Archive for June, 2015

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Before you get excited, let me clear something up. This is not about canning prunes.

Okay.  On to new business.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that for the last few weeks I have been talking about accepting that you may need to rewrite.  That it is okay to let go of your favorite bits when they are not working.  If you’re still struggling with this in your own writing, just know that I feel your pain.  I’d been nursing my chapter one for as long as I’ve been writing this novel with my daughter.  Many parts of it harken back to the very first draft written entirely by the seat of my pants — before we had a plot or an outline or even much of a story.  It was hard to let it go.  But I’m a better writer now, and I’ve come through the entire novel-writing process and out the other side, so I know these characters and their situation thoroughly, now. The chapter one I let go of had so much bondo and touch-up paint on it, it only seemed well-constructed to the most casual glance.  The new chapter one is the chapter our book deserves.

But replacing the old with the new is only one part of the process of editing your book.  There is another process that is just as important, and no less difficult.  Maybe even more difficult.

Cutting without the intent to replace it with something better.  Just cutting.

My rewrites were inspired by some recent critiques I received on chapter one of The Last Princess, and one of those comments was that the chapter was too long for a middle grade novel.  I accepted that; it’s a notion I’ve been flirting with for a year.  And having accepted that fact, I was natually able to see that chapter two — which is substantially longer — must also be too long.  At first I thought I might simply devide chapter two in half and make two shorter chapters, but that pushed the inciting incident all the way to chapter four, and that was too far.  No, I had to rewrite chapter two to be shorter, too. But completely aside from rewriting it, I actually just removed large chunks of the story — entire paragraphs at a time.

In fact, I cut half of the chapter and replaced it all with one short scene. Because I could now see that the whole point of that scene was to convey one fairly important idea. And I could convey that idea just as well, if not better, in a shorter scene without all of the unneeded filler.

When all was said and done, I’d actually cut over 3,000 words just in those first two chapters.  Ten pages. The first two chapters fairly catapult you into the story, now.  The pacing is so much better, now.  I guess all I needed was permission to cut. And the sun shines through so much better now that I have.  I didn’t kill the tree — oh, no!  By pruning I’ve given the tree new life and more energy than ever before.

So let me save you some anguish and time: Go ahead. Cut. I give you permission.

Cute serial killer

You don’t need to call Homeland Security; I’m not talking about killing people. I’m talking about a writer killing one’s literary children – one’s work.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a lament about killing my babies, about finally coming to grips with the fact that I could no longer continue to patch and tuck and tweak my early chapters to make them better – I needed let them die an honorable death and replace them with something new. And I did that. I wrote a new chapter 1.

The problem was, I essentially wrote the same chapter all over again. I changed a lot of the details, moved it all to the same setting and on the same day, tightened it up and made the whole thing flow better. But in the end it was the same chapter.

I recently got invited to join an exclusive group for writers of speculative fiction, and signed on to their summer critique marathon. Then I dutifully fed my shiny new chapter 1 into the machine and sat back to await the applause.

The great thing about this group is that some of those participating in the critique marathon are accomplished writers, regular slush readers and/or frequent judges for some of those Twitter pitch contests I keep failing to win. So the feedback is really important; it’s a huge step up from the casual readers who have given me feedback to this point.

They didn’t exactly applaud. In fact, they told me to do it over. Twice. The first time I fell back into my old habits and performed surgery on my chapter – basically just rearranging the order of the scenes and turning most of the chapter into a flashback. They liked this even less.

Geez, tough crowd.

But I finally got it. I needed to start with a blank screen and compose a whole new chapter 1. The thing is, I could never have taken this step if I hadn’t taken all of the baby steps up to this point. Killing my baby the first time was really hard. But killing it the second time came much easier.

