Characters (aka the friends in my head) …

I’ve just cruised past 30,000 words in my work in progress (WIP) manuscript, and have reached the point where the characters feel as real to me as well, real people. I love this stage.

And as strange as that may sound, I promise it’s stranger having these fictional people in my head 24-7! They eat with me, dream with me, go on runs with me, and occupy a lot of my brain space when I’m driving and cooking, in particular. Which, aside from distracting me when I’m trying to count teaspoons of salt for a recipe, means this manuscript is gelling. It’s working. And that is well worth the crowded nature of my brain these days.

Now I don’t know how others do it, but when I’m starting a new book I think a lot about the main character, or protagonist, but don’t spent much time on secondary players (unless they have a big role to play). I typically choose my protag’s name (I write women’s fiction, so always a woman) — first and last (I use baby naming sites for this!) — and write a character sketch that looks something like this (this one is fictional … well, I guess they’re ALL fictional, but you know what I mean …):

Name: Elli Drummond

Age: 29 / Married

Lives in: Honolulu, Hawaii

Occupation: Seismologist

Eye/Hair: Green / Blonde from a bottle

Quirks: is deathly afraid of earthquakes + allergic to shellfish, has never left the US

Major likes: her job, coconut cupcakes, large fedora hats being back in style, and her co-worker, Damian (uh oh…)

Major dislikes: island living, shellfish (see above), her pale, Irish skin that won’t tan, being embarrassed, her husband’s job (pro surfer)

I also think about what the character’s greatest fear is, what she dreams about, where she grew up and number of siblings, and the types of books/television shows she watches.

Then, I start writing.

For me, if I do too much plotting on characterization my characters start feeling flat and all cardboard-like. Which = characters no one wants to read about. Of course, sometimes my list of begins looking a tad, oh, predictable (seriously, green eyes and blonde hair AGAIN?), and so I make adjustments as I go.

But as for the other players in the story, I typically have some idea who needs to show up when, but I don’t plan for them the same way. I like it when I’m in the middle of a scene and an unexpected character comes knocking on the plot door, wanting to be let in. Those are some of the best moments, and a number of my characters (including some who end up becoming major players) came about that way.

For example, in my current WIP I gave my protagonist one sibling, a sister. Then I realized that didn’t fit with the image I had of her in my head once I started writing … so I took the sister away and gave her two brothers instead. And despite having to rework five chapters, the writing flowed. It changed her experience, and gave her different insights and motivations. Also, it helped me make her a more interesting, more well-rounded character.

So lessons learned for me on characterization? Less (plotting) is more. Make sure there are quirks, and exploit them. Don’t write boring characters — make their lives difficult (messy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright horrible if the story calls for it), so they have lots to work with as they move towards resolution. Don’t make them all look and feel the same (even if twins!), and definitely avoid starting all their names with the same letter (trust me, this happens).

And when they come whispering to you in your sleep, or while you’re driving/showering/cooking/sitting in a meeting…listen closely. Because no matter what direction you had planned for them, it’s quite possible they have a better idea.

 

 

 

 

For the love of CPs

I heard a crazy rumour the other day that some authors, once they sign with an agent, drop their Critique Partners (who will from this point forward in this post be referred to as CPs).

This was pretty much my reaction:

 
(or, are they NUTS?)

 Let me back up for a moment.

Getting an agent to like your book enough to want to sign you is, well, awesome. Knowing you’re out of the query ditch and one step closer to publication? Amazing. I felt a little like this for at least a few weeks (I actually still feel a little like this, to be honest):

 

However, I can’t say for sure it would have happened without my CPs. They read every page I sent them. Then read each one again, after I made changes. They offered critical feedback, telling me what wasn’t working (and why, if they could articulate it specifically). They pushed me, and questioned decisions I made for the characters. They came up with some excellent ideas for how to improve the plot, or up the stakes, or to add depth to a character. They gave me virtual high fives and plenty of “squeeeeees” when I got requests. They commiserated when the rejections came in. They told me not to give up. And now that I’m agented, they continue to give me great advice, read my words, and help me make this next story shine.

Basically, they helped shape me into a better writer, and I’m beyond grateful for every minute they spent with my words. Because that was time they could have spent working on their own manuscripts. Sure, we swap pages and I offer them the same support. But good CPs, writers themselves, spend HOURS of their own precious time on your words because they want to help you succeed. Simple as that.

Why would I ever give that up?

