Archive for April, 2017

Cutting Deep

Posted: April 28, 2017 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

641046276

Sometimes, the advice you get from your beta readers or critique partners just feels right.  Not always!  If you’re like me, or even newer at this game, you meet most advice from critics with a blank stare. “How dare they suggest I change that word? Don’t they know how long I agonized over it?”  It gets worse when they give more sweeping advice, like changing a character or adding an emotion.  Calls to cut out entire scenes? Forget it.

But eventually, your skin thickens and your reticence declines as you loosen your death grip on your manuscript, and you begin to actually see the merit in some of these suggestions.  And you dip your toe into a revision and discover that the change really did make that scene better.

I’m dancing with a new group of CP’s right now, and there appears to be some consensus on this new revision of mine that the “good stuff” doesn’t really begin until the end of chapter three. Well, yes I knew that, but it had to be that way, because reasons. Plus, can’t you see how much I have obviously agonized over those first chapters, shoe-horning in extra motivation and tension and foreshadowing? It’s flipping brilliant is what it is, and you’ll all agree just as soon as you get the end of the book.  You’ll see.  And then I’ll say I told you so.

Only this time, one of the readers said something nobody else has actually said before. “You should cut everything else and just start at the end of chapter three.”

The really funny thing about that was how I didn’t clench up. In fact, I started feverishly making notes. I found a use for those fancy Moleskine notebooks I bought.  I plotted and rearranged and made lists, and at the end of my frenzy I saw a way.  I am going to cut the first three chapters — some 40 pages — down to about 16. And I’ll have to add a page or so back in later, to introduce a character who’s original intro scene is being cut.  But I can do it.

This is a deep cut.  Because I now can see how I’ve been shoring up this house of cards from the very beginning. I needed an excuse for my MC to sneak into the garage and find a diary. So I had Mom get mad at her for being immature and take away her beloved books. But I needed a reason for Mom to get mad, so I invented a whole scene were the MC’s little brother runs away while she’s babysitting.  But then I needed a scene showing the MC trying to deal with Mom’s anger and failing.  So I added a scene with her best friend giving advice. And all of this is now replaced by simply having someone give the the diary to the MC.  Now all of the rest of that is utterly unnecessary.  Sure, there are a million threads suddenly flopping in the breeze, but I can tie most of them up pretty quickly, to later scenes, or by yanking them out altogether.

It’s good.  It’s working.  And when I’m done, I’ll have a mean, lean opening, where we get to the “good stuff” right away.

And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?

470209260

Most of you are probably not old enough to remember actual prizes in Cracker Jacks boxes. Not those lame tattoos or stickers. We used to get actual toys — mini puzzles, tiny race cars, code rings, those whistles that go “whizzzzz” when you blow them.  Same thing with cereal boxes. I remember receiving actual playable records you cut out of the back of the box and stick on your turntable. Nowadays it’s all about the Happy Meal toy.  Because kids today couldn’t possibly wait through a whole box of cereal or even a whole box of Cracker Jacks to get to the prize (come to think of it, we weren’t always entirely patient, either).

So you may understand how we felt when, after all of the anticipation, we finally got our prize and it turned out to be … well, junk. There’s a certain amount of build-up when your mom says you can’t pour out the entire box into a mixing bowl just to get a toy; you’ll just have to wait.  Or when you’ve finally saved up enough pocket change to buy a box a Cracker Jacks with no idea what may be waiting inside.

Getting feedback on your manuscript is like that. You never know what you’re going to get after the long wait. And the anticipation is especially accute when you have to work just to find someone reliable and experienced to actually read your stuff in the first place. After all that, sometimes the advice you get is … well, junk.

The difference, though, is that sometimes you can’t tell if the advice is bad or not. Sure, if you can get several people to look at your stuff, you can start to see patterns and maybe get a consensus on certain rough spots or problems.  But even then, it’s hard to know if they just aren’t seeing what’s on the page. Often, when a reader misses something you feel is very clear, that simply means you’re not seeing it from their perspective — you can’t.  Other times, it just means they aren’t paying attention. Or maybe they aren’t part of your target audience. This is especially true when you write children’s books. It is unlikely you will be receiving detailed critical analysis from eight-year-olds. Or maybe your readers just simply aren’t familiar with the tropes of your particular genre.

This is why we work so hard to get multiple readers — so we can see if everybody sees the same thing or not. But even then, we may not agree. To be sure, it is not healthy — or practical — to take every piece of advice that comes your way. You will drive yourself insane trying to please every reader. Tastes vary. You know your voice and your message better than any reader, and you know when certain advice will break them. So you choose not to follow that advice.

But none of these judgement calls are black and white. There are a lot of reasons one might choose not to heed the advice of a critique, and not all of them are because the advice is fundamentally flawed. You may decide to go a different route than that suggested, solve the problem a different way. You may decide to wait and see what others say. You may know something the reader doesn’t, that gets revealed later in the story and which will make what you have written make perfect sense. Or, you might not be in an emotional position to embrace perfectly valid advice.

I just finished a substantial revision to the opening of the book I’m querying, which addressed issues that had been riaised by a number of readers, including professional editors and agents.  These were issues I was unwilling to concede to at the time, and therefor unable to deal with then.  However, the time eventually came when I was able to accept cutting several thousand words — and my favorite scene — out of chapter two, and getting to the “good stuff” that much sooner.  I added higher stakes and made my main character work harder to get what she wanted. These were big changes, which resulted in alterations throughout the whole book. and the time had to be right for me to tackle them.

