly, horribly wrong. I’m aware that these emotions are not unusual for a debut author. And I’m also aware (painfully so) that my ability to control for a desired outcome is largely illusory. Sure, active author participation in a book’s promotion is hugely helpful. But lots of books with it have failed—and lots of books without it have succeeded. Fine.

But still, there’s still that nagging feeling of danger. Like a stranger in a strange land, a debut novelist suffers from one major disadvantage: you don’t know what you don’t know. Or, rather: you don’t know what the most important thing you don’t know is. Consider those two concepts side by side. You’ll see that there’s a big difference. Not knowing what you don’t know means showing up at a museum and finding it closed. Not knowing what the most important thing you don’t know is finding the museum closed AND that it’s shutting down for good and you’ll never be able to visit it again. Two pieces of information you didn’t have—and yet one has way more weight, more gravity, more consequence.

And that’s exactly what you have no way of judging when you’re fumbling your way through your first book promotion. The relative importance of specific unknowns. It’s easy enough to busy your feverish little brain with questions like: Have I contacted enough reviewers? Have I scheduled enough appearances? Have I come up with enough goodies? But the really scary, hard questions that will keep you awake at night are: What have I missed? What are the things that I didn’t even think to consider? What were the unknown unknowns, and how important was it that I know them?

This way, as you can see, lies madness.

To feel my way through this sometimes-terrifying virtual jungle, I find myself relying on the same tactics that tourists have for time immemorial. I watch the locals and ape them as respectfully as possible. I watch the other tourists, stealing their clever tricks and noting their trip-ups. I ask questions—but with the full knowledge that most of the answers are going to be contradictory, unhelpful, or downright wrong 99% of the time.

(In fact, it’s the answers from the people who sound most sure that are the ones that are most likely to be wrong. On a recent trip to NYC, I was trying to find a PATH station. One woman I asked told me with absolute, hand-on-the-bible certainty that I had to get into a cab and head directly to Penn Station. I did exactly as she was told, but was set straight by the cab driver, who got me to where I needed to be. So maybe the moral of this story is, only trust the cab drivers.)

Finally, when I’m really, really lost—I head for the U.S. Embassy. Unfortunately, I can’t quite figure out what the metaphorical equivalent of the U.S. Embassy is to a debut novelist. I know for a fact there ain’t no Marines coming with a helicopter to airlift me out. So here’s hoping I don’t get any more lost than I already am.

So, what do you think? What are your best hints for this starry-eyed tourist on her first trip to Debutville? What are the unknown unknowns that are most important to know? And don’t tell me “a prescription for lithium,” my husband has been trying that on me for weeks with no success.

12
Mar
10

The paradox of diminishing competency

You know, I’ve sold over 30 short stories to great publications, have a duology coming out soon from a well-respected New York publisher, and achieved a small degree of recognition and critical success. And yet, for some reason, I’ve never felt less competent as a writer. It feels like the work has gotten exponentially harder and the words I put on the page exponentially more sucky.

As you might imagine, this is very frustrating.

So I’ve been paying close attention to what more experienced writers have to say on this subject. Elizabeth Bear recently posted in her blog about how she’s becoming more comfortable with looser first drafts, pointing toward sentences like:

The old ways–the old respect–it might no longer be enforced with terror, but enough of it lingered that he did not entirely [blah blah blah he holds out some creepy droit de seignure hope for humanity].

Of this approach to drafting, she goes on to say:

Yeah, I’ll figure it out later. Apparently, as I get more comfortable with this professional writer on closed course thing, I also embrace It’s a draft it can suck with absolutely preternatural enthusiasm.

I really admire that attitude, so I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my own work. It’s definitely helped from increased-words-on-the-page point, but it also has its drawbacks. I find that it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the project when you’re not particularly excited about what you’ve already written. For me, it’s always been the excitement of having written a good beginning that drives me to completion. Changing the motivational driver to how good the piece will be … well, that requires a lot more faith than I currently have, and may be a more advanced trick than I’m ready for.

Anyway, I’m interested in all y’all’s experience. Tell me about your periods of extreme suckitude. Looking back, did they turn out to periods where your writing *actually* sucked—as the result of, say, creative staleness? Or were they periods when you *perceived* an increase in suckage simply because you’d learned to be a sharper critic of your own work? And most importantly, what strategies did you use to move forward?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. As far as me goes, I intend to go eat some pie. There’s nothing more inspiring than pie.

P.S. If you like that graphic above, it’s available for sale from Cafe Press on a coaster, button, teddy bear, apron, notebook … all sorts of things, really! See, I don’t gank images, I market them.

28
Jan
10

Writing Funny

Apparently, I write funny. When accused of this, I take “funny” to mean “ha-ha,” though it is possible that the speaker is referring to the fact that my handwritten “I”s are crowned with little hearts or that I WRITE IN COLD EMOTIONLESS CAPITAL LETTERS but that’s another blog post entirely.

Anyway, my most successful stories have been humor, and many high-level short story markets specifically note that they don’t receive enough humor. (This does not mean they don’t get enough submissions that try to be humorous, just that they don’t get enough that actually succeed.) So in this blog post I thought I’d share my years of wisdom with y’all about how to write funny.

