Archive for April, 2015

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Like all things pertaining to writing a novel, or just writing creatively, knowing if you are a crazy person does not come automatically or easy. I mean, think about it … you’ve chosen to be a writer. You must be half-way crazy from the get-go.

So how do you know? Talking to yourself? All writers do that. Having invisible friends? Yeah, we do that, too. Making up elaborate stories, including all the behind-the-scenes details and even what everyone was thinking? That’s sort of the whole point of writing.

You see the dilemma. However I think I can help. I recently made a writing decision which seemed perfectly reasonable at the time – a natural decision based on the facts given and the options available to me. But upon reflection this decision clearly indicates that I am a crazy person. So please attend as I explain, and if you find yourself making a similar decision you can rest assured that you are also crazy.

So, my daughter and I finished our first joint novel. As a consequence we have been querying and otherwise carrying on in every effort to secure an agent and, ultimately, publication. To that end I have been reading everything I can get my hands on to help me understand the process, and that includes a great deal of advice from agents and fellow writers who have been published. Some of that advice has to do with what one should be working on next while they query – because everyone agrees, you don’t stop writing.

Now, there are two categories of novel writers: those who have written a stand-alone novel, and those who have written a novel with sequels in mind (in query parlance, we call these novels “Stand alone, with series potential”). We are firmly in the latter category. While we didn’t have plans to write a series when we started, ideas for additional books occurred to us as the story evolved. So now we’re writing a series. Not only that, but I came up with an idea for a spin-off series for a younger audience, following the little brother of the main character.

Here’s where my decision came in.

Some people say you should be well into the next book in your series when you query your first book, to show prospective agents you’re serious and committed (not mentally committed; that comes later). Also, in the unlikely event you actually do find an agent interested in your book, they are going to be more likely to make a deal with a publisher if the publisher doesn’t have to wait forever for the sequel.

On the other hand, many people suggest that your second book should be completely unrelated to your first. The theory here is that if you get a book deal for your first book and that book sells poorly, the publisher may take a second chance on you with a new book, but not with a sequel to a lemon.

So which way does one jump? To sequel or not to sequel? I’m writing in my spare time only, between family and two jobs; my writing time is pretty limited so I have to choose wisely how to spend it. This is the point at which I made the afore-mentioned decision.

I decided I’m going to do both – write the sequel to our first book and the first book in the other series. I’m clearly crazy. And you can see why, can’t you? Clear as day.  It’s too late for me, obviously, but with luck you can stop yourself before you are too far gone.

You’re welcome.

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I recently exposed myself, publicly.

Well, my manuscript, actually. And not precisely “publicly” – it was to a select panel of judges, who kept it among themselves. But I felt just as vulnerable and naked.

The odd thing is, I’ve eagerly pressed this full manuscript into the hands of strangers many times before now, and begged for pages of harsh feedback. And this – this was literally only 285 words. Exactly. So what made this different?

This was for a pitch contest. Two contests, actually, that ran almost simultaneously. In both cases a few dozen entries were selected from among the entrants to be ultimately showcased for a group of agents. These contests historically result in a pretty high percentage of manuscript partial and full requests from those agents. But the selection process is pretty nerve-wracking. For any of these sorts of contests there are several “teams” of editors or authors and their “slushies” or assistant readers, and they all love to tweet hints and clues about what they’re reading and what they like all during the selection process. Sometimes there are several stages of these. And if you’ve sent in your 35-word pitch and fist 250 words of your manuscript, you tend to haunt the Twitter feed, hoping to catch a tweet suggesting someone has read and liked your manuscript. “This MG fantasy has a terrific voice and such an original premise! Love it!” Well, hell, there could be thirty MG fantasies entered in the contest. It doesn’t mean anything.

Except that it totally does. You crave the validation. I mean, look, you already took a huge risk putting your newborn baby out there, exposing it to judgement by strangers and the very real – very likely – possibility of utter rejection. You’re playing the lottery with your manuscript where it seems perfectly reasonable to assume your odds are way better of getting an agent to take an interest than just blindly sending out query letters. But unlike the randomness of a lottery, these contests are won or lost by the judgement of the readers.

