Archive for May, 2016

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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 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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You can unclench; it’s not that bad.

As aspiring writers we suck up advice like that corner attachment on your vacuum cleaner.  Because, well, we haven’t a clue and desperately need one.  If you step back and actually look at what you’re doing, it’s kind of amazing — you’re writing a book. Like, a real book. Who does that?

Well … you, now.

When I was a kid, I thought books were written by people who had special mad skills and otherworldly talent, because I sure as hell could never write one.  And then I did.  It had to do with the idea that everybody — even people like Abraham Lincoln and Ghandi — started out not knowing anything and not being particularly special.  They all became special by reaching for something just beyond their grasp and not giving up until they reached it.

Writing a novel is a lot like that.

Here’s the thing, though. Writing a novel doesn’t make you Ghandi. Because a LOT of people are writing books.  There are hundreds of aspiring writers with complete manuscripts, flooding the ether with queries to the army of literary agents, who each wade though a knee-deep slush pile.  There’s a lot of competition.  But don’t let that discourage you — there isn’t a finite number of allowable books in the universe. They will keep printing more.  I was standing in the middle of Barnes & Noble the other day, looking around me at the sheer volume of books, filling rows upon rows of six-foot high shelves.  Thousand and thousands of individual titles, and more every day.  There is room for your book, no fear.  But getting it out into the physical world of print is a rubicon, for sure.

So, we look for every tidbit of advantage we can get our grabby hands on and feverishly apply it.  Querying techniques, log lines, killer first pages, etc., etc., etc.  And one of the most commonly-cited requirements for success is the “Author’s Platform.”

Cue the horror movie organ sting.

Who has time for that?  It was hard enough writing a book — and editing it and polishing it and getting beta readers to read it and applying their suggestions and editing and polishing some more.  Now they want you to create a brand and promote it and build a website and collect followers and a mailing list and….

Whoa.  Here’s a paper bag to breathe into.  It’s not that bad.  The platform you’re thinking of is mainly for non-fiction writers, who need to establish their authority on a subject so people will have a reason to buy their book.  It doesn’t work that way for fiction authors (unless you are self-publishing and doing your own marketing). Oh, sure, once you sign a book deal, your publisher will expect you to get out there and promote your book, but you don’t have to do it in advance, like with non-fiction.

To be sure, agents still like to know you’re out there, engaging with the writing community.  And there are several simple ways to do that.  Twitter is a platform.  So is Facebook.  Even Pinterest.  You can blog or write a column or podcast.  But they key is to network with your fellow writers.  You want to do this anyway, because you can get feedback and advice and war stories, moral support and ideas and success stories.  You can meet authors who write books like yours who have gotten an agent, who will recommend you, or help polish your query, or beta read your book.  You can begin to comprehend the lingo.

Agents want to see that you are engaged. Because that suggests you’re serious. You don’t have to have a custom website and a brand logo and a long list of testimonials. But agents want to see some results when they google your name.  Look around, see what you feel comfortable with and dive in.  Talk about your process.  Collect a few likes.  Avoid venting or whining when you get rejected.  That’s all there is to it.  It doesn’t have to eat your life.

Believe me, it will make a difference.

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Books are like long-term relationships, and querying an agent is like dating.  You only get one chance to make a first impression, and it goes by really fast.

So my daughter and I have been querying our middle grade novel for over a year.  For the first several months, we continually fine-tuned our query letter, reading advice columns like Query Shark and entering Twitter competitions where the judges review your query and give feedback, etc.  I also paid $20 for a lecture audio on how to write a good query.  Eventually we had one I was happy with and started querying a few agents here and there.  Most of these were based on “likes” during Twitter pitch events, like #PitMad and #KidPit.  We ever got a few requests for the full manuscript.

However they were all ultimately rejected and not for any reasons that seemed consistent. However over the last few weeks I’ve been asking for advice from various people I’ve met in the online writing community, and have started to see a new way to look at the all-important query letter.

I had always relied on the final conflict of our book as the hook to entice the reader of our query.  In this case, there is a hard choice our main character has to make near the end of the book, going into the final showdown with the villain. The fate of many people rest on her decision, but it requires a sacrifice. Classic stuff, right?  The problem is, it’s complicated.  Complicated to explain, and complicated in terms of structure. So in order to make it pithy and exciting, I kind of fudged a bit in the telling of it.  Here’s the query we’ve been using for most of a year:

 

To [Agent],

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie-folk want to crown her their princess. But to protect the fae from a goblin she must embrace the heartbreak of her trollish heritage and give up the crown.  My daughter, Melissa, and I are pleased to offer you the manuscript for our middle grade contemporary fantasy, THE LAST PRINCESS.  We see from your wish list that you are looking for [voice-driven magical realism featuring strong characters coming of age], and we suspect you will find our book to your liking.

