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1. Guest post: From News to Novels: A Journalist Turns to Fiction

Hi all, Julie here! Today, my guest is R.J. Koreto. R.J.’s debut novel, Death on the Sapphire, releases tomorrow! Today, he’s here as our guest to talk about how he made the transition from journalism to fiction. Take it away, R.J.!

I spent a quarter-century as a journalist writing about SEC regulations, mutual funds, tax rules and Death on the Sapphire coverother glamorous topics before getting a contract for my first novel. The obvious assumption, among my friends and journalism colleagues, was that historical mysteries were a world apart from articles on active vs. passive investing. But now that I look backward, technical articles and novels aren’t so different after all. Some of my work as a financial journalist helped me write about Lady Frances, an aristocratic suffragist solving mysteries in Edwardian England.

Do It On Time

When you write for a magazine, you do it on time. My editor said, “Please submit this article by Friday.” Not when I was inspired. Not when I had time to mull over it. Friday. You had to figure out how to get it done on Friday, because that was your deadline. With a novel, of course, I didn’t have someone breathing down my neck every day, but I told myself I had to get it done. Would Agatha Christie form a tighter plot? Would George Simenon draw more beautiful scenes? Would Rex Stout write livelier dialogue? Don’t waste time worrying about measuring up. I set goals and continued to write, so I’d have a novel in a year, not just a few chapters after a decade. Each evening I just sat down and started typing, following Lady Frances as she traveled through London’s most elegant drawing rooms and lowest taverns. And often, she pleasantly surprised me.

Know Your Audience

I’ve written articles for the most sophisticated financial advisors, for serious investors, for people who barely knew what the stock market was, and everyone in between. If I assumed too much knowledge from my audience, the article wouldn’t be understandable.

It’s easy to say loftily: “My novel is for everyone.” But that’s not true. In Death on the Sapphire, Lady Frances investigates a tragedy whose roots are in the Boer War. I couldn’t assume that modern American readers would know about a war fought more than a century ago between British troops and the descendants of European immigrants in South Africa. And yet, the pain and suffering that came out of the Boer War was central to understanding my characters’ motivations. Without any knowledge of the war, readers would be lost, so I made sure the necessary information was subtly slipped in.

Get It Right

As a journalist, accuracy was the most important aspect of the job. Why should anyone read your publication if you don’t correctly explain a new tax reg? But fiction lets you do whatever you want, right? No, it doesn’t. Even when I write my novels, accuracy is key: What kind of guns were available in turn-of-the-century London? (Characters brandish revolvers, not semi-automatics.) Did they travel in carriages or automobiles back then? (Lady Frances enjoys riding in the first car Mr. Rolls and Mr. Royce produce together.)

Also, I had to look into what kind of education different characters in different classes would have. Lady Frances’ brother, an aristocrat who serves in government, would have gone to Eton and then Oxford. But an old soldier from a rural district, on the other hand, might be barely literate. It’s easy to say, “Oh, only historians would catch any errors,” but in fact, as inconsistencies and anachronisms pile up, the book becomes less cohesive, and the characters less believable.

So I was off to a good start. However, when I first put aside my articles to write my first novel, I found there were some things was a lot I had to learn.

Writing Dialogue

If only writing dialogue were as easy as listening to people talk. (If only jury duty were as interesting as an episode of Law & Order.) I had to make the dialogue streamlined and engaging, and pages of narration with little talking bogged down the action. There was no magic solution here. I had to alternate between rewriting my dialogue again and again, and reading books written by people who were good at dialogue.

Crafting a Effective Plot

Having a story in my head turned out to be very different from getting it on paper. Some parts of the story I wanted to tell just zipped along page after page. Others seemed to drag. The bottom line was that I had to keep readers interested. Did the action move along, and was it in tune with the characters I had created? An editor told me that clues in a mystery had to come from tension in the plot. So on my second draft, a scene that didn’t pass the “tension test” got redlined. But a scene where Frances extracted crucial information from a seriously ill – but still cunning – political powerbroker ratcheted up the tension. I polished it and left it in.

Staying Organized

Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t remember where Watson was wounded. He once even got Watson’s first name wrong. I sympathized. Lady Frances’ shy suitor had green eyes when she met him, and blue eyes when he confessed his love in a chapter I wrote three months later. A telephone in a stately Elizabethan home migrated over several chapters from a closet off the entranceway to the morning room where the lady of the manor held sway. Problems like this are easily manageable in a 4,000-word story, but not an 85,000-word novel. Part of what I do is write little biographies for my characters upfront that I can refer to later, but you don’t catch every error without constant re-reading–which you should be doing anyway!

Thank you for being our guest here on PubCrawl today, R.J., and congrats on your debut! Readers, what do you think about the relationship between business writing and fiction writing? Do you have any thoughts to add? Please share them in the comments!

richard-koreto-author photoAbout R.J. Koreto:

R.J. Koreto is the author of DEATH ON THE SAPPHIRE (June 14, 2016) and DEATH AMONG RUBIES (October 11, 2016), both from Crooked Lane Books. Like his heroine, Frances Ffolkes, he is a graduate of Vassar College. He has spent most of his career as a financial journalist, holding senior editorial positions at the Journal of Accountancy and Financial Planning magazine, among others. Richard has also been a freelance writer and PR consultant. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, and his work has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Visit him at https://ladyfrancesffolkes.com

 

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2. Dropping Threads

I’ve worked with a few manuscripts recently where the writers established and then promptly forgot about important threads. In my book, I talk about shining a spotlight. If something is important, it’s your job as a writer to shine the spotlight on it. You pick where to aim that light, and how bright it is.

What do I mean about dropping threads? Well, let’s say that your character is a musician. They speak in musical metaphors and seem to see the world through a Beautiful Mind-esque musical lens. Until this fades from the manuscript about a third of the way through. And music doesn’t really factor into the plot itself.

I often see this in manuscripts. Just like voice sometimes fades in and out (the writer is focusing on voice when they’re writing certain passages, then they shift focus to something else and the narrative tone changes), so do various other elements of novel craft.

Character attributes (musicality), secondary characters (a supposed best friend disappears for 50 pages and nobody thinks anything of it), world-building elements (the world is on the brink of war and yet there’s no danger or news of danger in the middle of a story), and plot points (the character says their objective is to seek something, then they get wrapped up in a romance and the desired object seems to fade into the background) can all be lost in the shuffle.

Your job as a writer is to analyze your story and see if you’re dropping any threads. Are you swearing up and down that something is important, then abandoning it? Does everything that’s vital to the story and introduced at the beginning wrap up by the end? Do all of the important elements get some kind of closure?

This is a common note that I give. “Whatever happened to XYZ?” Make sure your story feels cohesive from beginning to end, leaving nothing/nobody of note behind.

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3. Scaffolding in Scene

There are two types of writers when it comes to scene, I’ve found. One type takes a minimal approach to the stuff around the dialogue. One uses dialogue tags, adverbs, and narrative to construct scaffolding. If you’ve ever worked with me no a manuscript, you know that I don’t take kindly to a lot of scaffolding. I feel that it distracts from the dialogue, which is the rightful star of scene. It’s usually totally unnecessary. When I see a lot of scaffolding, I often remind writers to trust themselves and their readers. Trust themselves to come across as intended, and trust their readers to pick up on what’s being conveyed.

The point is, if you can’t be clear using dialogue alone, you need to look twice at what’s within the quotation marks, not what’s around them. Take a look at the following examples. The first is dialogue with no scaffolding. I’ve only used dialogue tags twice, one for each character at the beginning:

“Hey,” Sara said.
“What’s up?” Zach asked.
“Oh, you know.”
“The usual?”
“The usual.”

I would say that there’s not enough here. We don’t know enough about the characters, what they’re feeling, or why they’re talking in the moment. So I would say that something needs to be added. But how much something? Let’s say that you want to really convey what’s going on with Zach and Sara. How might you achieve that? Well, let’s add some emotions, tags, fancy “said” synonyms, and choreography. The simple scene can easily become:

“Hey,” Sara snarled.
“What’s up?” Zach said, icily.
She waved her hand in the air, as if dismissing him. “Oh, you know.”
“The usual?” He made sure to roll his eyes.
Quite annoyed, she dropped her voice to a near-whisper. “The usual.”

Well, I would say it’s quite clear now how Zach and Sara are feeling. The dialogue is exactly the same, but now I’ve festooned the scene with all sorts of little extras that clearly tell the reader that Zach and Sara are having some kind of fight. Maybe they’re avoiding one another. Maybe Zach has come into Sara’s coffee shop and she has to serve him but she doesn’t want to.

There’s tension in the scene, I’ll admit. But maybe it’s also a bit of overkill? After all, after reading this, my head is almost ringing from being hit too many times. The writer here (me) is explaining the emotions way too much. “Snarled” conveys anger. Waving a hand in the air is a cliché gesture for dismissing. If that wasn’t enough, the dismissal is also explained (“as if dismissing him”). Eye rolls are another cliché gesture. Then the emotion of annoyance is named, and a tone of voice is introduced that further underscores the tension between the two. We usually only whisper things if we’re trying to be quiet or if we’ve tightened our throats in anger.

