Crash Diet

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Writing
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I reached my goal!  I actually managed to cut 19 pages out of the first 50 of my daughter’s and my manuscript. That’s over 5,000 words.

That’s huge.

In the past I have compared cutting scenes and major revisions to brain surgery — you have to make sure all of the nerves are properly connected or the basic motor functions fall apart…. You get the analogy. But this was like a tummy tuck. I scooped out a whole bunch of filler then stitched the loose edges together, and without much else in the way of “maintenance” I was done.

Why was this revision different? Well, the key is that I didn’t have 357 threads to reconnect. The very fact that I could remove those pages without much affecting the rest of the book is a dead giveaway that they were unneeded pages. Naturally, there are things on those pages that I revisited later in the book, but not one of them was irreplaceable. I either introduced the missing concept a bit later, or removed all future references to it.  For the amount of fat that got cut, it was surprisingly easy.

I encourage you to try the same thing, but they key to success is clearly identifying those elements that are not explicitly vital to the rest of the book. This does not include scenes you “like” or set-ups for later punchlines. If you can cut the joke in chapter without hurting your story, then you can cut the scene in chapter two that sets up the joke — and does nothing else. In my case I had constructed a whole series of cascading motivations just to justify my main character sneaking into the garage at night and finding something. I realized I could just have someone give the thing to her, and all of that stuff became irrelevant.  So I yanked it.

And now I have a much leaner, more focused and better paced opening. The inciting incident, which didn’t take place until page 30, now happens on page 10.

I kind of feel like celebrating by writing a decadent, sugary scene, but I’m watching my weight.

Cutting Deep

Posted: April 28, 2017 in Writing
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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?

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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.

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#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!

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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.

Being Liked

Posted: March 29, 2017 in Writing
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It’s nice to be liked.  I can say this without ego, because for quite awhile, now, I have been persisting without likes.

Aside from the general low-level anxiety that comes with little or no acknowledgement for one’s work over time, I also have been experiencing some confusion.  When we started querying my daughter’s and my novel in early 2015, we immediately began entering pitch contests.  Our very first #PitMad, we received several likes, including one from a small publisher.  As you will have guessed, none of these resulted in the sale of our book, but that’s hardly the point. The point is, we were utter novices at pitching, and yet in our very first contest we interested several agents/publishers.

That never happened again.  Our first pitch (all four versions, in fact) were horrible.  We hadn’t even properly identified the stakes or what were the key parts of the plot to pitch.  And yet we got 3-4 likes.  Later we sought and received advice on our pitches, on how to query, and most-importantly, how to actually improve our manuscript so that identifying the stakes and key plot points were much easier.  And yet, as we improved our manuscript and our presentation to agents, we received fewer requests.  In particular, #PitMad seemed to forsake us altogether.

I’m not bitter about it, not especially.  But I am curious, because I want to succeed. I want to crack the formula that leads to success — the sale of our book.  I see others manage it, and they are almost universally younger than I am.  And that implies to a thoughtless observer that they are less experienced, and therefor less deserving. This is the sludge that builds up in one’s motivational “engine.” I know our manuscript is better than before (and I am improving it still, as I have notes for still more important revisions), yet my confidence going forward is not where it should be.

Last week, during the most recent #PitMad, our latest pitch got liked. And just like that, I felt my confidence rushing back.

It’s a little pathetic, isn’t it?

#RevPit is Coming!

Posted: March 23, 2017 in Writing
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You may have heard that Pitch to Publication (#P2P17) has been postponed indefinitely. Pitch to Publication is a contest to which writers submit their complete samples of their complete manuscript to a choice few of a wide range of professional freelance editors. Each of the participating editors will select 1 (or possibly 2) manuscripts, which they will then spend the next five weeks editing.  Essentially, if you get chosen, you get your manuscript edited for free.  Those chosen will then have their polished manuscripts put on display for agents to request.

We have not been given a reason for the delay of this year’s Pitch to Publication, nor a new date. However, the stable of editors nevertheless refuse to disappoint the eager and aspiring writers who have been anticipating this contest.   They formed a new site, called Revise and Resub, and they have announced a brand new contest which is essentially the same as #P2P, called #RevPit.