In many ways, the selection process is harsher than blind querying. With a query, you get to write a letter where you can craft a sales pitch and talk about the highlights of your story and your writing career. In these contests, you get a pitch and a page. And the majority of entries must be passed over. The judges will tell you over and over again that not getting chosen isn’t necessarily an indication that your pitch and story are bad. There may be three other MG Fantasy entries featuring dragons, and each team is only allowed to pick five total manuscripts. They have to chose their favorites.

The word they use more often than any other to describe this process is “subjective.” The choices are based on the feeling of the judges, not on facts. This is art. You can’t weigh and measure and analyze each entry and rank them according to some formula. They either speak to the judges or they don’t. And some entries speak louder to certain judges than others.

Our manuscript was not chosen for either contest. Lots of other people’s manuscripts were chosen. Lots of other MG Fantasies, in fact. Just not ours. And you have no choice but to accept that outcome – some of these people have been polishing their pitches and manuscripts a lot longer than you have; lots of them have entered many more of these contests than you have. Lots of people are entering their second or third book. Naturally other people are going to have manuscripts with more appeal than yours. It’s all subjective, right?

It still hurts. No point in denying it. You wouldn’t be human – or much of a writer – if you were completely emotionally detached from your creation. You get over it, because you didn’t really get your hopes up, right? You didn’t expect to win, really. So it’s okay. You’ll embrace the feedback and make your 35/250 better for the next contest. Live goes on.

But then you read some of the winning entries, and it hits you: “How did that get chosen? Who thought that was better than mine? That pitch doesn’t even make sense! And the first page – mine has way cleaner dialogue and humor.” You feel betrayed, somehow. “What’s wrong with my manuscript? What’s the fatal flaw? What has this manuscript got that mine hasn’t got?” That lovely concept of “subjectivity” just bit you on your exposed ego. It works both ways.

This is where the gift of objectivity comes in. The fact is, this manuscript appealed to this judge on this day during this particular contest for any number of reasons – maybe they chose it because of one turn of phrase, or the opening line reminded them of their own writing, or they just liked the basic premise a tiny bit more than your premise. The fact is, this doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your manuscript. It doesn’t even mean yours isn’t as good. The fact is, yours may have been number six on their list. And so it is with agents and blind queries. There are a hundred reasons why a particular agent might not fall in love with your manuscript, most of them are subjective.

It’s the gift of objectivity that ultimately lets you continue to believe – to know – that your manuscript is worthy and wonderful and destined for greatness. You will continue to tweak it, of course – apply what the winners have in common.  But you will be making a good thing even better, not fixing something that is broken. The contest didn’t change our manuscript from a winner into a loser. It just showed us what one group of judges liked this week.

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When my daughter and I were writing our first novel, The Last Princess, I had already written a novel on my own.  I started it in High school and didn’t type “The End” until over 20 years later.  182,000 words later.  I learned a great deal about writing in those 20 years – how to write natural dialogue, how to build tension, how to show instead of tell, how to vary sentence structure, how to foreshadow and deliver on a promise, and hundreds of other little things that eventually become second nature to a writer who writes.  But one thing, possibly the key thing, I neglected to learn was how to plot a novel.

I realized this long after I had put my first book in the drawer.  I knew it was un-marketable, but not precisely why.  Other than the length, of course.  So when I started on my second novel with my daughter I knew I needed to learn how to structure a plot.  I bought several books, but none of them really helped.  There was all of this talk about the difference between a plot and a story, and lists of the classic plots, and so forth.  None of it stuck.

Then I started listening to Writing Excuses, a weekly podcast hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler.  The podcast referenced Dan Wells’ 7-Point Story Structure on YouTube.  Five short ten-minute clips of a single lecture, and I beheld the elusive mystery of Plot!

We were already three or four chapters into The Last Princess at this point, having written by the seat of our pants (aka “pantsing”) until we figured out where the characters wanted to go.  But we had reached the point where we couldn’t go any further until we had the rest of the book plotted.  So overnight I went from a pantser to a plotter and created a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of our book.

Now that we are querying The Last Princess we’re ready to begin working on the sequel, The Last Faerie Godmother, and this time we’re going to start with an outline. So I am revisiting Dan Wells and his Magic Story Structure, and I thought I would share it with you.  Because I’m like that.