The second scene would have too much “scaffolding,” as I call it. Whereas the first scene has not enough. If Zach and Sara were really fighting with one another, there would be no way to tell without some help. You might think that I’m playing the scaffolding up to provide an example, and while that was my objective, I am not lying when I say that I’ve seen scaffolding that thick in manuscripts. And sometimes even thicker scaffolding.

Oftentimes, writers don’t trust themselves to be clear about what they’re saying. And they (subconsciously) don’t trust readers to “get it.” So they go overboard. You will know if you put up a lot of scaffolding because you’ll see that almost none of your dialogue exists “naked” on the page (without any tags or narration).

So what’s the solution? Pare way down. And let the dialogue itself do the emotional talking for you, instead of putting everything in the scaffolding. I’ve changed the dialogue itself to have more emotional energy. You can also use interiority to convey feelings, like I do with a peek into Zach’s head here. This would be my ideal third example, a sort of middle ground:

Sara looked up from the register. “Oh. Hey.”
“Oh.” Zach fumbled with his wallet. He should’ve known her schedule better. Maybe she swapped shifts? This was the last thing he needed. “Um, what’s up?”
“What’s up? What’s up. Really? You know.”
“The usual?”
“Yeah, let’s go with that. The usual.”

There’s a sense of tension here between Zach and Sara, but it’s not hammered home. There’s some breathing room for the reader to wonder what they might be thinking or going through, and it opens the door for more of an interaction than “I HATE YOU”/”WELL I HATE YOU MORE!!!” That’s sort of the tone of the middle example, and you can definitely find more nuance.

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4. Fiction and Non-Fiction Blend Picture Books

I often work with clients who are writing a blend of fiction and non-fiction in their picture books. This is a tough proposition to publish. Let me explain what I mean. The book features characters and a plot, and also a sizeable number of facts. For example, a girl finds an unusual frog, learns that it belongs in a rain forest, and journeys there to return it. In the process, we have a character with a strong objective, plot points, as well as a lot of interesting information.

In theory, this is a great idea. We have all the charm and imagination of fiction, as well as that all-important educational value. So what goes wrong with this type of manuscript? It lies in the non-fiction part that the writer is attempting to attach to the fiction. There are two problems that usually arise. Too much information, and too little.

When there is too much information, that means the character and plot elements of the fiction part are too thin. The issue is usually that a person really wants to write non-fiction, but they worry that it won’t have enough pizzazz in the marketplace, so they try to spice it up with a protagonist. There are characters, but they don’t do much of anything, for example. It’s if we had Dora the Explorer but we didn’t know anything about her. She just had a name and a little bit of a personality, but she was only really there to have a learning experience. A glorified tour guide, if you will. In my original frog premise, it would be if the girl just went to the rain forest (without a frog or a mission to return it) and walked around, learning about the various plants and animals. There’s technically a fictional “frame” on this book (the girl whose eyes we are seeing things through) but it’s mostly non-fiction.

My recommendation, in that case, would be to rewrite the manuscript as straight non-fiction. It’s going to be easier to place, anyway, if it’s easier to categorize. A fact-based look at the rain forest (or any other topic) without any distracting character element is the bread and butter of school and library NF picture book programs. The lesson? You don’t have to tack a character on to a manuscript if your passion is non-fiction. If you are qualified to write factually on a subject, do your best at that and pitch it as NF.

When there is too little information, it raises a lot of questions. It would be if the girl went to the rain forest, had some really awesome adventures, but only learned about one plant and two other animals. Why that plant? Why those animals? Why those facts about that plant and those animals? If your goal is to teach, why not teach more comprehensively? Why pick only five facts to span the course of a book?

I recently encountered this issue in a client’s premise. (I’m going to change the details of the premise for the sake of confidentiality.) The writer a century’s worth of decades, let’s say the 20th century. And their character stopped in each decade for one page. They learned one thing about each decade. Why that thing? Out of everything that happened in that decade, why that one thing? The educational element was too thin.

If you’re going to cover a topic (the 20th century), then you need to pick a specific angle and really dive in. A picture book on the 20th century isn’t going to sell that well, no matter how charismatic your characters are. It’s too broad. Now, a tour of the Roaring 20s? Getting there. Maybe just the music of the Roaring 20s or the fashion of the Roaring 20s? Very specific. A character recreating the fashion of the 1920s for a fashion show? Bingo. That represents a good blend of fiction and non-fiction.

I would say that a good blend of fiction and non-fiction is the Magic Schoolbus franchise. The class is always up to something. There’s action involved, a mystery to solve, etc. The learning happens almost “under the table” as they pursue an objective. But the books are chock-full of information, and they represent a very comprehensive look at a particular topic.

If you find yourself stuck halfway between fiction and non-fiction, make sure you have enough substance for each category, otherwise, you may be better off committing fully in one direction or the other.

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5. Adding a Stance

When I talk to client about world-building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in a world, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.

But this sort of approach isn’t just for world-building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.

For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:

There’s Bo, the new kid in school.

This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. So the reader is still wondering…so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance.

For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:

There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?

There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?

Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.

I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.

Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!

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6. Adding a Stance

When I talk to client about world-building, I talk a lot about context. If, for example, there is a magic in a world, I want to know if a) magic is common, b) the protagonist has experienced magic before (if yes, how much? what kind? etc.), and c) how they feel about it. So when a streak of green lightning flies across the room, I am looking to the protagonist for clues. How they react to it will tell me a lot about how magic operates in the world.

But this sort of approach isn’t just for world-building. You can add an emotional stance to almost everything. How does your character see the world? How they react to stuff will be a very good guide.

For example, if they see the new kid in school, they might say:

There’s Bo, the new kid in school.

This is merely factual, but is there an emotional signature there? No. So the reader is still wondering…so what’s the deal with this Bo guy? Do we like him? Is he weird? If he’s important, I want to know more about him right away. One answer (other than putting Bo in the plot or in scene with the protagonist, which I would also recommend) would be to add an emotional stance.

For example, here are some more complex reactions we can have to seeing Bo:

There goes that Bo, swaggering like a show pony. Who does he think he is?

There’s Bo, on the fringes of the cafeteria with the cool drama kids already . Would he say something to me today? I hope so.

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? What if he’s an algae elemental? What if he can help me figure out the Slime Pond mystery?

Here we have three different attitudes about Bo, because I’ve let the narrator have an emotional stance in addition to providing basic information (“There’s Bo”). In the first example, the emotion about Bo is quite negative. In the second example, it’s attraction to Bo. He’s already off fraternizing with some other group, but the narrator hopes that he’ll come pay him or her some attention, too. The third example gives world-building context but there’s also an emotional signature of intrigue. We get the feeling that algae elementals (ha!) are quite rare, and they’re desirable, at least for the narrator.

I could play with this stuff forever. For example, what if algae elementals weren’t rare? How would we convey that idea through the narrator’s emotional stance?

And then there was Bo. Was he the one who shot off that green bolt during homeroom? Great. The first new kid we’ve had in ages and he’s another dang algae elemental. This stupid school is teeming with them.

Don’t just settle for describing something or someone. It’s in how you describe them that the reader will be able to read the narrator’s attitude and emotion toward them. It’s all about context, folks!

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7. How and When to Catch the Elusive Publicity Department — Part 2 of 2

Hi all! Stacey here with Lizzy Mason, Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. This is the second of our two-part series on How and When to Catch The Elusive Publicity Department. Last month, Lizzy provided a typical publicist’s timeline. Today, she gives us her thoughts on everything from swag to freelance publicists. Lizzy, take it away.
  • Swag—Fact #1: people like free stuff. Fact #2: it doesn’t really help to give people free stuff that they won’t use and that people won’t see. So even if your book is about, say, bird watching, are you really going to get sales of your book by handing out expensive swag like binoculars with your book’s title on it? (Hint: no.) The best swag is simple. Bookmarks, pins/buttons, postcards, tote bags, and posters. If you want to make a few more expensive items for giveaways closer to on-sale, that’s cool too, but make sure it’s something people will use. I have a dozen sticky note pads, lanyards, and bracelets (even suntan lotion and a manicure kit) that will never see the light outside my cubicle walls.
  • Blogger Requests—Do not forward blogger requests piecemeal to your publicist. Yes, we’re known for being organized, but we’re also dealing with massive amounts of email. (Currently, I have more than 24,000 emails in my inbox. Not including the ones I’ve filed.) Keep an excel spreadsheet of requests (include name, blog name, address, email, and stats) and send them all at once about 5 months before on-sale. If someone requests an ARC after that, start a new list or refer them to your publicist (check with them first to be sure that’s okay). Also, please don’t put your publicist’s email address on your website. There should be a general email you can use for the publicity department or publisher.
  • Events—I don’t recommend doing events before on-sale unless you have backlist you can promote. In that case, bring your fancy swag for the new book! But if you don’t have a book to sell, it’s really just not worth it. People have short memories, even if they take your bookmark with them to “pre-order when they get home.” Save your time, money, and energy for when you have a book you can sell.