This is fantastic news! Pitch to Publication has had great successes in the past, and now those same editors are on-board to perform the same service in a nearly identical contest on the same exact date, April 7th.

So check out the details and choose your 3 editors (and 1 alternate); you can check out all of their bios, specialties, and wishlists on the Revise and Resub page.  Then get your query and first 5 pages polished to a shine.  And follow #RevPit on Twitter to keep up-to-date on the contest.

How to Boil a Frog

Posted: March 15, 2017 in Writing
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“If I’d known then what I know now….”

There’s this fable about boiling a frog which goes something like this: If you put a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out.  However, if you put the frog in water that is comfortable and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will happily stay in the water until he is well and truly cooked.

I’m the frog.

When I decided to write a novel* I went into it with the conviction that if I really gave it my all, I could probably finish a whole novel good enough to be published, and I could probably do it in a year.  This was a real commitment, because I would have to do all of the writing  between two jobs and three kids, after chores and after everyone else had gone to bed — and I am a big fan of sleeping.  But with each chapter my confidence grew, which was good, because the job of writing the novel become more complicated, too. If I had known when I started just how much research and foreshadowing and weaving of complex plot points there was going to be, I might never have gotten up the nerve to climb into the water in the first place. But, really, the water was only slightly warm at that point.

A big part of my initial conviction was that I would not only write a novel, but get it published as well. And when I decided to turn up the heat, it seemed like just a little bit of heat. I mean, writing the novel was the hard part, right? Now I just needed to write a letter and send it out to a couple of dozen agents. I bought a copy of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market and I was all set. Another couple of months and I would be Published.

The water was still pretty comfortable.

But I’ve since learned that writing an acceptable query letter is almost as much work as writing the novel.  If every word in a novel counts, every word in a query counts about 200 times more; not only do you have to get across the setting, tone, characters, and stakes of your novel, but you have to make them so irresistible that an agent must want to see the whole manuscript based on just your query.

Little wisps of steam had begun to rise at this point, but I was happy where I was.  I could keep this up for a good long while.

In an effort to improve my query and those ultra-important first pages I started entering pitch contests.  This, naturally, turned the heat up even further, but I had been prepared for that — in fact I welcomed it.  That’s why I entered the contests in the first place. I wanted to up my game, get more feedback, become more competitive.  If I could perfect my pitch and query I was sure to get an agent sooner rather than later.

This is about the time I discovered a little-known (to me) fact, which is that 90% of writing a novel is re-writing the novel.  As the rejections began to pile up, and more and more feedback came in (and as I slowly relaxed to the possibility that the feedback was correct and I had more work to do), I embarked on the first of a series of full-manuscript revisions.  Each resulted in a new pitch and a new query letter, and a whole new round of rejections. The water began to swirl and bubble, but it felt good.  Maybe I could get one of those drinks with the little umbrella in it.

The water is uncomfortably hot, now. But I’m not ready to get out — not after everything I’ve gone through.  I’ve gotten too used to being in the thick of it.  I’ve been here far too long to just get out and dry off with nothing to show for it.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount since I started. And, of course, I firmly believe that this revision will be the one that lands me an agent.  But, if I had known then what I know now….


*The second time. My first novel was utterly directionless and took about 18 years to finish writing the first draft.

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I’ll be the first to admit sometimes I just can’t find the motivation to dive into another big revision of my manuscript. After a time one gets used to the chapter-by-chapter scale of writing, and whatever your pace is, that pace becomes comfortable, familiar. If you are part of a critique group, you can get feedback on that chapter within a week or two, and fix most issues in a couple of days. But full manuscript revisions?  Not only do they take more time to plan and actually write (it’s like taking a finished tapestry and deciding to replace all of the yellow theads with green theads), but once you’re done, getting meaningful feedback on your changes can take months. This is especially onerous if you have interrupted your querying process and wish to get back to it.

