Posts Tagged ‘writing advice’

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I started working on my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, PRINCESS MATERIAL, around four years ago (it was originally called The Last Princess).  We finished the first draft about two years ago.  Since then we have been deep in the trenches of querying, workshopping, and revising.  So much revising.

So, I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to feedback.  I’ve talked about that.  You need to develop an ear for what advice is worth following … and not.  But if you’re honest with yourself and are truly committed to improving your craft and your manuscript, you have to push through your resistance to radical or brutal advice.  In other words, you must learn to embrace bad news. Because that’s where improvement originates [insert allegory about omelets and broken eggs].

That being said, I don’t think writers ever outgrow their need to receive praise.  For writers with unfinished projects, the only real way to get that is through beta readers and chapter critiques.  And this can be the biggest source of angst, because unless you write flawless first drafts the purpose of beta readers and chapter critiques is to highlight what’s wrong* with your manuscript.  So when you’ve lovingly polished your manuscript, rolled it up, and put it in a bottle, your feeling as you watch it drift out to sea is that you hope people will like it, that they will tell you it was good, that they will justify all of your choices and the product of your blood, sweat, and tears.  Typically, the thought at the front of your mind when you hit “send” is not, “Oh, boy! I sure hope they rip it to shreds.”

The thing is, it probably should be.

I’m currently in the middle of some big revisions (read my last few posts to hear about my experience working with an editor), and while this is the blazillianth time I’ve revised chapter one, this is the first time I’ve been really excited about the outcome.  By this time, I’ve developed a kind of filter through which I view the advice I receive — especially the early advice because as good as it seemed at the time, much of it clearly didn’t resolve the issues at hand (or else it created new issues). This is part of developing that ear I mentioned up above.  But at the same time, I have recently received some stunningly good advice involving big changes (hence these major revisions), so I know the system works.  It’s still blindingly obvious that quality feedback is as essential to the writing process as knowing your alphabet.  So I ran my newly-revised chapter one through the critique mill at Critique Circle and waited eagerly for the responses.

It has been awhile since I ran earlier drafts of this particular manuscript through CC. So every one of the six readers who provided a critique were brand new to the story.  The responses were — almost universally — positive.  One or two very minor word-choice suggestions, and one paragraph where a reader misread a description.  That’s it.  Closing comments were all full of praise.  And utterly devoid of advice.

It was a bit of a let down.

I’m dead serious about this book, now. Driven. Devoted. Committed. I wanted to be told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what was wrong with this so-very-important first chapter so I could fix it. I didn’t get it. I took my book-baby out in public and all I got was this stupid praise.

Old me from two years ago would have been doing an embarrassing happy dance with a sloppy smile plastered on his face.  Because stupid old me would have been lulled into a false sense of security and confidence that the chapter was “good,” was “ready,” was “done.”  Okay, sure, I’m obviously pleased at the response.  I’m still human, after all.  I’m a writer, for cheese sake — we eat praise for breakfast (and go hungry most of the time).  Yay! People like what I wrote!  This is good!

I just don’t trust it.


*By “wrong” I mean missing, weak, confusing, or inconsistent. The stuff your readers judge need to be changed.

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english proofreading sheet with red marks

Last week I discussed the pros and cons of hiring a professional editor for your novel manuscript, and my personal experience in choosing one for myself.  This week I’ll show you what you can expect from different kinds of editing services.

The muses aligned or the planets favored us (or insert your own supernatural reason) and the same day we hired a professional editor for my daughter’s and my middle grade manuscript, we won a free first ten pages critique through a contest.  In this case, the critique came from a past winner of #PitchWars, who had a manuscript good enough to be chosen by a mentor and who then went through the intense revision process that is the hallmark of that event.  So while he is not strictly an editing professional, he is certainly an experienced one.  And, because it was through a contest and not a manuscript swap between peers, he was not looking for reciprocation the way a fellow writer in a critique group might. Because this critique only covered 10 total pages, the comments drilled down to word level.  This is the kind of critique you may get with a Copy Edit.  Below is a screen grab from the middle of those ten pages, with comments from my editor:

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In this case my editor requested the pages in a Word document, in proper manuscript format.  This works well, because the comments and edits can be tracked, as you see above. Others prefer the online Google Docs, which have similar tools, however with Google Docs, you can see the edits live as they come in, and respond with comments and questions of your own.  A third option, Dropbox, is the best of both worlds, as you can share a link to a Word document in your Dropbox, and your editor can open that same document in his or her Dropbox.  This arrangement also allows for instant gratification and back-and-forth.  I prefer the Dropbox method, because ultimately the manuscript is going to need to be in Word, and I don’t want to have to copy and reformat the whole thing if I don’t have to.  But any of these methods will get the job done.