If you want to do events locally, check with your publicist for help arranging them. It’s best if we know what you’re doing. For several reasons, but mostly because if we know about an event, we can be sure the store orders books and gets them on time. Local bookstore events can be a great way to support the book, but don’t expect that the bookstore will bring a crowd for you. They’ll do their part with promotion, but you should be inviting your friends and family.

Are you traveling anywhere within the US around your publication date? Let your publicist know and they may be able to arrange an event. Especially if you’re going somewhere where you know a lot of people who may come out to see you.

Regional trade shows are another great way to meet the booksellers at bookstores in your general region. There are eight indie bookseller fall trade shows: NAIBA, NEIBA, SIBA, MPIBA, Heartland Fall Forum (for MIBA and GLIBA), SCIBA, NCIBA, and PNBA. (Google those acronyms!) Ask your publicist if you could be pitched for a signing, especially if it’s within driving distance. Your publisher may be willing to cover travel costs if it’s further away, but don’t expect that they will.

  • Announcements—Don’t announce anything without telling your publicist and marketing team. Sign a new deal? Going to a festival? Got a blurb? We can help with these announcements and determine the best time to make them. And, even just from a bandwidth perspective, it’s worth combining efforts.
  • Balance—Yes, the squeaky wheel gets grease. It’s true. But it’s all about balance. You want to walk the fine line between being a squeaky wheel and being overly persistent. So don’t email your publicist every time you have an idea. Gather your thoughts and put them into one email, then give him/her at least a few days to get back to you. Sometimes we have to research something or get an answer from another department. Silence does not mean we aren’t thinking about you. Also, anything you can do on your own, especially research, do it!
  • Freelance publicists—There are some amazing freelance publicists, but some are better than others, and some are better at working with your publisher than others. If you want to see what else a freelance can do to supplement your publisher’s plans, by all means, check into it. Some agents work with freelancers regularly and can suggest a few, some of your author friends might have recommendations (or warnings), and your publicist might even have some thoughts. I don’t always think it’s necessary, but it depends on what the publisher is doing. Definitely talk to your publicist, your agent, and your editor before hiring a freelancer.

Also, one last thing to know: I hate saying no. I hate it in my personal life, I hate in my professional life. I have trouble even saying no to my cat. Seriously, that’s why she’s so fat. So please respect the “No.” When I say we can’t cover your travel costs or pitch you for something, there is a reason. And I hated saying “No” just as much as you hated hearing it. Please don’t make me say it twice.

Congratulations on being published and good luck! I hope to see you at an event, conference, trade show, or festival one of these days!

Lizzy picLIZZY MASON is the Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. She previously worked in publicity at Disney, Macmillan Children’s, and Simon & Schuster, and graduated from Manhattan College (which is in the Bronx) with a degree in Journalism and a minor in English. Lizzy dedicates whatever spare time she can to reading and writing YA fiction. She lives with her husband (and his comic collection) and their cat Moxie (who was named after a cat in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) in Queens, NY. Follow her @LizzyMason21.

 

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8. Picking a Category

A note: This post was written in February and programmed here to fill a hole in my programming. Normal blog posts will resume in the next few weeks, but I just wanted to put some fresh material online!

Recently, I worked with a client who had written, by all accounts, a middle-grade novel. It has fantasy elements, an eleven- or twelve-year-old protagonist, rich themes that have to do with the coming of age time period, etc. etc. etc. But my client hadn’t really thought of the work as MG. Instead, he’d envisioned it as a crossover, perhaps close to THE BOOK THIEF in terms of potential market reach. Basically, he wanted to tell a story and then let the market decide where it fit.

We ended up having a lot of very interesting talks about this idea. Long story short, however, that’s not really how it works. When you’re writing something, you want to have some idea of where it will fit, per my recent “Writing With Market in Mind” post. If you gently leave it up to the publishing gods to decide, you may not get very far. First of all, agents and editors like writers who pitch their projects confidently and know at least a little something about the marketplace.

For all intents and purposes, the project in question seems very MG, even if that was never the client’s conscious intention. And if it walks like a MG, and it quacks like a MG, if my client doesn’t pitch it as a MG, he’s going to get some raised eyebrows. Furthermore, if he doesn’t pitch it as a MG, it may just get slotted into that category by agents and editors alike anyway. If he were to query adult fiction agents with the project, as I’ve described it, I guarantee most would say, “This isn’t my wheelhouse, this sounds like MG. You should be querying children’s book agents.”

You can always say, as my client did, “Well, I sure would like to tap the crossover audience and sell this to children and adults, please and thank you.” Wouldn’t that be nice for everyone? Most people would love a crossover hit like THE BOOK THIEF or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Selling the same book to two different markets? Yes, please.

The problem with a crossover is that you can’t aim for one, however. I have said this before and I will say it again (and again and again). The only person to decide that is a publisher, and most won’t take the risk of trying to publish across categories. This strategy is reserved for only a tiny fraction of all books that go to print. And sometimes, a crossover only becomes a crossover when it’s published in one category first, then the other, and it happens to gain traction in both.

What I’m saying is, it’s a lot easier to set some lobster traps than it is to drag the whole of the sea. At least with the former strategy (picking a concrete category), you will probably catch some lobsters. With a wider net, you may catch everything, but there’s a big chance you’ll catch nothing, or a whole lot of garbage.

Many beginning writers think that putting, “This book will appeal to everyone from age 1 to 101!” is a huge selling point. Who wouldn’t want to sell to everyone from 1 to 101? That’s, like, billions of people. Why wouldn’t a publisher want to sell billions of books? Unfortunately, this line of thinking is delusional. Any marketer will tell you that your catchment area is too big. What a one-year-old likes is very different than what a 101-year-old likes and that’s actually a good thing.

So I advised my client to either a) become okay with the idea of pitching his story as a MG, or b) edit the story and weave in several elements that would give it more appeal to the adult fiction marketplace. This isn’t too far-fetched because there are a lot of books set during the “coming of age” period that go on to publish in the adult realm. That 9-12 or 13-18 age range isn’t just for children’s novels. The revision route is obviously the taller mountain to climb, but, if it fits the client’s vision for the book better, then it’s what has to happen.

The jury is still out on what this client will choose to do, but I wanted to bring the situation to everyone’s attention, because it contains some valuable truths about “picking a lane” and thinking about the category of your own work.

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9. Trunked manuscripts . . . after you’re already published

Years ago, a friend told me that getting published was the easy part. It was staying published that was difficult.

I laughed a little. I died inside.

I was still trying to get published the first time, let alone a second or third time, and I wasn’t having a whole lot of success.

But perseverance won, and eventually I did get published. And because I was one of those annoying overachievers, I’d already written first drafts of the second and third books in my trilogy by the time I turned in my first book, which meant that I had some free time.

I wrote another — unrelated — book, revised it a bit, shared it with a few critique partners and my agent, and when I had another stretch of free time, I went back to it to make the manuscript shine.

But something was wrong. There were huge parts of the book that I loved, but I knew it had problems, and I wasn’t sure how to fix them. I knew the book wasn’t strong enough to give to my publisher, so I put it aside to wait for a spark of brilliance to tell me how to fix it.

That book is still waiting. I had to move on. So I finished writing my first series (again), and I wrote another new book. I gave it to critique partners. I gave it to my agent. I revised the snot out of it. And I thought it was ready, so I gave it to my publisher. They said they didn’t think this was the very best followup to my first series.

Crushed.

I started thinking about that thing my friend had said years before. I started wondering if maybe she was right. I’d been published! People liked my book! But I’d put one new book aside because I knew it wasn’t ready, and I’d had to put the other new book aside because my career wasn’t ready.

But because I had no desire to starve to death and a very strong desire to keep my career in motion, I wrote yet another new thing (while finishing working on my first trilogy). All the necessary people liked it and approved it, and that book became my second series. (For those wondering if that pattern continued, it did not. There were no books between that one and what will be my third series.)

I’m sharing all this because I think a lot of writers believe that once you’re published, you can hand in new books and a couple of years later, they appear on shelves. Not true! New books must go through the same rigorous acquisitions process as the first one, but this time with sales records of your previous books as a key factor in what the publisher decides to do.

I know a lot of authors who’ve written new things after they’ve been published, and for one reason another, had to trunk them. Maybe they knew from the start it wasn’t ready. Maybe their agent said it wasn’t ready. Maybe their publisher said it wasn’t ready.

And you know, there’s no shame in that. Trunked manuscripts — no matter what stage of your career they were written — are still useful creatures. There are no wasted words in writing, even if those words never make it to the bookshelves. All that experiences goes into the next new thing, which will be even stronger than the last ones.

We all have trunked manuscripts. Lots come before getting published the first time, but they happen after, too. For a lot of writers.

And it’s totally okay. Just keep writing. Keep looking forward. (And hopefully one day, you can resurrect the trunked manuscripts you particularly love. That is my plan!)

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10. What Comes Before Part Two: Best Character, Basic Action, Weakness and Choice

Hello again! A couple of weeks ago, I gave you the start to a worksheet I use for every new project to help fill out my premise, story world, and how I choose to tell your story. Now I’d like to elaborate further on that sheet and go into the beginnings of character.