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier wishes her life was a fairy tale. But homeschool in the suburbs falls way short of satisfying her over-active imagination. Then a mysterious crone tells her the faerie-folk were real but they’ve blended in over the years until they look almost human, and Cat can spot them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has royal blood and this rare “fae-dar,” she’s a candidate to become the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the favor of the scattered fae-born before a goblin changeling with sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her button-down mother finds out. Cat embarks on a quest to do a tricky favor for an ogre-born while learning what it means to be fae, but discovers the devastating truth: she is descended from trolls, not faeries, and who wants a stupid, clumsy troll for a princess? With her dreams and her world shattered Cat must make a choice: admit she’s troll-born and confront the ruthless goblin and his army, or bow to the wanna-be-prince for a spell to make her forget her troll heritage … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Complete at 67,000 words, THE LAST PRINCESS is a stand-alone upper middle grade contemporary fantasy with series potential. TV’s Grimm for kids, our book will also appeal to fans of Emily Windsnap or The Sisters Grimm.

John Berkowitz & Melissa Berkowitz

 

Big conflict, right? Hard choice.  But in the book itself, it isn’t exactly like that.  The actual choice Cat is faced with is more subtle: She’s a troll, so she can’t be the princess, and the choice is to either live with it and give up, or let the goblin make her forget … and give up.  Lose-lose.  Actually, she chooses neither and outwits the goblin and saves the day.  Naturally.  But there’s no way to phrase that in the query to entice the reader to want to find out what happens.  Does she give up and let the goblin win, or not give up?  Obviously she doesn’t give up, or why read the book, right?  There’s no suspense or tension in that choice.  So I highlighted just the part that made for a good hook.

Problem is, every agent who has gotten to the end has been disappointed, to one degree or another. It wasn’t the ending they were expecting. Well, of course not; I’d pulled a fast one and crossed my fingers and hoped that it would all make sense if they read the book.

Then I read one of those “Here’s the query letter that hooked me an agent” blogs.  The one thing this author did differently from what I had been doing was to not synopsize the entire book, but rather only the first few chapters. The hook she used was the inciting incident.

Of course!  That’s the hook that’s supposed to make the reader want to read the whole book in the first place!  That’s the premise!  That is what goes on the back of the printed copy so people will want to buy it. Eureka!

So I wrote a new query, revising both the logline (that 35-word mini synopsis at the beginning of the letter) and the main book description.  Here they are:

 

Twelve-year-old Cat’s fantasies come true when the faerie-folk she sees turn out to be real. Now to save them she must race for the crown against a power-hungry goblin with an army and a plan. […]

Cat Brökkenwier wishes her life was a fairy tale and sees magical creatures everywhere. But homeschool in the suburbs falls way short of satisfying her over-active imagination. When her little brother goes missing on her watch Cat half-believes he was eaten by an ogre. So she runs off in a panic to find him, only to discover her stories had terrified him into hiding and she’d left him all alone. Her mother, fed up with Cat’s head-in-the-clouds attitude, takes away her treasured books and tells her it’s time she grew up. After weeks of living up to Mom’s fun-sucking expectations, Cat snaps. She sneaks into the garage to rescue her beloved books while the family is asleep and stumbles upon an ancient diary all about the fae. Cat embarks on a quest to learn more and meets a centuries-old dryad who tells her the faerie-folk were real but they’ve blended in over the years until they look almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has royal blood and this “fae-dar,” she’s a candidate to become the last Princess of the Fae. Now Cat must earn the favor of the hidden fae-born before a sinister goblin and his army beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out.

 

My hope is that agents will read this and be as interested (or more interested) as before, but now there isn’t an expectation of how the book is going to end.  The revelation that she’s a troll will come as a complete surprise – just like it is meant to for the eventual readers.  That twist now becomes a bonus instead of a burden.

Here’s the best part. I re-read the rejection letter I got on my very first full request, and the last thing they said was, “Don’t pitch it as princess of the trolls. That is a gorgeous twist at the end that you shouldn’t need to reveal to capture people’s attention.” Maybe I should have listened sooner.

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Last week I mentioned a writing contest/exercise in which I was participating during the month of April. The idea was to see who could form the longest “chain,” adding 1 new “link” for every consecutive day you added at least one new sentence to your WIP. Miss a day and you’ve broken your chain; you have to start again at zero. My chain ended up being 30 links long. I added at least a sentence to THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER every single day in April.

Most days that’s all I added. For April I wrote a total of maybe a thousand words.

And I learned something. Writing a book – for me, at least – is only fractionally about putting words on the page. Most of the writing goes on in my head, long before I actually type the words. It doesn’t just flow out of my fingertips. Before I can confidently write a scene, I need to mull it over. That takes drive time, shower time, standing in line time, laying in bed before I fall asleep time. If I try to write without having taken that mulling time, I just stare at the page.

I used up all of my mulling early in the month. But the next day I still had to write something. So I wrote something, but it was like squeezing that last bit of toothpaste from the tube. There was nothing left. I hadn’t produced that new tube of toothpaste, yet, so I couldn’t just squeeze out the words. I became so preoccupied with forcing something – anything – out, that I never got up a decent mulling the rest of the month.

Looking back on what I actually wrote while forging that chain, I think I will cut most of it. Because for the last few days – now that the pressure to produce is off – I have actually had the freedom to think about where I want the scene to go. And in a couple more days I’ll sit down and write a few thousand words. And they will flow smoothly like a single coherent thought, rather than a rat’s nest of random flotsam crammed together to fill space.

Now that I’m done producing, I can get back to actual writing.