Write. Rewrite. Repeat.

“Books aren’t written — they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” – Michael Crichton

(Nailed it, Michael.)

When I started writing my first novel (three books ago) my goal was to just get the first draft finished. Would I try to publish it? people asked. I used to shrug and say I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. Writing the first draft of that first book was hard. It took a long time. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t understand tension, pacing, character development, not to start my first chapter with my protagonist waking up (yes, I made that faux pas), how to show versus tell … I had a lot to learn. Fast forward a bunch of years and a bunch of drafts, and I get it. The first draft? Simple. You just keep laying down the words. Get the story out. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it. The words add up — and before you know it, you have a completed draft. Of course, simple doesn’t mean easy, but had I known just how many revisions a book takes to make it sparkle, well…it’s probably good I was so naive.

I’m doing revisions now for my editor — which thrills me to no end. You won’t hear me complain about going through my ENTIRE book for the 15th (20th?) time. It’s a process, and I’m giddy with excitement to have this opportunity.

This book, THE MEMORY OF US, will be published July 2015. Though I’ve revised the manuscript before (for my critique partners / for my agent / for submission), I’m now doing it on deadline … and I’ve been paid … and I have another book as part of my contract to write after this one is done. The game has changed, and so has my revision process. I have no idea if this is how I’ll approach revisions on my next book, but for now, this works:

  • TAKE A DEEP BREATH (or a few)

Despite my excitement to dive in, editorial letter and marked up manuscript at the ready, the above does a great job at showcasing how I was feeling about this round of revisions (MUST.NOT.EFF.THEM.UP.). So the first thing I did was read my editor’s letter again, go through her notes in the manuscript, and go for a run. That cleared my head and got me ready to jump in.

  • GATHER YOUR SHIT & GET EXCITED

This is the time to pull out the red pen, your post it notes / index cards / spreadsheets / notebooks, a hard copy of your book (I edit on both hard copy and digital files), and any sustenance you need (COFFEE), and get to work. Give yourself a pep talk (YOU CAN DO THIS, or die trying…), and get psyched. It’s likely going to be weeks (or months) before you hand your revisions in to your editor, so you need to find ways to keep your energy AND excitement levels up.


(Me, after my morning coffee…coffees.)

  • RUSH SERVICE IS FOR POSTAL DELIVERIES (step also known as, Calm the F**K down)

It’s oh-so tempting to race through the book. Not just on your first revision, but on all subsequent ones. Whether it’s because you’re dying to get it into your crit partners’ hands, or out for a contest, or to your agent, or to waiting editors, rushing is never a good strategy.

There’s a reason you set deadlines, or your editor sets them for you: everyone wants the best version of what you’ve got, and that takes time. When I revise, especially if I’m working on a new scene, I write it all down without stopping first. I do not edit as I go, or wordsmith, or get all up in my online thesaurus. I just write. Then I go back, a day later, and read it as critically as I can — again, without revising. I take notes with my trusty red pen on my post its or in my notebook, and only then do I go back and make changes. It’s amazing how differently I see a scene with a little distance between us.

  • STICK TO A SCHEDULE

For me, this falls into the ‘do what you say you’re going to do’ category. As a freelance writer, one of the most important ways to ensure I’ll be hired again is to NEVER MISS A DEADLINE. And I see my book deadlines the same — at a minimum, I will get the manuscript in two days early. Ideally, it will be even earlier than that. I treat revisions (and first draft writing, for the record) like a job, and even if I’m not feeling the creative vibe I force myself to sit down and write … because the discipline is as important as anything else, in my opinion. I set my alarm for 5 or 5:30 am, depending on the day and what I need to get done, pour my coffee, and dive in. Yes, there are mornings where I’d like to do this to my alarm:

But generally speaking, as long as I have coffee and my Twitter #5amwritersclub crew, I’ve trained myself to be able to write well in the morning. It’s a habit, like any other.

I should add that there have been plenty of moments through this process — which is not yet over, of course, so I expect I’ll have a few more — where I’m certain I can’t write, I’ve screwed up a scene or character, I’ll never figure out how to add in the plot twist I need to, or I’ve revised myself into a tight little corner I’m not sure how to get out of. But then I take a deep breath, go for a run, get out my notes, have another cup of coffee, and SLOW IT ALL DOWN, and generally, I’m back on my game.

What’s your revision process, or trick? I’d love to hear about it!