Before you ever start outlining or even writing your draft, you have to know your characters. Some people do this by filling out a “twenty questions” for each character. Some start writing and discover their characters in the moment. I find that understanding the answers to the questions below (and questions I’ll highlight in the third part of this series in a couple weeks), helps me know what a character will do in any given situation. If I’m ever stumped over what a character might do in a moment, I consult my sheet.

So you’ve already determined your premise, story execution, story world, and story challenges. You probably already know who your main character is, but if you don’t, now is the time to decide who your best character is for telling the story. The girl who has lived for fifteen years in the kingdom dungeons? Or the prince who can’t get his life together? If there are multiple characters you want to tell the story through, now is the time to sort that out.

Once you’ve determined your best character, you’ll want to outline your basic action. This is the action that drives your main character throughout the entire story. Basic action is also informed by story execution – if you plan to use the Journey Principle (see last post), then chances are, your character’s basic action will involve moving toward a specific destination. Your character’s basic action for the entire book will be traveling toward the castle/the space ship/the other side of the US etc. Or, if the story takes place around a competition, then the basic action will be competing/preparing for competition. This might seem remedial, but in those moments when our stories get away from us, remembering what your character’s basic, primal action for this story is will make a world of difference.

Now, think about what taking that basic means for your character. Characters don’t just act without thought or reason – you have to give them motivation to take that action. And that involves weakness.

Character weakness can and should be an integral part of your actual story structure. It should propel your character’s personal journey, the basic action, and provide obstacles for him/her along the way. Weakness offers the potential for character change, which is a big part (maybe the biggest) of making a character and her story interesting.

So what is your character’s weakness? It could be that he or she is afraid to live their lives to the fullest because they lost a parent/friend/partner. Or, that he/she is sheltered and ignorant of the world around them – they have to overcome this fear or this lack of knowledge to actually begin the basic action.

Once you’ve identified the weakness and basic action, it’s important to consider who that character is at the end. What do they look like as a changed person? What does the basic action teach them about overcoming their weakness? Perhaps the sheltered person has taken a trip to a developing country and learned that there are lots of suffering people in the world. This character is now a changed person: he or she is no longer sheltered, and perhaps now they have a desire to help people.

The changed person is very satisfying for a reader. How many times have you seen a movie or watched a show and noticed that the character has little to no growth or change? And to be sure, change doesn’t have to translate into positive growth – change can mean someone becomes disillusioned, or cruel, or greedy. Take a look at Walter White in Breaking Bad – Everyone’s favorite teacher gets cancer and through genius and desperation becomes someone he always had the potential be – a virtual Scar Face.

All of this ties into the moral choice your character must make at the end, a choice that they can only make now that they are a changed person. The decision would have been easy to make (or non-existent) before they changed, but now that they have reached the end and learned so much and became a different person, the moral choice will be much harder to make. It’s a confluence of their old life and their new. For the sheltered person, it could mean going back to their country and living their life with a new perspective, and perhaps becoming a volunteer. Or, being offered a chance to stay in this new place and create more radical change. Neither is wrong – but do you think this character would have had a hard time making the choice before?

Okay, I think I’ve given you enough to chew on for this second part in the What Comes Before series – my next post will be going into more depth on character and structure, so be prepared! As always, I hope this was useful, and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the last part in the series.

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11. How and When to Catch the Elusive Publicity Department — Part 1 of 2

Hi all! Stacey here with Lizzy Mason, Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. This is the first of a two-part series on what our publicists do, and how to maximize our relationships with them. Today, Lizzy will be sharing with us a typical publicist’s timeline. Lizzy, take it away.

Whenever I meet an author and I tell them what I do, they always ask me the same question: “When is it okay to reach out to my publicist?” And I always think, Oh my! These poor neglected authors! But when I’m at my desk in the office, reading email, and I get a question about a book that’s more than six months away, I often think Oh, no, I’m not ready for you yet.

It’s not that I’m not excited about those books that are further away, often times I’m dying for them to come out already so I can talk about them, but there’s a reason why we publicists have a reputation for being tough to nail down: we’re working on A LOT of books and we need to focus on them at specific times.

Please bear in mind as you read this, though, that every situation is different. Some books are lead titles, others are school & library focused, and others we have basic plans for. But no matter what plans your publisher has, it’s good to start thinking early about what YOU can do to supplement them. The onus is not just on your publisher to promote your book. You need to do your part.

Here’s a general timeline for how I start a campaign:

18 months to 2 years before on-sale: I hear about the book for the first time, either at acquisitions or pre-launch.

9 months to 18 months before on-sale: I hear about the book a half dozen more times at launch, marketing preview, sales conference, target meetings, etc. (Mind you, these meetings are often called different names at different houses.) This is when the mysterious “plans” for books start getting discussed.

9 months before on-sale: By now, a marketing and publicity plan for your book should exist. Ask your agent to ask your editor to share the marketing plan when it’s ready. (I know that sounds crazy and indirect, but it’s best if things are funneled through your editor at this point. And we’ll take it more seriously in-house if the request comes from your agent.) Once your agent explains what it all means, you can start thinking of how you can assist with or supplement what the publisher is doing.

This is also when I start seriously considering when I have to put these plans in place. Did I say I’d send an author to a trade show, conference, or festival? Now is when I have to start doing those pitches. If you’re accepted for one of these, you might hear from me asking if you’re available to do it.

6 months before on-sale: This is around the time that I recommend setting up a call with publicity and marketing if you’ve got questions or want to tell them what you’re going to be doing. At Bloomsbury, we work very closely with marketing, so sometimes it’s confusing to figure which of us does what (and, of course, it’s a little bit different at every house). So I find it helpful to have both departments on the call.

5 to 6 months before on-sale: Things are picking up steam. I’m sending ARCs or F&Gs out to reviewers, I’ve been meeting with media and pitching your book, I’m starting to plan tours and events. Lots of things are at the beginning stages.

3 months before on-sale: I’m confirming long lead media (magazines, generally), trying to nail down interviews, features and reviews. I might also still be confirming events. If I’m doing a blog tour, this is when I’m planning who I’ll be asking to be a part of it.

1 to 2 months before on-sale: By now, most events that are happening near the on-sale date should be confirmed. (Though you probably won’t see a complete tour schedule for a while. Just the basics.) Travel is getting booked. The blog tour is getting confirmed. The details are coming together. This is also when we get finished books and begin sending them to media.

At on-sale: This is, of course, the key moment. By now, I’ve been following up with media to confirm reviews and interviews and should know what’s coming. Sometimes reviews will run a few weeks before on-sale, sometimes a few weeks after. (Or occasionally months later, that happens too, but not if we can help it.) But we try to plan for as much to happen right at on-sale, from reviews, to social media posts, to bookstore events. Now is the time to make sure people are talking about the book.

Next month, Lizzy will share her thoughts on swag, bloggers, event planning, and freelance publicists. Got a question about publicists? Leave it in the comments.

Lizzy pic

LIZZY MASON is the Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books. She previously worked in publicity at Disney, Macmillan Children’s, and Simon & Schuster, and graduated from Manhattan College (which is in the Bronx) with a degree in Journalism and a minor in English. Lizzy dedicates whatever spare time she can to reading and writing YA fiction. She lives with her husband (and his comic collection) and their cat Moxie (who was named after a cat in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) in Queens, NY. Follow her @LizzyMason21.

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12. High Stakes Are Tricky

it seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)

Point being, I saw the same iteration of manuscript over and over:

Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).

I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?

Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!

The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the stakes are maybe…too high.

Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and increasing stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?

Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.

So selling such high stakes becomes very difficult. You have a lot of convincing to do, starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.

So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the kid and the apocalyptic event need to be inextricably tied.

For example, this specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.

Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.

That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.

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13. To Work in Publishing Or Not to Work in Publishing: That is the Question

Pub Crawl is such a wonderful mixture of things. Writing craft, publishing industry insights, Days in the Life posts, cover reveals, and so many other things. In fact, being an avid Pub Crawl reader is partly what made me curious enough to know more about what being on the inside of the industry was like. Admittedly, I’m still learning! But for any of our readers who are considering breaking into publishing, here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:

1. New York, New York

I hate to be the bearer of bad news (if you’ve never had a desire to live in NYC), but if you want to work in publishing, you are going to have a much, much easier time doing it in New York. That’s not to say there aren’t small presses and literary agencies littered throughout the country where you might be able to get a foot in the door – but New York is the hub.

2. Internships are key.

If you don’t live in NYC, lots of literary agencies offer what’s called a remote internship. This refers to an internship done mainly through email, and your main job is to read manuscripts the agent for whom you are interning has requested from writers. This kind of internship is a great way to establish if you even want to learn more about working in publishing. I did a remote internship before I came to New York, and was very lucky to have made that contact when I ended up making the move.

And if you do decide to make the trip to New York, the next step is an in-house internship. Yes, most publishing houses and agencies want you to have a bachelor’s degree at the very least (though Penguin Random House very recently nixed this notion). But what publishers and agencies look at most closely is your internship experience.