For the professional edit I chose a developmental editor, because our manuscript was well polished from a grammar and spelling standpoint, and it had already been read by scores of beta readers and critique partners, so I was confident the vast majority of the typos were cleaned up.  Likewise, I felt confident that line-by-line issues, such as awkward transitions, confusing sentences, and inconsistencies had been resolved.  What I paid for was a Developmental Edit, which covers  plot, structure, character, pacing, dialogue, world-building and writing style, presented in an overall critique letter, rather than line-by-line or even chapter-by-chapter breakdowns.

I chose Write On Editing, for their experience, their age-group focus, and their reasonable price.  I was ultimately won over by their fast and friendly replies and willingness to answer questions.  In fact, before asking for a dime, Michelle invited us to send her the whole manuscript so she could read it and tell us which level of editing would be the best fit for us.  She recommended the least expensive option, and even worked with us on the price. Here are some of the comments we received after about two weeks:

Plot:

You have a wonderful story line in THE LAST PRINCESS…. (a full paragraph detailing the things that Michelle liked and what worked).

There are a few points that I feel you might want to address however.

Cat seems to immediately accept that she will become the next princess without too much internal examination or obsessing about what that means for her, her future, or her family. A bit more internal dialogue would help readers to connect with that new-found responsibility. Also, what is Cat expecting to actually do as a Princess? She makes vague statements about wanting to unify the fae but what does that actually entail?

Cat’s time at Squirrel Scout camp is so much fun! The pranks were pretty funny and it was a great way for her to meet Hunter and learn new skills too. That said, pranking usually goes both ways at camp. Can her group plot or even prank other groups in what they think is retaliation? I would imagine these girls would be speculating nonstop about who was messing with them, but that line of thought seems pretty non-existent.

World Building:

Much as I like the plot, I feel like this is one of the weakest areas in THE LAST PRINCESS. I honestly have no idea what time of year the story is taking place. At the start, Cat is working on home school projects but shortly afterwards she is going away to camp for a week. Is school just getting out before summer? Giving more details about the timing will help the reader to place themselves more firmly in the contexts of your character’s lives.

Another facet I wasn’t too sure on was the family’s booth at the Rockford Fair. While reading, I was distracted trying to figure out if it was located in a travelling or permanent fairground. I think it’s the latter, but if so, how does that work? Fairs typically last for a short period only. Consider changing it to a small shop in a tourist type town that might have a carnival aspect (I kept imaging Coney Island, to be honest). Think about what makes it unique or special and why people come to visit.

Character Development:

Cat’s Mom: One of my main concerns is the unevenness of this character. I like where she ends up, but I was quite confused with her character for most of the novel. Cat emphasizes the fact that her mom expects her to be “little miss perfect” by getting good grades and avoiding things like fairy tales but I didn’t see much beyond those two points. In fact, she has her join Squirrel Scouts which seems the opposite of being success-minded since they go hiking and get dirty etc. (unless you incorporate something how she thinks it will give her leadership skills or something). And it doesn’t really match with her actions either. I couldn’t understand how a mom who runs a booth selling flowers and pottery at a fair would be so preoccupied with perfection, as she seemed quite hippy-ish. You might be able to keep the details as is, but make the mom a bit more OCD regarding Cat’s activities. She already is concerned about school work but you could add in scenes of her carefully scheduling out Cat’s every minute between scouts, soccer, school, and helping with the shop, for example.

Michelle rounded out her critique letter with a number of random thoughts:

– How did Thomas get over the mumps so fast? Wouldn’t he be quite weak after leaving the hospital, yet their mother takes the family out to dinner that night.

– On p.77 Cat tells us why she thinks her family is more poor than usual. Instead of telling your reader all at once, could this be broken up and inserted in little snippets throughout so it gradually builds?