QUERY TIME: Hook, Book & Cook

For me, writing a query letter for my book(s) was more soul-sucking/frustrating/maddening/stressful/{insert expletive} difficult than writing the entire book(s).

Seriously.

The query is a 250-350 (or so) word letter that describes, quite succinctly, what your book is about and why someone (an agent, generally) would want to read it. It’s a requirement if you plan on doing anything with your book — even if you choose to self-publish without an agent, you’ll still need a blurb to get readers interested.

A query letter is meant to pique interest and make someone want to open your pages and read on. But it must be short. And fit to one-page in an email window. And not be sent to multiple agents at once (NEVER, EVER DO THIS, okay?). And be formatted properly (I’ve talked about this before here: How not to become a query cautionary tale, and here: Query, Query, quite contrary). And like much of the publishing business, subjectivity rules, so always have a look at the agent’s bio/agency website/blog to see if he/she has a preference in terms of format.

But it wasn’t until I came across the idea of HOOK, BOOK & COOK that query writing became less painful. This concept is all over the place, so I can neither take credit for it, nor find the first person who came up with this handy and catchy idea to give him/her credit.

So what does it look like? I’m so glad you asked! Let’s start with HOOK.

THE HOOK (first paragraph — approximately 50 words)

Though some people open their queries with the book title, genre, wordcount and why they’re querying a particular agent, in my experience starting right off with the hook is the best way to go. Literally hook that agent in, so she can’t wait to keep reading.

The hook is a one to two line description of the main conflict in your story — the thing that makes it special, and makes someone sit up a bit straighter, lean in towards the screen, and go, “Oh! Wow. I need to know more about this.”

Take your time with your hook. It should be tightly written without any unnecessary detail, be compelling, be descriptive, and tell your reader exactly what they can expect from your book. Tricky, right? You bet it is. But it’s a critical part of your querying journey and blurb writing, so work on it until you get tingles when you read it (also, make sure you get others to read it and ask them if they would be interested to read more).

THE BOOK (second and third paragraphs — approximately 200 words)

This is the meat of your book — again, without drowning the reader in detail, this is where you dig into what happens in your story. It’s the place to introduce main characters and major plot points. It needs to flow easily, with enough information so the reader isn’t confused, but not too much that he loses interest and tunes out. In some ways this is the hardest part of the query, because you’re taking a 90,000-word book and condensing it into about 150-250 words. In both queries I’ve written, I’d say this middle section required the most “love” (merciless hacking) — I easily rewrote it a hundred times (no, I am not joking here) for each book. But the end result was worth it.

This is also where I put in the book’s title, wordcount, and genre if it’s not obvious (but let’s be honest, genre/category should be obvious by now based on everything that has come before — if not, it’s probably time for another — you guessed it — revision), and any comparative titles you have for your book. Comparative titles are important, and again, there are MANY rules around what to use as a comp title — do your research, and for the love of all things good, READ YOUR COMP TITLES before putting them down.

THE COOK (final paragraph — approximately 50 words)

This is your bio, as the “cook” of this book. What makes you uniquely qualified to write this book (do you have a tie-in to the subject matter/story)? Add in any awards or accolades you’ve received (only include ones related to either writing or the subject matter), if this is your debut novel, and what your writing experience has been to this point (I’d probably leave out statements like, “I’ve been writing since before I could walk”). And finally, if it’s true, close out with, “I’m currently working on my next novel” but resist adding any more information about it. This query is meant to be for the book you have ready, not for any other book you’ve written or are writing currently. But letting an agent know you’re taking this whole writing thing seriously is always a good idea.

This format saved me. It offered a way to break down what felt like an impossible task — condensing my book into a short, easily consumable but quite intriguing “pitch” — and gave me a structure I could replicate. However, clever structure breakdown aside, I will stress the point that working on your query until you never want to see it again should be your aim.  IF YOU’VE DONE FIVE REVISIONS ON YOUR QUERY, IT’S PROBABLY NOT READY. If you’ve done 10+ versions and beta readers (particularly those who either, a) have not read your book, or b) don’t read your genre typically) are clear on what your book is about, and what happens, and still want to read … then it’s probably ready. Of course, it’s always possible you’re a genius at query writing, and maybe you nail it on draft one. If that’s the case, please tell me your secrets!

If you’re not a query-writing genius, don’t despair. Most of us aren’t. Like so many things in life, crafting a brilliant query takes practice and hard work. Good luck!

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.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

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