So what does that mean?

It means, know what kinds of internships will give you the experience you need relevant to the job you want. For example, small presses will usually utilize interns in a number of ways – publicity, editorial, mailing, etc., whereas a larger house will have you in a specific department, usually editorial or publicity. And a literary agency will have you doing a lot of different things because agents themselves do a lot of different things – you might be organizing excel files, writing a report on a manuscript an agent has requested from a writer, or reading queries from the slush pile.

The great thing about internships is they can help you see where you do and *don’t* want to work without too much pressure. If you thought you were destined to work in publicity, but your internship in the publicity department at X house left something to be desired, then maybe you’d be happier in editorial, or even in a more design-centric department (admittedly a rather hazy area of publishing for me).

Be prepared to have at least two internships on your resume before getting hired for a full-time assistant position (the most basic level in all publishing employment).

3. Money, Money, Money

There are downsides to internships, of course. Many of them are unpaid or pay very little but still require as much of your time as a part-time job. So be prepared to save up money for living expenses, and to look for another part-time job as well. And to have roommates. And to eat ramen for a lot of meals.

Look, it’s not glamorous – even when if you work your way up, publishing is not an industry to join for the money. You do it because you love books, and you love writers, and you want to be part of their success. Publishing definitely has its issues – diversity being its biggest one by far – but more and more spotlights are being centered on those issues, and my guess (and my hope) is those who are working their way up from the bottom right now are going to be part of the wave that initiates true, honest change.

4. Twitter is your (Networking) Friend

Twitter is a fantastic space for writers. But it’s also a wealth of publishing information, job and internship opportunities, and possible industry contacts. I found my first internship when an agency I follow tweeted about it, and ditto for my job. And I have met some of my best friends in New York through Twitter, like when I plucked up the courage to reach out to another agency assistant and asked to meet up.

The interns and assistants you become friends with when you are just starting out become the editors and agents you work with down the line. Those relationships are more important than you know, and twitter is a great way to start some of those conversations

Just keep in mind that this does NOT mean “tweet at editors or agents from whom you want a job/book/autograph”. There are still rules of respectability on Twitter – in the same way writers are discouraged from pitching agents, it’s discouraged for anyone looking for employment/internships to pitch possible employers on social media. Find people at the same level as you and connect.

5. Be Willing to Go All In

I’m just gonna say it: If you aren’t willing to dedicate your heart and soul to publishing, then it might not be for you. The image many of us have of an editor who reads manuscripts and edits at his/her desk all day is a lovely one, but unfortunately quite far from reality. In fact, most editors don’t get to do much editing, if any, during the work day at all – it’s what they do when they get home from work. The same goes for agents – much of the day is spent on the phone with publishers or clients, and it’s not until the evening commute and after that they get to read queries and manuscripts.

So why do it? Well, that’s up to you. For me, the idea of helping bring a book that I believe in to life is a seductive one. There’s really nothing better than reading a query that excites you, requesting a manuscript you end up loving, and working with it through to publishing completion.  And at the end of a stressful day, a book and its writer’s victories make everything you’ve done to get it there worth it. Being at the launch of a book you helped to, well, launch, is one of the most rewarding experiences. And the community is tight – the support is real.

I hope this has been helpful for any of you who are thinking of taking the plunge!

 

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14. How Much Interiority Should I Use?

This is a great question that came via email from Matt:

Is there a writing principle about how much interiority should be within a scene?

As with all great writing debates, I’m here to say that there’s no set guideline. Womp womp. Sorry to not have something more concrete, but I do have some food for thought that might help you choose your own approach.

My rule of thumb, however, is to use what’s necessary and find a balance. As with anything, balance doesn’t come easily. Some writers err on the side of too much interiority, some writers barely scratch the surface of their character’s rich inner lives, even in first person.

The imbalance of too much interiority is especially apparent when nothing is happening, plot-wise. Alternately, nothing happens because there’s too much interiority, or internal conflict, rather than external conflict. If you have your character thinking about everything, maybe you’re on this end of the spectrum. Know that, while a level of interiority is desirable, you also need to focus on the things that come less naturally to you, namely pacing and plot. It’s very important to know how a character reacts to what’s happening, but it can’t be the end-all and be-all. To be fair, I see this imbalance less than its opposite.

The more common imbalance is seeing little interiority in big moments, when connection to the character should naturally increase in order to keep from alienating the reader. Writers who fall into this category tend to be very comfortable with plot. When they do talk about emotion, maybe they simply name what a character is feeling, or talk about the feelings by using clichés that detail emotions in a character’s body. These are offshoots of telling, and, as you’ve heard me say many times, interiority is quite different from telling, though the distinction can be subtle for a lot of people. Characters with too little interiority are also prone to being stuck, or to being in denial.

As you can see, there are many more links discussing a lack of interiority or issues with inadequate interiority than there are dealing with too much of it. This is yet another reflection of the fact that I see writers end up toward this end of the issue a lot more.

If that’s not the case for you, and you think you’re somewhere in the middle as an interiority-user, I would still suggest analyzing how you’re striking that balance. Make sure the reader feels connected to important moment, and use enough interiority to highlight the things that are truly important. When something big happens that your character should be reacting to, ask yourself: And? So? Some recent thoughts questions that help develop interiority can be found here.

Next, think about how interiority and plot intersect. Use interiority to plant the seeds of tension as you develop your plot. It’s not enough to have a character feel afraid, for example. They’re usually afraid of something very specific, or a worst case scenario. To help tension along, let their minds go to those darker places, especially if the plot hasn’t caught up yet. More thoughts on that here.

This is such an important facet of the fiction writing craft that I really hope you never stop exploring this fascinating topic, and figuring out how to best use this tool.

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15. Trying to Publish Novel Excerpts

I’ve been on a roll with some really good reader questions lately. As a reminder to anyone out there who may be new to the blog, I do open myself up to general inquiries about writing and publishing via email. Sometimes these exchanges end up on the blog, sometimes they’re between you and me. Information on how to reach me is available in the sidebar. I regret that I can’t answer very specific questions or review work…that’s reserved for my freelance editorial clients. But questions Kate’s, below, are more than welcome!

What are your feelings about submitting an excerpt from an as-yet unrepresented novel for publication in a literary magazine? My concern is that on the off-chance that the excerpt would be published I would thereby render the whole novel unsellable to a publisher. In my case I’ve rewritten the submission to make it work better as an excerpt, but I’m not sure if there’s enough difference between it and the version in the manuscript, or whether that even matters. Thanks!

This is a great question, and one I see from time to time. I didn’t find out the exact circumstances until later, and it turns out I was right. Because I imagined a few things about Kate’s situation that would lead her down this path of reasoning. First, Kate is frustrated by a novel that’s not getting picked up. She later reported submitting to agents for quite some time and not getting where she wants to go. Second, she has likely started thinking…Well, what else can I do with this thing? Is there a shortcut to getting to getting noticed? Hence the literary magazine idea. And it’s not a bad idea, in theory. But would I recommend it? This was my response. Read on:

Good question. I’ll answer, but start my answer with another (blunt) question: Why? What’s the point? If you want to get a novel published, it is very, very, very unlikely that you’re going to get there by publishing something in a literary magazine from it that an agent will see or that will otherwise draw attention to your efforts. That’s a very circuitous route. And getting published in a literary magazine involves learning about good literary magazines to submit to, submitting to them, getting immersed in that, etc. If your big goal is to get a novel published, your energy is much better used focusing on the DIRECT route: writing a kickass novel and getting immersed in the novel/agent submission process.

While, yes, writing credits are kinda sorta important to collect when you’re trying to make your name as a writer*, they are not the determining factor. And literary agents and literary magazine people don’t spin in the same worlds some of the time. You’d think they would be connected, and some definitely are, but agents have so much to read that when a literary magazine lands on their desks, on top of everything else, it may or may not get attention. For me, even if someone is published in The Paris Review, one of the most noteworthy journals and pretty impossible to get into, if I hate the novel they’re submitting, the credit is impressive, but meaningless to me because, as an agent, I am looking to sell you as a novelist, not a literary magazine writer. So, you could be doing all that UNRELATED work for very dubious payoff. If the journals even want you.

The thing is, lit mag demand for unpublished novel excerpts is quite low compared to standalone articles, short stories, and poems. They’d rather publish those because they’re more satisfying for the reader, rather than some random piece of something that, who knows, nobody may ever hear from again. Unless they’re inspired to contract you for a serial series, I wouldn’t imagine that this type of piece is hot property. And if they do, you may have more problems publishing it eventually because more will have appeared in print.

So the print rights issue is certainly one to consider, and some publishers might be jerks about it, saying that since you’ve already exploited some rights by putting the excerpt in print, the property is less attractive, etc. It has happened. But that’s honestly not why I’d reconsider this idea. Finally, what about when you revise your manuscript, as you’re bound to do, because you wake up one day and realize the piece you’ve been missing? It happens all the time. And then you have this excerpt floating around that’s now horribly broken, in your eyes. And that’s your “sales piece” that’s now immortalized in print.

