Archive for June, 2016

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Those of you who are my regular readers may have noticed that I haven’t actually written about writing for awhile. That’s because I have been concentrating on querying and contests these last two months, and have not done much writing.

Apparantly it is too much to expect of myself to manage two jobs, family time, chores, sleep, tweeking Twitter pitches, polishing my query letter, researching agents, writing this blog, plotting a second middle grade book series, and making headway on my work-in-progress.

Sounds like a perfectly valid excuse, doesn’t it?

In fact, I hit a wall. The wall was made up of all different kinds of bricks.  Many of the bricks were rejections letters from agents.  A rather big one was failure to advance in a contest where things looked very positive for several days. One brick was a snag in the plot that I just couldn’t seem to get past. Another was simple burnout after forcing myself to write something — anything — every single day for a month, when that was not my regular process.

I pulled my manuscript out or called up the file on my iPad any number of times, only to put it away again. I just wasn’t feeling it.  This happens to everybody, I imagine. If you’re a writer and this has never happened to you, I’d prefer you keep that little nugget of sunshine to yourself.

So how do you get out of it?  Well, there are many ways, each of them appropriate for different reasons, and one of which may work for you.  Here are a few:

  • Leave it alone.  Forget about it.  Give yourself permission to take a writing vacation and figure out what thing you do get excited about, then do that for awhile.   At some point you will find yourself missing writing.  That’s the time to pick it up again.
  • Write something else.  Career writers need to be versatile in any case, and this is as good a time as any to branch out.  Try a short story, some flash fiction, that screenplay you’ve had in the back of your mind since high school.  You’ll gain valuable experience and maybe by getting out of your box you’ll see something that will revitalize that stalled project.
  • Write anyway, knowing you may throw it away.  Or write a different scene.  Jump ahead to later, or write the ending, or create a prologue you’ll never use.  Write a character sketch.  Invent a scene that will never appear in your book and see what your characters do.
  • Find some writing exercises or writing prompts and do them. Experiment with scenes you’ve already written as a way to learn a new technique or concept: reverse the gender roles of all of your characters and see what happens; rewrite the scene from a completely different POV; change the setting or time and write the scene that way.
  • Take this time of not writing to read some books in your genre.  I tend to avoid reading when I’m in the middle of a project, because 1) I am easily distracted and 2) I have limited time to write already.  But writers are supposed to read widely, and if you’re not getting anywhere on your book, at least use the time to explore other authors who wrote similar stuff.

There are doubtless many other techniques for finding your mojo, but these are all that I could come up with at the moment … and I am eager to get back to working on my own WIP. That hasn’t happened in a while and it feels great.

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There is certainly no shortage of resources for writers if you go looking for them.  There are books on how to write books, online classes on how to write books, you can purchase lectures and listen to them, or attend one in person at your local college. There are critique groups and writers’ blogs and online writers’ forums for every possible genre and age group, and you can find links to most of them on Twitter.

What is lacking, of course, is time.  If you’re like me, you already have a full-time job (and maybe one on the side), as well as a family and extra-curricular activities and any number of time-consuming responsibilities.  Just finding the time to actually sit down and write without interruptions is a challenge. Who has time to take classes, too?

If only there were classes that came in tiny bite-sized chunks that you could consume on the go, like a breakfast sandwich or a fruit smoothie.

Well, there are. They come in podcast form, in 15-20 minute slices, and they can be downloaded right to your smartphone and listened to while you drive to work or go for a run. Let me tell you about four in particular that I find especially useful.

Grammar Girl.  Not only does she (Mignonette Fogarty) have a website, but she has an archive of over 500 brief podcasts you can download or stream, and you can subscribe to have new ‘casts download automatically. Examples of her most popular podcasts include “Is ‘Funnest’ a word?” And “How to use semicolons.”

The Odyssey Writing Workshop.  The Odyssey Workshop is an intensive six-week course for writers of fantasy, sci-if and horror who’s work is approaching publications quality, held in New Hampshire. They only can accommodate a couple of dozen writers each year and it is rather expensive (because it includes room and board).  However they regularly post excerpts from their guests lecturers in podcast form.

Writing Excuses. This is a long-running podcast (in it’s eleventh year), hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells. While they focus mainly on fantasy, sci-if, and horror, they cover everything from inception of an idea to how to snag a publisher, and they frequently have guest experts. Complete with weekly writing prompts, the podcast is perfect for writers on the go; their tag line is “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”

Writing for Children by Katie Davis is the most recent (and possibly my favorite) addition to my podcast lineup. By subscribing, you can get a free copy of Katie’s excellent book, How to Write a Children’s Book.  Katie is also the director of The Instisute of Children’s Literature and the author of over a dozen traditionally-published children’s books. And she’s a blast to listen to.  In addition to the podcast itself, you can sign up to receive each episode’s show notes, which include the complete transcript of the episode, as well as many topic-specific links and other resources.

The great thing about these is that they are all free. Well, one of the great things. Also great is how much you can learn by listening to these experts enthuse about their craft.

