Archive for March, 2016

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Here’s a tidbit of sage advice from a veteran writer*: It doesn’t go away. That spasm of self-doubt between chapters, after you’ve read the criticisms of the chapter you just wrote and clearly see your mistakes or had shower thoughts about it and suddenly figured out a perfect new wrinkle. That moment when you ask yourself, “Do I go back and revise before moving on, or do I just make notes and plunge ahead?”

That never goes away. But you can choose which way you want to proceed.

On my last book I got about a half-dozen chapters in before I could no longer move forward without revising what I had already written. Many fellow writers told me it was suicide to do that, because you risk going down a rabbit hole from which you may never emerge. They have a point; you can get caught up in trying to make it perfect, and you will never get there at this stage of the process. I actually never had a decent first chapter until after I had finished the novel. I needed to be able to see the whole package in order to see how it should properly start. Yet I had convinced myself several times before then that I had the perfect beginning. I don’t regret writing them – they were good exercises. But I might have saved myself a lot of stress and self-doubt if I’d known then what I know now.

Yet on the other hand, I couldn’t just leave those chapters in their original, rough and utterly wrong form, either. I had some substantial changes, not only to the basic plot, but to the main character’s motivation, many of the characters’ personalities, etc. I received a lot of counsel that insisted I should just pencil notes in the margins and continue writing the next chapter as if I had already made those changes. There is a lot of merit in this strategy. The main goal of the first draft is to get the whole thing down on paper, so you can have that whole package I mentioned before to examine, to help you determine what you need to foreshadow and what the character arcs need to be, and so forth.

Think of an artist creating a mural. First they sketch the basic elements on the wall, to get the composition balanced and all of the major elements where they need to be. That’s the first draft. The broad colors and fine details come later. And you can paint outside the original lines as the painting evolves. But what if you start out sketching an elephant, and midway though decide it needs to be a giraffe? Can you just leave the giant ears and trunk you’ve already drawn and carry on with the long neck and spots for the rest of the sketch? I couldn’t.

So when you find yourself faced with this particular conundrum, you have to make that call on your own. Ask yourself how much needs to be changed, and can you switch gears midway through without your train derailing? In some ways, writing the first draft of a novel is like the race to finish the Continental Railroad. You want to lay as many miles of track per day as you can and keep up the pace, or you may never actually ever finish. Particularly if you keep doubling back and moving the track you’ve already laid. On the other hand, if discover quicksand or realize the mountain you’re approaching is impassable, you just may need to tear up some of that track and start again.

Just don’t get caught in the trap of trying to make it perfect before you move on. That’s the real quicksand.

 


* I’m working on my third novel, my second serious one, and my first sequel. So a veteran only in relation to most people, not most writers.

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Okay, I don’t mean to be obvious.  Plainly, an hour spend sitting in front of a PC writing is physically less strenuous than an hour pumping iron at the gym.  Duh.  I’m lazy, not stupid.

I’m talking about the mental side of the equation.  Because in many — even most — ways, these two activities are very similar in how we approach them.  They both force you to step up every time you do it, they both require long-term commitment, they’re both hard, and they both get easier over time and with practice.  However, that last part — getting easier — does almost nothing to affect the first part — forcing you to step up.  Maybe the hardest part of these activities is getting started each day, facing that blank page or that rowing machine one more time.

We do it because we have a goal, because we have something we want to accomplish.  We want to be fit and healthy, or we want to be a professional author.  Or some variation of these; it doesn’t matter.  But that commitment to our goal only gets us so far.  It helps us buy that gym membership or that new laptop, and it makes us suit up and sit down and crack our knuckles.  But the part where you actually do the work — that requires a new mental effort every time.

I hear you; I’ve heard the rumors that there are people who actually enjoy exercise or writing every day.  I’ve never seen them.  Obviously people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Isaac Azimov derived great joy from their daily routines, considering the vastness of their accomplishments.  Or possibly they were insane.  But that’s not most people.  That’s certainly not me.

True, there are many days I find myself happily clutching a shiny, new idea and saying to myself, “I can’t wait to get home so I can write this scene.”  It happens.  Not often enough to be statistically significant, or anything.  But even on those days it would take almost nothing to nudge me out of the “zone” and let me choose to watch an episode of Doctor Who instead.  At least with exercising I could maybe do both.  And going to the gym with others helps, because you don’t want to wimp out in front of your friends or family. That isn’t usually a thing with writing.

So why is writing easier?