Here are the seven plot points, defined.  I also include where these points fall in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a common example most of you will be able to see (because most of you have read it):

(1) HOOK “Establish characters and starting state.”

This fairly self-explanatory; this is the point when your main character or characters and their situation are described.  This may or may not be the first chapter.  Usually is.  [In Harry Potter, this is where we meet Harry and see him living under the stairs.]

(2) PLOT TURN 1“Call to action.”

Also known as the “inciting incident.”  This is when the primary conflict is revealed: what the hero must do and what is at stake if he/she fails.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns he’s a wizard and goes to Hogwarts.]

(3) PINCH 1 “Put pressure on characters; force action.”

Sometimes your hero needs a nudge.  Characters are often reluctant to undertake what they must do, or are somehow prevented from starting.  This is the point when you build the pressure and make it clear the problem isn’t going to go away on its own.  This is often a good place to double down on what is at stake if the hero fails, or just demonstrate that the problem is real.  [In Harry Potter, this is when the troll attacks and Harry and his companions realize only they can stop it.]

(4) MIDPOINT“Move from reaction to action.”

This is a key moment in the story – and despite the name, it does not necessarily need to occur in the exact middle of your book.  This is the point when your hero stops stalling or overcomes what’s blocking them from acting, and gets busy.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry learns the Sorcerer’s Stone is at Hogwarts and Volermort is after it.  Harry and his companions decide to find the stone themselves to protect it.]

(5) PINCH 2 “Really lay on the pressure; hero on his/her own.”

Applies pressure to the story and the hero, usually through a great loss.  Also known as the Dark Night of the Soul or the Jaws of Defeat.  This is often represented by the loss of a mentor.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry loses his companions on the way to finding the Sorcerer”s Stone and is on his own with the scary bad guy.]

(6) PLOT TURN 2“Get the last piece of puzzle.”

This is where the hero finally learns they have the power to solve the problem at hand.  [In Harry Potter, this is when the mirror reveals Harry’s motives are pure and gives him the Sorcerer’s Stone.]

(7) RESOLUTION“Winning!”

Obviously, the resolution of your story.  This does not mean your hero succeeds.  Many books are about heroes that fail and then exploring the consequences of failure.  [In Harry Potter, this is when Harry defeats Voldermort.]

Points 1, 4 & 7 are meant to work together – Hook, Midpoint and Resolution.  This is the heart of your story.  Knowing your Resolution in advance, you work backwards to your where your story begins (Hook) and the determine the journey (Midpoint).  The two Plot Turns (2 & 6) are where your characters are spurred into motion; they carry you from Hook to Midpoint, and Midpoint to Resolution.  And the two Pinches (3 & 5) are where you apply pressure to your hero.

This structure will work with virtually any genre or style of book – romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, and so on, and any age group, too (excluding very short children’s books and picture books).  An excellent exercise is to take a favorite or popular book and find where these plot points occur in them.  Dan Wells does this in his lecture, breaking down Pride and Prejudice, Othello, The Tell-Tale Heart, and others.  If you’re especially brave, you can put your own finished books to the test.

With this handy crib sheet in-hand I was able to plot out The Last Princess fairly easily.  I defined the action that would represent each of these events in the story, and then filled in the action between, roughly breaking the whole up into chapters.  By the time we were finished very little had changed from our initial outline.  We did decide to move the death of her mentor after her triumph, because we wanted her motivation to be her own breakthrough of character, rather than a knee-jerk reaction to the death of a loved-one.  So we replaced Pinch 2 with a different motivation and scene.

Now, I am about to pull that same rabbit out the hat again and plot The Last Faerie Godmother.  Because, unlike our first book, I am not comfortable diving in blind.  We know the characters, now.  We know the world and our characters’ relation to it, and we have very specific ideas about what needs to happen in this book.

Watch this space!  I will post our outline as soon as we’re happy with it.

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Around February, when we finally got the last of our beta notes back and made the last of our edits to The Last Princess, I worked up the nerve to start sending out query letters to agents. I invested in one of the online lectures available through the Writer’s Digest website — about writing query letters — and was introduced to the concept of the logline. A logline is a 2-3 sentence thumbnail of your novel which you put in the first paragraph of your query, to entice your agent-of-choice to read on. If distilling your entire novel into a one page synopsis seems daunting, then again even further into a paragraph for the body of the query letter, the logline is ten times as challenging. Because, it turns out, this is probably the single most important tool you have to interest an agent. It has to be perfect.