I know that you are probably very eager to do something, anything to move your chances forward. Think of taking the more direct path. Write the best manuscript you can. Write a killer query. Research agents. If you really have enough free time to also research literary journals, more power to you. But to me, that’s not going to be your strongest potential path to success.

  • I know many of you are going to find this statement interesting. I will cover clips and writing credits in a subsequent post!

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16. New Year’s Resolution 2016

Have more FUN writing.That’s it, that’s all, that’s what we usually forget to do first.

It’s so important, but we so often forget it. Working on my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, was one of the biggest blasts I’ve had in my life. But I would still stress about it. Second-guess myself. Wonder whose bright idea it was to write a damn book in the first place. (Nobody out there to blame but us chickens!) Sure, even if you’re pursuing your life’s passion, you can easily get stressed, especially when questions of whether it’s good enough or what to do with it or whether it’ll get published start to creep in.

We all work this way, I think. I haven’t met a single creative person who didn’t suffer somewhat while pursuing their craft. (Not even my chef husband is immune from creative angst. My suggestion is usually to top the dish in question with caviar and give it to me!) But I was powerfully reminded of this idea when reading an excellent client manuscript over the holidays.

Without giving too much away, I worked on an alternating-POV adult romantic paranormal fantasy where we sometimes dipped into the paranormal creature’s perspective. It was really good stuff. But I often noticed that the tone seemed to scatter. You know how different genres have different conventions? Like there’s a pretty stereotypical voice you can expect when reading sci-fi vs. contemporary vs. dystopian work.

With this particular project, the writer’s voice and tone tended to shapeshift. When she was writing a romantic scene, there were definitely phrases and overtones creeping in that would remind you of a pretty standard romance novel, right down to the heaving bosoms. When she wrote some action or battle scenes, the voice would grow more formal in a way that’s familiar to high fantasy readers. In the midst of it, there was a certain spark and energy that was uniquely to hers. But all the changes made for a bigger picture that lacked cohesion.

Then I noticed something interesting. Her voice rang out strong and true with one POV in particular. The paranormal creature. The tone didn’t shift at all, the POV experience seemed much more immersive, and the writing flowed. I found myself scribbling “More Monster POV plz!!!” in all the virtual margins. (Don’t worry, please, if you’ve ever thought of hiring me. My comments aren’t really straight out of ICanHasCheezburger…)

With any voice notes, I try to be thorough because voice is such a hot button issue that can be so nebulous for so many. I thought about it for a while. Why did Monster POV work so well? Then the obvious answer struck me. It’s fun to write in monster POV. Most days, I’ve had ENOUGH of stressed-out-human-lady POV. What I wouldn’t give to walk around as a monster through the foggy shadows of some menacing countryside! Stomp stomp, crunch crunch, ROOOOOOAAR!

So I wrote her a prescription for more fun when writing. (Among many other things, of course.) Writing can be tedious. Revision can be on par with a root canal. Putting a query letter together gives people the actual fits. I’ve seen people cry while pitching. And not, like, just once, either. It’s so easy to get caught up.

What’s the fun part of your WIP? What’s fun about it? Is it a particular character you love? A head you like getting into? A setting that calls to you? The tempo of an action sequence? Whatever it is, do more of that. Every writer is different, and every story offers unique opportunities to have a gas.

I’ve always, always said that if something is tedious for you to write, think of the poor sap who has to read it. Your passion for every passage is obvious on the page. If you’re hating every minute, odds are nobody’s having any fun.

Figure out what makes you relish your writing time, and do more of what you love in your current project. Do more of what you love in your non-writing life, too, while you’re at it! Happy 2016!

 

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17. Sifting Through Story Ideas

I wasn’t sure what to write about this month, so I asked trusty Twitter for advice. Two people in a row asked about sifting through ideas and how to decide what goes in a book. So, that’s what we’re doing.

First: I get it. You’re a writer. You have lots of ideas. You have ~*~imagination.~*~ But how to sort through all of that and put only the best things in the book? Good question.

  1. Maybe you need a list. Or several lists. Whatever.
    I find lists to be very calming things. They make me happy. They make me feel more organized. So when I make lists for a book, it’s all the things I think I’d like to put in that story, from phrases to ideas to objects — everything.
  2. Sometimes I don’t need lists because I’ve already started writing the story, and a cool idea slams into me while I’m brushing my teeth.
    Sound familiar? I bet it’s happened to you too. These ideas are sometimes for the book I’m working on, but sometimes they’re for other books. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which. We’re going to get to the “how to tell” part in a second.
  3. How to tell what goes in this book and what goes in another book. (See, I told you it would be a second.)
    I like to imagine various characters interacting with the thing somehow. (“The thing” being the idea or line or whatever.) Does it feel right? Does it feel more right with another character from another story? How does it fit thematically? And will it ruin all my plans in a good or bad way?
    I’ve seen lots of advice that talks about not hoarding ideas, not saving them for something else because you should just put every cool thing into your current story. And on some level, I get that. The advice is meant to keep you from having only one or two cool things in a story — when you could have lots of cool things! It’s meant to help you complicate situations and worlds, and make the story more interesting in general. But sometimes the idea really does belong elsewhere, and it’s okay to set it aside to fit in another story you have cooking in the back of your mind, or as a concept for a completely new story.
  4. Sometimes the idea doesn’t belong in a story at all because it’s just not that great.
    Sorry. We all have lame ideas sometimes. (I could fill an entire novel with mine!) They can be fun to entertain for a while, but it’s always a good idea to run ideas by trusted friends. You want honest answers to “is this idea dumb?”, just like you want honest answers to “is my hair okay like this?” This is also a point where you need to be really honest with yourself. Does the idea truly fit? Is it going to make the story better/more interesting? If the answer is no, ditch it. You’ve got more ideas where that one came from.

One of the most fun things about being a writer is having lots of ideas! But it can also be frustrating when you’re not sure what goes where, or if it goes anywhere.

I hope this helps offer a little direction when it comes to sorting through everything. And if you have any tips or tricks about how you choose what goes in the book, please feel free to share it in the comments! 

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18. Getting Into a Pattern

Back in college, I did a few freelance articles for a photography trade magazine. Mostly wedding photographer profiles. A woman I’d become close friends with in a creative writing course happened to be an editor for this publication, and she gave me some assignments for fun. By about the third piece I turned in, she sent me a very friendly email that haunts me to this day. She basically said, “Hey Mary, I’m noticing that all of your articles follow the same pattern. You start with the photographer’s youth and then the event that made them fall in love with photography, then you cover their education and development as a photographer, and their you end with their current work. Maybe you could, yanno, mix it up a little bit.”

She was right. Of course she was. I’m no journalist and I had no idea what I was doing or how to organize a compelling non-fiction article, so I picked the easiest possible organizational strategy when talking about a person: the resume, or, in other words, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” And by golly, I was going to drive it into the ground until somebody stopped me because I didn’t know what else to do. And, to my *ahem* credit, I thanked her profusely for the feedback…and was so mortified that I stopped writing for the photography magazine shortly thereafter. A writer’s ego is a strange creature.

But I figured out the lesson in her wise words eventually. Yes, a decade, give or take, counts as “eventually,” guys. There are patterns in writing. Some are good patterns, some are individual patterns that maybe keep us from growing in the craft.

An example of a good pattern is a larger organizing principle or story theory, for example, Joseph Campbell’s hero cycle. While this is an oldie, it’s very much a goodie, since its wisdom applies to any number of stories, in any number of ways. Chronological order is also an old standard that can’t be beat when writing a novel. Sure, you want to jump back in time to fill in some backstory and context every once in a while, but moving from point A to point B as the character grows and time marches forward is an idea that will never go away.

The reason I like these two is that they’ve vague and versatile. They dictate a general idea and then it’s up to you to apply it in your own style. You’ll notice that I talk about story theory in my book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit. But I try to leave much of it up to the writer. I recently ordered a slipcover for my sectional because the upholstery we originally got clings to pet hair like it’s pirate treasure. The slipcover fabric is so stretchy that it was able to fit my couch and look custom-made without any measurement. I was dubious until it arrived, since it purported to fit couches from 66″ to 96″ and that seems like a pretty big spread. But it’s really quite amazing, fits perfectly, and now the dogs can drool and shed on it with abandon. All this is to say that I try to give writing guidelines as if I were that slipcover (stay with me here, folks, this is getting weird…). Your story is the couch. You pick its overall shape and dimensions. The organizing principle’s job is to cover it and mold to what you want to do, all while giving it a cohesive look and function.

Now, there are writing teachers out there who like to dictate patterns in much more specific terms. I’ve had many writers, believe it or not, come to me and ask, “Well, in So and So’s Story Theory, he says I have to include the inciting incident by the 5% mark, then the first conflict by 10%, then the first major loss by 25%. The cousin dies, but it’s at 27% and I don’t know what to do.” This kind of teaching-writing-with-an-iron-fist always baffles me. I like the broader, sweeping guidelines, not micromanaging a manuscript down to the nth percentile. In my world, a rigid story theory is great for people who have never written a novel before. It gives them valuable scaffolding to cling to. But once you’ve written one, and internalized some basic principles, I think most guidelines can take a backseat to how you want to tell the story.