Simply this: Exercising is a lifetime commitment.  A vital one, to be sure, and I’m certainy not knocking it.  But once you start, you have to keep at it regularly or you will rapidly loose ground. Your progress will be erased. That simply isn’t true with writing.  Sure, for many people writing is a lifetime commitment, too. But whatever you have written and polished and perfected will still be there, even if you choose never to write again.  If you keep working at it your skills will improve, but so will those things you have written (presuming you edit and polish them).  And that obscure little fact is something that helps me to keep sending it out there for agents and editors to read, month after month, contest after contest.  Even if I’m not actually writing anything new.  Because I don’t have to write a second book to assure my first book doesn’t get erased.  I’ve written it. It may not be perfect, yet, but I WROTE A BOOK.  A whole book, with a beginning and an ending and a plot and a message, and everything.  And that is part of the universe, now, no matter what.

Knowing that makes facing the blank page every day just a little bit easier.

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Look, I’m aware that I’m approaching “elderly” status. I’m 52, and my favorite music is 1940’s big band swing. I get it it; I’m not the most modern of fellows.

Despite this glaring fact, I still feel I am pretty liberal with regards to my writing style. I start sentences – nay, paragraphs – with “and.” I use slang. I just finished a novel written from the POV of a 12-year-old, complete with contemporary girl-speak and everything. I’m by no means a stodgy grammarian who blanches every time someone forgets an Oxford comma.

But I do have a limit.

I hate how much our language – both spoken and written – has degraded to the lowest common denominator. There was a time when people wrote letters and cultivated a mastery of the English language. You see glimpses of it in historical dramas like Downton Abbey. Schools taught children to write well. This is no longer the case.

I read a rant today from a fellow writer, complaining how she had been reprimanded by her writing professor for offering respectful critiques of two of her peer’s work – the kind of friendly constructive criticism every serious writer embraces in order to grow as a writer. According to the professor’s methods, critiquing is prohibited and nobody is allowed to point out issues in a fellow student’s work to let them know what they should polish. Only positive feedback is permitted: “I like this because…” or “this flows nicely…” No feedback of any substance, nothing a writer could use to improve.

The professor is teaching that if you show your writing to others you’ll be rewarded with compliments. This is the same ethic that removes competition and “winning” from team sports, because losing will crush children’s fragile egos. That way they will be totally prepared when they go out into the real world and everything goes their way, like it does.

What do you get when you don’t teach the difference between good writing and bad writing? Or even speaking? Former Major League Baseball player Oscar Gamble is famous for dropping this gem during an interview a few years ago: “They don’t think it be like it is, but it do.”

Then there’s texting. I still like to write in complete sentences when I compose an e-mail or even a text. I realize I’m wildly out of fashion. I’m old, remember? But I truly believe the shortcuts people use in texts have completely overtaken writing and speech.

See, simply substituting letters for whole words (“CU” for “see you” or “LOL” for “laughing out loud”) wasn’t enough. Someone had to invent a whole group of little symbols (they’re called emojis); hearts and smily faces and hand gestures. So rather than take the enormous amount of time out of your day to actually spell out “I love you,” people can now show their devotion by texting just three characters: I (heart symbol) U. Because finding the little heart is so much quicker and more efficient than typing in four letters.  And it really shows you care.

The other day somebody whom I respect as a writer posted a comment in a writing forum which set my teeth on edge: “I heart you.”

There isn’t an emoji for a heart available on this forum (or in most e-mails, etc.), so people are now spelling out “heart” as a substitute for the symbol.

What?  So now a five-letter word is being used as an abbreviation for a four-letter word?

I get that this person was being cute and stylistic, but this is not the first time I’ve seen this, and every time I do it makes me think the writer is just ignorant. So I asked, is this a thing, now?

Yes. Apparently this is a thing, now. Because reasons. Language evolves and I should just roll with it, even embrace it. But this wasn’t explained to me in English, precisely. The exact response was:

I heart linguistic evolution, and find this particular trend to be totes adorbs.

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Where’s Duke Ellington when you need him?

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FicFest

There’s a new novel pitch contest, this year.  It was created by Tiffany M. Hoffman (@THofauthor) and Kara Leigh Miller (@KaraLeighMille1), with one unique twist:

It’s fair.

Not to suggest the other contests are unfair, but FicFest is particularly fair.  There are the same number of finalist slots for each category.  So young adult titles won’t have a huge advantage over picture books, for example, because there happen to be more YA entries.  I’ll let Tiffany and Kara explain it in their own words:

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Contest Overview:

FicFest is a brand new contest launching in 2016 that will help put manuscripts in front of agents. FicFest is unique in that this contest covers the five major categories of writing: Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult. The chances for each category to get agent requests is equal. Unlike most writing contests, an equal number of finalists will be chosen for each category so that one does not over power the other. FicFest creators also ensure that there will be a plethora of agents wanting each of these categories. Our goal is to help writers of all books get out there, get great feedback, and have the opportunity to get partial/full requests from agents.