A few important things to note — of course, I can only speak for myself, but I imagine there are plenty of authors/agents who would agree with the points below:

  1. Yes, I have an agent. No, I can’t expect her to become my one and only CP. She’s busy. She has (gasp) other clients. Lots of them. Her job is to sell the book I’ve already written. So while I can certainly bounce ideas off her and let her know I’m working hard on the next story, it’s critical to find an outlet for all those unpolished words I’m putting down each day.
  2. It’s tempting when you’re writing a new story to want feedback from your agent early on. You’re a team, right? Of course she wants to read the super-awesome 250 words I just wrote this morning (even though this is a first draft and those awesome words are likely to get cut in revision 35), and the next 100 I crank out before picking the kid up from her school bus. Um, nope. Don’t do it. Resist sending your agent the 25 emails you want to each day, and send them to your CPs instead. It makes for much healthier and productive relationships, all around.
  3. Reading others’ work, especially unpolished/unpublished manuscripts, gives you insight into different writing styles and techniques … and can help you with your own writing. If you read a CP’s early draft and realize she just hasn’t taken enough chances with a character, it’s an opportunity to look at your own story and check it for the same. It can be tricky to see our own flaws — we’re so close to the story, we may not realize the giant plot hole we’ve created until it’s too late (okay, okay, it’s never *too* late but going back to fix a plot hole after you’ve written “The End”? Not the most fun way to spend your time and creative energy). I trust my CPs to see what I can’t.

If you have good CPs in your corner, consider yourself lucky. If you don’t, but want to find one or more, there are a few places to go looking. Twitter pitch contests are a good place. That’s how I found a few of mine. There’s also CPSeek, an online community of writers ready and willing to work on getting the words polished.

If you’re a writer and author, and are serious about getting your work out there, you should WANT critical feedback. Because trust me, having a CP point out an embarrassing grammatical error or the fact you made your protagonist short, brown-haired, and an animal lover in chapter one, and then a tall, cat-hating redhead by chapter eleven is MUCH better than having an agent find the mistakes.

So thanks to my CPs, who were with me before THE CALL, and who have committed to me for the long haul.

Tackle hug for all of you!

 

HARD WORK (And a sprinkle of luck)

One of my writer friends recently asked me what the key to success was in getting an agent. Well, here’s the secret:

HARD WORK.

Honestly, I could probably stop writing this post now. After all, without hard work you’re not getting anywhere, anytime soon. And even with hard work, there were many (MANY) days where it all felt a little like this:

 

But because I find two sentence blog posts annoying and lazy, I’ll qualify what that HARD WORK looked like, at least for me.

When I was writing my current novel, the one that landed me my (awesome) agent, I woke up most mornings at 5 am (thankfully, the super supportive #5amwritersclub crew joined me). Yes, you’re reading that right. For nearly three months I set my alarm and diligently got up to write. At times I jumped out of bed, because I had the next scene already churning in my brain. Other days? Well …

 

During some of those early morning writing sessions, depending on what time the kiddo joined me (she is also quite an early riser), I only got in 500 words or so. Other mornings, when I was on a roll, I could write 2,000 words in an hour. But regardless, I wrote every single day.

(HARD WORK)

Then, after letting the book marinate for about a month and using my kidlet alarm rather than my phone, I recommitted to 5 am and started my revisions. I had a few beta readers go through the book and offer me their thoughts. I had a critique partner do the same. I made changes they suggested, or addressed concerns they had, and I forced myself to reconsider every word, every scene, every chapter. I killed a lot of darlings. I rewrote scenes and deleted others. I was certain I was never going to finish. But I did.

(HARD WORK)

After the crazy contest and first offers time, I got back to work. Some of the other agents, who passed on representation, offered me feedback. For those who haven’t been in the query trenches … unsolicited agent feedback? It’s a gift. So I PAID VERY CLOSE ATTENTION TO IT. And armed with that feedback and my own ideas for changes, I tackled revisions again. This time with four critique partners who all brought different talents to my manuscript. Some of the suggestions I didn’t like. Mostly because they meant more HARD WORK. Some of the changes would also send ripples all the way through the book. Which meant, you got it: HARD WORK. But I was committed to the process, and so I was flexible. Of course, I didn’t make changes or revisions just because a critique partner thought it was necessary. Ultimately it was my story, and my vision for it trumped all. But as a rule, I at least considered every piece of feedback and suggestion offered.