Finally, the editing package included a 45 minute Skype or phone conversation, where I can ask questions and get feedback on possible solutions to some of these issues.  To get the most out of this, I’ve started a list of questions to ask, and will continue to add to it right up until the scheduled time for our call.

Next week I’ll discuss how I plan to make the most out of these critiques, and how several of the comments led to ideas on how to fix the issues.

 

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If you’re committed to being a published writer, then you eagerly seek feedback on your writing. And if you aren’t swimming in money, then you seek to get it wherever and from whoever you can (because paying a professional editor is typically expensive). And if you spend any amount of time looking for people to read and critique your stuff, you will eventually discover pitch contests.

These are a great way to meet fellow writers in your age category and genre, and can supply an endless pool of potential beta readers and critique partners. Plus, you get to interact with and learn from agents, published authors, and professional editors, and in some cases “win” free advice or critiques on some of your work.

But here’s the thing about that. Most of these contests focus on the small stuff — your 35-word pitch, your query, the first page of your manuscript. There is no doubt it is vitally important to get those right, but competition if fierce and only a very few can “win” those contests.  Which means that more likely than not, if you enter one of these contests, you will not win. For many of us, this means you just try again. And again. This is the process, this is what you’re supposed to do. But by doing this, you tend to become a bit myopic about the small stuff.

The fact is, not every book has a perfect first 250 words. Not even the best books. Not every successful author got published with a flawless query letter.  I’m not suggesting you don’t focus on these things. You should. They will help you succeed. That’s why the contests are about those things in the first place. But whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Remember, nobody gets your book better than you do. Not getting chosen out of 200 entries for a contest does not mean there is anything wrong with your query or first 250. Same thing is true if you don’t get chosen for 20 contests.

Prepping for and following contests is intense and often rewarding. But don’t lose sight of the other 99% of your book. Or the next book. Keep perspective  on the whole picture. And don’t sweat the small stuff.

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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.

queryswap

Query Swap Twitter event
Coming June 1, 2017
Your hook is your selling point. It has to be perfect. But getting good feedback can often be difficult or expensive. That’s why M.L. Keller—The Manuscript Shredder—is organizing the #QuerySwap Twitter party, an all-day event for people seeking critique partners to participate in feedback exchanges on query letters or back cover blurbs. The query swap Twitter party is designed to help writers connect with other writers. And since this is an exchange, both parties will benefit.
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Query Swap is happening from 8am-8pm EST on June 1, 2017.
Query Swap isn’t a contest. It’s an opportunity for writers to help other writers. There won’t be mentors, or agents. This is for writers only. Each participant will have the opportunity to find a new critique partner and exchange feedback on queries. Everyone gets feedback. Everyone’s query improves. Everyone wins.
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How to participate:
  1. Tweet a brief pitch about your MS with the tag #QuerySwap include genre and age category hashtags. (They might look familiar; they are the same as #Pitmad) No need to tweet multiple times since you can search the feed and look for a match too.
  2. Watch the feed and find someone with an MS in a similar genre, category, and tone
  3. Ask him/her to swap
  4. Exchange queries
  5. Give constructive feedback to your new Critique Partner.
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Can I just recycle my #pitmad pitch?
Maybe, but it might need tweaking. In this swap, genre, category, and overall MS tone will be more important than plot in finding a good match. Someone with a snarky sensibility might be less suited to selling your Anne of Green Gables retelling, so make sure you look for a person who writes in a similar style.
example pitches:
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#LGBT historic retelling of Frog Prince set in Polynesia also dragons #YA #F #R #QuerySwap
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or
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Dark portal fantasy with family drama and talking cats #MG #F #DIS #QuerySwap
Obviously, these won’t work for #pitmad, but they convey the necessary information for this event.
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Hashtags … (These are the same as #pitmad)
Age Categories:
#PB = Picture Book
#C = Children’s
#CB = Chapter Book
#CL = Children’s Lit
#MG = Middle Grade
#YA = Young Adult
#NA = New Adult
#A = Adult
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Genres/Sub-genres:
#AA = African American
#AD = Adventure
#CF = Christian Fiction
#CON = Contemporary
#CR = Contemporary Romance
#DIS = Disabilities
#DV = Diversity
#E = Erotica
#ER = Erotic Romance
#ES = Erotica Suspense
#F = Fantasy
#H = Horror
#HA = Humor
#HF = Historical Fiction
#HR = Historical Romance
#INSP = Inspirational
#IRMC = Interracial/Multicultural
#MR = Magical Realism
#M = Mystery
#Mem = Memoir
#LGBT
#LF = Literary Fiction
#NF = Non-fiction
#R = Romance
#P = Paranormal
#PR = Paranormal Romance
#RS = Romantic Suspense
#S = Suspense
#SF = SciFi
#SPF = Speculative Fiction
#T = Thriller
#UF = Urban Fantasy
#W = Westerns
#WF = Woman’s Fiction
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Some tips:
  1. Don’t flood the feed with pitches for the same book. Pitching multiple books is ok
  2. Pitch only books you are querying
  3. Don’t just wait for someone to ask you first. Be proactive.
  4. Use the hashtags to simplify your search.
  5. Be polite.
  6. Remember this is a swap. Both parties must give feedback
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Want to help #QuerySwap succeed? Please share via social media or reblog this post.
Questions or concerns, please leave a comment.