So, basically, I like the big writing patterns. Like chronological order for a novel. Or the pattern of emotional development that I outline in my book.

But every writer has other patterns. And before you know what you should do about your patterns, if they’re helpful or hampering, you should at least become aware of them. (Hopefully without becoming mortified and quitting.) This post was inspired by a client of mine who starts many chapters in exactly the same way: scene-setting and talk of the weather. I applaud the scene-setting. Many writers who simply leap into a scene with dialogue or a plot point fail to ground the reader in time and place. But this pattern for this writer was almost formulaic. Weather. Scene. Then the chapter starts. Over and over.

What happens when a reader detects an underlying pattern in your work is they become less engaged. By the fifth weather/scene/start chapter, I’m going to check out at the beginning a little bit. Unless the descriptions of the weather are building up to something massive (it’s a book about a big storm, or a person with weather-related superpowers), there needs to be variety. The pattern cannot take over the narrative.

This reminds me of picture book writers who are working in rhyme. Sometimes I see writers twisting their syntax into crazy sentence pretzels just so they can make a line rhyme. This begs the question: Is the story in the service of the rhyme, or the other way around? You always want to be putting the story first. If you find that writing in rhyme warps your natural voice, makes you write like a Victorian schoolmarm, and leads to all sorts of other problems, then it’s the pattern that needs to go, and you need to free yourself up to tell the story the best way you can. Patterns. They’re all around. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re hindrances.

What are your specific writing patterns? Are you trying to break them or are you working with them? Discuss.

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19. Help! Someone Is Publishing Your Idea!

I was going through my emails for some reader questions that I’ve gotten over the years. This one comes from Susan last year, and it’s basically this: She saw some marketing materials for a book that’s coming out that’s exactly like what she’s working on. She’s upset. How is she going to find the will to continue writing this project if someone else has already beat her to it?

This is actually a very common question, and here is the (at times, tongue-in-cheek) response I wrote that I hope can help a few more of you out there:

I know everyone says “don’t worry about it” and that obviously hasn’t made you feel any better but…don’t worry about it. That book and thousands of others will be published this year. Unless this particular book hits it DIVERGENT-big, it will have its moment on the stage and then gracefully recede onto the backlist. (Sad but, more or less, true. For every mega-successful book that’s published in a year, there are dozens or hundreds more that do pretty well for themselves but don’t make a global splash.) Then next year’s crop will come. Then next year’s.

It’s the ciiiiiiircle of liiiiiiiiiiiiife!

Meanwhile, in the BEST case scenario, you will take six months to polish your book. You’ll take three months to query and sign with an agent. You and your agent will revise for three months. It will go on submission, and let’s say it sells in an amazingly short month. Did I mention that the entire publishing process moves at a snail’s pace? And you’re not even done! Then it will go into contracts, editing, design, proofreading, blah blah blah, and it will finally come out in hardcover a year from when the editor bought it. That’s a MINIMUM of two years from today. But if there are invariable publishing delays or you need two revisions instead of one at any point in the process, or they decide that another similar book is coming out and they should push you back a season and you have no control over any of it, then it’s more than two years from the book that’s upsetting you right now.

On top of that, you can’t really know a book from a paragraph of description. The voice, the tone, the plot, the sense of humor, the lightness or darkness, the literary quality. All of these things happen in the execution, not the pitch. (ETA: The product and the pitch, people! It was an idea in my brain like a year ago!!!) So the book you’re worried about could be completely different from what you’re doing. And you don’t even know it until you read it. What attracted that writer to that idea, and that editor to that manuscript, could be completely different from what kind of response your idea will drum up.

So, basically, all this is to say you should probably trash your manuscript and start over. Just kidding! You’re totally fine. Keep on trucking. Nobody is stealing your ideas. Maybe one day your book will be featured in an online newsletter and some writer is going to start worrying and email me because she thinks she’s working on the exact same thing. It’s perfectly normal and doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, this is far from the first time I’ve heard this question. There are just a few archetypal stories in the world that we keep telling over and over, in different wrapping paper. That doesn’t make one book more or less special than the next, and as long as the stories are well-done, there’s room for them on the shelf.

Don’t believe in the myth of scarcity. This book isn’t taking away from your potential place in the spotlight.

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20. What It Means When Your Writing Is Rejected

This is an excerpt from Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love, which is Pay What It’s Worth (meaning YOU choose what to pay) in the Renegade Writer Store.

I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty:

Between 1996 and 2015 I sent out over 200 magazine queries — each one to multiple publications — and sold somewhere around 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate — or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)

So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? Top magazines like Redbook, Health, USA Weekend, Parenting, and Writer’s Digest? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?

It’s because I was too stubborn to give up.

Even when I was failing most of the time, I kept pitching. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.

So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing:

Rejection isn’t about you.

If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.

When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product? No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.

The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.

It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”

If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from writing, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!

[TWEET THIS]

The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. The good news is that the more you pitch, the more immune to rejection you become. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: When you have one magazine query out there, it’s your baby and a rejection can crush you. When you have 50 magazine queries and LOIs out there, a rejection on one of them means you still have 49 more chances.

Now…get out there and pitch today.

This post originally ran in August 2013, and I updated it to make it more useful to you.

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21. Emotional Roadblocks and Writing

We talk about a lot of things on Pub Crawl – writing craft, the submission process, the editorial process, the industry, and lots of stuff in between. We like to encourage writing by hopefully imparting insight and advice. Lots of people do; bloggers, writers, editors, agents. And at one time or another, you’ve likely seen this advice: Write Every Day. There are no excuses. Do it or you’ll never get better. Practice makes perfect – so practice every single day.

But for many of us, this advice can actually be detrimental to the process because we are going through a different kind of process: Healing. And sometimes, healing means not writing every day, or at all, for a long time. And the biggest key to this is understanding that it’s okay. That your pace may different. That even your writing routine may change. This does not make you less of a writer, nor does it mean you won’t still improve.

Full disclosure: I lost my father in March of this year. I say this not to garner sympathy, but to give some context. It was shocking in many ways, and completely unsurprising in others. But the thing I didn’t expect? How grief really felt, and still feels. How it comes out at strange times, making the rest of your day difficult to get through. It’s a daily struggle, and I am only just beginning to understand that it will be for a long time yet.

The worst of it was, I lost my will to write. For many years, I posted poetry and flash fiction on my blog a couple of times a month. In addition, I did write nearly every day, or revised finished projects, or dashed off a few lines here, a few lines there. A random scene. A conversation between characters. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be full of inspiration.

After March, I still tried to write. But I was dissatisfied with the words, with the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I was as a writer. What did I even enjoy writing? What stories did I have to tell? Everything was colored by this new way I viewed the world, however slight the difference might have been. I would begin a story, short or long, and see it through to 5,000 words before deciding I wasn’t into it. I’d sit down to dash off a line here, a line there, and end up staring at a blank screen instead.

I read advice that told me to keep writing, to keep doing, to keep practicing OR ELSE. So over and over again I attempted it, and more and more the anxiety over that command made it impossible. And you know what? It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself a break, some time away from the page to actually breathe, that writing finally started to be of interest again several months later. Now, I’m using NaNoWriMo to encourage that interest – but I’m not punishing myself when I don’t hit the word count.

This is not to say I am not still struggling. Every word is harder to write than it used to be, because I’m fighting to understand who I am now versus who I was then. This is the same for those struggling with depression, or even with physical illness. Sometimes the idea that a true writer is one who writes every day, despite the struggle, despite the emotional hardship, is more detrimental to a struggling writer than the idea that we are allowed some time off, or we are allowed to adhere to a schedule that works for us – even if it means not writing daily. We are allowed to back away for a little while, to regroup, to think, to fight.

There is only one “right” way to write, and that is whichever way empowers you as an individual. If the idea of writing is giving you anxiety, remember that it’s okay to take a break if you need one. Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready.

I’m certain I’m not alone in this – if you’ve found a way to write through emotional hardships, tell me about it! I’d love to know what you’ve done, or are doing, to find writing in your life again.

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22. How to Work Less and Earn More as a Freelance Writer

In 2009, I started researching and experimenting with ways to work less and earn more with my writing. I started out by vowing to work only two days per week.

It worked — and I’ll tell you how in a bit.

Since 2009, my schedule has settled to 30 hours per week or less; more than before because now my son is in school all day, and I really do love what I do and find it hard to keep myself from writing. These days, I generally work from 9-2:30 daily, and often take Fridays off if I can.

And during it all, my freelancing income has gone up by 30%.

Want to know how I did it? Let’s start in 2009.

How I Cut My Work Hours & Still Kept Earning

My goal, when I started the two-day workweek in 2009, was to spend more time with my one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I would check e-mail just to make sure nothing came up, and if a source could schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’d do it. But most weeks, I sat down at my desk and worked two days per week.

The first thing I did to cut my hours was quit a time-suck writer’s forum. I could spend hours on there every day because there were so many members that every time I clicked, there was a new message. One day I posted a question about freelancing, and was treated to snarky responses about how I should already know the answer.

