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Guys. Queries are hard. This is an undisputed fact of the agent-acquiring process. These days a lot of agents ask for the first 5-30 pages of your manuscript when you query, because it’s so much easier to tell if a story is good by reading, well, the actual story. But the query is the hook—the bait that gets the agent past that first page and into your story.
I read queries on the daily. A lot of them. As a literary assistant, it’s one of my many responsibilities. I need to be able to tell, just from that one page, if your book is something the agent and I will want to read. I need to see just how I would pitch it to an editor. And I need to see that you know your stuff. Have you done your research? Or did you scribble off a quick note and hit SEND ALL?
The queries that stand out are either very good, or very bad. But there are a lot of queries that get stuck in the middle—that strange wasteland of almost-there, but just not quite. Chances are, a lot of you are in that boat. Most of us, even those who have agents, have written blah query letters. And I know PubCrawlers are smart. You have done your research, much of it on this very website. I don’t need to tell you not to send attachments, or not to write your bio in the third person. I don’t need to tell you not to call your manuscript a future bestseller, the most unique piece of fiction ever written, a story that will apply to all of the audiences that ever existed!
So I’m not going to talk about the basics. You guys KNOW the basics. I’m going to talk about those little things that maybe don’t seem problematic at first glance. But fixing these can go a long way toward helping the viability of your query overall
1. Don’t start your letter with all the details about how you came to write this book.
Writing is exciting. How you came to be a writer is exciting. The fact that it’s your first, or second, or millionth novel ever is exciting. But they are most exciting to you—in a query, these things clog up your first paragraph and waste valuable space. Before he or she has ever met you or read your work, an agent doesn’t care how you got started writing. As much as it matters to you (and it does matter!), it’s best to leave it out. It will not change how he or she feels about your story.
2. Be careful creating “atmosphere” before launching into your hook.
It can feel gimmicky. Unless your setting is basically a character itself, it’s best to stay away from this method. For example:
Castle Pelimere is deep and dark, inhabited by angry spirits and on the verge of certain doom. For a hundred years it has stood, and now, thanks to the Everlasting Nothing that has circled its walls for centuries, it is all about to come crashing down.
Jody Brody is a teenage pickpocket with no other skills and no other prospects. When Castle Pelimere needs a hero, Jody steps up to the plate.
I know, I know—this is a very obvious example. But it serves the point—character is story, and when I’m scanning through queries, I’m more interested in Jody Brody the pickpocket than the plight of Castle Pelimere.
3. Don’t relate two unrelated ideas in your hook.
You would be shocked how often I see this. Shocked, I tell you. An example:
Marty Schmarty is not your typical jock—he’s been taking ballet since before he could walk, and he’s better than half the girls in his class. But when he’s offered a football scholarship to his dream school, he learns what it really means to be part of a team.
Again, another extreme example. But writing a good hook is a huge part of the battle when it comes to queries. A good hook can make me perk up and pay attention. In this case, the writer has written something that “sounds hooky” and “adds character”. It makes me pay attention—then has no pay-off. Marty’s a pro at ballet, and this is set up as a key quality—then is not mentioned again.
4. Be confident…to a point.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of the story you wrote. It takes a huge amount of confidence to query a book (we’re all writers here, we can admit this). But it’s not up to you to decide whether your writing is of the same caliber as authors you have emulated or been inspired by, or if it’s beautifully lyrical or powerful and gritty—that is for your readers, and that includes any agents you are querying, to decide.
5. Be wary of the false choice.
Technically, a false choice refers to a situation where two choices are given as the only possible option—even though more choices may be viable. In this case, I’m using to describe it as a situation given in a query, wherein a character has what appear to be two choices—but only one of those choices is actually viable. Still with me?
Okay, so you’ve laid out your hook, given a short synopsis, and now it’s time to present the dramatic question. Your character must do x or y. But when you present a false choice, it becomes clear right away which path your character will and must choose. At first glance, it isn’t always clear you’ve presented a false choice. For example:
Jake must choose between saving the woman he loves from the mob and escaping to the Bahamas, or turning himself in and confessing to his crimes, even if it means her death.
Maybe turning himself in might be the right thing to do, but unless this is a morality play, the choice here is not actually black and white. When questions like this are presented at the end of a query, I can’t help but roll my eyes—I know what Jake is going to do. He’s going to choose the Bahamas. And if he doesn’t, then you need to do a fantastic job of setting up the why within your query. Again, the above is extreme example, but I encourage you to take a look at the stakes in your own query and find out whether what you’ve presented is a real dilemma, or a false choice. I want the questions you present to make me go, “MUST READ AND FIND OUT THE ANSWER!”
So the gist of these suggestions comes out to: Make me want to read your book. Seriously, give me no other option. You wrote a whole book. You know how to put words together on a page—this is just a different kind of writing. One that forces you to think about how to condense what you’ve written, and lay it out in a way that is tight and enticing. I promise you—it is doable. It’s hard, it’s often confusing, and sometimes it can take multiple drafts to get right. But it can be done!
I hope this is useful, and I wish everyone who is currently writing their query, Good Luck!
Last month I asked what we could do to make PubCrawl a better, stronger, more useful resource for our readers. Over a hundred fifty of you took the time to fill out our survey and give us some feedback. We’re still in the process of sifting through all your comments and implementing changes, but in the meantime, as a thank you for sharing your thoughts, I want to offer up a query giveaway.
One trend that was immediately apparent in our survey was that we still have a lot of aspiring writers reading Pub Crawl, so posts on craft, querying, and breaking into the industry are always welcome. With that in mind, here’s a quick recap on queries.
DO personalize your query. (“I saw on on twitter you’re looking for X and thought you might like…”)
DO keep it around 250-250 words.
DO be professional and succinct.
DO include your bio and relevantreferences, such as major literary awards or writing organization memberships. (It’s okay if you don’t have any. I didn’t! Just sign off with your name, address, phone/email)
DO mention genre, word count, and (if applicable) comp titles.
DO polish the query until it shines. Every word should be necessary and purposeful.
DO proof it carefully (several times!) and read it aloud before sending. You only have one chance at a first impression.
DON’T tell the agent how great the book is. Let the query speak for itself.
DON’T open with hypothetical questions, use first person narration, or experiment with other unique approaches.
DON’T spell out the ending. That’s for a synopsis. The query should be the premise and hook. (Read the flap copy of your favorite books for inspiration.)
DON’T submit to multiple agents within the same agency at once. (If agent #1 passes, then you can query agent #2 at that agency. Unless they have a “no from one means no from all” policy.)
DON’T give up. Remember that every published writer has been through rejection—every last one—and it only takes one “yes.”
Basic Query Format
In my opinion, Nathan Bransford still has the best “fill in the blanks” query worksheet. It looks like this:
Dear [Agent name],
I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
[title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author’s credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
For reference, here’s my query for Taken (then titled The Laicos Project), which landed me my agent in 2011. Please note there are a few slight Taken spoilers ahead.
Dear Sara Crowe,
Happy New Year! I read on your Publishers Marketplace profile that you are seeking strong, original new voices, and given your representation of a variety of YA subgenres, I thought you might enjoy my YA science fiction thriller THE LAICOS PROJECT.
Gray Weathersby is counting down the days until his eighteenth birthday with dread, for in the primitive and isolated town of Claysoot, a boy’s eighteenth is marked not by celebration, but by his disappearance. When his older brother meets this mysterious fate, vanishing in the phenomenon the villagers have come to call the Heist, Gray begins to question everything about the place he’s called home. It all feels wrong: The Wall that no one can cross without dying, the Council leaders and their secrets, the nature of the Heist itself.
Desperate for answers, Gray climbs the Wall. But Emma follows him. Emma, who Gray has admired since the day he first stole a wooden toy from her hands as a child. The two are surprised to find a modern city beyond their Wall, not to mention the Franconian Order—a mysterious group of black-suited soldiers that hold the two hostage and then call for Gray’s execution. Running for his life, Gray takes to the forests. These woods are rumored to hold hostile Rebels amongst their trees, violent civilians banding together in opposition of the Order. But the Rebels also have answers. Answers Gray has long searched for, and answers he may soon wish he never unearthed.
THE LAICOS PROJECT tells the tale of a boy caught in events far greater than himself, as in Philip Reeve’s MORTAL ENGINES, and I believe it will appeal to readers who enjoyed the fast-paced and mysterious elements of James Dashner’s THE MAZE RUNNER. Complete at 83,000 words, THE LAICOS PROJECT is the first in a trilogy, although it also works as a stand-alone.
Thank you, in advance, for your time and consideration.
[contact info redacted]
This comes in at 325 words total and looking back on it now, I think it could be streamlined a bit farther. Even still, you can see that my query follows the basic intro > premise + hook > summary format.
Please keep in mind that like every aspect of writing, there are always reasons to break rules, but I do think it’s especially risky with queries. The query is a tool. Agents receive hundreds of them a week. Going outside the box is unlikely to make you stand out to an agent in a good way. What will make you stand out is a professional, well-polished query with a fantastic hook and some killer sample pages to back you up.
