Lessons from GUTGAA + My Secret Identity!

Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the first-round of Deana Barnhart's "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" blogfest this week! I was honored to serve as one of the GUTGAA first-round judges, and I was blown away by the level of talent in this contest.

I feel like I learned so much from this process. In particular, I learned this:


Seriously. I was given the task of whittling queries down from 40 to 10, and I nearly had a nervous breakdown from the stress. There were SO many good entries that I can't even fathom how agents sometimes sift through hundreds of queries a day. Not to mention all their other ridiculous duties, like revisions, pitch lists, contracts, negotiations... The list goes on and on.

I also learned this:


As one of the judges reading your queries, I can definitively say that you should NOT take it personally if your GUTGAA entry didn't get a vote. I loved SO many entries I wasn't able to vote for, and I think MANY of them will fare wonderfully during querying.

In addition to solid query-writing and a great concept, my top ten votes honestly came down to personal preferences, life experiences and other factors that are so subjective they aren't even measurable.

I think the other judges would agree. Thespians tend to gravitate toward drama stories, musicians tend to gravitate toward music stories... One query struck a chord with my six year-old self so perfectly that I had to vote for it, while others that were great just didn't "connect" with me quite so viscerally.

If anything, this process just confirms to me that we shouldn't take agent rejections so personally. I know everyone says that--and writing is so personal it's easy to blow it off--but I'm now a firm believer in it.

As aspiring authors, I think we tend to judge agents as "good vs. bad" computers. If they request pages, it's because our writing is good. If they reject us, it's because our writing is bad. But if we take a step back and view agents as unique, flawed and complex PEOPLE, we start to understand that they bring all their personal interests, experiences and baggage to the table as well.

Also, I really think it's true that agents have to LOVE our books in order to sign us. It's not enough for them to simply think they are well-written. (My agent has already read my novel ESSENCE four times, and we just signed our contract in June. I can't imagine having to be that dedicated to a book I liked, but didn't love.)

Being on the "other side of the curtain" was certainly an experience, and I can't thank Deana enough for allowing me to be part of this. I also can't thank the other first-round judges for their hard volunteer work and dedication. And lastly, I want to thank all the participants for being brave enough to put yourselves out there like you did. You guys are so creative and passionate and encouraging; I can't even tell you how inspired I am by you.

P.S.- For those of you who are wondering, I will go ahead and spill the beans. I was one of the judges assigned to Deana's Picture Book / Chapter Book / Middle Grade / New Adult blog, and my secret code name was... Sugar Magnolia! 

I hope you guys thought my comments were helpful, and I'm so excited that 9 of my 10 votes made it to the agent round. I can't WAIT to buy these books some day!

GUTGAA Meet and Greet!

Photo Courtesy of Deana Barnhart
Hi everyone! My name is Lisa Ann O'Kane, and I am one of the first-round judges in Deana Barnhart's GUTGAA blogfest. Here are my meet-and-greet answers, and I can't wait to hop around and meet you as well!

Q: Where do you write?

A: I would kill for a proper writing space--or even a proper writing desk--but right now, my office is my laptop in my lap. I usually write in a comfy recliner, but I sometimes camp out on my kitchen table as well. As long as I have Nag Champa incense or Yankee candles, I am good to go!

Q: Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?

A: There is a window to the left of my kitchen table, and it looks out to cottonwood trees, rose bushes and a very dilapidated turquoise shed.

Q: Favorite time to write?

A: Late at night. I love the calm and stillness, and there is something creative about the realization you're the only one awake in the house.

Q: Drink of choice while writing?

A: Tea! Earl Grey, Jasmine Green, Pumpkin Chai... The list goes on and on.

Q: When writing, do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?

A: I have a very specific playlist I listen to when I write. Carla Bruni, Bebel Gilberto, the Shins, Bob Dylan, Ugly Cassanova... The music has to strike a perfect chord with me, or else I find it distracting. (I also love to assign songs to my characters. Although I don't usually write and listen to these songs at the same time, I play them other times when I want to find inspiration.)

Q: What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?

A: The inspiration for my latest manuscript ESSENCE came to me randomly. (See my full pitch here.)

I was in Vail with my husband to watch a friend of ours get inducted into the Snowboard Hall of Fame last winter. There were tons of early '90's snowboarding legends there, and I was struck by how poorly many of them had aged. Some had mobility issues (thanks to the beatings they put on their bodies), some had substance abuse withdrawal issues, and many others just seemed "different."