Right then, I decided to quit. I had my husband change my password and promise not to reveal it to me. For a couple of days my fingers kept twitching towards the keys that would bring up the forum, but then the urge subsided.

Then, on a roll, I found a free site-blocker app and blocked the other sites I spent a lot of time on, like iCanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.

Suddenly, I had a ton of free time.

I soon came to realize that a lot of what we freelancers do is busy work. For example, I was in the habit of sending out e-mails to sources or editors in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day alternately clicking on “check e-mail” and surfing the web. Then, at 5, I felt that I’d put in a full day’s work, even though I really only worked for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the day waiting for people to get back to me.

So I stopped doing that. If I sent out e-mails and couldn’t take action until I got a response, I would shut my laptop, go off and do what I wanted to do, and come back later to check. Exact same results, but much less time “working.”

One week I felt stressed about all I had to do: I had several writing assignments on the go and was insistent on working three days that week at the most to get it all done. I asked my life coach for tips, and she said that many of her clients feel they have too much to do, but then when they sit down and actually calculate the hours — or actually do the work — they realize it’s not so much after all. They had just built it up in their minds.

So my goal buddy and I set up what we called a “boot camp” day on one of my work days that week. On boot camp days, my Jennifer and I called each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we planned to do in the next hour. There were no repercussions if we don’t get the work done, but there’s something about telling someone else what you plan to do that lights a fire under your butt.

And guess what? That day, I got all the work I had been worrying about done in four hours. I didn’t even have to work that third day.

You CAN Set Your Own Hours

Those were some very, very valuable lessons, and after so many years of freelancing, I’ve really realized the full power of the freelance lifestyle — the power to set your own hours and be the master of your own time.

The eight-hour workday is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to envision working less and still earning the same income — but as Tim Ferriss said in The Four-Hour Workweek, isn’t it amazing that all over the world, no matter what job they do, every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done?

We freelancers are not in jobs where we have to be present all the time, like in retail. We can “disappear” and, using the power of technology, still be reachable if a client has an emergency (which they rarely do).

Granted, when I started cutting my hours in 2009 I had already been freelancing for 12 years, so I was past the stage where I had to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I was in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it was easier for me to cut down my hours than it would be for someone just starting out.

But even new writers can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query or building your website or working on a book chapter, are you 100% focused on that task or are you taking frequent web-surfing breaks? Do you bang out that pitch or do you procrastinate, yet still feel “busy” because you’re sitting in front of your computer?

Do MORE of What You Love

So what did I do with all this extra time in 2009? Well, I started a local parents’ group that ended up with over 100 members, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with other parents and their babies. I read — a lot. I upped my weight training from two days per week to three. And I did more volunteering for animal welfare causes.

Isn’t that why so many of us decide to go freelance — so we can control our workloads and our hours, and have more time to spend on our families, hobbies, and causes?

Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe that so many years later, I’m still working reduced hours and earning more than ever. I keep thinking that one day, my husband is going to say, “Uh, Linda…we’re broke.” But it hasn’t happened. I’m going to keep up this schedule as long as I can…and the more I do it, the easier it gets.

Your challenge today: Want to work less and earn more as a freelance writer? Find your top five time-wasting activities and find ways to ditch or delegate them.

This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated to be more helpful to you.

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23. Changing the Context

I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!

There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.

But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.

In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.

My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.

So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.

If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.

What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:

First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.

Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.

If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.

Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.

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24. Writing Conflict: How to Ruin (Fictional) Lives

Sometimes, terrible things happen to characters. It’s just a fact of fiction.

But as authors, sometimes we want pull back before things get too awful for our sweet, precious characters. Sometimes we want to make things easy because we love them.

My dear writer friends, that is not how our characters grow. Like mama birds shoving their chicks out of the nest to make them fly, we must make everything just awful so their true potential can shine.

Here are a few ways I like to shove my character birdies out of the nest:

  1. Take away something they love.
  2. Give them something they want. Take it away.
  3. Make it impossible for them to have something they want because of their own action/inaction.
  4. Do the opposite of what they want. If they want to go right, force them left.
  5. Make someone else want the thing your character wants so they have to race for it.
  6. Give someone else the thing your character wants.
  7. Use one goal against another in a battle of What’s Most Important?
  8. Destroy the thing they want so that no one can have it. (Cackling encouraged.)

Okay, lots of my ways to ruin lives involve waving what they want in front of them—then snatching it away. That sounds really, really mean, but believe me, properly motivated characters are characters willing to take action. And the closer they get to what they want, the harder they work.

And if the thing they want is gone/impossible to get, the character might have to reach higher for a new goal— something they didn’t know they wanted until everything else was stripped away. Maybe they couldn’t see it before. Maybe their focus was divided.

Don’t limit their goals to one thing, though! Give them a few things to desire, even if they mostly take action toward one thing. Keeping loved ones safe is always a good goal. Going after their personal dreams is another good one. Family and dreams can be good at conflicting with one another. (Sometimes families want characters to be a blacksmith, but the character wants to be a candlemaker! And sometimes characters have to choose between saving the blacksmith family from a tragic goat stampede . . . and going to the chandler convention in the next town over.)

And heck, definitely use combinations of the above list. Don’t limit yourself to one trick. Push until those little character birdies fly.

How else do you like to ruin your characters’ lives motivate your characters to take action?

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25. Being Too Casual

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dress code for writers. If there was such a thing, 3/4 of my wardrobe would be out the window. I’m basically in my pajamas right now, with an additional layer of dog hair to make the outfit fancy. This is a post inspired by several editorial client manuscripts where I’m noticing characters going about their business with an overall lack of tension. This post builds on the idea introduced in last week’s post, about making subtle changes that could yield more tension. If you haven’t read that one, go check it out, then read on here.

You don’t want a character who is freaking out all the time, because that will be exhausting. They care too much about everything, and everything is a big deal. if you find yourself with this type of character on your hands, this is going to backfire pretty quickly. If everything is at a level 11, you lose the ability to make it matter after a while due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As they say in The Incredibles, “If everyone is special, then no one is.”

That leaves us with a character who doesn’t care as much as they could. They are too casual. There are two ways to be too casual: about things that don’t matter, and about things that do. You may have one of these characters if people have told you that they’re having a hard time relating to the story or getting worked up about its events. If you’ve received the comment that your readers are having trouble caring.

First, your issue could be a character who is mellow in a mellow situation. For example, a character named Jane is about to take a test. It could go like this:

There was an exam coming up in pre-calc. Whatever. Not only did she have no plans to ever touch a math textbook again, but the teacher had offered to drop everyone’s lowest test grade. Jane didn’t even break a sweat, and went back to scribbling in her art notebook.

If Jane doesn’t care, why should we? The outcome doesn’t matter, she doesn’t seem at all worried, it’s a non-issue. The fix would be to make Jane care, even a little bit. Even if she wants to seem like she doesn’t. Inject tension into how Jane feels versus how she’s behaving. Compare this example to the original:

Jane scribbled in her art notebook but she couldn’t help watching the clock out the corner of her eye. Pre-calc was coming up, and that damn midterm. Whatever. At least that’s what she tried to think. Even though she didn’t care about math, her mom would. And she didn’t want to fail, because that meant more math practice, maybe a tutor. Jane sighed and stopped drawing. Maybe she could cram a few more minutes of studying in. Everyone else was doing it.

Here, we get a subtle shift in Jane’s thinking. She really doesn’t care, but there’s tension now because she won’t let herself fail the exam on principle. Whatever her real reasons are, there’s now a little battle going on. She feels conflicted. There’s tension. Jane’s overall stance on the exam hasn’t changed–it hasn’t suddenly become the Everest of her high school career. But at least she cares now, and notice also that the very fact that she does care bothers her. Or she feels like she’s forced to care. Either way, there are multiple layers of tension.

Tension comes from uncertainty, fear, anxiety. With the revised example, I’ve added an undercurrent of doubt. She knows this exam isn’t the end all and be all, but she wants to do well on it anyway, and she worries she won’t. Even if a character feels confident, you can always add a shade of tension. We all have these darker feelings, even in moments of great light. Use that to your advantage. Friction means tension means stakes means reader engagement!

This brings me to my next, more obvious, idea. You can certainly dial up the tension by changing the character’s attitude toward something. Why not take it one step further and change the something to have higher stakes? Instead of blowing the exam off (too casual), she has a more complex and interesting relationship with it. If you’re not going to present the event in a layered way, why even bother describing it? You’re giving a lot of manuscript real estate to what amounts to a throwaway. Surely there are other things you could be narrating that stand to get more of a rise out of Jane. Maybe an art competition.

One of my favorite things to remind writers is that they are creating a world from scratch. They make up the characters, the events, the circumstances. If a character is bored, they are also boring the reader. If they don’t care, the reader has to struggle to latch on to the story.

If you suspect that a character is either being too casual about their circumstances or stuck in circumstances that are too casual, take control, add some small tension, and beef up the moment. Or cut or change it. But don’t let the story tension peter out. If all else fails, have them thinking about something else that’s coming up, and plant the seeds for tension down the road.

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