PitchWars 2014 is here. Have you Got what it takes?

I’m going to keep this as short as I can (which probably means not short at all), mostly because I’m currently running “Mommy Camp” (summer break = no break for mom) and my six-year-old daughter tends to prefer playing outside versus watching me tap at these keys (shocking, right?).  So if you have a Women’s Fiction, Literary, or Marriage Thriller book, and it’s fresh and shiny (to be clear, to me “shiny”=POLISHED, not first draft material) and you’re simply BURSTING to get a solid critique, PRETTY PLEASE SEND IT TO ME. No, really. Go to the submission form (on August 18th), put my name on it, and hit SEND. For everything you need to know about how to submit, including the amazing agents playing along, head on over to Brenda Drake’s blog.

But Karma, I can hear you saying — why would I choose you over any one of the other amazing/talented/accomplished/(and likely funnier and more clever with their bio) mentors? I’m so glad you asked.

1. I may be the most thorough critique out there. Well, perhaps I’m overstating this BUT my critique partners talk about my “cocoon” of notes. Meaning I line edit, focusing not only on the bigger things like themes, pacing, tension, and characterization, but also on the little details. I promise you a manuscript riddled with track changes. I am a, um, tough critique (consider yourself warned), but isn’t that exactly what you want out of an experience like this? (If you answered, “not really” to this last question might I suggest a different mentor?) Together we will make your manuscript the best it can be — if you’re in, I’m in. (Also, check out my mentee’s success story from the last PitchWars!)

2. I’ll be there for you after the contest ends. Seriously, ask any of my #TeamGoodKarma mentees from last year, and they’ll tell you we still exchange emails, and I’m happy to offer advice, give feedback, and tweet the heck out of their good news. Writing can be a lonely, isolating endeavour, so the more we can stay connected to one another and support each other the better.

3. I’m an avid reader, and a focused writer. While I write upmarket women’s fiction, my reading tastes vary from young adult, to (light) urban fantasy, to everything in between. I also read A LOT, even when I’m on deadline, and I think I might shrivel up and die if I couldn’t read. Is that melodramatic? Maybe, but it’s true. Which means I also love reading the books my critique partners write, and why I can’t wait to read your manuscript! As for my own writing, I get up nearly every morning at 5 am (if you’re an early morning writer and on Twitter check out #5amwritersclub — that crew has kept me going many an early morning) and write for a couple of hours before I have to put on my mom hat.

Want to know a bit more about me? I live near Toronto, Canada (if you would like to know the appropriate way to insert ‘eh’ into a conversation, I’m glad to help), am happily married, am mom to a beautiful daughter and an equally handsome labradoodle named Fred, and love to run, read, bake, and drink coffee (another one of the great pleasures of life). I also wish I could go to Hogwarts, am addicted to chocolate-covered jujubes, and haven’t slept in past 6am in, oh, six years. My day job is freelance writer, and I write mostly lifestyle/parenting articles for magazines. I’m also an 11-year cancer survivor, and pretty damned pleased to still be here to say that. I’m represented by Carolyn Forde, who is the most supportive and determined agent an author could ever ask for. I’ve blogged the twists and turns of my road to publication, in case you’re interested. My debut novel Come Away with Me will be out next July (Mira/Harlequin), and my second book will come out about a year later.

Me and the mini. This is pretty much how you’ll find me on any given day, unless I’m writing!

Now how about a wishlist? If I were to generalize, the books I’m most drawn to have complicated issues, big hearts, and pretty words.