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This past weekend we held a teen novel event at Barnes & Noble — giveaways, author signings, sample chapters of upcoming YA books, and on Sunday, a teen writing workshop, featuring a panel of many of the published authors who were in the store signing their books.

I happened to be working in the music department on Sunday, during the writing panel, and as a consequence I got to set up the chairs and so forth. I was excited, because I was going to be in the perfect position to watch and listen to the whole lecture, even while I was helping customers.

However, as the hour wore on, and the half dozen teen writers sat fidgetting in their seats, it became apparent that none of the invited authors were going to break away from signing their books, and the only person standing at the front was a fellow B&N employee who had agreed to kick things off (he is also a writer, working on his fist novel). After about 15 minutes it was clear he was struggling to fill the void.  He noticed me watching and asked if I would like to add anything to the conversation.

So now, instead of a panel of professional authors, our eager teen writers have two unpublished writers who are winging it and hoping to stumble upon a few pearls of wisdom. We went back and forth, talking about our personal experiences, and while neither of us really had anything prepared, we did manage to give the attendees some useful tidbits of advice for writers just starting out. So I thought I would try to chronicle here those bits I remember and pass them on to you, in case you might find any of them useful.  So, in no particular order ….

  •  You don’t have to write every day, or write 3,000 words every week to be a novelist. But you do need to decide what you can reasonably commit to on a regular basis, and stick to that.  Even if it is only one hour a week.  I only get time to write late a t night when the rest of the family is in bed.  Because I don’t want my writing to take away from my family time; I already have two jobs.  Nevertheless, I finished a 67,000 word novel in a little over a year this way.
  • Join a critique group.  It doesn’t have to be in person, and it doesn’t have to be all that formal.  But you need fellow writers (and not your spouse or mom) to read and comment on what you have written.  Feedback in essential, and you need people you trust to provide it.  If possible, find people who write in your genre and for your age group.  And return the favor — you get as much or more from giving feedback as you get from receiving it.
  • Know your genre.  Read books in your genre.  And research the common word-count range for books in your genre. You don’t want to write a 90,000 word contemporary Middle Grade, then find out only then that no agent or publisher will touch a manuscript over 60,000 words.
  • Don’t let anyone tell you the way you write is wrong.  Do what works for you.  If that means keeping a dream journal and only writing in the bathtub, do that.  If you have no use for a dream journal and can only produce by sitting at a desk for six hours at a time, do that.  Only you can decide what works.  And if what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else.
  • Don’t go down the rabbit hole of self-editing everything you’re written before you move on to the next chapter.  That way lies madness.  On the other hand, if you absolutely need to fix something in chapter three because in chapter five you realize you’ve hit a wall, then by all means, fix away.  My own personal process is one of building on the things I’ve written before.  If I figure out halfway through the novel that my villain needs to be a man instead of a woman, I am distinctly uncomfortable leaving her a woman in the first half of the book.  Her motivations will probably change, and so will her actions.  I need to know those motivations and action before I can refer to them in later chapters. I took a free weekend between writing chapters six and seven to go through and revise the first six chapters — based on critique notes and a major change in the direction of the story.  And when I was done, I could  move to the next chapter.
  • Listen to how real people talk, and try to incorporate that into your writing.  We are taught to use dialogue as one way to impart information and ease in backstory, but be very careful.  Most people don’t actually use the phrase, “As you know, Bob….”
  • Learn how plot works before you write your entire novel.  There are several schools of thought on this, and many, many books and other sources of wisdom that will help you understand how to get from the beginning to the end with the necessary ups and downs along the way to make for a story readers can’t put down.  A good story is not simply a narrative of events strung together one after another.  There are beats and rhythms to every story.  Failures, successes, losses and triumphs.  People have gotten used to how stories work, and when they deviate from that formula, they feel lost or let down.
  • Read your book out loud.  I know, it feels completely weird to do this.  But it is a really simple way to see where the rough spots are.  If you stumble over them when you read them out loud, they need work.  This is also a great way to test your dialogue.
  • Carry around a notebook (or an iPad or a smart phone) so you can jot down any ideas or snatches of dialogue or descriptions that may occur to you in the course of your regular day.  Because — believe me — you will forget them if you don’t.  Keeping one by your bed is another good idea.
  • Write the synopsis first.  If you are not a plotter and tend to write everything by the seat of your pants, then this will be difficult for you.  But once your book is finished and you prepare to show it to the world (by which I mean prospective agents), you will need to boil your entire book down to a single page (synopsis), or a paragraph (query), or even just 35 words (logline).  Writers often learn too late that there is something fatally wrong with their book when they simply can’t express their book in a few sentences.  So it can often help to do this before you write, to make sure you have these primary things well established: main character, situation, conflict, and stakes.
  • Be prepared to receive negative feedback.  Because you’re gonna.  Failure is part of growing.  Sometimes a batter misses the ball.  Sometimes the chef over-seasons.  Sometimes the musician hits a sour note.  Especially when they are just starting out.  Baby’s learn to walk because they fall down a lot.  Receiving a bad review doesn’t make you a bad person, or even a bad writer.  Giving up makes you a bad writer.
  • Have fun.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Write for you, first.  If there’s an audience and a market for what you wrote, so much the better.  Reach for that brass ring with gusto.  But writing is a creative process, and for a story to have a spark you have to love the story.  When it stops being fun, it’s time to move on to something else.

