Posts Tagged ‘WIP’

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In the past, when I’d finished a revision and adjusted my query to reflect any plot changes or important new points of focus, I’d eagerly send it off to a fresh batch of agents, certain that these latest changes would make my manuscript irresistible.

That has thus far proved untrue.  And each time I send out another batch of queries, the total list of agents to which I can submit dwindles. It has made me more cautious.  The rule of the industry is that once an agent has rejected a manuscript, they will not look at it again — revised or otherwise.

You know the expression, “Youth is wasted on the young?” It is also true that querying is wasted on the inexperienced. The longer you query and revise based on feedback, the fewer agents are left to query. You start to get very careful.

It has been 10 months since I last queried an agent.  And since then I have done two complete revisions, including cutting 4,000 words. But I’m not the eager, fresh-faced writer I was, itching to blanket the world with queries. I have to be deliberate, selective, confident … careful. I am going to get as much free feedback as possible and polish any rough patches before I risk crossing any more agents off my list.

I’m taking the slow but steady path of the tortoise. I’m playing it safe.

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.

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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A couple of weeks ago, I gleefully told you about my economical and oh, so convenient solution for writing on-the-go: my iWerkz folding bluetooth keyboard, which lets me write on my phone anywhere and at a moment’s notice.  This is great for getting in some writing during my short breaks at my retail job.

But let me be honest — I still want a laptop.  And I still don’t have the money for one.  And even if I had one, it would not be as portable as a phone.  Well, I found a perfect middle-ground, and I am in writer-geek heaven.

I happen to have a two-year-old iPad Mini.  I hear, you … what happened to “economical”?  Well, you can pick up a brand new iPad Mini 2 direct from Apple for less than $270.  There are better deals and refurbished iPads available all over the place, including deals on eBay for around $150.  Mine had bee pretty much claimed by my eight-year-old son.  I bought him a dandy 7″ tablet from Barnes & Nobel for just $50, and now I have my iPad back full-time.

So what’s my killer solution? I found a rocking keybord case for the iPad Mini. It’s made by Zagg, who is known for quality cases for Apple devices, and this one is called the Zagg Slim Book for iPad Mini 2 or 3.  It’s been around for a couple of years, because the iPad Mini 2 came out three years ago. And that’s the best part of this; instead of the original retail price of $119, I paid only $26 for my case on Amazon, with free shipping.

It’s fantastic. As you can see, above, it looks just like a MacBook, with an aluminum keyboard with black, back-lit keys.  The top row of buttons take you to the home screen, turn the iPad on or off, launch Siri, launch search, and control video and audio playback and volume.While small than a standard-sized keyboard, this Zagg keyboard is surprisingly easy and enjoyable to use.  It really is as if I turned my iPad into the world’s tiniest MacBook. The keyboard even supports the familiar alt/tab feature that lets you easily switch between apps.

But that’s just the beginning. The “screen” part of the mini laptop (the actual iPad itself) is attached to the hinge mechanism by a series of very strong magnets. Which means you can detach it and use the iPad without the keyboard. This also means you can flip it around and use the keyboard behind the iPad as a convenient stand for viewing videos. And in this configuration, you can fold the keyboard flat behind in what they call “book mode.”

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The rechargeable keyboard has a two year battery life.  That’s right, two YEARS. Even if it’s only half that….

Here’s a nice video review.

The best part is that I can carry this around with me. I’m planning to get one of those padded slip cases for a little added protection and to hold a pencil and note pad. I already have apps for Wikipedia, Webster’s Dicionary/Thesaurus, and, of course, Microsoft Word and OneNote — all free. On an iPad, Word works without a 360 subscription, and it is integrated seamlessly with DropBox. I used my new keyboard case to compose this blog, and found it effortless.

If you happen to already have an iPad (Zagg makes this exact same case for the full-sized iPad, too), you can turn it into basically a touch-screen reversible laptop for under $50. The reversible touch-screen Windows laptop I bought my daughter cost ten times that much. If you decide to try this case, I’d love to hear your reviews.

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Last week I introduced the idea of “preinforcing” — going back after you have finished a manuscript and revising with the intent of adding details to support later scenes. This is in contrast to “foreshadowing,” which I distinguish as putting in details as you write to support future scenes not yet written.

By preinforcing, you have a much better opportunity to fold in finer details and make them more subtle.  When my daughter and I wrote our first draft of THE LAST PRINCESS, we knew that near the end of the book our hero would discover she is descended from trolls. We also wanted this to be an “of course!” moment for our readers by sprinkling in many supporting hints along the way.  However, as the book evolved, so did our definition of a troll.  Also, those scene where we wove in our clues changed, moved, or were cut, and many of those details were erased or altered to the point where they were no longer useful.

At this point we have a finished and polished manuscript, which has gone through several revisions of varying degrees, but there is one new idea we would like to emphasize. Near the end of the book, our hero is locked in a duel with her rival for the crown, and losing. She has all but given up and is succumbing to his special kind of magic, when a voice of encouragement pulls her out of it.  Then more voices. She discovers that all of her friends and many people she has never met have come to support her in her hour of need. That support gives her the strength to defeat her foe.

