Archive for July, 2015

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There was a survey posted the other day on the front page of one of my favorite writerly websites:

You’ve decided to write your first novel. What’s the single best way to learn how to do it?

o Take a class.
o Join a writers group. Get some advice.
o Read a good book on how to write a novel.
o Just write! Tell your story as you think it should be told.
o Read some great novels, from a wrier’s point of view.

I’ve actually done every one of these things. And each of them has made me a better writer. I would recommend any of these as a way for a novice writer to improve his or her craft. Or all of them. But one in particular stands out in my experience as absolutely necessary.

Join a writers group. Get some advice.

All of the rest – even taking a class – are fairly solitary endeavors. And what you need to be a successful writer (besides good ideas, devotion to craft, commitment, and a better-than-basic grasp of your language of choice) is feedback from other writers. All of the theory in the world will only get you so far. You need people to actually read what you’ve written and tell you whether it is working. It’s all well and good knowing you aught to have a hook at the beginning of chapter one, but it isn’t as if there is a list of them somewhere you can choose from. You have to craft it. And once you’ve done it, how do you know if it is any good? Just because you think so? You’re the novice, remember?

To quote Nanny Ogg, “There’s many a slip twixt dress and drawers.”

So it will serve you well to surround yourself with fellow writers, hopefully writers engaged in the kind of writing you yourself are pursuing – young adult, historical romance, science fiction, whatever. Otherwise they may not represent your target audience, and may not be able to render useful advice about whether or not your vampires are scary or if Penelope’s bosom is heaving properly. Plus the structure of meeting weekly or bi-weekly provides a tremendous motivation to produce pages of story, which is often hard to muster when one is only writing for one’s self.

There’s an even better reason to find a group of like-minded writers, a reason most novice writers fail utterly to grasp: the real value in the critiquing process comes from giving critiques. There are a number of reasons for this. Writers often reject sound advice if it means tossing out their favorite lines, ideas or characters. Critique groups are fallible; you may get conflicting advice, or your readers may simply not “get” what you are trying to convey in your story (although if they do not, that is in itself often a problem). But when you read the work of other aspiring writers and identify the problems – or triumphs – you begin to see what is working and not working with your own writing.

So where does one find such a group, I hear you cry. Fear not; there are thousands of local writers groups of every genre and experience level looking for new members. Professional writers associations, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, will even help you form one if you can’t find one to your liking.

But, really, it’s even easier than that. You’re already on the Internet; just click here. This will take you to that writerly website I mentioned earlier, the one with the survey. The site is call the Critique Circle, and it has been around for over ten years and has over 3,000 members. The site is designed specifically for writers to submit their work for peer review, in categories ranging from children’s to romance and fantasy to horror. And the critique process works well because it is based on a point system – in order to submit your own work you need to earn points by critiquing the stories of others. People are polite, helpful, and for the most part able to render meaningful advice (in my experience). Plus there are dozens of writer forums where you can discuss your genre, your story, your premise, or your characters. You can ask questions in the research forums, and somebody is bound to know something useful. Many of the members are published authors, from all over the world. The site also contains a whole boatload of useful tools for helping your story along: a name generator, writing exercises, a word meter for tracking your progress, a submission tracker, and many more.

I personally filtered my entire novel through this site, to my very great benefit. I can say with complete clarity that the advice I received consistently improved my chapters and my story, and my finished manuscript would not be nearly as good had I worked on it alone.

Oh, and it’s free. And anonymous, if you want.

So if you’re serious about writing, particularly about writing a novel, find a critique group and dive in. The sooner the better. You have nothing to lose but poor writing.

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photo caricature of a desperate caucasian man in a polyester suit and retro shirt as he leans over and points

Rejections suck.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll be aware that my daughter and I entered a novel pitch contest a few weeks back, and last week we moved up in a significant way — two of the participating editors requested a partial, so they were both considering our manuscript out of the 100+ they had received.  Adding to the anticipation, I learned that both of these editors had elected to work with two manuscripts for this contest, effectively quadrupling our chances to make it.

We didn’t make it.

But, as I tweeted to our fellow participants before the Big Reveal on Monday, we had already “won,” because we were going to receive editorial advice from two professional, experienced editors on our first three chapters. So I sat back and waited for the rejection e-mails. And then this appeared in my in-box:

Dear John,

I regret that I’ll be unable to continue to work with you on THE LAST PRINCESS for the rest of Pitch to Publication. But what I’d like to say is this: you have one. Amazing. Manuscript, on your hands. The reason I did not choose to work with you, John, is because I honestly don’t think you need much of an edit. Sure, some cutting here or there. But nothing big enough to warrant what I’ll be doing to the Pitch to Publication mss.

Wow. Okay, she didn’t choose us because our manuscript was too good? How cool is that? But there was more:

Of all of my 150 submissions, I can say unequivocally that yours was in the best shape of any I had the pleasure of reading. You are an INCREDIBLY gifted storyteller, and you’ve brought to life such a charming, three-dimensional main character who alternately made me laugh out loud, and broke my heart. Even your secondary and tertiary characters are vivid and well-imagined. In terms of storytelling, I found your elements of craft to be polished and refined to the point of WOW. You knew when to zoom in, when to pull back. Your pacing is pitch-perfect. You’ve got a heck of an inciting incident, and your character goals are brilliant and exciting. In fact, with your permission, I’d like to forward your mss along (in an unofficial capacity) to a couple of agent and editor friends of mine. What do you think? If the rest is as good as the first fifty pages, I would feel very optimistic about your chances.