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My daughter and I enter our manuscript (query, pitch, first page, etc.) into a lot of contests. We haven’t “won” any yet.

So why do we keep pounding our head against that wall?

Well, it’s like this.  There are hundreds of good resources readily at hand for how to write your novel: classes — both online and in person — critique groups, how-to books, YouTube lectures, writers’ blogs, your mother, etc., etc. If you are serious, you can thoroughly teach yourself all of the aspects of novel writing, from plot to dialogue to pacing to character development to building tension, and every other particle of minutiae you can think of. You can surround yourself with other writers who can share their experience, collect beta reader who can tell you what’s wrong with your WIP, and hire editors who can help you fix it. Plus, there are like a million books out there you can read as examples of what works.

But what about finding an agent?

<crickets>

Sure, a lot of people are willing to give you advice. Some of them have even found an agent themselves. But mostly their advice is pretty vague. “Make sure your query has voice, but not too much voice.” “In one paragraph describe your entire book, but leave out everything that isn’t essential.” “Include Character, Conflict, Stakes, and Consequences.” “Don’t waste a single word.”

Okay, fantastic. But how?  Maybe there are some examples of successful query letters. Great. But they aren’t about your book. How do you craft the irresistible query for your book? Where’s that class?

There are actually editors out there who provide query feedback for a fee.  But that can get expensive, and what do you do if you pay and still get no results?

Here’s where the contests come in.  My daughter and I most recently entered #QueryKombat, and for the first time we made it into the first round. The actual contest itself is a series of elimination rounds based on voting by agented and published authors, alternating with opportunities for agents to request partials or fulls. What you’re supposedly vying for is agent exposure. The idea is that if you make it though several rounds, revising along the way, you haven been “vetted” and agents are much more likely to be interested.  You’re not actually winning representation or a publishing contract, although in theory your odds go up.

But the real benefit of such a contest is the feedback.  We were eliminated in the first round of #QueryKombat. Over three days the votes were 2-1 in our favor, then 2-2, 3-2 in our favor … then 3-6 against. It ended up 4-6. But each of those ten votes came with a detailed analysis of our query letter and our first page, pointing out both strengths and weaknesses.  In addition, participants were required to comment (but not vote) on at least six other entries.  So we actually ended up with closer to twenty detailed critiques of our query.

This is tremendously helpful. And I don’t know any other place where I could have gotten this kind of targeted feedback on my query.

So if your are querying yourself and unsure about how to craft that perfect query, look for the contests.  There are dozens every year (see my 2016 Pitch Contest Calender).  And the great thing is, you don’t have to “win” to win.

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Last year, my daughter and I were just beginning to query our fresh, new manuscript (the toner was still warm), and one of the very first contests we ever entered was #QueryKombat.

We didn’t make it in.  Out of a few hundred hopefuls, only 64 get chosen to participate, and then half are eliminated right away. The contest pairs up queries and the first 250 words of similar manuscripts (same genre/age group, complimentary subject-matter). Then a panel of judges read each pairing and vote for their favorite.  The 32 who make it get an opportunity to revise based on the comments, and then these are paired up again for the next bracket.  And so on until there is a final winner, six rounds later.  Along the way, agents are invited to look at the entries and make requests.

I was philosophical about not getting in. The whole query thing still mystified me, and as much as I wished it to be so, our opening was not perfect.  We would revise it at least a half-dozen times before we got to where we are today.  And dozens of query variations.  And oh, so many contests.

Which brings us to today.

We entered #QueryKombat 2016 with a new query. In fact we’re trying it out in this way before we foist it on the unsuspecting Agent Community. Last week the roster was announced, and our entry had been chosen.  So we were in!  Our fist contest in which we actually made it past the entry stage.  So no matter what happens next, we will get some very valuable feedback from the judges and other participants on our query and first page.

Of course, we want to make it to the next round. And the next. And so on. We are certainly interested in the great exposure to agents, and the multiple opportunities to revise or query along the way. But for now, we’re just excited to have made it this far. It is a valuable and timely boost to our morale, and we won’t let it go to waste.

Please check out the contest; it is hosted over three separate blogs:

Michelle Hauck

Michael Anthony

Laura Heffernan

The code name for our entry is BATTLE ROYALE (it is on Michelle’s blog, and you have to click on “older posts” at the bottom of the first page to get to it).  PLEASE do not vote — that is reserved for the official judges. But comments are welcome. Constructive criticism is preferred over cheerleading, but comments are comments and the more the merrier.

If you are a writer in the querying trenches, these vetted queries and first pages are an invaluable glimpse into what works. Avail yourself of the opportunity to while it lasts.

And thanks in advance for your support.