College Applications, Manuscript Submissions, and Lessons Learned

There was a big College Information Night at my son’s high school. There are still years to go before he’s ready, but he’s a planner.

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So we went.

Approximately 50 reps from colleges all over the country were there. They ran from big and big name schools (UCLA–the most-applied to school in the entire Unite States) to so small I don’t know how else we would have heard of them (Holy Cross–921 students, total).

We talked to lots of them, asking most of the same questions about GPA needed, acceptance rate, majors offered, class size, etc. The school my son most wants to go to had one of the biggest lines (guess others want to go there too). We waited quite a while to talk to the rep, who patiently repeated the same information over and over. (Seriously, why weren’t the parents just listening in while they were in line? But I digress.) While we waited, we grabbed their college brochure and started flipping through it. We noticed some more obscure majors listed for the school, ones my son was sorta interested in, and wondered if applying for one of those would make sense, instead of those which were sure to be the most popular/crowded/competitive. So we asked the rep, if our son were to major in, say Japanese, would that up his odds of getting accepted, as opposed to him majoring in engineering.

The rep waited not even half a second before answering flatly: “Major what you want to major in. Don’t apply to something you aren’t interested in.” And we felt stupid for considering it, or even asking about it. I did, at least.

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Now bear with me as I cut over to Manuscript Wishlist, an amazing resource where editors and agents tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. And I mean exactly. It’s a website as well as a “hashtag” (which means you can do an internet search for “#mswl” and up will pop the most recent posts about it). It’s fantastic because if you are working on a book, say, about kids and frogs you can type in “#mswl kids frogs” and see if there is an editorial match. If so, you know who you should add to your sub list! The more specific the less likely you’ll get a hit, but hey it’s worth a shot. One recent post from an editor, I swear, read “High-tech elves with internet while everyone else is trying to figure out the Iron Age.” It’s that specific.

Scanning the posts or website can be a fount of inspiration. Even if you don’t find a perfect match for your current work-in-progress, it can give you manuscript ideas. Knowing there is someone waiting for that topic/character/etc means you’re one step closer to acceptance! I’ve found myself creating and re-creating all kinds of story ideas from trolling around. Sometimes, I’ll see an element an editor shares about him or herself, and I’ll add that character tag to one of my main characters just so I can add in the cover letter, “Emma loves jelly beans just like you.” I’ve raced to complete a final product since I can almost taste the sweet reward of publication from an already-ready editor. Any edge helps, right?

But here’s the rub. It’s never panned out. The problem is, those stories I was working stories weren’t really my stories. The ideas weren’t my ideas. Even if I can run with a concept, my heart isn’t in someone else’s idea of what makes a great plotline. Just like picking a major just to get accepted at the school you might want to get into, a school you might not otherwise have a chance at, writing a story just to get published at a house that might not otherwise notice you is a waste of time. No one wins. Not you, not the editor or agent, and not the story.

The reader suffers too.

In that moment back at the college fair, I was struck by the similarities of the college app and manuscript submission process. We both search and search for the best fit, then send our submission package after years and years of hard work. (We also fret and fret after hitting the send button, having no control and no idea when we’ll hear back…)

All the time I spent creating those MSWL story ideas? It took me away from MY stories, the ones in my soul, the ones I WANT to write. I’ve wasted my time. I thought I was being clever. But I screwed myself. (Is it OK for me to be frank?)

I hope I haven’t been wasting your time with this analogy.  All this is to say: write the story you want to write. Write the story you need to write. Don’t waste your time writing the story that you think will get you a leg up in the industry.

Write the right one.

Yours.

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Setting Means More Than Location

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We recently moved. We are only a dozen miles from our last house, but it’s a world away. We went from “the middle of flippin’ nowhere” to “closer to society.” The drive time alone makes a huge difference to my peace of mind. But there are other, seemingly smaller things that have an impact on the everyday me.

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It got me thinking about setting. I’ve been writing more now, and have been hyper sensitive to what is going on around my main characters. Where a story takes place is more than location. It affects a person’s (or character’s) mood, mindset, and inherent and unknowingly learned truths.

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Let me give you some examples.