This was my first attempt:

A homeschooler with the ability to see fairytale creatures living among us must abandon her dreams in order to stop a ruthless changeling from using his magic to rule both worlds.

I quickly discovered the Twitter writing subculture, and immersed myself in twitter pitch contests. I don’t know which came first: the idea of the 35-word pitch or the various pitch contests that use them as your entry, but it seems that 35 words has become the industry standard for the logline, more commonly called the pitch.

Some of the things I learned were that it is important to indicate the age of your character as a way to define your book’s category. In our case, middle grade. Also, you must clearly indicate the stakes – what the main character has to loose if they make the wrong choice or fail. This led to a new version:

A 12yo with the ability to see fairytale creatures living among us must abandon her chance of becoming their princess and embrace her troll heritage to stop a ruthless changeling from dominating both worlds.

Better. But further coaching pointed out that one long sentence is difficult to follow. Better to break it up into two, or even three. And it is good to call your main character by name:

Twelve-year-old Cat sees the descendants of fairy-tale creatures living among us. To stop a ruthless changeling from dominating both worlds Cat must abandon her dream of becoming the fae princess and embrace her trollish qualities.

I got a lot of feedback on this version. Mainly people liked the premise and the set-up of the first sentence, but failed to see the connection between that and the second sentence. Why must Cat abandon her dreams of being a princess? What does “both worlds” mean? Is Cat a changeling too, since she’s both a princess and a troll? Back to the drawing board:

Because twelve-year-old Cat can see the fairy-tale creatures among us she might become their princess. But to defeat a power-hungry goblin and rescue her friend she must acknowledge her trollish heritage, crushing her princess dreams.

Getting closer. We have the MC, her age, the premise, the choice she must make and the stakes if she fails. But what would really push this over the top would be to inject some emotion into the pitch. And icing on the cake, get some “voice” in there – make this match the flavor of the book. In order to fit in the extra words needed to accomplish this I dropped the wordy reference to Cat being able to see the hidden fairy-tale creatures. While I felt this concept was key when I started this process, I now realized it was actually minor to the overall plot. Also, I was beginning to loathe the word “creatures:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when fairy-tale people crown her their princess. But when a power-hungry goblin kidnaps her BFF, she must embrace the anguish of her Trollish heritage and forsake princess-hood to save her.

This is the pitch I entered into #PitchSlam, another Twitter pitch contest with feedback. The coaches quite liked this one; the voice and emotion came through loud and clear. But they all felt there was too much going on. They also wanted to understand more clearly why she needed to give up being a princess. Okay, time to trade in some more words. Another thing I realized was that the bad guy was himself not as important as what he does – kidnaps Cat’s friend. So I made one last tweak:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie folk crown her their princess. But she must embrace the heartbreak of her Trollish heritage to rescue her kidnapped BFF, and nobody wants a troll for a princess.

When I submitted this final version for comment, I was rewarded with universal praise from half a dozen people. And I am very happy with this one. I think I’ll keep it. The thing about this pitch is, when I look at it now, it seems so effortless and obvious. Like how else would I pitch my book? And that’s the reason I think I finally have a winner.

What I’ve learned about the all-important 35-word pitch is that nobody expects you to pop one out at will; they are hard and everybody knows it. That’s part of their value – to demonstrate your commitment to your book and your craft. I came up with this pithy analogy the other day, while haunting the Twitter feeds waiting for feedback: Writing a query synopsis is like building a miniature of your entire novel out of Legos. Writing a pitch is like doing that with only 35 words.

Good luck.

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You may not know my name or recognize me as an accomplished author. Nevertheless I write this, I think, with a certain amount of authority. Not a great amount, to be sure, but some amount. I have, after all, written quite a number of novel beginnings.

Just the one novel, of course. But a lot of beginnings.