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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.

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This is one of those Life Lessons that pop up in the course of going about one’s day, which perfectly illustrates a concept you have difficulty explaining to others:

ALWAYS START YOUR BOOK WITH ACTION

The thing about cramming an entire concept as integral and complex as this into a six-word fortune cookie is that you loose the complexity. You loose the way the concept is meant to integrate into the rest of your story. So what you end up with is just a “rule” which inexperienced writers often treat like a law set in stone. Then, when they critique the work of other writers (which every writer should do as part of their education), they flag every instance when one of these “laws” is broken, without understanding how it is possible to break the rule and still write well.

Here’s an example: DON’T START YOUR BOOK WITH DIALOGUE. This is a good recommendation.  It often gets misquoted as “Never Start Your Book with Dialogue.”*  The reason for this advice is pretty compelling and common-sense, once you understand it. Without any reference or character description or setting established, your reader can’t hear whatever voice you are writing or hear whatever emotion is supposed to be there. Writers are engaged in a constant juggling act, balancing between describing details and leaving details for the reader to fill in. Its like creating a coloring book with hints built in letting your reader know what colors to use where.  When you describe a turbulent ocean, you don’t necessarily need to describe the whitecaps and the spray and the tang of salt in the air.  You can — many writers do, and more, but if you suggest them, the reader will visualize the parts you leave out. But if the first words in your book are: “Hi. How are you, today?” your reader won’t know if the speaker is male or female, young or old, pleasant or sarcastic.  You can tell them in the very next sentence, but by then your reader will have already tried to fill in the missing details, and more than likely, they will have gotten them wrong. When that happens and your reader is forced to revise their mental picture, it takes them out the moment. It is irritating to have to go back and read it again with the new information.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make dialogue-first work.  Here are some examples I came up with on the fly:

“Touch her again, señor, and you’re a dead man.”

“Ma’am,” the morgue officer prodded gently, “can you identify that little girl?”

“Take us to your fishing line!” The translation matrix was on the fritz again.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said for the last time, but the elevator doors had already closed.

“Grab the shotgun, Billy — that fox is creepin’ around the henhouse agin.”

“Play with me, Sarah,” said the ventriloquist dummy, even though I was the only one in the room.

“But Mommy, why do we have to slaughter Henrietta?”

“Tell your brother I—” The grenade exploded, taking half of my dad with it.

The reason these work (if, in fact, they do), it is because I made it clear how the voice should sound before the end of the first sentence. Thus, the coloring book has hints about what colors to use.  Robert Heinlein opened several of his very popular stories with dialogue (proving there are real-life exceptions to the “rule”):

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.” — Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

“He’s a mad scientist and I’m his beautiful daughter.” — Number of the Beast (1980)

“We need you to kill a man.” — The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1988)

Okay. So, rules can be broken if you understand the reasons behind them and follow the spirit of the rule. That first one I mentioned above, about starting with action. This is possibly the most misunderstood piece of advice.  The advice, ALWAYS START WITH ACTION does not mean there has to be a car chase, a shootout, or a sword fight in paragraph one.  In fact, all of those things are bad ideas (in general), for precisely the same reason starting with dialogue is generally a bad idea — you don’t know who the players are or who you are supposed to cheer for, and you don’t know what everyone is feeling.