Getting back to that giveaway I promised you…
As a thank you for helping us out with our survey, I’m giving away three query crits to Pub Crawl readers! Simply fill out the widget below for a chance to win. I’ll draw winners a week from today.
Whenever someone asks me what keeps me motivated to write, I only half-jokingly reply, “Deadlines.”
Over the years, I’ve become fairly disciplined about my writing; I may not write fiction every day, but I do tend to prioritize it over other things I could be doing, such as reading other books, playing video games, blogging, watching TV, or sleeping. That’s most of what it takes to be productive, assuming you don’t have other things eating up your time, like a demanding job or taking care of a new baby. But I can still procrastinate, like writers do — though that usually means I make up for that misspent time later, because no matter what else is going on, having a contractual obligation to turn in a manuscript by a specific date goes a long way toward making me productive.
One thing I’ve learned since my first novel was published is there’s a world of difference between writing and writing under contract. Before you have sold your book, or even signed with an agent, writing can take as long as it takes to make the book “perfect.” Years, even! But once you have that book deal and publishers are filling their catalogs and marketing plans are being developed, you have to not only write a good book, but you have to do it on a schedule — perhaps only a matter of months. (This is perhaps one reason why second books sometimes aren’t as well reviewed as debuts, even if the author theoretically should improve with each subsequent novel.) Sure, sometimes writers miss their deadlines and the world doesn’t end, but in general, I like to follow through on my commitments, and I want to be viewed as a professional so people will want to keep working with me.
Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” This rings true for me when I’m on deadline because no matter how pleased I am with the “final” product, I always feel like it could be better if I only had a little more time. Most recently, at the end of July I turned in my first draft of Against All Silence, the sequel to The Silence of Six — mostly on time! Although I had a reasonable deadline, when I was supposed to be working on it I was also:
Taking care of a baby
Doing freelance writing to pay bills
Packing an apartment
Moving to a new city
Stripping wallpaper and painting our new home
With time running out, I made up for months of low productivity by writing every day in a library — averaging 5,000 words a day. (On a good day, I can write about 1,000 words an hour. Drafty words!) Nothing focuses me like a looming deadline! Fortunately, I had a detailed outline that only derailed towards the end (which I was anticipating), my previous day job had a heavy workload that forced me to write as fast as a journalist, and I had a new writing process, as I mentioned back in January.
My usual approach to drafting is to keep moving forward until the end, because the momentum keeps me going and I don’t want to waste time revising earlier scenes or chapters that I might change repeatedly or ultimately cut. This time I tried something new: I wrote on my Alphasmart Neo, a standalone word processor with just a keyboard and a small screen that displays only four lines of text, transferring completed chapters into Scrivener. And rather than stopping to research every little thing as I wrote — a time waster! — I left placeholders: “TK” wherever I needed to look something up or fill in missing text. (There were a lot of those, from looking up street names to particular models of cars.)
I never could have met my deadline without these time-saving tactics*, although the end result feels like a rougher draft than I usually like to share with anyone. I often refer to my first drafts as the “zero” or “vomit” drafts, but my tight schedule meant I couldn’t clean it up much or research everything before hitting Send; yes, I had to abandon my unfinished work to meet my deadline. Which led to me Tweeting:
Writers, how rough are your first drafts? Like, the ones you turn in to your editors? Asking for a friend.
Of course, because all writers are different, this prompted a range of responses — from very polished first drafts to drafts about as rough as mine, which someone pointed out leaves room for editors to help guide the revision. I like that. It was important to remind myself that this is still only the first draft, and I will have time to make the book better in subsequent drafts and editing passes. It’s not like we’re publishing Go Set a Watchman here. But yeah, I’m still nervous about the edit letter that’s sure to arrive any day now…
So now I put the question to you: How rough are your first drafts? When do you feel ready to share your manuscript with your critique partners, writing groups, agent, or editor? Also, do you have any tips and tricks for meeting deadlines and/or writing quickly? Please share in the comments below!
*On the flip side, it took a long time to format the novel in Scrivener and Word because the Alphasmart Neo only spits out plain text. Bah!
Recently, I have been contemplating what it means to serialize a novel. We wouldn’t have Charles Dickens without serial publishing – nearly all of his novels were serialized back in the day, when magazines published a chapter from stories like A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House every week or month. Though we moved away from that form of novel publishing, websites like Wattpad have created a resurgence, particularly with YA stories. Writers are able to publish one chapter or segment at a time and obtain reader input as the story progresses, quite possibly changing what the narrative may have otherwise been in a traditionally published format.
I was lucky enough to have Heather Demetrios, author of Something Real and I’ll Meet You There to name a few, answer some of my questions regarding her experiences with this form of publishing, based on her serialized novel, The Lexie Project. If you’ve read Something Real by Heather then you’ll recognize some of the characters in The Lexie Project. Anyone considering launching a serialized or multi-platform project should take Heather’s answers to heart – she has put a lot of work and thought into the story and the social platform, and is ready and willing to share her lessons and expertise. Check out her interview below!
Me: First, tell us about The Lexie Project!
Heather: The Lexie Project is a young/new adult multi-platform story that is being written in real time with crowd sourcing. It’s a satirical look at reality TV and fame: think The Lizzie Bennet Diaries meets Clueless and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. My readers send me comments about what they hope Lexie will do in the future and I take that into consideration as I write. I also incorporate real life current events into the narrative, which takes it to unexpected and interesting places! I’m posting a chapter a week on Wattpad and on The Lexie Project website in addition to blogging as Lexie, tweeting as Lexie, and engaging with readers on Lexie’s other social media sites. I’ve hired an actress to play Lexie in videos and on Instagram. Lexie’s roommate is a YouTube star and so I’ve also hired another actress to play her and post videos. There’s even a podcast interview series with Lexie and “famed” celeb podcaster T.J. Maxxx. As you can see, the story very much incorporates our real life connection to social media and other forms of online media. All the social media and blogging is extra—the story reads as a complete novel on Wattpad itself, so for readers who don’t want to be online too much, they can still have full access to Lexie’s narrative.
Me: Something Real was traditionally published. The Lexie Project is a serialized web novel. What was it about a serial web platform that allowed you to tell this story in a way you couldn’t with traditional publishing?
Heather: I wanted the narrative to have the feel of reality TV and reflect the real-time life of a young celebrity. A novel takes lots of time to write and at least eighteen months between the time it sells and appears on bookshelves. Lexie is nineteen, very much enmeshed in our world of instant gratification fame. I wanted readers to get a sense of what her life is like, how she responds as things happen, whether that be an angry tweet using a hastag that is trending right now (like #SingleBecause) or selfie posted on Instagram. Lexie isn’t going to wait two or more years to tell you how she feels about something—she isn’t even going to wait an hour. In a way, we’ve all become our own biographers, curating our life story as we live it via our social media. Lexie’s doing the same.
Me: What should writers consider before choosing to serialize their own novels on a forum like Wattpad, versus attempting traditional or even self-publishing?
Heather: The first thing is that you don’t get paid writing a story this way and there’s no guarantee it will get picked up by a publisher down the road. Macmillan (my publisher for Lexie’s companion novel, Something Real) has been super supportive, but this project is not under contract with them—and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m taking a risk here. Of course, I want the book to be published traditionally after I complete the online aspect of it. I think it has potential to do really well in that arena, as well. Not all readers are going to want to access Lexie’s story online. Plus, there’s the benefit of fun extras and editing and the other important things that go into a traditionally published, vetted book that readers who’ve already accessed Lexie online would like to have, as well. But I also see multi-platform storytelling as a part of publishing’s future and I want to get in on the ground level, be a maven of sorts.
Another major consideration writers should think about is the time a multi-platform project takes. Spoiler alert: it’s taking over my life. I currently have five books under traditional publishing contracts for which I receive advances to live off of. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be doing this right now. Having those and Lexie…well, you can imagine how much sleep and free time I get.
Finally, your story has to work for a multi-platform project. Some stories aren’t best told this way. I mean, would you want to read M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing this way? No. But you might want to read Feed like this. I have plans for a multi-platform sci-fi, but it’s going to look very different from Lexie. And I have plans for other novels—both adult and young adult—that are only going to be found in book form. You’ve got to do right by your story and characters first and foremost. The rest is gravy.
Me:Do you think the fact that you have been traditionally published provided the foundation for this project? Or is this something you could have done without first being traditionally published?
Heather: Frankly, I think starting this way would be a waste of time for any writer who hopes to be traditionally published and make a living off of their words. You do hear stories about publishers picking up books by Wattpad writers with a huge following, but the return on that investment—from what I’ve heard—isn’t always paying off for the publisher. That’s not to say you can’t break into publishing this way—I just wouldn’t bank on it. I think the fact that I’m traditionally published gives me an immediate fan base and readership. But even for me, it’s slow going. That’s part of why you can access the story both on Wattpad and Lexie’s website (which is a Tumblr platform). I knew my adult readers weren’t really on Wattpad and wouldn’t be super keen on learning how to navigate yet another social media site.