So just as important as the quality of the advice is your receptiveness to it. Obviously, if your reader suggests something that is way off-base, don’t follow it. Less obviously — but equally important — if you are emotionally unwilling to embrace the advice, don’t follow it then. Bad Things will happen if you force it when you’re not ready. But also, keep that advice on file for when your perspective changes. Because it will.

Back to my manuscript: After making this latest rather ambitious revision, I am getting feedback from fresh readers. And more than one has suggested the beginning is boring and I don’t get to the “good stuff” soon enough. Possibly this is true. I’m not able to hear this advice right now, though. Because I’m just not willing to rip the fresh stitches out of this manuscript and dive into it again. Not right now. I need time for this new version to “cure,” for the scars to smooth until it all feels natural to me again (I can clearly see the fresh passages and missing sections as if they are written in different-colored ink on the page). The time isn’t right, just as it wasn’t right the first time I heard the advice that led to this latest revision. Maybe I’ll be able to embrace it later. But if I start revising again right now, Bad Things will happen.

IMG_1121

#AuthorMentorMatch is like a contest, only without all of the contest-y bits.

Basically, a team of writers — most of them published, all of them experienced — have gotten together to offer their services as mentors for up-and-coming writers.  Like a contest, hopefuls fill out an application and submit it along with their query and first 10 pages to their choice of 4 mentors (out of 30).  Each mentor will choose one mentee, and they will then spend the next several weeks polishing, revising, and perfecting the manuscript for querying.

That’s it. There’s no agent round, no elimination round. There’s just authors and mentors getting matched.But, really, that’s everything, isn’t it.  This, exactly, is why we enter all of the contests in the first place — to win free advice from a professional and a chance to really take our manuscript up a notch.

The latest round (Round 2) opens April 13, and this time it is open to YA and MG — there are mentors specifically for each age group.  In their o wn words:

What is Author Mentor Match?
Author Mentor Match pairs unagented, aspiring YA & MG writers with mentors to help them with their manuscripts and guide them through the publishing process.

There’s no contest aspect –- AMM focuses on building lasting relationships. Mentors will help writers revise their manuscript before querying, give advice and tips on agents, and support through the process.

Our Mentors
Every one of our mentors has gone through the process of revising their manuscript, researching agents, and done time in the query trenches. Our mentors are published, debuting, on submission or in revisions with their agents. We are excited to give back to the community and help you polish your manuscript, craft the perfect pitch/query, and take your writing career to the next level.

How It Works
Mentees can apply to up to four possible mentors, submitting general information about themselves and their book via a submission form, then emailing their query and first ten pages to us. The mentors will consider all mentee submissions carefully, potentially asking for more pages, before selecting someone to work with.

Who’s Behind It
Author Mentor Match was created by Heather Kaczynski and Alexa Donne in Fall 2016, who comprise of 2/3rds of the current moderating team. The incomparable Kat Cho has joined the mod team for Round 2.

If you have a manuscript close to being ready for querying, check it out: http://authormentormatch.com. Good luck!

88366209

One of the most stressful parts of writing is not writing. Everyone knows this. Even people who don’t write. Because in every movie or television show which features a character who is a writer, there is a scene where that character is wracked with anxiety, pacing a floor ankle-deep in crumpled paper balls of failure, and basically rending their garments.

I’ve never had this experience, because I’m not particularly susceptible to wailing and gnashing my teeth. And I’ve never seen any of my writer friends melt into a steaming puddle of angst, either. But the anxiety is real, and any writer will tell you that there are times when the challenge of facing a blank screen can seem overwhelming. “Writer’s block” and “dry spells” most definitely happen. And when they happen, they can seriously erode your confidence, which only makes the problem worse. It can feel like you’re floundering in quicksand, surrounded by miles of empty desert in every direction.

It doesn’t have to feel that way.

Have you ever seen the movie “Mr. Baseball starring Tom Selleck? It’s certainly not the best movie ever, but it has its moments. Selleck plays a struggling baseball player that gets traded to a team in Japan, and he fears his career is over. Plus, he feels utterly out of place (very American, not worldly, daunted by all the differences, and 2 feet taller than everyone else in the whole country. So, he basically disregards everything anyone tries to tell him and fights with his new coach.

Finally, his coach does this sorta Karate Kid thing where he makes him hit golf balls with a bat at a driving range for hours at a time until Selleck finally throws down the bat and says, “I want to hit baseballs!” And his coach smiles and says, “Now you’re ready.”

The point is this: When you’re stuck and feeling guilt and pressure and self-doubt because you can’t write, and the idea of dragging out your manuscript is torture because it only justifies your feelings of failure — that is when you need to put it away and find something non-writerly to do for awhile until the desire to write comes organically. Maybe it will take a few months until you get your mojo back, and that’s okay — give yourself permission to recharge. Plant a garden. Binge-watch something you haven’t made time to watch. Learn to cook a new dish. Read a lot, until you begin to burn with the need to do it better than the writers you’re reading.

That’s when you’re ready. Until then, get comfortable on the bench. It doesn’t mean you’re out of the game; it just means you’re between innings.