We realized that we weakened a potentially big moment, here, because it is later revealed that her best friend called most of these people and told them to come. Which is important to their friendship. But we realized this would be stronger if those people came to support our hero because our hero inspired them to do so.  This is a perfect case for preinforcing.

Throughout the book, our hero meets or is introduced to new characters who help her on her quest or provide a vital clue along the way. These people make up the core of those who come to support her at the end. But to believably change the reason they all show up, we needed to go back and add a pinch of motivation to each of those conversations.  So our notes for this revision pass looked something like this:

LAST PRINCESS – CLIMAX SETUP

GAIL: Gail needs to mention how none of the fae-born races can see each other anymore. Cat needs to think about that.

MR. P: Make sure she mentions she wants to unite the fae-born. He scoffs at this.

NANNY S: Nanny says her mother was friends with different types of fae-born. Cat points out she might meet more of them herself if she went out in the daytime.

ROSE: Cat shares with Rose the bit in her reading about how all the fae races used to be united.

MR. G: When he mentions that dwarves and elves don’t get along, she asks why and he admits he doesn’t really know.

MR. & MRS. J: When Cat tells them who she is, add that she wishes to bring the fae-born communities together. Mr. J will think this is a great idea because of his business.

HUNTER: When Hunter gives Cat the figurine, she tells him she would like to give his number to her dwarf-born friend. As an elf-born, Hunter is not enthusiastic about the idea. She tells him things will change when she becomes princess, and he might as well get used to it.

FAYE: When Cat tells Faye she plans to re-form the Seelie Court, add that she hopes to reunite the fae-born into one big community.

BONE-BREAKER: Work in that she wants to unite the fae-born, not control them. The prince will think that is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. He claims the fae-born will never voluntarily get together.

By subtly slipping in these little preinforcements to already-established scenes in such a way that makes them a natural part of the conversation, it will become perfectly reasonable for all of these people to come out and support her in her hour of need — which they already do as-written. However, now, it will be because Cat spread the idea that they should all get together.

So, without having to completely re-write the story, we are able to weave in a new idea to support a scene already written, and give it a whole new level of meaning.  Try this yourself, and let us know how it works for you.

Daddy’s Little Helper

Posted: December 15, 2016 in Writing
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Writers write — they don’t let little things like lifestyle get in their way.

I work seven days a week and have a family, including three kids, two cats and a wife. When the family is awake I’m not writing, and sometimes I don’t get home from work until 11:00 pm. So how did I manage to write a whole novel in under two years? When do I write?

Whenever.  I developed the same habit old soldiers develop around sleep — any time you can catch a few winks.*

Most of the time I do my writing between 11pm and 1am.  But I often try to write on my lunch hour at work.  I’ve made Dropbox an invaluable part of my writing arsenal, because I can access my WIP from any device at any time, and always be sure I have the very latest draft.  Autosave is a huge timesaver. Microsoft made Word available as a free download for smartphones, and you don’t even need a 365 subscription to use it, so I can open and edit the same Word documents as those I access on my office PC.

I discovered a whole chunk of unused time, however, and recently took steps to remedy that. My second job is retail, and when I work on the weekends I get a half-hour lunch and one or two 15 minute breaks, but I don’t have a PC at my disposal.  When I work in the evenings, I just get one break.  However trying to write using the on-screen keyboard on my iPhone is not particularly efficient.

So for my birthday I treated myself to an iWerkz folding bluetooth keyboard.  It only cost $30 on Amazon.img_1089

The notch you see in the case holds a iPad at a convenient angle, and there is a little pull-out tab on the case which holds my iPhone in landscape mode (as above). And the best part is that I can easily carry this in my back pocket on the sales floor, so when I get a break I don’t need to waste any time running to my locker.  I can grab a beverage and be writing in 2 minutes.  My laptop takes longer than that to boot up.

I may not get a lot of writing done in 15 minutes, but I get some done.  Mostly I use this time to review what I wrote last and polish it. Best of all, I keep the story fresh in my mind between bursts of writing.

So if you find yourself using lack of time as an excuse to not write, here’s your opportunity to give that excuse up.

 

 

 

*Unfortunately, I developed the same habit around snacking.

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In case you didn’t read my post from last week, #NaNoReDo is a do-over for anyone who missed National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo = November), during which participants try to write 50,000 words in 30 days. My daughter and I are using NaNoReDo to motivate us to complete the revision to our middle grade novel, THE LAST PRINCESS.

I am pleased to report that we have completed three of eighteen chapters, as of December 7, which puts us on track to complete our full-manuscript revision by the end of December.

And I think that puts us past the hard part.  The first three chapters are where all of the set-up, foreshadowing, and personal stakes are established. And for this revision were are changing all of that. Well, most of that. And, of course, that will trickle down throughout the rest of the novel, so we have to go over it page-by-page, paragraph-by-paragraph. I think we’ll make it.

Feeling the pressure, I ordered a nifty folding bluetooth keyboard which fits in. My back pocket, for those breaks and lunches at my second job where I don’t have access to a computer. The case has a little pull-out stand to hold my phone, which has MS Word and Dropbox, so I can pull up the latest draft of our manuscript at a moment’s notice and get to work

Check back next week, and wee if we’re still on track to finish by month’s end. Place your bets.