Me: What is the most important thing you have learned from this process? The biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Heather: I’ve actually started a blog series called Lessons From Lexie, because I’m really interested in tracking this experience. It’s, as I often say, both the Wild West of storytelling and YA on crack. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s going to take five times as long to do it as you think it would. You have to be on point like nobody’s business. There are so many things outside the story to keep track of, so if you’re not careful, it can be very easy to let the writing get lazy or to just go with the easiest or most sensational plot choices. My biggest challenge, then, has been not losing sight of crafting Lexie with the same care and attention on all story levels as I do with my other books. So far, so good—but it’s a lot of work.
Me: Finally, If you could give a writer planning to serialize his/her novel one piece of advice, what would it be?
Heather: Plan as much as you can and never put any writing out there that isn’t stellar. Usually, my readers don’t get to see my work until it’s been looked at by loads of readers, copy-edited, and vetted by gate keepers and my agent. My books go through a writing and editorial process that takes years. The chapters I post for Lexie—since I’m crowd sourcing and incorporating current events—get less than seven days. When you work this way, you’re putting your first draft out there, no matter how many betas you have or how much you revise your weekly installment. That takes a lot of hubris. You need strong, solid craft and experience. You also need to be deeply grounded in your story and characters. I had a whole novel—Something Real—to get me to where I needed to be with Lexie. So there’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes before you get online. Multi-platform storytelling is not for the faint of heart or anyone who isn’t a perfectionist—so be warned.
All of Heather’s advice and wisdom is spot-on, so I want to thank Heather for taking the time to talk to our readers about serial publishing and The Lexie Project! You can find more information about Heather and her books on her website, listed below, or read The Lexie Project on Wattpad. Let me know your thoughts below!
About Heather: When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, I’ll Meet You There and the multi-platform serial novel, The Lexie Project. She is the founder of Live Your What, a project dedicated to creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.
Kat again! I know I’m not the only one who’s always looking for ways to draft faster. So here today is indie writer Heather C. Myers to talk about ways you can increase your word count
Writing manuscripts fast is pretty much mandatory in the indie publishing world if you want to be successful. Because anyone can publish a book now, it’s important for an indie author to produce quality work in an efficient amount of time in order to stay relevant, cross-sell and show readers that they’re committed to their audience by producing multiple books for consumption. It’s also important for traditionally-published authors, as they have deadlines they must adhere to. The challenge is: how do you generate quality material at a fast pace?
Outline: Outlining is what I recommend to every author who asks for writing advice. It reminds you where you want to take your story and why you’re writing it. Also, it prevents writer’s block in that you always know what you’re going to write! Outlines don’t have to be constricting and they’re not set in stone. I outline by writing 2-3 sentences that describe the main points for each chapter. Everything else, I come up with at the seat of my pants.
Give yourself a timeframe: How soon do you want to finish your novel? Is it a month? Two months? 1 year? Whatever it is, make sure you give yourself room for unexpected and last minute events that can happen – finals you have to study for, a birthday party or a vacation you have to go to. Remember – the shorter amount of time you give yourself, the more you’ll have to write. If I want to finish my manuscript in 6 weeks, I usually give myself 2 months, just in case.
Come up with a daily word count that fits with your timeframe: It’s important to come up with a number you believe you can achieve each and every day, so make sure you set your timeframe accordingly. It’s nice if you want to finish your 60,000-word novel in 2 weeks, but unless you can write 4,300 words for 14 days straight, it won’t happen. For me, I write 5 days a week, and 1,500 words every day. That will get me 7,500 words per week, 30,000 words per month. This means I finish a 60,000-word novel in two months – with the weekends off!
Now, don’t pick a big number because you want to get the writing part over quickly. It’s necessary you pick a word count you believe you can achieve every day. This way, you won’t burn out and you’ll feel accomplished every time you do meet it. It will push you to continue to write because you can see your results. Maybe only 500 words each and every day works for you. 500 words written every day is still 3,500 words a week, 14,000 words a month. Which means you’d finish your 60,000-word novel in just over 4 months. This may not sound like it’s fast, but if you consider that it takes people years to finish their manuscript (I’m looking you George RR Martin!), 4 months is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Plus, you have to think of writing with the turtle & hare mentality: If you start of strong but burn out, you’re not going to finish in the amount of time you want to. However, if you pace yourself and do a little every day, you’ll finish exactly on schedule.
Create a writing schedule: If your intention is to write fast, you need to keep yourself in check. Schedule your writing for every day you plan to write. This could mean you have to wake up early or you go to bed late – whatever works for you and your daily word count to ensure your writing won’t be interrupted.
Public accountability: Studies show that if you make a public declaration of something you intend to do, you’re more likely to follow it. Tweet out your daily word count goal and then tweet out if you matched it. Post it on Facebook. Have an accountabili-buddy. Hold yourself accountable and you’re more likely to succeed.
And there you have it! I follow these tips to the letter, even though I have a baby and a part time job, and it’s allowed me to write manuscripts in 6-8 weeks – which is perfect for my publishing schedule. Implementing these little tricks will do wonders for yours!
Heather C. Myers is a chick lit/romance/new adult indie author with 12 self-published titles on Amazon, and plans for more. She recently signed with Anchor Group Publishing, with the first book in two of her series to be released this month. You can find her watching the Anaheim Ducks during hockey season, traveling or at Disneyland with her family. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, her daughter, two step-sons and two rambunctious terrier-mixes. To learn more about her, please sign up for her reader’s list here: http://eepurl.com/0vqLX
Lately, I’ve been building a proposal for Cell Story, my work in progress.
Proposals are a surprising amount of work, mostly because there’s so much that I need to address that I don’t necessarily know about yet. Mine tend to be really detailed and have a lot of things others might not need, but my agent and I are on the more-is-better side of the fence when it comes to these things.
Here’s what we always include:
1. A sample of the writing.
Contracts for option projects generally say they require three chapters and a synopsis, but three chapters just isn’t enough for me. Again, I’m in the more-is-better camp, so for this project, I have about 30,000 words written and revised. That’s a third of the book. (I think. I hope only a third.) I figure, the more of the actual story I can offer them (editors and acquisitions people), the better idea they will have of the story I’m trying to tell.
And it’s not just for them. I want to make sure I’m enjoying the story enough to keep going. It’s a huge commitment, agreeing to write an entire book! I don’t want to get a few chapters in and discover it’s not a project I want to spend at least the next two years with. So I write as much as I can, because I want to be sure of it for myself, too.
2. Elevator pitch.
It’s important to be able to tell someone quickly what the book is about. When you’re doing a signing in a store and someone walks up to your table and asks what the book is about, they want a sentence, not a speech. Hook them with a short description to make them want to hear the longer version.
I try to hammer these out from the very beginning, because it’s useful to know how I’ll describe the book–and also because it’s something I can always refer back to if I lose focus.
3. Query/flap-copy description.
I usually write a query-style description of the book even before I start–it helps me get a better idea of the story I’m wanting to tell–so all I have to do for a proposal is get it polished up. (And make sure it still lines up with the story I’m going to tell. This time, it didn’t. I had to rewrite the description from scratch.)
Again, this is something I often refer back to any time I start to lose focus in the story.
Synopses are one of the things most proposals will always include. Again, it’s to give the publisher people a sense that you know where you’re going with the story.
I try to have a good, detailed one for the first book. Sequels usually have something shorter and broader, closer to a query description but with an ending point, because I don’t always know how I’m going to get somewhere, but I need to know where I am going, at least.
5. Character list.
These are useful for giving a sense of the size of the cast, and simply as a reference for later. In my character lists, main characters get detailed descriptions, while minor characters get a line or two about their role in the story.
6. Location list.
Since I write fantasy, this is really useful as a reference–and for getting a quick idea of the scope of the world. Again, more important locations get longer descriptions, while minor locations get briefer descriptions. And in worlds that have a lot of moving parts and characters traveling places, this can be extremely useful for showing that there is a difference between the locations and they’re not all Generic Medieval Fantasyland.
7. Comp titles.
Comp titles are always a challenge for me, but they’re really useful for publishers when determining how to position the book and how to market it. “If you like X, then you’ll like Y!”
So there I was, buried under all these things I needed to put together when I realized how completely weird putting together proposals is. I dashed out a quick email to my agent, who responded that this needed to be a blog post. It’s a bit short for an entire post, so you get the above as a bonus. But here’s where this post began:
Proposals are kind of like announcing I’m going to decorate for Christmas.
Here’s a tree that’s decorated on one side, and I’m going to do the whole house like this! No, better than a partially decorated tree! I’ll finish decorating the tree, too, once I know what everything looks like and how the tree needs to fit in. I might have to move the tree over there. Or do you think it looks good here? I can’t tell anymore.