What I’d love to see:

  • Women’s Fiction — think book club/upmarket (commercial with a literary feel, including those with magical realism, and in a perfect world, magic AND food): WHAT ALICE FORGOT (or anything by Liane Moriarty), AFTER I DO (Taylor Jenkins Reid), THE PILOT’S WIFE (Anita Shreve), ME BEFORE YOU (Jojo Moyes), WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE (Maria Semple), GARDEN SPELLS (Sarah Addison Allen), LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (Laura Esquirel), PRACTICAL MAGIC (Alice Hoffman)
  • More literary (still with a commercial feel) — LITTLE BEE (Chris Cleave), THE DINNER (Herman Koch), THE NIGHT CIRCUS (Erin Morgenstern)
  • Marriage/Psychological Thrillers — GONE GIRL (Gillian Flynn), THE SILENT WIFE (A.S.A Harrison), and though it’s still on my TBR pile, if your book is anything like Natalie Young’s SEASON TO TASTE (look it up, trust me when I say this is a strange and compelling idea for a book), I would love to see it. I also just finished THE GOOD GIRL (Mary Kubica) and have determined I’m a psychological thriller fan. In truth, it’s pretty hard to scare me away with a concept!

What’s probably not for me (though you never know, I am open to having my mind changed…):

  • Fantasy & Sci-fi
  • Romance
  • Crime
  • Anything boring or not polished (wait, did I say that out loud?)

Also, if you own a tattered copy of ON WRITING by Stephen King, and have at one time or another mentioned something about “killing your darlings,” we are sure to get along.

I’m trying to curb my GIF addiction, but will leave you with one of my favourites (<= note the Canadian spelling) — this will be me, opening the submissions and finding THE book (your book?) I can’t wait to read and critique.

 

Don’t forget to check out the other mentors’ blogs — click below and start doing your homework …

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NaNoWriMo 2013

This will be my 3rd time attempting to “win” NaNoWriMo, which is short for “National Novel Writing Month” … a web-based contest of sorts that is all about writing a novel in a month: 50,000 words in November.

The first year (2011), I failed miserably — and quickly. I got about 5,000 words done on a book that went to the place where bad book ideas goes to die (my ‘Novel ideas that SUCK’ folder on my laptop — truly, I have this folder because, well, you never know when you’ll get a flash of brilliance that could change a suck-filled novel into a good one).

My first attempt at NaNo looked a lot like this (That’s me walking around my muse, trying desperately to get its attention…):

 

Last year I wrote The Doctor’s Daughter during NaNo — I cheated a bit, because I already had 20k done when I started the month (technically you’re only allowed an outline), but I won NaNo and finished the month with a completed first draft. That book went through A MILLION AND ONE revisions, but did land me my uber agent, Carolyn Forde. So I won NaNo in more ways than one last year.

This year I’m “cheating” again — I’m at almost 40k in my work in progress book, and am determined to have another completed first draft by midnight on November 30th. This is the synopsis for Book 2, my NaNo project:

After a devastating loss, a 26-year-old woman and her husband embark on a journey to fulfill three things from their life experiences wish list, hoping to find an escape from the grief and a way to forgive. Think EAT, PRAY, LOVE meets P.S., I LOVE YOU, with a twist you won’t see coming.

To hit the 50k goal for the month I need to write about 1700 words a day, every day. I’m averaging about 1200 right now, done mostly thanks to copious amounts of coffee and the #5amwritersclub crew I spend a lot of pre-dawn time with on Twitter. So I know I can do it — as long as I follow a very key NaNo rule: NO EDITING.

It’s freaking hard not to edit as you go. But what I’ve learned over this past year is that one, I need to write every day or I get rusty, and two, if I’m editing, I’m not getting new words down. Huh. Who knew? (Oh, just everyone who can do math … words slashed do not a first draft make) I think many writers get bogged down in the editing piece, which is critical no question, but not until you have your words on the page … I mean, we could all spend hours editing our first page alone (and probably should, once the book is finished). Of course, I appreciate everyone writes and creates differently. But that has been a good formula for me. Draft One = writing only. Even when I get crit partner feedback I simply file it into a folder to go back to when it’s time for Draft Two.

My husband actually sighed when I told him I was doing NaNo again this year. Because this is basically what he saw throughout November 2012 (with a few sobs thrown in here and there, when I got stuck):

 

So to anyone attempting to win NaNo this year, whether it’s your first time or your tenth, GOOD LUCK and may the words be with you!

(See you December 1st)

 

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…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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