Jaw. Drop.

I’ve spoken to her a number of times since this, and I learned that she used to be an editor for one of the Big Five publishers in the children’s division, and that one of the “editor friends” she mentioned had already asked for the full manuscript based on her recommendation.

Yeah, I said Okay. Obviously.

As if this wasn’t miraculous enough, my editor (can I say that?) said she would “love to champion this book for you.”

I write fantasy for children, with fairy tale elements and magic and so forth. I know from happy endings. But this? How do you thank someone for something like this? Maybe I need to write her into the sequel as a fair godmother or something.

Gym shoes isolated [with clipping path]

NEWS FLASH: We received a partial request from one of the participating editors in Pitch to Publication!

The request did not, alas, come from the editor who had previously short-listed me. So there is a bit of disappointment there. This request came quite out of the blue, from one of the other editors we had submitted to. So it was rather heart-stopping to see that e-mail in my inbox.

I had been following all of the editors participating in #PitchtoPublication, because many of them periodically tweeted comments about the queries they had been given, and such hints are very tantalizing:

PTP tweet

Is that tweet about us? Ours is funny, right? How many middle grade fantasies can she have received?

It’s torture, but you can’t not look. Of the five editors we had submitted to for this contest, only three of them were tweeting about it, and our partial request came from one of those who had not said a word. So, PLOP! that shoe just dropped into our lap out of nowhere. So we sent off our shiny new first 50 pages — newly rewritten and revised based on the amazing feedback we’ve been getting from our summer workshop.

What all of this really means is the rewrites are working.  We got noticed by two readers in a contest when we had never gotten noticed before. So even if we do not make it through in this highly competitive and subjective contest, we know our sample pages and first 250 words are working now, and can query with confidence.

Watch this space; the third shoe will drop next Monday, the 20th, and we’ll know if our editor chose our manuscript. I’ll announce the results here.

Hand pick idea Business man from a group of people.

We made the cut.  Yay us!

Well, not THE cut. A cut. Out first cut.

My daughter and I entered our shiny new rewritten opening pages into a contest, and we made the first cut. This is huge, because we’ve never gotten beyond the “Thank you for your entry” stage. I’ve written a lot here about entering these contests and not get chosen and what that feels like and what it means and how to deal with it.

But this is new.  This is awesome. This is Progress!

The contest is Pitch to Publication (and I’m sorry, but it’s too late to enter it this year). Basically, you submit your query and first five pages to your choice of five freelance editors from a long list. All of the participating editors take their 100 or so entries and whittle them down to a handful, then request partials from those, so they can whittle those down to three.

So, basically five chances to hook up with an editor and move on in the contest. The first cut was when one of my chosen editors narrowed her 100 submissions down to 33. Our entry was among those 33. Of course this is just one judge out of five, and there are still several cuts to get through. Those 33 have been cut down to eight, and we’re haunting our in-box for a partial request, but they haven’t been sent out yet.  And their are three other agents (because one has already sent out her requests and we weren’t one of them).

Next time I post here, we’ll know if we’re still in or not, but for now … we rest knowing all of our efforts to rewrite our early chapters has paid off, at least in this small way. That’s never happened before.

Man driving convertible car smiling

I recently completed a major rewrite of chapter one of my daughter’s and my debut* novel, THE LAST PRINCESS. The process actually included substantial rewrites of chapters two and four, as well.  I ended up cutting about 10 pages and 3,000 words from our manuscript.

The thing about the novel up to this point is that it had been vetted and reviewed by numerous people, in critique groups and by beta readers.  This new stuff hasn’t been read by scores of people. It’s kind of raw. I just have one intimate (and very experienced) group of writers looking at my changes. But the manuscript still seems to have that new car smell, and taking it out for a joy ride is practically irresistible.

So I have entered it into two new contests.

The first truly is a new contest; Samantha Fountain’s Pitch to Publication.  A couple of dozen freelance editors have donated their time to participate in a process that will take several lucky writers all the way from a pitch + 5 pages potentially to a signed book deal.  So I entered or brand new first 5 pages. It would be nice to get at least one step beyond the “Your entry was received” stage. Wish us luck.

The other contest is Lara Willard’s #pg70Pit.  This contest is unique, in that what you are actually entering is just the 70th page of your manuscript.  All of the changes I recently made to THE LAST PRINCESS were well before page 70, but remember, I cut 10 pages, so the new page 70 is rather removed from where it was when I first heard about this contest.  So, really, I’m entering new material here, too.  Sort of.  Close enough for a joy ride.

Win or lose, I’m hoping for some good feedback, which I can use to polish these new chapters before jumping once again into the slushy blind query pool.  Wish us luck!


*”Debut” in the sense that it is our first novel, not in the sense that it is actually debuting anywhere.