Scattered around are more decorations, some for the tree, but the rest for the house. It’s kind of a mess and it doesn’t look like much, but don’t worry, I have another order coming in any minute now. And a plan! This house is going to look ah-mazing. I swear. It’ll blind passersby and put all the other houses to shame. Now if only I could find the lights for the reindeer I want to put in my yard. Wait, did I order lights for that? I’ll just order some more.
Hello Pub Crawlers! I’ve put off writing this post as long as I could, because I’ve just had so much fun with you all over the years! From the wonderful conversations we’ve had in the comments, to the smart and thoughtful questions that prompted many of my posts, I’ve learned a lot in the time I’ve spent as a part of this wonderful group. I mean, there aren’t many places on the internet where you actually should read the comments! But all good things must come to an end, and it’s time for me to say my goodbyes. By way of saying farewell and thank you, I thought I’d follow in the footsteps of Alex Bracken, and share with you a few things I’ve learned so far in my publishing journey — some solid, concrete tips, and a few that are less so, but just as important!
1. Take care of your back. I’m serious! This is one of my most heartfelt, and least heeded pieces of advice! Put any group of authors in a room, and pretty soon you’ll find at least a couple discussing back stretches, standing desks and physical therapists. There’s a reason for this. Keep up your core strength, make sure you have a good chair and good posture while you’re writing, and pause regularly to stretch. If you can try a standing desk, go for it. This one really matters!
2. Take care of your tech. While we’re being practical, let’s add this one to the list! Put a password on your phone–your contacts may hold numbers that the owners might not want shared. Your email will hold manuscripts that the owners absolutely won’t want shared. Back up your computer regularly. Back up your computer. Back up your computer. (Click here for some suggestions on how, and check out the comments for lots more ideas.)
3. Think before you speak. To put this one really bluntly: don’t gossip. I don’t want to be a downer, and I’m not saying you should never talk about the industry, and I’m not saying you should never vent to friends, of course. You’re human. But don’t carry stories around, especially if they’re less than complimentary. For a start, you have no idea if they’re true (and there’s ALWAYS more to the story than you know), and if nothing else, you’ll get a rep! Now, writing is a solo sport, and needing to vent and debrief is totally normal. So here’s what you do: find a couple of friends you truly trust, and trust them with the stuff you need to discuss, wonder about, get off your chest or analyse. That’s healthy, normal and helpful, and you won’t be sorry you did it later. Gossiping with the whole world works about as well as it would in any workplace!
4. Cultivate a life. No matter what stage you’re at in your writing journey, you need things that will make you happy outside the writing world — tying your happiness to writing and publishing only is dangerous. Whether it’s time with your kids, your weekly game of basketball, making time to attend that BBQ on the weekend, make sure you do it. It will help with perspective more than anything can. Getting away to your day job doesn’t count, if every minute you’re not there, you’re writing. Leisure activities will help you relax, work more efficiently, and remind you that there’s life away from your computer. Sunshine and fresh air are good for you! Laughing and the company of friends–good for you. Remember the story of the tortoise and the hare? Writing is a long career, and you need to make sure you’re resting under a tree along the way, tortoise style.
5. Just do the work. Don’t talk about doing the work more than you do it. Don’t tweet about doing the work more than you do it. Don’t play endless games on your computer, then later feel you’ve had a long day because you were at your screen the whole time. If you have to unplug the router, do that. If you have to install a program to block the internet, do that. In the end, all that platform-building, networking and sky writing will mean nothing if you didn’t get the words on the page. And most of all, don’t just nod in agreement to this point — pause and think about what concrete steps you can take to make sure you really do the work!
6. Stop comparing. It will kill you. It will kill your creativity. It will make you jealous. It will make you sad. It will make you angry. And you’ll probably be wrong! To paraphrase a Louis CK quote I’ve always liked: “Never look into your neighbour’s bowl, unless you’re checking they’ve got enough.” Every minute you spend wishing you had someone else’s agent, book deal, marketing plan, tour, fancy embossed ARCs, foil cover, panel appearance, etc is a moment you could spend doing something that’s good for you. You also have no idea what’s going on for them. Perhaps they have the agent of your dreams, and it isn’t working out at all. Perhaps they have the book deal you always wanted, and it was the wrong decision for them. Perhaps they got the panel appearance you’d love, but didn’t get the support they needed to organise a bumper launch party in their home town, and they’d trade with you any day. Even if this isn’t the case, envy will eat you up. Someone else’s success is not your failure. Every reader who enjoys a book is just looking for the next book to read. A rising tide lifts all ships.
7. Have fun! For my last piece of advice, I’m going to echo the very wise Alex Bracken — publication is just one day of your journey, and the rest of the trip takes a long, long time. So make sure you enjoy yourself! Read great books, take joy in your writing, enjoy your friends and your community. Thanks for all our time together, and here’s to everything you’re yet to write!
Hello from Julie! I am so excited to share a guest post today from Kali Wallace, a fellow 2016 debut author, whose YA horror novel, SHALLOW GRAVES, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in January 2016. I was so fascinated by everything Kali had to say about writing YA horror, I asked her to share her insights with all of us here at PubCrawl. I’m so happy she said yes! So here’s Kali, with everything you want to know about writing horror!
The funny thing about writing a horror novel is that approximately 87% of the people you meet will tell you to your face they don’t want to read it.
Oh, there’s rarely anything malicious in this declaration. Sure, there are always a few “I only read serious books about serious topics” types with tiny minds who can’t fathom how a book about horror things can also be about other things, but nobody cares what they think. I ignore them.
For the most part the reaction from future non-readers is more along the lines of, “Oh, I don’t know if I could read that. It sounds–” And this added in an apologetic, almost conspiratorial tone, as though imparting a terrible secret from which I could have been protected, had circumstances differed: “–too upsetting.”
I fell into writing horror backwards, much the same way the unwary first-act hanger-on in a horror movie falls backwards into a vat of mysterious glugging liquid the remaining cast will assure themselves is simply oddly chunky water until the third act. I don’t really think of myself as a horror writer, because I write all kinds of other things too, some (a few) of which are not (very) horrifying at all (mostly). But I did write a horror novel.
It happened like this. One time I went to a garage sale and found ninety-nine Stephen King paperbacks on sale for a penny each, so I borrowed a crinkled dollar bill from my mom, took the books home, and retreated to a dark corner of my bedroom where I spent three weeks constructing a paper nest using only the shredded pages of Misery and my own spittle, and I lived there for five years, eating nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and anxiety. When I emerged I could never write anything again without ominous symbolic settings and existential dread and rotting corpses.
Or maybe it happened like this. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t sit down at my computer and think, “I want to scare somebody’s pants off today!” I sat down and I thought:
wouldn’t it be funny if monsters were teenagers
i mean like really angsty teenagers the kind who feel bad a lot
and they’re gross monsters not sexy monsters nobody likes them
everybody has feelings
One of those anecdotes is the 100% true story of how I accidentally wrote a YA horror novel.
There are a thousand different kinds of horror stories, but the kind I wrote is a contemporary teen fantasy story covered with blood. It’s all monsters and dark magic and dark evil monster magic and teenagers encountering and/or using dark evil monster magic. It’s full of death and pain and terrible things happening. Claws, too. There are claws. Did I mention the blood? It is a bit scary in places–at least, I hope it is. It would be disappointing if I deployed that many carefully chosen adjectives and it didn’t give people at least a bit of a spine-tingle.
It isn’t tooupsetting as an accidental by-product, the unintended consequence of a writer meddling with forces she cannot control. Being upsetting is, in fact, the entire point. I wrote it that way on purpose. I have my reasons, and it’s not entirely because I am a ravenous creature of shadow and darkness who survives by consuming the nightmares of my young readers. Not entirely.
There’s an oft-misquoted-but-rarely-quoted-correctly passage about fairy tales from English writer G.K. Chesterton (from Tremendous Trifles, 1909):
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
We know this to be true, no matter how many misguided parents and school boards try to deny it: Children and teenagers don’t need books to tell them that there is evil in the world. They know that before they crack open any book. Children and teenagers don’t need books to tell them the world is scary and unfair and that bad things happen all the time. They already know all of this. There are adults in their lives who wish them harm. Kids know this. There are monsters who wear friendly faces and are enabled by the people and institutions who ought to be protecting the helpless instead. They know.
Children and teenagers aren’t separate from the world. They are part of the world, right in the middle of it, right in the middle of all the violence and unfairness and cruelty it has to offer. For young readers, just like adult readers, stories can be both an escape from the world and a way of connecting to and understanding the world, both a shield and a lens, often at the same time.
That’s no small thing. It is the exact opposite of a small thing. It is the entire reason literature exists, and it isn’t less true or less important because the intended audience is under eighteen. I would even argue–if anybody ever wanted to argue with me about this, which nobody does–that it is even more true and more important for children’s and young adult literature. You never know who is going to pick up your stories and find something that resonates, and you never know what it will mean to them, and you never know if that reader on that particular day will need the escape or the understanding or both.
Okay, let’s be honest: It’s usually both.