No, by “action” they mean “activity.” Avoid beginning with long descriptions, backstory, or other set-up. Start with the main character doing something.  The action doesn’t have to be extra action-y, it just has to be activity, not description. The other part of the “rule” that often gets misinterpreted is the word “start.” This does not mean only the first paragraph or the first scene (here comes the learn-y part, where I discover something in my own writing that illustrates this point, hence the reason I’m writing about this in the first place). “Start” means the first part of your story, or your book.  That might mean the first three chapters.  That might mean everything up to the inciting incident. And it doesn’t mean you stop there.

In my daughter’s and my middle grade book, we did a pretty fair job of keeping the momentum going all the way to the end of chapter three, when our hero learns she must go on a quest. And then, inexplicably, we stopped pedaling.  The rest of the book is a quest, and yet our hero stumbles from one step to the next, and the adults she meets hand her whatever she is looking for. Well, in fact they give her just enough to make her move to the next step, which draws out the quest and drives the story. But what has been missing is that the hero is not active in accomplishing each step.  She just shows up.

We’re going to change that.

Another “rule” you may have run afoul of in your own writing is: ALWAYS USE ACTIVE VOICE, NEVER PASSIVE VOICE. Most new writers I’ve interacted with take that to mean just replace all of your passive verbs with active verbs. Nope.  I mean, sure, do that; it will make your book more interesting and stuff, but you don’t have to be obsessive about it, and you don’t have to become the verb police. What the suggestion actually means is make sure there are things going on in your story, that you move from one scene to the next through activity, rather than by telling us about activity.  “Show, don’t tell” means just that.  Rather than say, “They played basketball while they talked,” have them actually moving the ball around during their dialogue. That’s active voice.

But it isn’t always enough, as I’ve recently learned. You can have a very active voice and still not have your character doing anything. My point is this: you can’t just collect a stone tablet full of writing commandments and prop them up and look at them when you write. You need to understand the reason behind the advice and know when it is acceptable — or even appropriate — to ignore it. No “rule” is correct 100% of the time. Learn about that 2% when it’s not.


*Any advice that contains “never” or “always” is probably suspect. You will be able to find countless books where the author blatantly broke that rule, and did so successfully.  It’s like evolution; the ways in which we tell stories are always changing.

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Last week in That “Aha” Moment I talked about how you never know when a good idea will strike, and also about when you may have to let one of those ideas go.  I closed by telling you how my new Critique Partner and a professional editor both pointed out what was missing from our book, and that I would share with you what that was, in case it applied to you, too.  It was really quite a game-changer.

What’s been missing from my daughter’s and my book were the stakes.

stake
[steyk]
noun
  1. something that is wagered in a game, race, or contest.
  2. a monetary or commercial interest, investment, share, or involvement in something, as in hope of gain: I have a big stake in the success of the firm.
  3. a personal or emotional concern, interest, involvement, or share: Parents have a big stake in their children’s happiness.
  4. the funds with which a gambler operates.

 

In fiction, this means the goal or outcome the hero wants. And more importantly, what is in the way of achieving that goal?  Another word for this is “suspense.”

To be fair, we did eventually get around to adding in stakes to our novel by the time we got to the end.  And we went back and diligently hinted at it in the early chapters, too.

This is, apparently, not sufficient.

Our first clue (ignored) was when we struggled to come up with a longline, or 35-word pitch.  For sure, this is not easy under the best circumstances, but the crux of the pitch is the stakes. If you can’t figure out what your main character has at stake, there is a problem with your book.

We began writing THE LAST PRINCESS by the seat of our pants, without an outline, and letting the story evolve as we progressed.  In fact, we never actually intended the story to include a villain, but one sort of appeared organically, and we added him to the story.  In the end the final conflict is rather juicey and full of hard choices — stakes — but that suspense, that energy, that urgency, is simply not very apparent at the beginning.

It needs to be.  In fact, I’d suggest that by page 50 (page 30 for children’s books) it should be clear to your reader what is at stake for the hero, and just as importantly, what will happen if she or he fails.  And remember, failure is an option.  It depends on what kind of book you want to write.