So … you’re not querying, and not exactly writing, either. You’ve put aside any other writing projects because you want to put this one to bed. You do a lot of planning and mulling of possibilities and testing of various ideas, while the clock ticks relentlessly.

This is where I am. I recently received some useful feedback and embraced the suggestions, seeing real possibility of improvement if I can make the changes just right. But the other two books I’m working on have been shifted to the back burner, and no matter how much I stare at my notes, I can’t seem to get excited about actually messing with the latest “final” version of my manuscript. That one is still in the hands of beta (gamma?) readers, for chrissake! Sure I want to get back to querying, given that the possibility of success ought to be higher with the revisions in place, and I want to get back to working on the sequel, but even if I do, how long will it be before I can rustle up anyone willing to read it and give me feedback? Because I don’t want to burn any bridges, querying with a flawed manuscript (again).

The motivation to revise (again) has taken a sabbatical.

You remember how I’m always saying how entering contests is good for your craft and career, even if you never actually get picked for any of them? Well, here’s some proof. In my online critique group someone started a forum topic on the recent Pitch Madness contest. “Who’s entering?” “Want to swap entries and gI’ve each other feedback?” And like that. I posted my entry — a 35-word pitch and the first 250 words of the book, along with the genre and age group. I didn’t get picked in the contest, this year, and given that this is the third year I’ve entered with a different version of this same manuscript, I later commented that I was beginning to question my ability and the marketability of this particular book.

Someone else on that thread said that they’d read the entry I had posted, and doubted I had anything to worry about. They would be delighted to read my full manuscript and offer feedback, if I wanted.

I responded immediately that I would gladly welcome the kind offer, but first I needed to finish this pesky revision.  And, boom, I had my motivation to get on with it.  Because I had a reader already lined up, eager to give feedback, so I could get back to querying.

You never know where motivation will come from. Be on the lookout for it and when you glimpse it snatch it up like ambrosia. Because sometimes it apears just like a gift from heaven.

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They say with age comes wisdom. I’m 53, and I’m still waiting for mine.

But I’ve been a serious writer for much less time. I wrote in high school and college, and even eventually (20+ years) finished a Dungeons & Dragon’s-inspired novel, but I didn’t get serious until about 4 years ago, when I embarked on a middle grade novel with my daughter. For this novel I approached it from the very start with the intention of being traditionally published. I already had a good foundation of how to write good dialogue and descriptions and pacing and tension and all of that. But this time I wanted to end up with a novel that somebody else might actually want to read.

So I got busy.  I took online courses and bought books about plot and downloaded lectures on the 7-point story structure. I found the online writing community and became an active participant in a critique group. I discovered the universe of writing hashtags on Twitter and jumped in with both feet. I figured out how to access my manuscript on my smartphone and bought a portable keyboard so I could write anywhere or anywhen. I kept my enthusiasm at a constant slow roiling boil, and was always working on some aspect of my book or its plot or its characters or the world-building or the query or the synopsis.

And when I thought everything was ready, I went into a frenzy of querying agents.

I wasn’t ready. Actually, the manuscript wasn’t ready, but both statements are equally true. The thing about querying is that for the most part, once you’ve queried a given agent and they pass, you’ve pretty much burned that bridge. There are exceptions where an agent might ask for a Revise and Resubmit, or tell you the manuscript isn’t quite ready but please keep them in mind if you decide to revise it on your own. These are pretty rare. And while there are hundreds of agents out there seeking books in any given genre, the list isn’t infinite. If you’re not careful you will eventually run out.

In the past, whenever I managed to get some feedback on my full manuscript, I typically endeavored to revise as swiftly as possible so I could get right back to querying.  But now I’m a bit more philosophical (if not not yet wiser). I’m realizing I don’t want to cross off another swath of potential agents by sending out a manuscript that isn’t ready. So I’m developing some patience. I’m taking my time to make sure these latest edits are going to stick and solve the problems pointed out by readers. I’m realizing I don’t want to do this forever, and I’m realizing the end of my list of potential agents is not that far away.

Maybe I’ve gotten some of that wisdom after all.