I can’t write stories so steeped in the grit and struggle of realism they are indistinguishable from real life. I also can’t write stories that imagine life to be fantasies of summer kisses and bosom friendships. Those are all perfectly wonderful types of stories, and I love to read them and am thankful they exist in the world, but they are stories for other people to write.
Me, well, I can do ominous thunderstorms and branches scraping on dark windows. I can do the metallic taste of fear at the back of the throat. I can do people who aren’t really people and monsters who aren’t really monsters. I’m really good at describing spooky graveyards. In fact that’s my #1 life skill, ranked even higher than my formidable talent at making up silly nicknames for cats: describing spooky graveyards.
Blood and guts, monsters and magic, murderers under the floorboards and ghosts in the walls, shocking scares and sleepless nights–the trappings of horror are what makes it vivid, visceral, and oh so very fun, but it is, after all, spectacle. It’s stage-setting strung up around what really matters: a story about life and death. A story that offers a spark of life in a world where life is unwelcome and makes you think, “Oh. Oh. Everything is terrible. There is no hope. What now? What the hell do we even do now?”
Horror stories, when done well, aren’t powerful because life is cheap, but because life is precious. And because life is precious, we get carried right along when characters faced with monsters and mayhem have to fight for it, for themselves and their families and maybe people they’ve never met, against horrors and nightmares and impossible odds, as they feel fear and despair and hope and anger and grief and every human emotion in between. The fantasy is in the details, but the realism is in the emotion, and it’s the emotional realism that leaves a mark long after the story is over.
Stories are how we make sense of the world, and the world is terrible and wonderful, frightening and hopeful, beautiful and ugly, and it is, alas, full of monsters. Lucky for us, it’s also full of people who know, or want to believe, even if they aren’t quite convinced, that monsters can be faced and fought and sometimes, maybe, maybe, they can also be defeated.
Kali, thank you so much for being our guest here today on PubCrawl! Readers, now it’s your turn–do you like to read horror? Do you like to write scary stories? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
For most of her life Kali Wallace was going to be a scientist when she grew up. She studied geology in college, partly because she could get course credit for hiking and camping, and eventually earned a PhD in geophysics. Only after she had her shiny new doctorate in hand did she admit that she loved inventing imaginary worlds as much as she liked exploring the real one. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. She was born in Colorado and spent most of her life there, but now lives in southern California. Shallow Graves, her first novel, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in January 2016.
The other day I was at the gym, ready to fire up the podcasts I had lined up for an hour of listening when halfway through the first, I realized I just wasn’t paying attention to a single thing said on the podcast.
Now normally, I would have just pressed the “back 15 seconds” button until I’d found the point I had zoned out, but this time, I made a conscious decision to turn off my phone and run the next five miles in total silence.
Lately, I’ve felt rather crowded in my own head. I don’t necessarily mean my doubts or worries or anxieties (although yes, they’re there too), I mean just…things that are competing for my attention. Audiobooks. Podcasts. Music. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve realized that aside from sleep, there’s hardly a single point in the day when I am NOT engaged with some sort auditory media. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts at my day job, at the gym, during my commute, while I walk the dogs, when I was the dishes, do the laundry, clean the house, etc. The only time I am not listening to something is when I am writing, and even then, I usually have music.
I’d been feeling creatively stoppered and I couldn’t quite figure out why.
Once I’d turned off the podcast at the gym, I understood.
There is value in silence. In boredom. I’d forgotten that. As a child I had spent so much of the dead time between structured things simply imagining. Creating. Daydreaming. Back then, I didn’t have a phone with Twitter, my entire music library, games, etc. Back then, the only thing I had to amuse myself was myself. When I let my phone screen go dark and run in silence, I let my mind go blank. With all the other distractions tuned out, thoughts and ideas about my writing began to bubble up to the surface. I let them bubble and brew, not thinking, not working. When I got home and fired on my computer, I was rejuvenated and for the first time in a long time, the words began to flow.
I’d recently gotten back into my yoga practice, and we traditionally end each class in shavasana, or corpse pose. As my teacher says, it is the easiest pose to do physically, but the hardest pose to do mentally. Often during shavasana, we find ourselves actively thinking, about what errands we need to do next, how many words we’ve achieved, what needs to be done. Letting those active thoughts go, to exist in a state of passive meditation, to focus on the moment, the breath going in, the breath going out, that is much harder.
I find mindfulness on the mat, but had not found mindfulness in other areas of my life. My brain was “on” at all times that it didn’t have room to let my ideas and creativity develop.
The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and [Lyra] dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.
-Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
So now I don’t fear the silence. I let my commutes, my runs at the gym, my household chores be quiet. My mind is not so crowded, and my thoughts have room to breathe.
What about you? Have any of you discovered that “shutting off” helps your creativity? Are you afraid of boredom? Let us know in the comments!
Julie and I actually got the idea to write this post because we’ve been sharing a “Progress Report” spreadsheet between us for about 7 months now. It’s set up in a Google Spreadsheet, with a new sheet for each month, and every day, we update each other on what we have (and haven’t!) achieved writing-wise. It seems like a little thing, but knowing that you’re going to check in with someone at the end of each day is pretty motivating. I guess it’s similar to those tips about finding an exercise buddy, to keep you accountable.
Julie: The Progress Report has helped me a lot! I recognize that I’m the kind of person who produces better work when I know there’s a measure of accountability involved. (For instance, I was always good with handing in papers when I was in school.) Not to say that our shared Progress Report is like being in school, (I don’t feel like Kat is going to give me an F if I don’t get my work done!) but it does help keep me focused. By sharing my progress at the end of each day, I’m able to catch myself if I see a few days where I’m not getting anywhere. Sometimes I know I’ve just been “taking it easy,” or overwhelmed by other things, but other times I don’t realize that my productivity has declined until I’m typing the third, “didn’t get much done today,” in a row. When I see things moving in the wrong direction, I can step back and figure out what might be wrong, and correct it.
Kat: I give Julie As every day
Julie: Haha, thank you Kat! Actually, there is a bit of a grading component to the Progress Report, but we don’t grade each other. On the days we feel particularly good about our accomplishments, we give ourselves a check mark.
Kat: Which is really motivating, too. Positive reinforcement, and all I know I’m not the only one who can actually be too hard on myself. After two or three unproductive days, it’s all too easy for me to slip into “Oh, god, I’ve done NOTHING this whole week!” mode…which, of course, only kills my productivity even more. When I have a record of my progress, it’s easier for me to tell myself, “Ok, so you had a bad day or two or three, but hey, before that you were doing great! Let’s get back to that.” Plus, when Julie also sees my progress, she can be that reasonable voice that tells me, “You’re doing fine.”
Julie: And she’s doing fine all the time. But that’s a great point. By sharing our updates every day, we’re able to add in notes of encouragement to each other. It feels a lot less like I’m working all alone!
Kat: This spreadsheet method has worked really well for me, but there are other ways of using a community to keep you accountable. For example, in the past I’ve sometimes had critique partners send me chapters as they revise them. I think there’s something satisfying and “done!” feeling about doing something concrete to mark the completion of each chapter. At the end of the day, it’s the same idea of keeping yourself on track because someone is going to be watching over your progress.
Julie: Kat, I love that idea! I’ve never had that type of relationship with a critique partner, but I have turned over my chapters to a non-writer friend as I worked. It gave me the same sense of completion you were talking about, (even though I wasn’t expecting feedback on the writing.) Most writers probably have a few people in their lives who would be more than happy to assume this role–if not another writer who is already a critique partner, then a family member or close friend. I know a few members of the Sweet 16s debut group have mentioned that they belong to writers’ groups, which meet regularly to read each other’s work and lend support.
Kat: Again, we’d love to hear from you guys. Does this sound like something you could see yourself doing with a critique partner/friend? Or are you already using some other method that works well for you? Let us know!
Julie here! Today, Kat Zhang and I are co-posting on the topic of productivity. We both know (from personal experience!) that sometimes the hardest part of writing is staying consistent and getting the work done. After all, writing is usually a solo activity, with no one checking in on you to make sure you reached your word count goal or revised that chapter. So we decided we would team up to share tips for staying on track.
This is a two part post, so on Friday, we’re going to go more in depth about ways a community can help keep you on schedule. But today, here are some tricks you can use on your own!
Kat: One of my biggest hurdles while drafting is my perfectionism. I want my first draft to be as perfect as a final draft–which is, of course, impossible. I’m a very exploratory writer, and sometimes I just need to write 10,000 words for every 5,000 that end up in the final draft. However, sometimes when I’m sludging through that first draft, I get so bogged down by the “Oh my god, this is the worst scene I’ve ever written” feeling of drafting that I either end up in an endless cycle of editing and re-writing, or worse, I get so frustrated that the writing isn’t fun at all.
Both those things can be killer to any attempt at staying on schedule. So while I’m drafting, I hold myself to exactly zero “How good is this writing?” standards. Okay, that’s a lie. I keep certain standards in the back of my mind, but my number one goal for each drafting day is: Just Hit the Word Count.