I just finished the first draft of the new chapter late last night (which is why this blog is late). I managed to:

  • completely change the motivation of my main character (which I was never satisfied with)
  • give her mom an actual believable reason to do what she does at the end of the chapter
  • define my main character more clearly and more in line with the rest of the book
  • give her an actual believable reason for accepting what Mom does at the end of the chapter
  • foreshadow more
  • spend MUCH less time on family and back story, and more time telling the actual story
  • create a much punchier and engaging first 250 words
  • cut 4 pages

Of course, this means I’ll need to amputate the first half of chapter 2 and write a completely new scene, and add a little of what I cut from chapter 1 to the beginning of chapter 4. But these were the chapters we originally wrote by the seat of our pants and without any real direction. All of the set-up that is no longer needed and all of that stuff that never led to anything will be trimmed. I expect the book to lose a couple of thousand words.

And each one will be easier to cut than the last.

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A woman posted a blog the other day, on one of the author support sites I frequent. Her profile states she is a professional counsellor. I don’t know, she may be; I won’t be seeking her counsel.

Her blog was titled something like, “Keeping It Real,” and may have featured a “Hang In There, Baby” image of a kitten dangling from a rope by its front claws, or something equally uplifting and supportive.

Only the post was anything but uplifting. She started out by repeating some of the many #amwriting tweets most of us have seen: “Keep putting yourself out there, you will get published eventually,” and the like. Tweets meant to give us encouragement as we slog through the query trenches and pitch contests, to keep us motivated when we’re feeling … well, rejected. A lot of those are accompanied by stories of authors who, a year ago got tons of rejections and lost all of the competitions they entered, but persevered and are now happily agented and/or published. These are nice. They let you know you’re not alone and not doomed.

And then the blogger said, “I’m all for the power of positive thinking. And I do hate to burst anyone’s bubble. But, sorry guys, they’re lying to you.  Statistically, you probably won’t be published.”

Slap!

My face still stings from the blow. I mean, what was her point? Give up now before you embarrass yourself? Don’t be lulled into a sense of false hope? Go back to scrapbooking, you don’t need the headache? Remember, she posted this on the front page of a site formed for and dedicated to the success of writers seeking agents. The membership is exclusively for writers who have a finished, polished manuscript and who are actively seeking agent representation for traditional publishing. This isn’t a creative writing night class at the community college. Who did she think she was talking to?

Querying is an intensely personal and emotional experience for most people. But the people querying are not likely to be as fragile and naïve as other writers. First of all, they have elevated themselves above the vast majority of writers simply by having finished a whole novel. And if they are serious they will already have had a number of people read and give them feedback on their work. Second, if they are reading those motivational tweets, then thy have joined and engaged with the Twitter writing community, and will have seen lots of agents and writers talk about the realities of the querying process. Most people querying learn very quickly that it is usually a long journey that yields success only if one is willing to adapt along the way. But there is still a certain tradition of success for those people who learn the ropes.

So for people like that, what value is advice that says, “You should not expect to succeed because most people who try will fail?” What possible good could come from telling a writer to just “give yourself permission to dream” without having unrealistic expectations of success (those were her words)?

I posted a reply. I said quite a lot, actually, but I’ll only repeat some of what I said here:

Why tell people, “You’ll never be good enough”? You are not doing anybody any favors by putting them in a box and taping it shut.

You remind me of a single mother I once met who forbade her young daughter from ever watching Disney movies … because she didn’t want her daughter to ever believe her dreams might come true.

You want to talk statistics? Most people will never get in to a good college. Or any college. Is the solution to spare their feelings and let them know up front (you know, in high school) they should stop wasting their time and money on expensive textbooks and late-night study sessions because they “probably” won’t make it?

If you are correct, there will never be any new writers, ever. Or musicians, or performers or artists or master chefs….