I turned to my husband at one point and said, "It's weird. It's almost like these guys were given a certain allotment of life, and they've already used theirs up."

BAM. The rest of my story came to me like lightning.

Q: What's your most valuable writing tip?

A: Don't listen to too many people's advice. Writing is personal, and you need to have faith in yourself and in the process. Valuable insight can certainly be gleaned from other people, but limit your inner circle to only a handful of people whose opinions you really trust. Nothing squelches creativity like too much conflicting advice from well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

So, there you have it! I can't wait to meet the rest of you!

I Won a Partial Request + Liebster Blog Award!

Oh my goodness, July has been CRAZY. Thanks to Deana Barnhart's fantastic "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" Blogfest, I have met tons of new blogging friends, I have tweaked my query letter, I have received fantastic feedback on my first five pages from author Lora Rivera, I have tweaked my first 200 words, and I just learned that literary agent Kathleen Rushall is interested in reading my partial manuscript based on my submission into Deana's final Blogfest contest! (Whew, longest sentence ever!)

Check out Deana's final "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" Blogfest post: Novel Contest Winners and a THANK YOU!!!.  Is anyone else feeling GUTGAA withdrawals already??

In other news, this Blogfest has also introduced me to A.N. Villasante.  Her young adult fantasy, The Farm, sounds fantastic (check out her first 200 words here: GUTGAA Week 4 First 200 Words), and she was generous enough to bestow me with the Liebster Blog Award.  (That means "friend" in German; Google just told me that. ;))

The goal of this award is to spotlight up and coming bloggers who currently have less than 200 followers. The rules of the award are:

1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
2. Reveal your top 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!

Because I have just met soooo many amazing bloggers, this award is EASY, and I can't wait to spread the love.  Here are my five Liebster pics; check out their blogs if you'd like to meet some noteworthy up-and-comers!

1. Kate Larkindale is a writer, cinema manager, film reviewer and mother to two boys.  She also just wrote a kick-ass YA contemporary, Chasing the Taillights, that I really, really can't wait to read someday.
2. Robin Weeks just wrote such a clever opening to her YA urban fantasy, GEAS, that I'm already hooked.  Half-human pixies snagged by paparazzi while wearing gym shorts?  Who would have thought it??
3. Angela Cothran gives great advice, and her novel, The Alabaster Refugee, has such a compelling opening that I can almost smell the grass and overgrown brush.
4. Christa has written this amazing book, Manhole, that bravely tackles the horrific and tragic subject of rape through the point of view of the rape victim's boyfriend.  Gives me shivers just thinking about it, and it I think it's a book that really needed to be written.
5. Rachel Dillon's novel, The Lion Within, explores some interesting internal changes that take place when her main character Renna is bitten by a ravenous, blood-thirsty lion.  Such a unique idea, and did I mention Rachel is also an amazing artist??

There you have it!  Thanks again to everyone who made the GUTGAA Blogfest such an incredible success...  I'm SO happy I participated!

My First 200 Words Have Made it to the Finals + Belugas, Belugas, Belugas!

The final week of Deana Barnhart's amazing "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" Blogfest is drawing to a close, and the first 200 words of my young adult novel, The Mermaid Gene, have made it to the finals!

Wow, after last week's whirlwind, I am so honored to be included in the Top Ten again. The other finalists are amazing, and I can hardly wait for their books to take flight! Check out their entries here: Kathleen Rushall Interview Part 2 and Novel Contest Finalists, and also check out the great interview with one of this week's judges, literary agent Kathleen Rushall. Thanks again to Deana for organizing and being the maestro of this event; this has been so much fun!

Because my first 200 words are already listed on the post below, I will resist reprinting them in favor of waxing poetic about beluga whales for a few minutes.  My novel's main character, Kai Murphy, is sent to Alaska to study them, and they just happen to be some of my favorite animals on Earth.  (Convenient coincidence, don't you think??)

Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Although Kai's research team is fictional, Cook Inlet's beluga whales are very real.  They were listed as endangered in October of 2008, and I became obsessed with their struggles when I moved to Alaska in June of 2007.  I volunteered on a beluga whale outreach team until I got my job at the Alaska Zoo, and I even submitted public comments during a scary NOAA public forum about the designation of critical habitat during the summer of 2009!