Now, there are some things I wouldn’t do to Just Hit the Word Count–I do outline before writing, so I don’t throw random tangents in my story for the sake of words. (No “And then a man with a gun and a flamingo showed up!” just for the sake of something happening). No adding adverbs or writing in weird ways just to up word count. Personally, those things would really just be wasted words, for me–but maybe they wouldn’t be for you.
Making my main goal a word count lets me let go of my inner editor a little, while keeping my eyes on the finish line.
Julie: This is great advice, Kat! I also try to resist the urge to self-edit while I draft, but find it difficult to avoid the trap of judging every word before moving on. I could easily rewrite the same thousand words five times, when I really need to get five thousand words down on the page!
Like you, I make word count my main goal when drafting. To stay on track, I create a spreadsheet so I can watch my progress. I’m a fanatical list-maker! It’s helpful for me to be able to see myself moving toward a goal in some concrete way. So I choose a day to target for the completed draft, and then I work backwards. I set manageable goals for each week and each day, and I definitely build in some wiggle room. If I fall off the pace, I’m willing to cut myself a break, and will even re-calibrate the goals if my original pace turns out to be unrealistic.
This spreadsheet helps so much, because it allows me to see just how much I’m getting done on the days when it feels like the draft is a disaster. It also calms my fears that I’m not going to make my deadline, because as long as I’m making the small goals, I know I’ll get there. That validation helps a lot when the goal of a complete draft feels overwhelming.
Julie: I’ve never seen Victoria’s method before, but I definitely believe a calendar system can be an effective tool. I used to use a modified version of a technique popularized by Jerry Seinfeld. It’s so simple! All you need is a wall calendar and a red pen. (It also requires that you have a goal of writing every day. Not every writer wants to do that.)
In Seinfeld’s system, for every day that you write, you put a large red X on the calendar. The Xs should be from corner to corner, so that they begin to form a chain of Xs. Over time, you have a long chain, and you don’t want to let it break! This method helped me stay motivated, and it also helped me see myself as a writer. All those Xs on the calendar proved to me that I wasn’t just someone who wanted to write; I was someone who was really doing it! (It’s also a visual reminder to everyone else with access to the calendar–your family, your roommates–that you are a writer and you need to stay on track.)
Kat: Hopefully, one or more of these ideas will kickstart your own method for staying on track, and keeping yourself productive! Everyone is different, so what works for us might not work for you.
Julie: We’d love to hear from you! What do you think of these ideas? Do any of these seem like they would work for you? Do you use a productivity system of your own that you would like to share? Please join the discussion in the comments!
Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.
Recently, my editor and I went through the line editing process with IVORY AND BONE. If you’re unfamiliar with the steps a book goes through once it’s acquired, here’s an at-a-glance overview:
Structural/Developmental Edits: This is the part of the process often referred to broadly as Revision. Your editor sends you a letter outlining her ideas for the “big picture” changes that will make the manuscript stronger. (There are usually several rounds of this stage.)
Line Edits: In this stage, your editor goes through the manuscript line-by-line. The notes you receive look at the “small picture”—word choice, sentence structure, etc.
Copyedits: I haven’t gotten to this stage yet—expect a dedicated post when I do—but copyedits are concerned with correcting grammar, punctuation, style, and usage. For example, if you misuse dashes—I’m sure I never do—you will find out at the Copyedits stage.
After going through structural edits, I made a crazy assumption that line edits would be… easy. Well, maybe not easy, but easier. This assumption was incorrect.
I learned A LOT from the line editing process! Here are five things I learned, that apply to writing and life in general:
Some things that you expect to be easy are actually quite hard.
Many (maybe even most) of the comments in my line edit involved rewording and rephrasing. At first glance, I thought tackling these requests would be so easy. How hard could it be to find a fresh word or to change up sentence structure? It’s probably different for everyone, but I learned that rewording the simplest sentences could be quite difficult for me.
I found myself bogging down on four-word sentences. I have to admit that I felt stupid. How could this be hard? But getting the wording right can be equally challenging when the sentence has four words or fourteen. I learned to come back to things after letting my mind clear, and to be patient and forgiving with myself when things didn’t come easily.
Another person’s input can help immensely.
I’ll be honest—I’m not good at asking for help. I like to solve things on my own. But line editing taught me that some problems become much more manageable if you accept help.
Sometimes that help came from the thesaurus (which, for lots of reasons, I usually try to avoid.) Sometimes it came from my (immensely patient) husband. Sometimes it came in the form of a suggestion from my editor, tucked into a comment.
“Playing favorites” can hurt you.
I never knew I had “pet words” until I went through this line edit. If I told you how many times I used the word “stunned,” you’d be… surprised. I was quite stunned to see how frequently my characters were stunned. Or shocked. It was… startling (another one of my pet words!)
An echo isn’t as lovely on the page as it is on a hillside.
“Echoes” are words or phrases that repeat multiple times on a page, or even in a paragraph. (My editor often would simply highlight the word in both places, so it would jump off the page at me.) My theory on how this happens is that, when drafting, I use a word or phrase that feels so right, I subconsciously use it again, the sooner the better! It doesn’t matter how it happens, though. It still makes for flat, uninteresting writing. (Fixing these was slightly easier for me than some of the other line edits.)
A question mark can make a huge difference. (So can the word “please.”)
It never feels good to have your mistakes pointed out, no matter how small or common they may be. Knowing that all writers repeat words doesn’t make it easier to address the hundredth comment about a repeated word in your own manuscript. What does make that hundredth comment easier to accept is a simple question mark. “This repeats. Rephrase?” is very similar to “This repeats. Rephrase.” Yet that question mark makes such a huge difference! (As does, “This repeats. Please rephrase.”)
How about you? Do you enjoy working on the small details of your manuscript? Do you catch yourself using pet words or echoes? Does rewording come easily for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
If there’s one thing I’m asked over and over again, it’s How do you write a good query? Because there is an endless array of blogs and workshops (and even some posts here at PubCrawl) dedicated to just this very topic, I am sometimes baffled by how often I receive this question.
But at other times, I understand. Querying is the first step in the traditional publishing process, the first step in getting your work in front of professionals. It’s also one of the few steps in the entire process over which you have (a modicum of) control. So naturally writers stress about this, wanting to get it right, wanting to get it perfect, unsure of whose advice they should take, etc.
All right, if you want me to add my voice to the chorus of people dispensing query tips, I can certainly oblige. But be forewarned: my advice will be a combination of practical tips and a tiny bit of emotional counseling by way of tough love.
1. You don’t have to write a “perfect” query letter.
Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a perfect query letter. Repeat it until you believe it, or at least until you trick yourself into believing it’s true. Because it is. When I first started in publishing, I interned at Writers House, where one of my duties included going through the slush everyday. I learned very quickly during my time as slushmonkey that it didn’t matter if a query was too long, too short, too anything: what mattered was whether or not the writer got to the heart of their story as quickly and engagingly as possible. All else was moot.
2. No amount of “getting it right” will salvage an uninteresting premise or an oversaturated market.
One of the myths I had to unlearn once I graduated from school was that following the “rules” would earn me my just rewards. I was a straight-A student my entire life, not because I was smart, but because I knew how to follow rules. Querying is not like this. Business is not like this. You do not earn points for showing your work. If you got a wrong answer on an algebra problem, it didn’t matter if you showed every step of your calculation if the underlying formula was wrong.
This is probably the hardest truth to accept and come to terms with for most writers. That maybe the book they’ve worked on for so long is simply not a viable manuscript from a business standpoint. Writing is an art, publishing is a business, and sometimes your book just doesn’t encompass both.
3. Treat your query letter like a resume cover letter.
Continuing in the “publishing is a business” vein, if a completed manuscript is your resume, then your query is what gets the attention of HR department. Don’t be clever, don’t be smart, don’t be “quirky” or “wacky” or “out-of-the-box.” In my first post-college job, I was explicitly told personality might have mattered in school, but not here. (Ouch.) In the same way hiring managers don’t care about antics, only qualifications, an agent only cares about a good story, not querying trickery.
4. Keep it short and sweet.
Ideally, your query should be about 250 to 400 words, not including your bio and any introductory statements. Why? Because 250 to 400 words is just long enough to expand upon a pitch without going into details. 250 to 400 words is also the average length of the copy you find on the backs of books in stores. I’ve written more about copy here, including a handy “formula” you can follow when assembling your query. The point is to entice, not explain. If you have to explain why your book is interesting or different, then maybe have a long, hard think about why you feel compelled to do so. The query should stand alone.
5. Target your book to the correct audience.
I don’t necessarily mean that you should target the agents who would be interested in your work (although that’s certainly something you should do). What I mean by the “correct audience” is a bit complicated: it’s a combination of agent taste, market, and reader sensibility. Basically, you must know which section of the bookstore your book would be in, or in our digital day and age, what “tags” your book will have. Specificity is good. Comparative titles are good, and the more specific the better. Do not target your book to the audience of Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Hunger Games because that’s too general to be of any use.
And lastly, just to show you that query letters don’t have to be perfect, I present to you a query letter for my forthcoming novel (the title is still a work-in-progress). Including the salutation and bio, it is under 350 words.
