Up To Speed

I’ve been told I’m a fast writer.

But I’m not sure that’s exactly what I am.

(Have I mentioned book #1 took me SIX YEARS to write?)

True, I wrote two books this past year. The first one (really, my second book) took 5.5 months. The second one (really, my third book) took just under 4 months. Now I suppose some would view that as “fast”, although there are plenty of writers out there (on Twitter in particular) who boast about finishing a first draft in less time than it takes me to order something from Old Navy and have it delivered (so about two weeks, give or take). That’s FAST.

I don’t see myself as a fast writer, per se, just a structured and disciplined writer. Because I write for a living as well, the hours between 9 am and 3 pm (after my daughter goes to school, and before she gets back home) are reserved for work (read: paid) writing. I also go to bed around the time a toddler would, as my daughter fancies herself an early bird riser (often prior to 5am), and I just can’t be creative anymore as a night owl.

So most of the fiction I write happens between the hours of 5 am – 8 am. And amazingly enough, if you do that every day and stick to a daily word count, you can write a novel in a few months.

Now, with my very first book, which has gone to the proverbial shelf where practice books live (die), I wrote sporadically. In the early days of that book I didn’t even have a child yet, so I’m not really sure what my excuse was. I HAD NOTHING BUT FREE TIME (and work, but hey, I work now too!). Honestly, if I could go back … Regardless, that first book felt a lot like this:

There were weeks when I didn’t write a word, then some weekends where I’d write 5,000 of them. Either way, that book took forever and as a result, it was (in my opinion) missing the flow and pacing that comes from writing a book in the same mind frame. Life changed so much while I wrote that first book, and all those shifts could be seen through the pages. Hence, the shelf.

With my second book I set out to do things differently. I’d always been a pantser (writing without an outline), but thought maybe I’d create at least a loose outline for book #2. I also wrote a lot of it during my first NaNoWriMo attempt, and what do you know, I managed to finish it in under 6 months! But in many ways the writing of that book felt a lot like this:

I was a flurry of writing! It was ALL VERY EXCITING. The words FLOWED from my fingers. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote some more. I didn’t edit anything until I had a first draft complete. I just kept going, until it was done.

Whew.

The problem with that strategy, despite how quickly I produced that book, was that without a good outline and some pre-thought (the signs of a “plotter”), I ended up with some, um, “challenging” plot holes. Holes that took me another few months to fix. But fix them I did, and that was the book that landed me my awesome agent.

So when I sat down to start book #3, I thought long and hard about my process. I knew I enjoyed the challenge and structure of writing every day. I had read that little tidbit of advice in Stephen King’s ON WRITING (if you haven’t read this book, you must — it’s excellent, and changed how I see my process) — he’s a proponent of the “write every day / read every day” philosophy, and while it doesn’t appeal to all, it works for me. I also decided I was going to outline the book all the way, and I started using Scrivener — a (KICK ASS) tool for writers that allows you to plan scenes using digital cue cards, which can be moved around easily, plus a lot of other awesome bells and whistles.

Armed with a detailed outline, character descriptions, a plot that didn’t appear to have too many holes, and the handy-dandy Scrivener, I started writing. Every day. And during this past year’s NaNoWriMo, I focused on generating 2,000 words a day. Many days I was over that count. The outline was THE BEST THING I COULD HAVE DONE. Writing book #3 felt like this:

I was a writing NINJA!

The words flew from my fingers (and they made sense)!

The story unfolded exactly as I wanted, with a few surprises here and there to keep things interesting!

Three months later, I had a first draft. And it held together. It was the best first draft I’d ever created.

However, it wouldn’t have happened that quickly if I hadn’t committed to writing like it WAS MY JOB. Yes, I have a “job” — two, in fact, if you call being a stay at home mom a job as well (which you should, because it is). But I view writing fiction like a job, and I treat it like that. Which means I work at it every day — sick, tired, stuck, energized, busy … every day. Some days I had to pull those words from my weary fingers and brain. Other days it was easy. But regardless, I wrote every single day.

Truthfully, I only take time off writing when I’m between projects (like I am now). But I use that time to think a lot about writing. And to read as much as I can. Because it’s all connected; it all helps get a solid draft out when you’re ready to go.

So in the end, maybe I am a fast writer. But there’s no way I could be if I wasn’t disciplined about it.

HARD WORK + DETERMINATION, with a dash of goal setting mixed in.

That’s the “secret”, at least for me.

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.

 

 

 

 

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?

Querying: Sticks and Stones (and dodgeballs)

About a week ago I finished revisions. For the eighth (give or take) time. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a single word in my manuscript that I haven’t touched or retouched. I was lucky through this round to have fresh eyes on the story, and can’t thank my critique partners (Abby, Rosey, Kate, and Kristy) enough for sticking with me (and not telling me to STOP.SENDING.THEM.EMAILS).

So now I query. And toughen up, because I forgot how hard querying can be. I liken it to putting a bunch of strangers in a room, handing out rocks, and asking them to throw the stones at you (repeatedly) … for fun. Or like playing solo against a really good dodgeball team, sort of like this:

 

Why do we do this? Because let’s be honest, no one NEEDS to write a book. No one NEEDS to be published. Authors do this for all kinds of reasons, probably ranging from “why not?” to fulfilling a lifelong passion that won’t let them rest. As for me, I write because I love it. Stones and all.

There’s this pervasive saying amongst authors looking for agents … it’s always some variation of keeping at it until you find the right agent for your book. Which basically suggests there’s a right fit agent for nearly every book, and every writer. I’m here to suggest that is simply not true. I wrote two books when I was in middle school. My mom had both bound, and my daughter loves reading them with me (she’s also quite impressed by my illustrations of mice, toadstools and ice skating elephants). However, I guarantee there is no right agent for those picture books. They are not books that have (much of) an audience outside the walls of my home. And that’s okay.

Believing this ‘right agent’ myth is akin to believing there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or that it’s good luck when it rains on your wedding day. While there’s nothing wrong with a little magic, and having a positive attitude goes a long (long) way, it also pays to be realistic … even if I desperately want for there to be unicorns, fairies, pots of gold, and for Hogwarts to send me my admission letter by owl.

I do believe there is an agent for (nearly) every well-written, thought-provoking, fresh concept, well-told story out there … as long as its author is prepared to do the work, and refine the manuscript until it’s so shiny it hurts to look directly at it.

So as I sit here today, a few queries out, a full manuscript requested (and subsequently rejected), I remind myself that my book is only as good as the work I’ve put into it (which, for the record, is a lot). And that hopefully there is a right agent out there who sees its potential and wants to team up with me in making it even better.

And that maybe this time I’ve been smart enough to hand out soft rubber balls, rather than stones …

 

 

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