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Contest General Details:

FicFest is open to all finished manuscripts and all genres for Picture Books, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult. In this contest, each category will have three teams. Teams will be made up of a Team Lead and two team members, who will pick three finalists and one alternate per team. This ensures that forty-five manuscripts will move on to the agent round, with fifteen manuscripts being held as alternates in case one of the finalists drops out of the contest.

Once the finalists are chosen, they will work with their teams on revisions for 8 weeks before the agent round. During the agent round, participating agents will be able to request partial/fulls from the manuscripts they want to see. There is no bidding, and no competition for agents. They can request whatever intrigues them, giving everyone a huge opportunity to get requests and hopefully an agent for their manuscript. More rules, regulations, and details will be posted via the host and team lead blogs as the contest begins!

**REMINDER: The yearly theme for this contest is just for fun. It gives the mentors something to use to decorate their blogs, and gives the participants cool team bragging rights. HOWEVER, the yearly DOES NOT affect what genres can be submitted or the agent round. Again, themes are just for fun!

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FicFest 2016

March 20, 2016 @ 12:00 PM EST
Guidelines & Theme Reveal
(Host Blog)

March 27, 2016 @ 7:00 PM EST
Meet the Team Leads & Their Members!
(Team Lead Blogs & Host Blog)

April 3, 2016 @ 6:00 PM EST
Agent List Announced
(Host Blog)

April 17, 2016 @ 7:00 PM EST – 10:00 PM EST
Q & A with Team Leads & Host
(Twitter – Using #FicFest)

April 24, 2016 @ 12:00 AM EST – April 25, 2016 @ 11:59 PM EST
SUBMISSION

April 26, 2016 – May 3, 2016
Teams will chose their finalists/alternate

May 4, 2016 @ 10:00 AM EST
Finalists/Alternate Reveal
(Team Leads Blogs)

May 5, 2016 – June 30, 2016
Revisions

July 8, 2016 @ 12:00 AM EST – July 14, 2014 @ 11:59 PM EST
Agent Round

Find all the details here and by following the hashtag #FicFest.

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Everything Counts

It’s the Little Things that matter. And the Big Things, of course. And pretty much Everything In Between. It all matters when you’re starving for validation on a path where you feel like a noob most of the time: writing your first novel.

Of course you want the obvious praise – “That scene made me laugh.” “I can’t wait for the sequel.” Or from the ten-year-old daughter of a co-worker: “Yours is my second favorite book.” But are those Big Things or Little Things, or somewhere in the middle? It warms my heart to no end to know an avid reader who falls smack in the middle of our target audience can only think of one book – one published book – that she likes better than ours. It certainly feels like a Big Thing.

But that ten-year-old girl is not a publisher, or an editor, or an agent, or even a parent with a credit card. I can’t put her quote on the dust jacket or on my resumé. Same with my critique partner who really gets our book and tells everybody they should read it. Tastes great. Less filling.

Personal responses from agents whom you have queried are better. Because most agents don’t bother to give personal responses, and if they did so it is because you moved them. Maybe not enough to get them to sign you as a client … but you made an impression. Rejections are never fun, but these are often better for your ego (if you can view them this way), because here you have truly risen above the multitudes of other manuscripts that agent had to wade through and pass on with a form rejection to get to yours. But these still aren’t the Big Things.

This is why I keep entering our book into contests and tweeting our pitch during pitch parties with hundreds of other eager, fresh writers, many of whom are much better at it than we are. Because, honestly, I never expect to win. And there is heartbreak lurking right there beside the Egress. Because, unlike the slush pile, in contests you can see the other authors who are sitting with you in the waiting room, clutching their little numbers and waiting to be called. In the slush, there’s no opportunity to judge your competition. In contests, you get to see what was picked instead of yours.

And this is why those of us in these contests stalk the Twitter feeds and hang on every maliciously vague hint the judges tweet out in the days and weeks of these contests – because we are starving for the Tiniest Things – those minuscule hints that one of the judges really liked some random MG Fantasy, because it just might be ours.

Because those are actually Big Things, if you can catch one and keep it. With an agent, you are trying to impress one person. Sure, you have to stand out from an enormous crowd. But you only have to impress one person. And if you fail with one agent, you send it off to the next one. With these contests, though, you often only get chosen if a whole team of people agrees yours is the best. You know the saying about committees. So when you get praise from a team – even praise written in code that only might be about you – it is a Big Thing.