Beware the goblin men and the wares they sell.
All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.
But if Liesl has forgotten the Underground, the Underground has not forgotten her. When her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.
Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.
Inspired by the movies Labyrinth and Amadeus, The Goblin King is a gothic romance in the vein of Robin McKinley’s Beauty, Martine Leavitt’s Keturah and Lord Death, and Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood.
Before moving down to North Carolina, I worked as an editor at St. Martin’s Press, where I worked with Dan Weiss on developing New Adult, as well as reading and acquiring YA. I am also a member of Pub(lishing) Crawl, where I blog about the writing and editing process.
There you have it. As you can see, it ain’t perfect, original, or even that great. But what it did is get the job done, and really, that’s all you can ask of a query letter.
What about you? Any tips or suggestions for writing good queries? What are your favourite resources for query-writing help?
Recently, I found myself doing something I never thought I’d ever do in a million years–outlining a book in Excel. You read that right–Excel. (Well, actually, I used Numbers and not Excel because I have iWork, but details, details… :P).
This isn’t something I’d recommend for every book, but I’m currently revising a pretty hefty, unwieldy plot with multi-POV. It’s not A Song of Ice and Fire level or anything, but it’s complicated enough for a normal outline to feel lacking. I wanted to see everything laid out by character, with convenient places to add notes about world-building, sub-plots, etc.
…I can be very Type A when I want to be, all right?
Both those ideas are awesome (man, do I love color-coding things), but they never worked perfectly for me. While I loved having things blocked out, I didn’t like having to write things out by hand because it made them harder to edit. Plus, both post-its and notecards are limited in size, which is great if you can summarize a scene in a few sentences, but not-so-great if you sometimes find yourself practically writing a scene out, the way I do.
Now, I know Scrivener (which is a godsend) has its own internal “digital notecard” function, but for whatever reason, it never really clicked with me either. Maybe I just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. If you have a link to a good tutorial for this function, let me know in the comments!
I’d pretty much despaired of ever figuring out my perfect outlining method. Then I remembered that old picture of JK Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix.
Grids, I thought. Grids are nice. Grids can be color-coded!
And what computer program conveniently makes grids that automatically shrink or expand in size, and color-codes them, and everything? Why, Excel. (Or Numbers, for us iWork people following along).
Now, there are various ways to set up an outlining spreadsheet. I used to study screenwriting, so sometimes I think of things very clearly in terms of Act I, Act II, and Act III, as well as Plot A, Plot B, and Plot C. In simplistic terms, Plot A would be the main plot; Plot B would be the main subplot; Plot C tends to be something emotional, often a romance–though sometimes the romance is a large enough part of the story to be Plot B–or some other relationship-based story. For example, a father reconciling with his estranged daughter, or something like that.
The Excel sheet would be set up thusly:
By separating out the plots (and color-coding them!), you can easily get a feel for how each of your plots are progressing. Obviously, Plot A should have the most action going on, and Plot C the least, but if you have a lot of subplots, it can be hard to make sure they’re spaced out correctly, and tying together well–especially if said subplots feedback onto the main plot (as they should!).
Another way to set up the sheet would be by POV character. This is only relevant, of course, if you have more than one POV character (and they’re off doing different things). Again, by color-coding and separating everything out, it can be easier to make sure things are balanced out, and you’re not going too long with one POV while ignoring the other.
I find that the little boxes Excel provides are handy, too. While outlining, I don’t try too hard to make sure 1 box = 1 chapter. Rather, I focus on 1 box = 1 Important Event. That Important Event might be a scene, might be a chapter. With this set-up, you can also find out quickly if one POV character is languishing while another one is getting all the plotty action.
I like to have a world-building notes column (sometimes called the world-building/backstory column because it also includes character backstory I need to get in there), because it makes sure I get down all the info I need to at the right times, without overloading. Over the course of revision, it can be easy to forget whether you explained that particular piece of the character’s backstory or not. Or if you’ve already done it three times, oops. This lays it out in an easy-to-digest form, so you can see if you’re info-dumping, or waiting too long to tell your readers something, or whatever in between.
Okay, this post is already getting too long! Obviously, I have a lot to say about this new-fangled outlining technique. (Or maybe it’s not new-fangled at all, and I’m just slow to the scene).
I hope some of it has been helpful, even if outlining in Excel sounds just a little too weird for you…
One night In May, I noticed a very loud sound from right outside our window. My husband, Dwight, has a fish pond right outside our kitchen door.
The sound was loud! So, on May 26, I whipped out my iphone and taped the noise.
You’ll hear the noise at 7 seconds into the tape, and 12 seconds, 18 seconds and 23 seconds. The sounds came from a small frog or toad. After comparing my recording to recordings of frogs/toads of Arkansas, I concluded we had a Fowler Toad, which is common in this area.
After reading more, I realized that this toad had chosen our pond as a breeding pond. He chose us! He chose our pond!
As a child, I remember we raised tadpoles once. I was excited about the chance to watch the process again, especially because my grandkids could watch this time.
The toad sang and sang for several nights. All night long, it seemed.
Then, on June 11, I took a morning walk and came back to find two Fowler toads in the pond. The girl showed up!
Fowler Toads mate in what’s called amplexus, which means the eggs are externally fertilized. The smaller male is usually on the female’s back for the duration.
Tadpoles: Day 3
We watched the pond every day and on Day 3, we found tadpoles! Dozens and dozens. Scientists report that the Fowler Toads may lay 5000-25,000 eggs at a time. But the pond had several goldfish and I knew that many of the eggs would be eaten before they could hatch.
We hope that the next story will break out.
We hope that the next submission will sell.
We hope that the next revision will be amazing.
We hope that the next royalty check will be double.
We hope readers will love our stories.
Hope. It’s how we live. And I love it when Hope comes to live in tangible ways.
I went Friday to an awards banquet to honor my friend, Carla McClafferty. She was inducted into the Arkansas Writer’s Hall of Fame for her work in children’s non-fiction.
Brookins’s ‘Rise’ Goes to SMP
In a six-figure North American rights deal, Rose Hilliard at St. Martin’s Press acquired Cara Brookins’s memoir, Rise. The book, which Dystel and Goderich’s Jessica Papin sold at auction, is about Brookins’s experience as a single mother coming out of an abusive relationship, building her own house from the ground up. SMP said the author, a social media marketing expert in Little Rock, Ark., took on the massive DIY project “with only the help of her four children.” Rise is currently set for fall 2016.
Children’s: Picture book: Monica Clark-Robinson’s LET THE CHILDREN MARCH, an historical picture book told from a child’s point of view about the Children’s Crusade, a series of civil rights marches that took place in 1963 to protest the Jim Crow Laws, to Christine Krones at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children’s, for publication in Fall 2017.
That was hope come to life.
Each time a friend realizes a small portion of a dream—from the beginning of a career to a career at the top of its game—we need to stop and rejoice with them.
Why? For many reasons—friendship shares good news.
But for today’s purpose, rejoicing over someone’s good news builds my reserve of hope. I know the hope isn’t futile; someone else’s hopes came to fruition and that leaves me with a renewed hope that mine may also.
I often end a speech or a retreat with the words, “Send me your good news.” It’s not hollow words, and it’s not bragging on your part. It’s sharing a joyful event. And really, I’m being selfish: I want my hope recharged.
We all have writing insecurities, but this is one is an easy fix: Make sure you’re protecting your work and your computer from theft, damage, and failure.
Recently a friend of mine was writing at a coffee shop, and she stepped away from her bag briefly — but this was just long enough for a sneaky thief to grab it and disappear. She lost her wallet, keys, and her laptop, but the worst thing she lost – the most irreplaceable thing – was her work in progress. Her latest changes hadn’t been backed up, and she was on deadline. A writer’s worst nightmare!
Happily, in both of these cases, the amazing online community raised money to replace the stolen computers in a weekend. As writers, we know how important computers are to our work, and in many cases to our livelihood. And as readers, we want our favorite writers to keep producing stories.
Even if you write by hand in a notebook or use a typewriter (really?), chances are that at some point you need a computer. Computers are tools for drafting, editing, revising, e-mailing agents and editors, playing Portal, posting on Twitter, and more. So why do so many people fail to secure them? Some just don’t think about it, or figure they’ll never have to worry about it, but laptop security also seems like it might be annoying to set up or expensive. It doesn’t have to be.
Here are some very basic things you can do to make your laptops a little more secure, and especially avoid losing your work.
Back up your work! Everyone knows this is important but too many still don’t bother. Make sure you have copies of your work, preferably in multiple places. If you write a lot away from home, bring a USB thumb drive or an SD card and make a backup every time you finish a writing session. You could also sync your work to a cloud storage account like Dropbox, if you can get online. Scrivener and Dropbox work pretty well together to share your projects with multiple computers and save backup files. Even if you lose your laptop, at least you won’t lose the latest draft of your novel.