What does this look like?  Imagine I told you I had a guaranteed winning lottery ticket worth millions, and I was willing to let you have it.  Now, imagine I told you the only way to get it is to climb up the outside of the U.S. Capitol Building and retrieve it from the top of the dome.  Before midnight tomorrow.  Now you have some suspense.  Can you do it?  How will you do it in time?  How will you get past security?  Do you have the skill and equipment?  What if you get caught?

It doesn’t have to be that dramatic.  A woman is engaged to a horrible person but falls in love with a different, wonderful man.  But she must marry the first in order to save her dying sister.  A boy has a dream of becoming the best cornet player in New Orleans, but he lives in poverty and can’t afford nice clothes to audition for the band.

So how do you sharpen the stakes?  Pour on the pressure.  The engaged woman learns the wonderful man loves her back, and he’s rich, too.  But her fiancé is the only surgeon qualified to perform the life-saving operation.  And when he gets jealous he drinks.  The cornet player earns the money to buy a nice suit, but his mother loses her job and can’t afford to buy food for the family.  If you really want to lay it on thick, add a time-bomb: The band auditions are this Friday, then the talent scout is leaving town. The sister’s condition is worsening by the day.

For our book, we need to put the conflict with the villain right up front, and make it clear what the hero has to lose — personally — if she fails to defeat him.  That’s the thing about stakes, they have to be personal.  It’s not enough to just save the kitten from the fire.  The kitten has to be personally important to the hero.  Ask yourself this question:  What would happen to your hero if he/she fails?  If their life could pretty much go on unchanged, your stakes aren’t high enough or personal enough.

This’s what was missing from our book.  We had stakes, but they weren’t personal enough.  It came own to saving other people or going back to her normal life.  Not enough suspense.  But now we know how to fix that.  We’re going to have to let go of some of our favorite lines, even favorite scenes.  But the results should help make our manuscript irresistible to readers — particularly agents.

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Ideas come at the oddest times.  In the shower.  In the car.  In the middle of an unrelated conversation with your spouse.  At that last possible moment before you drift off to sleep.  You never know when you’re going to get one.  Which makes ideas precious.  So precious, in fact, that sometimes you’re compelled to hang on to one tooth and nail.  This can become a problem if you are committed to selling a novel.

Writing a novel, that’s the easy part.* Hanging onto ideas is a necessary skill; sometimes they get lost betwixt “Once upon a time” and “Happily ever after.”  But the harder part of writing a novel is re-writing a novel.  It turns out this is a huge step in the process of selling a novel.

Think of climbing Everest as an analogy for selling a novel (no, I’m not being overly dramatic — you try it.)  Doing your research, psyching yourself up, taking the training classes, getting in shape, buying all your gear, and getting to the base camp — that’s writing the novel.  Planting your flag on the summit — that’s signing a contract with a publisher. All of that mountain in between the base camp and the summit?  That’s re-writing (also known as slogging).

This is where you will find you need to begin to let go of some of your precious ideas.  Ideas that have served you throughout the writing process, informed your characters, served as a framework for your plot.  Because it will take lots of people reading your manuscript and giving you constructive feedback to work out all of the hidden hitches and subtle slowdowns you can’t see yourself. And by “people” I don’t mean your mom (unless she is an accomplished novelist or literary editor).

My daughter’s and my novel, THE LAST PRINCESS, has been “finished” for over a year.  We’ve workshopped it and rewritten the first several chapters, taken the advice of beta readers and editors, and revised and resubmitted to an interested agent.  But despite these spasms of retooling and polishing, we do not yet have agents lining up for a chance to offer us a contract.

Then we got two more people to read it. One was a #PitchWars mentor from whom we won a three-chapter critique, and the other was a shiny new critique partner we found though #CPMatch.  They both noticed something — or at the very least described something — that no other reader/agent/editor had ever pointed out before. And bang! we saw what was missing.

That “Aha!” moment.  This idea means we will have to rewire a lot of things in the book.  Disconnect A from B and attach Q.  Find a new place to plug in B without short-circuiting F-J.  And do it in such a way that all of the original buttons, dials, bells and whistles still work correctly.  Or, hopefully better than before.

Wanna know what the editor and CP pointed out that will make our manuscript magically delicious?  If you eat all of your vegetables and promise not to complain when I say it’s time for bed, I’ll tell you next week.  Stay tuned; it’s a good one.

 

 

 

 

 

*I know this; I’ve written two.