You also know that if you weren’t chosen, it may be only because four people didn’t unanimously choose yours, but only three of them did. And that’s pretty big, too. That’s the shield you use to fend off the heartbreak waiting to grab you when contest leaves you behind.

All of these things add up. They all, cumulatively, count. Because one of the key ingredients to a career in writing is the juice that keeps you energized, focused, and confident that you know what you are doing. And these tiny, rare reactions from contests can yield the most potent elixir for boosting your confidence. Not to mention all the free advise and best practices you pick up in the Twitter feeds.

2016 Pitch Contest Calender

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I’ve talked a lot about cutting things from one’s manuscript – what to cut from one’s manuscript, why to cut from one’s manuscript, how to deal with the cutting….

I may have given you the impression that cutting is the best way to edit. It’s not, of course. There are many ways to improve the scenes in your manuscript, and which tool you use on a given scene depends on what is wrong with the scene.

 

TOOLS:

Rewrite It: If the scene is important and you need to keep the vital elements of the scene, but it just isn’t working, you may need to revise it or replace it with a new scene containing those same elements. Maybe the dialogue needs work or pacing is off. Problems which can be fixed, such as being too passive with your verbs or the pacing being too slow or too fast can usually be whittled into shape by going through the scene and chipping or sanding the parts that don’t work until they are smooth.

Move It: Sometimes a scene is great, but it jars because it switches gears or derails the storyline. Maybe it’s just in the wrong place. Sometimes simply lifting a scene and putting it somewhere else will make all the difference. Usually you only have to patch the edges with a little fresh plaster and paint to make it feel natural. Just make sure you don’t leave any leaky pipes sticking out – check your consistency.

Add Some Tension: Often the easiest way to punch up a boring or slow scene is to add some suspense or tension. I had a scene set in a library, where my MC learns important details about the secret fantasy world she has discovered she is a part of. It was pretty boring. So I upgraded it with a time limit and the notion that she had to keep it a secret from her disapproving mother. Fine tuning included injecting an out-of-control little brother who kept interrupting and drawing Mom’s attention. I turned an info-dump into a ticking time-bomb.

Foreshadow: Don’t forget your foundation – the promise you make to the reader of what the book is about and what kind of story they are going to get. I have a favorite scene early in a book that readers and critique partners have suggested I should cut, because it reads like a detour away from the promise set up at the beginning. In fact the scene is vital because the scene causes the MC to make a decision that sets up the rest of the book. So rather than cut it as suggested, I made it an integral part of the plot by foreshadowing it from the start – by adding it to the promise. Now, when the scene unfolds, it is something the reader anticipates and is invested in.

Cut and Run: Yes, sometime you have to cut. Face it like a trooper. Therapy is available.

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NUTS & BOLTS: 

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Replace Passive Verbs: This is another flavor of show, don’t tell. Instead of “She began to cry,” write “She cried.” Instead of “He was falling,” write “He fell.” It’s cleaner, more to the point, and more visual. Your whole book will flow more smoothly and unobstructed if you unclog the plumbing.

Cut Repetitive Words: This is where a good weed killer comes in handy. You get a word stuck in your head, or even a phrase, and find yourself using it over and over again. A thesaurus makes a good weed killer. Vary your words. Instead of using “fight” three time in a paragraph, change two of them to battle and conflict. Those are the obvious weeds. Careful reading will reveal more sneaky repeats, such as “like” and “actually.” Pull ’em out!

Cut “Weasel” Words: Pests will ruin your garden or vegetable patch. Eradicate them! A weasel word is a modifier that undermines or contradicts the word or phrase it accompanies. “Suddenly” is a common weasel word; “She suddenly screamed.” Well, naturally, one doesn’t gradually scream. These are also sometimes called “filler” words. Examples are Just, That, Very, Every, Some, Most, Arguably, Actually, Clearly, Help. There are many lists available online; find one that works for you and keep it my your keyboard.

Read It Out Loud: I know, this feels weird. Just pretend you are practicing for when your book has sold and you recording the audio book. The very best mechanics claim they can tell if an engine is running right just by listening to it hum.

Get Feedback: I’ve said it before – no writer creates in a total vacuum. You need to gauge the reactions of those who read your work. Find a good critique partner (or three) who reads understands and enjoys your genre, and listen to what they say. Even if they aren’t writers, they are readers, and so is your audience.

Let It Age: Sometimes you just have to separate yourself from your project with time. Put it down for a week or a month, then read it again with fresh perspective. Give it time to for the glue to set and the paint to dry before you work on it again.

 

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