(I won't get political or preachy on you here, though.  The beluga whales' struggles are complicated and multi-dimensional, and beluga whale management is a sensitive and sometimes polarizing issue.  If you'd like to learn more about the belugas and form your own opinion, here's a great link to their struggles and backstory, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Conservation Plan for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale.)

I will, however, give you a little background on why I love beluga whales so much. :)

Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Recognized by their distinctive white skin, Cook Inlet’s beluga whales are a well-known Alaskan icon. Growing to lengths of 10-15 feet and weights of 3,300lbs, they are characterized by robust, stocky bodies. A thick layer of blubber insulates them against the cold, and the absence of a dorsal fin allows them to move just below ice sheets without obstruction.

Cook Inlet’s belugas have been separated from the belugas of the Alaska’s North Slope for thousands of years, and they have developed many key biological differences—like enlarged foreheads and highly advanced echolocation systems, which they use to navigate through the inlet’s murky waters.

Courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons
Did you know?? 
  1. The English name "beluga" comes from the Russian word belukha, which translates into "white." Belugas are also known as white whales. At birth, beluga calves are generally dark gray. They gradually lighten with age, and upon reaching maturity, attain the white coloration characteristic of adult belugas. This white coloration protects belugas from predators by camouflaging them among the icebergs and ice floes of northern seas.
  2. A highly social species, beluga whales are extremely vocal. Long ago, scientists and sailors gave
    beluga whales the nickname "sea canaries," due to the birdlike sounds these whales make.
  3. Belugas are among the few whales that have un-fused neck vertebrae. This feature makes their necks quite flexible and gives their heads a wide range of motion.
  4. Belugas can swim both forward and, unlike most other whales, backward.
Wanna know more?  These four fun facts are courtesy of Sea World's ANIMAL BYTES, and you can learn more about beluga whales here: Sea World Beluga Whale Infobook.  Happy Reading!!

My Query is the Winner! + Week Four of the GUTGAA Blogfest

I am beyond excited that Lora Rivera picked my query letter as the grand prize winner during Week Three of Deana Barnhart's "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" Blogfest last week. I received so much helpful query advice from everyone, and Lora just finished my free five-page critique, so I feel jazzed, refreshed and ready to take on some agencies! (Check out Deana's blog announcement here: GUTGAA Query Winner! + Final Week Around the Corner.)

Lora's feedback was invaluable, and I am so appreciative for the time and effort she and Deana have put into making this Blogfest a success. I am also indebted to the talented writers who have stopped by to give me so much great advice. What a great opportunity to hone our skills, meet other bloggers, build our platforms and learn about all the other awesome stories in the works!

Week Four of the Blogfest has now begun, and this week, we are all posting the first 200 words of our manuscripts in order to receive feedback. Two winners will be announced at the end of this week, and each will receive either a query and 30 page critique from agent Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, or a 10 page critique from Monica Bustamante Wagner, YA writer represented by Michelle Wolfson of Wolfson Literary.

Here are the first 200 words of my YA urban fantasy, THE MERMAID GENE, and thanks in advance for your help!

Photo Courtesy of marfis75

The dolphin twists sideways in my arms. Eyeing me through one widened, gleaming black eye, she opens her blowhole and gurgles. Her voice sounds breathless and weak, and the tips of her flukes feel hot against my fingertips.

“What are you waiting for, Kai? Tighten up on her, or she’s gonna bolt.” My father’s warning booms from a nearby research vessel as I struggle for footing in the tea-stained waters of Tampa Bay. “Do it quick; she’s baiting you.”

The concern in his voice sends a fresh wave of anxiety grinding through me, and I wrinkle my nose in protest as I realize the truth of his words. Growing up watching him perform countless catch-and-release medical exams just like this one, I know researchers only have four, maybe five seconds to restrain a bottlenose dolphin before it fights back and escapes capture.

Wrapped around this animal’s tail, I should follow protocol by pulling her flukes into my chest and bracing myself for her inevitable thrashing. Instead, I find myself lost in her plaintive, lucid eye contact. Her pupils, shrunk into tiny circles in the sunlight, roll back and forth as she cranes her head, and a shallow scar splits the silvery bulge of her forehead.

Hesitating, I loosen my grip on her dorsal ridge and exhale. Poor thing’s exhausted. Isn’t even fighting anymore.

That's my first mistake.