Nov 20, 2015

How to be ruthless when revising

Today I'm going to talk about structural revising. The big, heavy kind that involves ripping your whole book to pieces and then Frankensteining (yes, that's a word) it back together. For me, this is one of the hardest things to get started on because it means letting go of my book in its previous incarnation. A lot of times, I'll go through and trim and spackle manuscripts when what I really need to do is gut the whole thing. A massive edit is daunting, but it helps to have a solid process so you can get through it efficiently, with as few tears as possible. So here goes:

1. Figure out what your goals are for this revision. Things like speeding up pacing, cutting or adding characters/subplots, fixing character/plot arcs. Write it all down.

2. Open up your MS. Write an outline of it, with a paragraph for each scene (not chapter), making sure to include the major plot points and any information that's essential to the story. Then CLOSE the old MS file.

3. Now hack through the outline with a machete until you get to the bare bones of your story.  Cut out any stuff that doesn't fit with the new goals you've outlined in step 1. The reason why I do this in outline form is that it's much easier to kill my darlings from far away. If I start reading through scenes, I start getting attached to them again. I find beautiful paragraphs I spent hours perfecting. I start to think, "Well the story has to be this way because of the logical flow from the last chapter and the one before." No, it doesn't, because we are clearcutting this manuscript and it's going to look like a barren, charred field for a little while, but then we're going to grow a bunch of new stuff and it's going to be way better, I promise.

4. Pour yourself a nice big drink or have some chocolate cake. You need a reward after all that.

5. Read through your new outline, move stuff around, brainstorm new ideas. If you're not sure how to fix everything right away, add notes like [more cool magical stuff here] or [thing makes character X really sad]. Sit with this outline for a few days or even weeks, let things percolate. Don't do any actual writing yet, just mull over the whole story. By now, you might be coming up with some amazing new ideas that help to let go of the old version.

6. Finish the outline as much as you can, but understand that it's just a tool and isn't set in stone. If things change later, that's fine.

7. Take a deep breath and open up that old MS file. Cut all those scenes you said you were going to. This part hurts less if you cut/paste them into a separate file, and it's a smart thing to do anyway. Somebody on a writing forum once told me, "I kill my darlings and then I put them all in a file so I can harvest them for body parts later." Try not to feel bad about losing these scenes, and don't be shy about harvesting parts of them later. They all shaped the book and made it whole, even if they ended up on the cutting room floor.

8. If you use Scrivener, this next part is probably way easier. I do everything Word because I get a perverse pleasure from doing things the hard way. Rearrange the salvageable scenes in the order of your new outline. Add notes for things that will change, both within those scenes and between them, in square brackets or all caps or highlighted -- some way that you can easily spot within the file. Again, I bet Scrivener would be awesome for this, like you could use those virtual notecards or something. Once you're done, you'll have an ugly little hybrid of draft and outline, but it'll be all laid out and ready for you to get started on.

9. This is the part you've probably been either itching to do or dreading, but get writing! Fill in all those gaps, smooth out all those transitions, write those new scenes. This part always feels great to me, and is less daunting than a first draft because I know my characters and the story, even if it's different now.

10. Once you've finished the new draft, do a higher-level edit (maybe using a  revision questionnaire). Then do a line edit to make sure each word is sparkling and wonderful.

11. Do something to celebrate. Heck, celebrate every time you finish one of these steps. This is really, really hard! But so worth it in the end.

Happy revising!

Jun 12, 2015

I have an agent!

I've been in and out of the query trenches for several years, and one of the things that kept me going was other writers' "How I Got My Agent" posts. I can't believe it's finally time to write one of my own!

So here goes. (Warning: it's the long, historical version.)

In 2011, I started writing a book. I'd dabbled in short fiction, blogging, and bad poetry, but this was my first attempt at an actual book. And wow, it felt like taking drugs. I couldn't believe how magical it was to create these characters and worlds and roam around and almost live in them. Granted, I wasn't so great at putting everything together, and character arcs? What are those? But it was a fabulously exciting time. After a lot of revising and figuring out of things, I queried the manuscript. It didn't work out. In retrospect, this is a good thing because the book was basically terrible. But I learned a ton about how to put a book together, how to make characters relatable, how to develop a plot, etc.

So I wrote another book. It was much better than book #1 and got a lot of agent requests, but ultimately none of them panned out. I got a lot of kind feedback and a few requests to see my next manuscript, which was encouraging, but not what I'd been hoping for.

So I wrote another book. It was by far the hardest one. Because of its setting in the Arctic, it required a ton of research. I spent months requesting books and DVDs from the library (FYI: interlibrary loan is amazing), reading websites, and watching pretty much every single YouTube video set in Nunavut. I enjoyed the researching process, but it was time-consuming. The manuscript was also emotionally difficult to get through, with a lot of very heavy scenes, and sometimes it was easier to just not write it. I started thinking that maybe I had no right to tell this story, that I'd botch everything, that I wouldn't be able to make the words on the page match the ideal in my head. All typical writerly doubt stuff, but that didn't make it any easier to deal with. I seriously considered trunking the book.