(HARD WORK)

A few months later, miraculously the revisions were finished and I was ready to query. I carefully honed my list, scouring online agent interviews and posts, plus Twitter and gems like QueryTracker for any and all information I could gather on agents who represented my genre. I researched the agents, and the agencies, and made my decisions based on a few key things:

  1. I was happy to query a more junior agent with less experience as long as they had a successful agency backing them.
  2. I avoided agents who I felt were less than professional in their blog posts and/or on social media.
  3. I made sure to query agents who had at least a few sales to their credit.
  4. I didn’t query any agent who hadn’t made a request for my genre in the last year (this is where QueryTracker can be helpful, if the agents are on there — you can see the request rates, and genres being requested).
  5. I didn’t wait to hear back from small batches of agents (say, 10 at a time) before querying more. I sent out queries in batches of 3-5, but if I got a rejection, I sent out another query. Over the course of a month and a half, I queried 70 agents.

This querying strategy worked for me, both in terms of successfully getting an agent and controlling the anxiety, dread, and doubt that comes part and parcel with querying. It allowed me to still feel like I had some control over the process, even when I was waiting to hear back on full manuscripts and queries. Because the waiting? It’s brutal. Seriously, I’m surprised more querying authors don’t get tendonitis from the endless email refreshing that goes on …

(HARD WORK)

All in all, from writing the first word to signing with Carolyn, it took 11 months and 11 days. I had a goal back when I wrote that first word that I would get an agent by the time I turned 41, which is happening in just over a month. Goals are powerful things. If you’re reaching for one, I highly recommend you write it down, look at it often, and tell people about it.

So after all that, I guess there is a little more to the secret.

Along with HARD WORK, and a willingness to be flexible, a sprinkle of luck doesn’t hurt.

(I like to picture it sort of like this, the sprinkle of luck…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CALL

This is a story best told in two parts. Actually, three, if you count writing the first book, which is now gathering dust on the shelf where many (most?) first novels go to die. I’m going to try and tell it succinctly, and with as few GIFs as possible.

So let’s start with Part 1: NOVEL WRITING 101

I wrote a book. The idea came to me one rainy afternoon at the cottage. I’d never written a book before, and wondered if I could finish it. I did, but it took almost six years. It had some really good moments, but it didn’t have enough of them. So after going through the process of learning how to query and get a book ready for agents, and getting a few nibbles, I shelved it. Hey, we all need a practice book.

Part 2: YOU DID WHAT?!

So I wrote another book. This time I set out to do all the things I didn’t with the first book. Namely, to write it in less than six months and up the stakes. And thanks to a dedicated 5 am writing schedule and NaNoWriMo, I wrote it in three months. Then I revised it for three months. I got help writing the dreaded query letter (from Lauren Spieller, who helped me make my query letter ah-mazing. She’s for hire, so check her out!) Then things got very, VERY exciting. There was a contest, requests, offers, and more revisions. If you want to know more about Part 2, I wrote about it in great detail so I won’t bore you with that here. But Part 2 left me feeling a little like this:

Part 3: A long haul to THE CALL

Once I turned down the offers, choosing to take my chances with more revisions, I spent another three and a half months revising the book. It was a long, challenging, and frustrating process, and one I could not have done without my amazing critique partners Rosey, Abby, Kristy, and Kate, all of whom gave me fantastic crit notes and were tough on me when I needed it. The book would truly not be where it is today without their excellent comments and speed reading abilities!

Finally, my critique partners signed off on the manuscript and I felt the story was in the best shape it could be. It was polished, ready to go. So on May 28th, I sent out my first query. At first I sent them out in batches of 10, to my list of agents I’d meticulously researched. When I got a rejection, I’d send out another query or two.

Now I don’t know if ALL THE AGENTS IN THE WORLD were on vacation in June, but my inbox was full of crickets. Silence. Nothing was happening. I spent most of my days hitting refresh on my email, willing something interesting to show up. I also watched this video a lot, because it makes me strangely happy (thanks, Summer, aka Fizzygrrl, for first introducing me to this weird and wonderful GIF):

 

I was bored. Worried. Hitting refresh way (WAY) too many times a day. Wondering if I’d made a mistake querying during the summer. Waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Finally, stuff started happening. I got a request. Then another one. Then partial requests were upgraded to fulls. Good sign. At the same time form rejections were coming in. But that’s okay. I was ready for them. I was happy to get them because it meant I could send out another couple of queries.

It’s often advised you send out small batches of queries, then wait for a response on all those before sending any more out. And that you query your top, “dream” agents first. I appreciate this advice, but like all advice, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt (please excuse the cliche — as a writer I know I’m supposed to loathe cliches but I can’t help it — like the trampolining elephant, cliches make me strangely happy). I’m going to write more about the querying process in another post, but here’s what worked for me: I didn’t have a “dream” agent; I don’t believe such a thing exists. I had a list of agents I would have loved to work with, and I was going to keep sending out queries until one of them said “yes.” If no one had said “yes”? I would have shelved book 2 and worked on book 3. That was my strategy.