In fact, I have written two complete novels, and started more than that number. But the first novel I actually finished (many years ago, before I had studied the mysteries of “plot”) had one of the most clichéd beginnings known to Man – the exciting action sequence that turns out to be the end of a story being told by the main character. This is a less common variation of the ever-popular flashback/dream-sequence school of beginnings. I doubled down on that oh-so-clever beginning by ending the novel with the main character starting to tell that same story the novel began with. Because book-ends are cool.

But even before I had finished that book I knew it was not commercially viable. It was too long for a first-time author; no agent would have touched it. It was also not very good. The recent novel I co-wrote with my daughter, on the other hand, is commercially viable (we hope), and because we had every intention of getting this in front of as many agent’s as necessary, the beginning was something we devoted a lot of attention to.

What many unpublished writers do not know is that their entire novel is going to be judged based on just the first three chapters, or one chapter. Or 250 words. That 250 words thing really snuck up on us. As novices we believed three chapters was the standard for agent submissions; as long as we got to our inciting incident by the end of chapter three, we were golden. But a lot of agents specify a much shorter amount of your manuscript to include when you query. Plus agents often read through dozens or even hundreds (!) of queries in a given day, and if yours doesn’t stand out right away, it gets passed over. Busy agents will never make it to the end of three chapters if they aren’t hooked in the first five pages. Or one page.

That’s where the 250 words comes in. That is considered to be roughly your first page. Never mind if it isn’t. This magic number comes up again and again in writing and querying circles. As I have discussed at length here in the past, Twitter is a fantastic resource for querying authors, because that is where you will hear about most of the regular pitching contests, which ultimately serve the purpose of helping you polish your pitch – including your first 250. While some of these competitions are for the prize of being considered by an agent, many of them are for a chance to be mentored or critiqued by fellow writers. Some are both.

One contest – Pitch It Forward – was specifically for critiques, and the winners were all posted where other participants and fellow winners could comment. This is a great opportunity to see what your fellow writers are doing, and see what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned about killer beginnings:

• Establish your main character
• Establish your setting
• Establish your voice
• Establish your conflict
• Make a promise to the reader (which you must fulfill before the end)
• Make the reader want to know what happens in the next 250 words – and the next 2,500 words.

What do I mean by making a promise? Every story promises (or should promise) to thrill you, or frighten you, or make you laugh. It may promise to reveal the secret history of the world, or what life is like in space or as a superhero or as a vampire. You want to make that promise (those promises) In the first 250 words.

You have, no doubt, heard a number of rules that you “must” follow:
• Always start with action
• Show, don’t tell
• No info-dumps

You will already have favorite books you can cite that break some or all of these rules. So do I. Don’t count on getting away with it. But these rules are subjective. Action doesn’t necessarily mean a car chase or a zombie with an ax. It could be news that a loved-one died, or some small thing that changes everything. It is something that hooks the reader and draws them into your story. Talking about your character or their situation rarely does that. Not never, but rarely. These three points are really all saying the same thing.

There are cliche’s to avoid:
• Don’t start with dialogue
• Don’t start in the middle of a battle
• Don’t describe your character by having them look in a mirror
• Don’t start in a dream or a flashback

The problem with dialogue and battle openings are really the same thing. With dialogue you don’t know who is speaking and you can’t properly “hear” the speaker’s voice until you describe them. With a battle, you don’t know why the people are fighting or what’s at stake, so you don’t care. The other two are just overdone and unoriginal. You can break all of these rules, but you must be exceptionally clever or original about it to make it work.

But all of these rules and guidelines and suggestions only work if you know where your book is going and what is it about. If ultimately your book is about, say, “being true to yourself,” you should make that case right up front. This can be subtle foreshadowing or a blunt declaration, but it needs to be there in one form or another. If you can’t put your finger on what that is, you might want to step back from your novel and take some time to nail it down.

The most common mistake new writers make on first novels is starting in the wrong place. If your beginning doesn’t or can’t do what I’ve outlined above you might want to see if you’re starting in the wrong place.

To be sure, you probably don’t need to get every one of these concepts into the first 250 words of your novel, but they should be in place in the first three pages, or about 1,000 words. Then polish those words and make sure every comma in place and every word is the precise one you want to use. And avail yourself of the many, many free opportunities on Twitter to have your beginning looked at by editors and agents and fellow writers who are willing to help you make it even better.