Then WriteOnCon happened, and I posted my query and opening pages, with a disclaimer that it was a work in progress. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. People really seemed to like it, and so many of them offered to beta that I could barely keep up. I can't even express how much this helped. It gave me a new sense of hope for the book, and the feeling that maybe I wasn't a terrible writer and maybe I could do this story justice. So I kept on plugging along.

Fast forward to this spring. I had a finished, polished draft. I'd sent it out to betas and made further revisions. I still had sneaking doubts and some ideas for revising the whole first half of the book, but I decided to send out a small round of queries because I was driving myself nuts overthinking everything. So out went ten queries. And within the first week, in came five full requests. It was thrilling, but I still felt like I needed to sit tight, just in case that first half was wrong and needed to be hacked to pieces. I told myself I'd wait for the requests to come back, even if it took a few months.

Now I don't know what other people's query processes are, but for me, it's incredibly hard to sit and wait without doing anything. The only thing I felt like I had any control over was sending more query letters, but I'd made an Official Plan not to. Luckily (or not so luckily) I moved right in the middle of the process. With two little kids underfoot and a mountain of boxes, I thought it'd take my mind off things, but it just compounded the anxiety. Like, my hair started falling out a little bit. Every so often, when the wait got agonizing, I'd let myself send out one more query, but I really tried to limit myself.

Almost two months after sending my first query, I got a response from one of the agents I'd queried in the very first batch. She said she was reading my book and loving it. I just about died. She asked what other genres I wrote and asked if I'd be willing to send samples of other things I'd written. I spent an hour writing back to her, deleting and rewriting and deleting and second-guessing everything. And I sent her a random snippet of a very strange story I'd been tinkering with. I figured there was a very good chance she'd think I was a total weirdo.

But she didn't! She wrote back and said she wanted to talk. On the phone. But I had to wait until 5:00 the next day, and let me tell you, that was a loooooooong day. But it was so worth it. The agent was lovely and so easy to talk to. She was incredibly enthusiastic and had so many nice things to say about my book that I almost cried. When we hung up, I thought, "Well, that's it. I have an agent." But I still had a bunch of other agents reading the manuscript, so I notified them that I had an offer of representation and gave them ten days to respond, because both Memorial Day and BEA were happening that week.

At the end of the ten days, I had some very kind feedback and another offer of representation. I always thought it'd be fabulous to be in a position where I had to choose between agents, but honestly, it felt kind of terrible. Both agents were incredible, both had great sales records, and both said wonderful things about my book. And I had to choose one. Ultimately, I just kept going back to the first agent, and all I can say is that I clicked with her in a way that felt right. Not sure if that's helpful at all to anybody in a similar situation, but I just knew. I also spoke to a few of her clients, who raved about her, which just solidified everything I was feeling.

So yeah, long story short: I'm now represented by Kathleen Rushall at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, and I could not be happier.

Here are the stats, for those of you who like them:
Queries sent: 16
Requests: 10 full, 1 partial, 1 full request from a contest
R&Rs: 2
Offers: 2

Oct 28, 2014

My revision questionnaire

I'm neck-deep in revisions right now and thought I'd share a strategy that's been really helpful over the years. It's a chapter-by-chapter questionnaire to help make sure I've gotten the big-picture stuff in addition to the line edits that are so much easier to spot. This can be tailored depending on how you write and the things you tend to miss/overdo, but here are the questions I ask myself (and actually write out the answers to) after I finish editing each chapter:
  1. What is the main character's goal for this particular scene? 
  2. What is the conflict (i.e., what stands in his/her way, and where is the tension/suspense, even if it's minor/internal)?
  3. What does the reader learn from this scene? Not what sort of moral lesson, just what new, useful information does this scene impart?
  4. Does this scene really need to be here? Could I take it out without having much impact on the overall book? This is a tough one because sometimes the answer is yes and then I have to decide whether to add to the scene or just cut it.
  5. What emotion/mood am I trying to evoke with this scene? How do I want readers to feel (with the understanding that I can't control their actual reaction)?
  6. Why will readers care about this scene and the characters in it?
  7. Where is the theme? 
Number 7 involves extra prep work because you need to know your book's theme ahead of time. I never know what my theme is until I finish the first draft, but a lot of people start with a theme first. It's also a very subjective thing -- that is, other people might get a totally different theme when they read your work. Basically, try to write out a one-sentence theme for your book and make sure it's present throughout, that you're deepening it as much as possible, or at least building up pieces of it that will create a whole. Here are a couple of links about finding your theme:

Finding Theme in Your Book: An Exercise in Searching for Repeating Patterns
25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme

Once I finish answering all these questions I usually have several more (really good) ideas for improving the chapter. It forces me to think about the chapter as a cohesive whole, rather than nitpicking the words to death (which is also important, but less so in second-draft stage).