In the new house, I’m surrounded by things I’ve forgotten. Maybe I never realized how much I enjoy them. They include:

1. The sound of a lawnmower   lanmower

Country living provides the every-so-often drone of a far-off tractor. Or the faint hum of a riding mower. Now, hearing a lawn being mowed in close range reminds me there are people nearby. In my mind, when I hear the mower, I see a person pushing the mower. People–my neighbors–are up and about, caring about their yard and tending to it. It makes me feel like I’m part of the bigger picture. Had I not lived the rural life for the past 14 years, I probably wouldn’t even notice the sound. Or, it might make me crazy to hear it all the time. Maybe I’d wake in a fury if the buzzing was wafting through my open window at 7am on a Saturday. Now, though, I love it.

When your main character hears the whir of his next door neighbor’s lawnmower, how does he or she feel about it? And maybe more importantly, why?

2. The smell of cut grass                                                                                                     rotarymower

I’ve always thought heaven will smell like a freshly-cut lawn. That smell is so overwhelming wonderful to me, I can’t even tell you. And I get to smell it now! The sound of a lawnmower being pushed around next door is wonderful to me not only because of a sense of community, but because the soft wind will carry that lovely, earthy scent directly to my haven’t-smelled-that-in-ages nose. It smells divine. And I have the loud murmuring lawnmower to thank for it. rainbows from Amys window at delapre abbey

Does you main character even recognize the smell of grass? Why does where they live make a difference to their reaction?

3. Construction sounds                                                                                                 tractordirt

BEEPBEEPBEEP throughout the day might make one go mad. But now, I hear it and smile. It’s the sound of progress. It’s the sound of roads being made and homes (not houses) being built. It’s a harbinger of a future community, a community I can’t wait to be a part of. So bring on the beeping and pounding and shouting. It’s worth it.

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What would your main character think?

4. Blasted radios and shouts from construction workers

The daylong hustle and bustle is a welcoming noise to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a city-like atmosphere so shouting-over-the-banging reminds me of that simpler time in my life? Those sounds I hear today come from the very people that are making way for MY neighbors. No, I don’t like the chosen radio station and no, you shouldn’t park your truck in the middle of the road every morning, and would it kill you to walk five feet instead of shouting? But I know it’s temporary, and I know it’s the price to pay for the incoming greater good. These people made my home too. I don’t begrudge them; I thank them.

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How would your main characters react to construction going on down their streets? How do they feel about commotion they can’t control? Would they try to change it? How? Would they complain to a supervisor, write a letter, complain yet do nothing? Their reaction (or lack of action) is telling.

5. No ever-lingering horse-poo scent, no roosters, no windy roads, no driving three miles to get my mail and newspaper

Have you ever heard a real sheep? I swear to you, it sounds like some guy is standing out in a field going “BAA baaa BAA BAA.” It’s hilarious. Maybe I’ll miss that sound just because it makes me laugh. But probably not.

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Other frustrations are sure to replace the ongoing eau de manure we had at the old house. But I know for CERTAIN I will NEVER EVER EVER no matter what EVER miss hearing cock-a-friggin-do ALL DAY AND NIGHT. Whoever told you roosters cackle at the break of dawn is lying. ROOSTERS CROW ALL DAY EVERY DAY AND IT NEVER STOPS NOT EVEN WHEN YOU REMIND YOUR NEIGHBOR THAT FARM ANIMALS ARE AGAINST ASSOCIATION RULES. There are no chickens or roosters or horse droppings in my new suburbia. None. And that’s pretty flippin’ cool.

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How would your main character react to city racket vs urban din vs suburbian quiet? What are they used to hearing, smelling, seeing? Which do they prefer? Do they even realize they prefer one over the other?

These are just a few ways my outlook has changed since moving. I’m sure the fondness will wear off, but I’m thinking I’ll miss the clamor when construction ends. I really like being in the middle of things. It’s why we moved. If I hadn’t had all those years surrounded by our home on the range, I doubt I’d feel any of the above. I’d probably be tired of seeing garage doors and dream of moving out to the country.

Our stories need all this background too. Setting is more than location. It affects more than you think. Make sure your characters feel what they feel not just because it’s how you wrote it, but because it’s their truth.

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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some windows to open.