Now while I was in what one critique partner refers to as the ‘query ditch’, I did have low moments. Times where I was sure none of this was going to work. I talked about shelving book 2. I filled my critique partners’ inboxes with depressing drivel. I lamented not having taken up a different “hobby” — like knitting, imagining I’d have stacks of blankets and scarves rather than forgotten pages of words. I still had a few fulls out with agents, but had started to accept I needed to let go of the book and the process and start the next story.

So I started writing my next book.

Then July 31st happened. It was a Wednesday, and I sent out a very important query. To an agent I’d been twitter stalking (c’mon we all do it), but one I wasn’t sure represented my genre. I had sent her a message via Twitter a few weeks earlier trying to find out if she was interested in women’s fiction, but never heard back. However, her name kept popping into my mind so I decided to just send her the query and see what happened.

So at 3:21 pm on Wednesday, July 31st, I sent her the query. Not long after I got a response. She’d love to read it. There is nothing quite like the feeling of getting a full request from an agent. You get all bubbly and excited, the anticipation of “maybe … just maybe this will be the one who pulls me out the ditch …”

Then next day I got a rejection on my full from a different agent. Rejections on fulls suck. There is no other way to put it. But for some reason I didn’t feel all that upset by this one. I chalked it up to experience and practice (nothing like getting good at getting rejections!), and moved on.

That night, I checked my email before going to bed. It was 10:44 pm. And there, in my inbox, was this from the agent I’d queried the day before:

Hi Karma,
Are you available for a chat tomorrow?

I stared at it a moment, calmly trying to figure out what it meant (yes, I realize it’s pretty obvious, but querying writers like to OVER ANALYZE EVERY WORD). I showed my husband. I started freaking out. What could it mean? I asked him. He looked at me like I was crazy. Obviously it means she wants to chat. (Obviously) But … why? I asked. Again, the look from him. But, but … I said. She’s only had the full manuscript for ONE DAY. What, is she some kind of speed-reading super agent?

Yes. That is exactly what she is.

We set up the call for the next morning and I spent the night like this:

Turns out she did in fact read the manuscript in one day. And she loved it. And when we chatted on Friday morning? She offered me representation. And when I got off the phone I DANCED A JIG. Honestly, I did. Because not only had I just had THE CALL, it was amazing, and she was so passionate about the story and what we could do with it that I just knew she was the one.

Now because I still had fulls out with other agents I needed to let them know I had an offer. As was standard, I gave them a deadline for the next week and then I waited. But this was a good kind of waiting. I had an offer I was thrilled about. Best. Feeling. Ever. Kermit flail kind of stuff.

 

Fast forward a week, deadline day, and things got crazy. I ended up with two other offers, and a big decision to make. I won’t bore you with the gory details of that day, but will say it involved a lot of stress. And stress eating. And stress. There may have also been a tad of wailing. And I considered cracking open the wine at 2pm. Did I mention the stress?

But ultimately I kept coming back to my conversation with agent #1. And I knew she was the best fit not just for the book, but also for me.

So because this post has grown out of control like fruit flies on ripened peaches (sorry!), I’ll end it with this: I am now represented by the amazing Carolyn Forde of Westwood Creative Artists, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Nothing like crossing a massive goal off your list. So thanks to Carolyn for pulling me out of the query ditch!

And because we all seem to love stats, here are mine:

Queries: 70

No response: 30

Rejections: 30

Requests: 10

Offers: 3!!! (from three amazing agents … feeling very grateful)

Finally, I have a few thank yous. First, to my husband, who has patiently listened to all the drivel, the story ideas, the plot points, the whining, the excitement, the annoying analysis, and told me over and over I’m talented and this will happen … I’ve got a good one in my corner. Also, I couldn’t have done this without the help of my amazing crit partners, Rosey, Kate, Abby, Kristy, Julie, and Kim. Or my early beta readers, Katja and Melissa (and my mom!). And of course, my morning #5amwritersclub crew, who kept me company and kept me motivated during those early morning writing sessions! And I wouldn’t have survived the madness of deadline day and multiple offers without a few others: Dahlia (if you’re querying, or have any questions about author stuff, you must check out her blog), Summer, Juliana, Lauren, and Rachel. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH.

And because I’m nerdy like this, here’s a pic of me signing the agreement. Of course, it’s sort of staged because when I actually signed the only one home was my five year old. Who is not bad with an iphone, but hasn’t mastered her photo skills yet. So I saved one copy and signed again later. Still, it’s important to capture the moment, don’t you think?