  • First, practice drawing little hearts above your “i”s … aha! Got you! That was funny because you were expecting me to start off with some point about writing funny “ha-ha” and instead I gave you a point about writing “funny!” The utter unfunny-ness of the prior notwithstanding, the point I’m trying to illustrate is that humor (like horror) comes from carefully building up a specific expectation in the reader and then swiftly and utterly subverting it. This subversion of expectation triggers a feeling of delight and wonder in the reader, much like one experiences after playing 3-card monte on a seedy street corner in New Jersey and NOT getting mugged in an alley behind the Little Caesar’s afterward. Research indicates that the human laugh response was developed as a way of communicating to one’s primate homies that a situation that could have resulted in serious harm or danger (e.g., slipping on a banana peel) has been resolved without injury (except to the bum of the slippee) and so said homies are safe to lower their guard and relax. Isn’t that interesting? I am not even making that up.
  • Inappropriate emotional responses are totally funny. (This is kind of a corollary to the first point, but you’re living in a fool’s paradise if you think I’m going to start getting all taxonomical and shit. P.S. Profanity is comedy GOLD!) Whether it’s an overly-exaggerated response (think of Ignatius J. Reilly’s hilariously inappropriate attitude toward Myrna Minkoff in “A Confederacy of Dunces“) or a wryly understated response (think of Jeeves’ dry retorts to Wooster’s exuberant outbursts), interactions that are “off” emotionally will generally be taken as humorous or indicative of some kind of serious mental defect in the character. So tread with care.
  • Much of humor is in the choice of words. Words are hilarious. George Carlin did whole *acts* on nothing more than words and word choices. Slang and colloquialisms are a great place to look for humor. There’s nothing funnier than a 41-year old housewife saying “fo’ shizzle.” Ask my 11-year old daughter if you don’t believe me. Also, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no honor in humor. If other peoples’ words have gotten big laffs, then you should consider it your right and privilege to steal the funny right out of them whenever the opportunity arises. WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS? you ask, outraged. If your audience knows what you’re referring to, you have successfully picked the pocket of cool and you can now go buy yourself a hot dog. You’ve shared an inside joke and made your audience feel “with-it” (see “Ironic quotes around conscious anachronism,” e.g., T. Herman Zwiebel … MY GOD, IT’S TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN!) Warning: if they don’t get your reference, they will look at you like you’ve been raping muskrats.
  • Also, the arrangement. Sentence fragments are gut busters. As is overdescription for effect (e.g., instead of referring to “3-card monte” you refer to “3-card monte in New Jersey behind a Little Caesar’s.” Why is it funnier that way? Because New Jersey is ALWAYS funny, and so is Little Caesar’s. However, their pepperoni pizza is great when you’ve got a mighty hunger and just $5 in your wallet.) (See “Non-sequiturs”).
  • Puns are the humor equivalent of muskrat-raping. Shaggy dog stories are the devil’s hemorrhoids.  Feghoots are like farting loudly, and on purpose, at your mother’s funeral while bending over her open coffin. My favorite author from age ten to thirteen was a famous author we shall call Iers Panthony in the interests of anonymity (and because I don’t want to show up in his inbox in the form of a Google Alert, which might cause him to send a cadre of muskrat-raping thugs after me.)  Re-reading certain works by this famous author today, I have a hard time telling what bothers me the most: his casual pedophilia, hyper-creepy sex scenes, or his incessant use of puns. Of course, he’s made himself a nice little career mixing those unholy ingredients in varying proportions, but I encourage the reader to think of him as an anomaly. Do not think you can build a career like Iers Panthony’s in today’s post-Seinfeld world!
  • Pie. And Muskrat Raping. This is only my second “Magic District” post, but I swear to you now … I will mention “pie” in every one of my blog posts. One, because it’s fun to click that clicky box. Two, because it’s a complete non-sequitur and non-sequiturs are quite funny IN MODERATION. Overdone, they’re worse than puns. Finally, repetition is funny, and gets funnier the more times you do it, until you’ve done it too much and then it’s just horribly, horribly lame. Why do you think South Park stopped killing Kenny after Season 3? One, because it was harshing their buzz to come up with new ways to kill Kenny every week and Two, BECAUSE IT WASN’T FUNNY ANYMORE. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if it was ever really all that funny in Seasons 1-3.

That’s about all I have time for today. What do you think, readers? What are some rules for funny you’ve noticed? The first person to say “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog—few people are interested and the frog dies of it” gets a cadre of muskrat-raping thugs sent after them because that shit is just. not. funny. Fo’ shizzle.

14
Jan
10

Bringing it

Hello there, allow me to introduce myself. I’m M.K. Hobson and I’m one of these new Magic District bloggers you’ve been hearing all about. I was supposed to start blogging all the way back in December 2009 but I was in the midst of being attacked by book edits. This can be likened to death by a thousand paper cuts with copious quantities of Rockstar and other stimulants poured over them. But luckily, once the battle is over (assuming you’ve won) the wounds heal quickly and, even though your ears are ringing from lack of sleep and overcaffienation, there’s a delicious feeling of victory.

The book edits in question are for my forthcoming duology with Bantam Spectra. The first book, THE NATIVE STAR, is coming out later this year. It’s set in a magical America circa 1876, and features stones of power expelled by the consciousness of the earth, biomechanical flying machines, the transcontinental railroad, blood-sorcery, huge slavering slimy beasts called aberrancies, and, of course, young love.

When I’m not writing about biomechanical flying machines, slavering beasts, and young love, I enjoy walking my dog, debating anarchocapitalist political theory with my pinko pal Doug Lain, doing intros and readings for Podcastle (of which I am, apparently, a co-host), and participating in pie-eating contests. (I only added that last one so I could tick the “pie” ticky-box under “Categories.”)

Anyway, I’m excited about blogging here at The Magic District, and am looking forward to, as the kids say, “bringing it.”