So there's my process. Hope it's somewhat helpful. It's also an evolving list, so any suggestions for things to add are welcome!

Aug 20, 2014

The Mommy Police

I don't know if this Dear Mom on the iPhone blog caught me at the wrong time or what, but I'm really frustrated after reading it. If you don't feel like clicking, here's the opening:

I see you over there on the bench, messing on your iPhone.  It feels good to relax a little while your kids have fun in the sunshine, doesn’t it?  You are doing a great job with your kids, you work hard, you teach them manners, have them do their chores. 
But Momma, let me tell you what you don’t see right now….. 
Your little girl is spinning round and round, making her dress twirl.  She is such a little beauty queen already, the sun shining behind her hair.  She keeps glancing your way to see if you are watching her.
You aren’t.

I get it. We all need to spend less time on our phones and more time experiencing life. But ugh, can we all please just stop criticizing moms for five minutes? Having small children is an incredible, poignant, dazzling experience. It is also sometimes exhausting, frustrating, and grueling. Yes, there are beautiful moments of sun shining behind hair, but there are also tantrums, constant negotiations, endless dish washing and laundry folding and other general drudgery. Taking your kids to the playground is a great way for them to blow off steam and -- I think equally importantly -- give everybody some time on their own.

When I read articles like this, I feel like I'm being criticized for not giving my kids my undivided attention for every second of every day. Maybe this makes me a terrible mother, but I'd lose my mind if I tried to do that. I don't actually spend playground time on my phone, but I resent the fact that I'm not "allowed" to by the Mommy Police (notice how there's no Daddy Police, by the way?). And I'm counting the days until my kids are old enough for me to bring a book and read while they play.

So here I am justifying my choices and sort of stressing out that maybe I'm doing it wrong, that maybe this lady is right and I'm not trying hard enough. Every day I read a new parenting article (usually on Facebook) about something I'm probably doing wrong, and it makes me tired. I have two kids under five -- I'm already tired. I know I should stop reading these articles and trust my own instincts, but it's almost impossible to escape them.

But then I find articles like Dear Mom on the iPhone: You’re Doing Fine and I feel better.

I'd love to hear how others cope with the constant barrage of online parenting advice/criticism.

Aug 18, 2014

WriteOnCon is coming!

Did you know WriteOnCon is happening next week? I blogged about it last year and can't wait to dive in again this year.

I can't say enough good things about the online kidlit community. Between Absolute Write and Twitter, I've made so many friends and have been able to share work with amazingly talented people from all over the world. Writing often feels like a lonely pursuit, but knowing you can hop online at any time and find people working through the same exact challenges is immensely helpful. And for two days a year, WriteOnCon feels like the culmination of all of this. The energy, the kindness, the sense of camaraderie are just so inspiring.

Conference starts next week, but the forums are already live. Go check it out!

Feb 24, 2014

Shiny and new

This is basically how I feel every time I start a new writing project.





Jan 19, 2014

Some thoughts on editing services

Lately it seems like a lot of people are hanging out a shingle on their writing websites, advertising editorial services and manuscript critiques for a fee. As somebody who's worked professionally as an editor for 13 years (ugh, I'm getting old), this makes me a little nervous. I'm not saying that many of these people aren't qualified to provide this type of service, but I do think writers should tread carefully.

Some questions to consider:

1. In terms of big-picture critiques, is this something you couldn't get from a beta reader? There are a ton of writing sites out there (like Absolute Write, Book Country, etc.) where you can post work for critique, meet other writers, and interact. If you meet somebody whose work you admire, you can try striking up a friendship with them, offering to critique their work, and asking them to look at yours. If you get a couple of solid beta readers, you'll get good feedback from talented writers for free. Plus, swapping manuscripts is super beneficial, in that you'll learn a ton from reading and critiquing someone else's work.

2. In terms of line edits, what is the advantage of hiring a non-professional over a professional? Other than price, I guess, and I'm not even sure there's a huge difference there. You can post an ad for a proofreader/copyeditor on Writer.ly or Craigslist, compare candidates' pricing offers, and most importantly, select the person with the best credentials. There are a ton of freelance copyeditors and proofreaders out there who make their living doing this, who have years of experience and solid credentials.

Which brings me to the next point: Make sure you check somebody's credentials before forking over money to edit your precious manuscript. Check what kinds of work they've done in the past. Maybe they used to work in the editing field -- if so, awesome!

I can't stress this enough: writing a book and editing a book are two completely different skills. If you're going to pay somebody to edit your book, make sure they know how to edit. Ask for references, and if possible, get a trial or sample of their editing before you commit to a full manuscript review, to make sure you're comfortable with their style and level of feedback.

This is the part in the publishing process where you hold all the control. If you sell your book, it's out of your hands, but for now, make sure you do your homework and choose the right people to work with. Pick smart people with experience and enthusiasm and professionalism. Take your time. Don't sell yourself or your book short. You owe it to that manuscript you spent so much time writing!