How not to become a query cautionary tale …

I’m always amazed when I see comments from agents on Twitter about querying writers going off the rails or making (very, very basic) mistakes in their queries. The agents usually give specific examples (like a recent “Dir Sirs,” salutation), and often include a handy-dandy hashtag (#querytip, for example) to help others who might be about to hit ‘send’ a tad prematurely.

Agents are nice people. They WANT us writers to succeed. After all, we have a symbiotic relationship, and success is good for all. So because of that, let’s all try to make our communications with those in the publishing world courteous at a minimum, and enlightened whenever possible. Deal?

To help with this, I’ve compiled a list of “10 ways to make sure your query doesn’t end up on a ‘what not to do’ list on Twitter“:

  1. Be professional: Think of each query you send out like a resume for a job you WOULD DIE TO HAVE. Have you double and triple checked for grammar and spelling boo boos? Did you fill in the agent’s name correctly (on this note, always go with the Mr. or Ms. + Last Name salutation, unless you have a previous correspondence where you know FOR CERTAIN using his/her first name would be preferred — by them, not you, just to be clear).
  2. Never lie: Okay, maybe I should have put this one first? Regardless, never (ever) lie in your query. Don’t say you know so and so if you don’t; don’t say your manuscript is finished if it isn’t; and don’t claim you have the next bestseller (you just might, but unless you can predict the future, this one won’t get you far).
  3. Be sure you have the right agent: Crazy, I know, but agents tend to put their submission wishlists on their websites or blogs. Or tweet about what they can’t wait to read next. Or mention in interviews what they’re dying to see in their slushpiles. Sending an agent a genre they don’t represent is an instant rejection, and wastes everyone’s time. You can also check out sites like Query Tracker, which allows you to search agents by genres. Also? Read interviews to learn quirks, likes, and dislikes. If your book is about a future world run by corrupt unicorns, it’s helpful to know if any of the agents on your list have a hate-on for unicorns (if that’s even possible…I mean, c’mon, unicorns are the COOLEST…)
  4. Write a great query letter: I’m going to leave it at that. If you want to know HOW to write a great query letter, check out this article from Writer’s Digest or visit one of my fave sites, Query Shark, to see real query letters getting put through the wringer. Also, enlisting help is a fab idea. I relied heavily on my amazing critique partners, and hired someone to help me polish my query letter (Lauren Spieller, who was AWESOME and definitely worth the investment).
  5. Have someone other than your mom (or cat) read said query letter: Unless your mom is an ex English teacher with a passion for grammar (like mine), be sure to get some extra eyes on that letter before you send it out. After reading something so many times (like, 101), your brain starts to skim over words that look familiar … including words with errors.
  6. Don’t become a stalker: Be friendly with agents you follow on Twitter, but for the love of God, do not tweet one minute after sending your query telling them to check their inbox, or send a Facebook friend request, or call just to find out if they did in fact get your query, or send multiple DMs with random questions … just relax, okay? If they like what they read, they’ll ask to see more. Then you can send a lovely and excited email with your REQUESTED submission.
  7. Keep it together: You will get rejected. Lots. So be prepared. Gather your chocolate, single malt scotch, tub o’ ice cream, or whatever else you keep around for those low moments. And KEEP IT TOGETHER when you get a “Dear Author, Thanks for thinking of us but we don’t feel it’s right for us at this time…” email in the inbox you’ve been refreshing every 5 minutes since you sent the query. It doesn’t feel good to be rejected (because when you hit send you were SO SURE that agent would love the premise and jump on a request), but it’s all part of the game.
  8. Go OFFLINE to rant: Part of keeping it together is having someone to vent to when you feel frustrated about the querying process, and you’re long out of feel-better chocolate. And keeping the rants offline is critical — whatever you put on Twitter is there for all to see. So unless your goal is to piss off Agent X who rejected your query a full two minutes after you sent it, do not take your frustrations out online. It’s bad practice, and you will be remembered for it versus any future brilliant book idea you come up with.
  9. Remember it’s a business: Rejections are business decisions. They don’t mean you can’t write, or that another agent won’t want to see your manuscript, but agents are in the business of selling books. And if an agent doesn’t feel she can sell your story, for whatever reason, she can’t take you on. It’s not personal. Unless you’ve engaged in social media public shaming of said agent, or one of her friends … then it’s probably personal.
  10. Try to remember it’s not the end of the world: I’ve said it before — no one NEEDS to write a book or be published. I certainly want those things, and I’m going to keep writing and querying until I make that happen, but I’m not losing perspective while I do. Life will carry on, even if I send out 1000 queries and get 1000 rejections … but if you ever see me writing about my “999th” query letter going out, “fingers crossed!”, please do me a favour and suggest I STOP IMMEDIATELY. Thanks.

 

 

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