I’m certainly not a cheerleader. I think a great deal of the writing I’ve read by aspiring authors is far from publishable. In fact, I think almost all of what I’ve read that was self-published should never have been published at all. You want a statistic? I think the number is 97% of all self-published e-books never sell 100 copies. Do you know why? I think it is primarily because these writers lacked persistence and a dedication to their craft. They (for the most part) eschewed any peer review and bowed out of the daunting effort to find an agent or publisher, and settled for the easy way. They knew their work wasn’t good enough to make it past the gatekeepers, but shoved their work out there anyway. Like those horrible contestants on American Idol who can’t sing a note but who tearfully insist Simon and the other judges must be idiots not to choose them. I could have self-published my own novel months ago — after a year of filtering it through critique groups and beta readers and getting it “just right.” But by pursuing a goal of finding an agent I have done two things: 1) I have left behind probably 85% of those statistical writers you mentioned who will never get published. Sure, my competition just got a lot more fierce, but that’s why I’m here — to learn by example. 2) I am getting valuable feedback from movers and shakers in the business, telling me where my efforts fail — and where they succeed. I am always fine-tuning my presentation, learning the no-no’s and tricks. I will learn — like every other single human who ever became a traditionally-published author — how to get my book published. Even Ghandi started out as just a regular schmo. We become what we strive for by striving. Never by settling.

I respect your efforts to spare the feelings of the people who might experience some disappointment on their path to authorship. But I think it is misguided. Particularly here, on this site, which is dedicated to helping people get published. But these people all know they will receive rejections. They are okay with it. And some of them will give up before they achieve their goals. But many of them will not. The whole point to living is to strive and fail, and learn from your failures and try again. That’s how birds learn to fly. That’s how leaders are made. That’s where progress comes from. Success NEVER came from “You probably won’t make it, so why bother?”

This post you’ve written is not advice. This is anti-advice. Let’s manage our expectations, not murder them, please.

If you’re a writer, I implore you – manage your expectations. That means recognize there is a lot of work involved in success but success only comes to those willing to work for it. If you are a querying writer you already know this. There will be rejections. There will be days you feel like your work is unworthy. But suck it up, realize it isn’t personal, and that agent’s tastes are subjective. You can improve your chances by learning those ropes and sticking with it. And if you don’t give up, you have as much chance as any accomplished novelist of learning your craft and finding an agent who loves your book.

Basically, hang in there, baby.

People jumping in chairs

So, my daughter and I have been querying our debut novel, The Last Princess, for about three months, now. Plus I’ve entered it into half a dozen querying contests in hopes of getting more direct access to an agent.

The querying has been mostly blind queries, based on manuscript wish lists (#MSWL) tweeted by agents, or other comments made by or on behalf of agents seeking MG novels similar to ours. MSWL or not this still puts us in the slush pile, and that is a very competitive place to be. I’m not surprised we haven’t found an agent yet. Disappointed, but not surprised.

The contests have been fierce, too. Way more entries than could possibly be selected for participation in the actual contest. Maybe not as competitive as your average slush pile, but still pretty cut-throat. The secondary reason for entering these is to get feedback, which is sometimes part of the process, and to see what entries do make it through for comparison. We haven’t made it into any of these, either.

One could get discouraged by such a turn of events. Or utter lack of events, as the case may be.

Last week #KidPit was held, which is one of those pitch parties on Twitter where you have to condense your entire novel down to something like 125 characters. If you really want to have a shot, you have to do it four different ways (there’s math and stuff; you can post a total of 16 times but Twitter won’t let you post the exact same tweet more than once, so you can move the hashtags around, but to get 16 total you need four basic tweets … assuming you have 2 hashtags …. Are you still reading this?) Anyway, like #PitMad in March, I got a request to query from an agent.

Actually, I got two. But one of them was from the same agent that requested a query from #PitMad, and she passed on that query.* But the other was an agent I hadn’t queried before. If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know I just rewrote much of chapter one based on what I’d learned from these contests and also some independent feedback. So I sent off a query and first three chapters to this agent, with the paint barely dry. And two days later she replied, saying she very much enjoyed the concept and the characters and wanted to read more.

All of it, in fact. She requested the full manuscript.

This is our first request for a full from an agent. Our first request of any kind from an agent after a query. We are, of course, understandably excited and feeling just a tad vindicated. It’s the fourth best feeling in the world.

What are the other three? Well, let’s not jinx it, okay?


*Yes, I sent it to her again.