Make it easy for people to contact you if they find your device. I left my tablet on a train once, but I had saved my contact info on the home screen, and the right person found it and called me. You can (and should) do this with your smart phone too. It’s trickier with a laptop; I usually just tape my business card to the bottom of it. I’ve also set up a guest account so if anyone logs in to it, they’ll see custom Windows wallpaper with my contact information (above).
While you’re at it, make sure it’s password-protected. Your devices should have passwords on them to prevent (or make it harder) for unauthorized people to access your files – and erase them and claim your computer as their own. In addition to the boot password, PCs and Macs allow you to add a BIOS password so other users can’t easily get around your regular password or wipe the system. If you want to go all out, you could also encrypt your hard drive…
Make your laptop harder to steal. For some laptops, you can still buy those security cables to attach them to a table or something (or you could just not leave your laptop lying around unattended.) There’s also a product called the STOP Security Plate – a nigh-impossible-to-remove, highly visible plate stuck onto your laptop that announces it as stolen. This makes it difficult to resell and serves as a way to register your laptop so it can be identified easily. In theory, a thief that sees this — or a bunch of stickers that make your computer look unique — won’t bother to take your laptop in the first place. (Full disclosure: I haven’t gotten mine yet, because I don’t want to stick it to my pretty new laptop.)
Install tracking software. You’ve heard the stories about people tracking down the thief who took their laptop using GPS coordinates and the webcam. It really happens! But the confrontation is probably best left to police. Still, you can help them find your laptop with tracking software hidden on your computer. Macs have Undercover, but you can also install LoJack or Prey (which includes a free version) to track and remotely lock or wipe PCs or Macs. If you do this, you may also want to set up an unlocked guest account to entice the thief to log in so the laptop can connect to a Wi-Fi network.
These are just some of the precautions you can take. Of course none of them are foolproof, but some security is better than none, and at least you have a better chance of recovering your laptop and not losing any work.
Does all this seem paranoid or do you think it’s a good idea? What other security measures do you take to protect your laptop and work? Comment below!
At Pub Crawl, we naturally focus on writing and publishing novels, but of course there are plenty of other careers out there for writers. Before I started writing young adult books, I was exclusively focused on science fiction and fantasy short stories — and I still manage to write at least a couple of those a year. Before short fiction, I was interested in writing screenplays and for television. Perhaps one day I will share my unproduced spec scripts for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Nickelodeon’s CatDog: the first written works I completed, revised, and submitted. They were rejected, but they were important steps in building the discipline and persistence that serve writers so well.
Many working writers have a variety of projects; I’m currently freelancing, doing technical writing, marketing copy, blog posts, and articles while drafting my next book. My friends and colleagues write media tie-in novels for exciting properties like Star Trek and Star Wars, comic books for DC and Marvel, video games. I love writing YA, but it’s hard not to dream about those possibilities and hope for chances to branch out too. Fortunately, proven success in one written format often leads to opportunities in other areas.
I love films and TV so much (too much, my wife might say, as she scrutinizes my video collection), I would still love to work in that world one day, from a writers room or perhaps through the pages of a tie-in novel or a web series. It would be great to write video game scripts, or provide some of the in-world text to flesh out the setting and history. I want to write plays, too, even though I have no idea what that involves! I know those industries are probably not as glamorous as they seem from the outside, but neither is writing novels (shocking, right?), and I want to write so many more of those as well: middle grade, adult, horror, literary… you name it.
I think wanting to write in all these different media is about the appeal of storytelling. My motivation is to entertain people, and writing more broadly is just a way of reaching bigger audiences and engaging with them in new ways. My work was inspired by TV and movies and cartoons as much as books, so of course I want to try telling stories more visually. In fact, it’s all about trying something different, pushing out of the comfort zone, taking risks — and bringing together my diverse passions and interests into one amazing job that feels more like fun than work.
So aside from novels, what else do you write, or what would you like to write one day? Tell us in the comments below. Assume that anything is possible, because it is!
Now I'm back in the game, but my email list is so old it has cobwebs.
Can you help me get a more up-to-date email list? I don't plan on being all spammy with it, and I'd never share it.
If you click on this recent example of my newsletter, there's a button on the upper left hand corner that says "Subscribe." All it means is that's I'll send you fun news and occasionally some exclusive content.
I’m so excited by these books, I have to pass them along.
First of all, right now you can get for the incredibly low price of $20 this entire story bundle of writing books. I would have bought just one of the books on my own–the horse one by Judith Tarr, since I’m writing a lot of horse scenes these days for The Bradamante Saga and yes, I’d like to make sure I get them right–but then once I saw all the other awesome craft books in this bundle: SOLD. Because every writer can get better, and it’s such a pleasure to read a great craft book by authors who are experts in their field.
And speaking of authors who are experts in their field, the great young adult author Tom Leveen now has a new book out on writing dialogue. Before turning to novels, Tom spent many years in the theater as both an actor and director. I’ve taught writing workshops with him, and his tips for writing great dialogue are always FANTASTIC. Treat yourself to this book. You’ll learn a ton.
The email from my editor’s assistant popped into my inbox, the subject line glaring at me: Author Photo… (dun dun dun duuuuunnnn…)
If you’re like me, the thought of a professional author photo is both exciting and terrifying. I knew exactly what I wanted: a photo that would have almost magical qualities—a picture of me that would look good, and yet somehow also perfectly represent the real me to my readers.
I approached this task with dread. However, I am happy to say that, here on the other side of the process, I have pictures I LOVE.
Some of my positive experience is owed to planning; some of it is owed to luck. I did do some research. I looked at A LOT of author photos, and made decisions about preferences: color over of black and white, outside over inside, smiling over serious. So that much was planned. Luck entered in when it was time to find a photographer. Just before I started searching, my son and his girlfriend (who are both graduating from NYU’s New Studio on Broadway,) had actor headshots taken. My son raved about his experience with Amanda Pinto and Jake Nathanson of Sub/Urban Photography, told me about other authors they had photographed, and suggested I reach out to them. He also gave me the link to their website, (sub-urbanphotography.com,) which overflows with beautiful examples of their work. (Though I credit good luck with bringing me to Sub/Urban Photography, finding the right photographer does not require good luck–read on!)
When I emailed Amanda and Jake, I let them know what I was looking for, and they walked me through questions about clothing, locations, and whether I wanted to hire the freelance hair and make-up artist they work with. All these discussions were important, but after the choice of photographer, I would say the choice to hire a professional stylist had the greatest impact on my results. Alex Rivera, the freelance hair and make-up artist I worked with, not only listened to my thoughts about what I wanted, he had the training and experience to know how to achieve it. My son’s girlfriend, (who–like me–has long hair,) mentioned how great it was to know that there was someone standing by with a brush while she was being photographed outside in the wind. Sold.
In the end, this experience I’d been dreading turned out to be an incredibly pleasant and relaxing day. I rode the train to New York, met the team downtown, and after hair and make-up, we headed out to the streets of the East Village and Soho. (Yes, we shot outside on the street! Amanda and Jake knew where they could find lots of light and very little traffic.) Afterwards, I was sent a huge batch of proofs, out of which I chose three to be edited. (The results are attached at the bottom of this post.)
I was so happy with how everything turned out, I asked Amanda and Jake if they would contribute to this post. In response, they provided some excellent questions that authors should ask themselves, as a type of checklist before choosing a photographer. I’m thrilled to be able to share them with you:
First question to ask – Is this photographer a portrait photographer?
This seems like an obvious question, but it’s actually very important. Many photographers have different specialties, whether it’s event photography, weddings, live performance, art-specific work, etc. So for example, if you have a friend that takes photos and will take your author photo for cheap (or maybe even free), have you seen their portrait work and do they seem to have a knack for it? A portrait, especially one that goes on the back of a book, needs to reflect who you are as a writer. This doesn’t mean that if you wrote a serious book that you have to have a serious picture, but what about your personality plays a big part in your writing? Are you playful? Are you soulful? Are you witty? Photographers with portrait experience, especially with actor headshots, have to have that extra ability to make people comfortable enough to be themselves on camera. So if this photographer is a portrait photographer, you’ll be able to see that reflected in their work. Does it consist of beautifully composed pictures with people smiling awkwardly and stuck in tense poses? Or are you looking at an honest moment captured on camera?
Second question – Does the photographer typically work with non-actors?
Even though having headshot experience is almost crucial for taking an author photo, it’s just as important for the photographer to know how to work with people that aren’t used to being on camera. A great deal of photographers, especially those that work in major cities like NYC or LA, can be actor headshot centric. Look through the photographer’s work and see if they have anything like corporate portraits, family portraits, candids, etc., and see how they compare to the actor headshots. Do they seem just as natural as the headshots? If so, that shows you that they can use those interpersonal skills even on the otherwise camera shy. You know that they can help guide you through the shoot without expecting you to know exactly how to act or pose beforehand.
Third question to ask – Do you know anyone who has used the photographer?
So many of our new clients come to us through recommendations from prior clients. Honestly, these are the people you need to ask the most questions. They’ve been on your side of the shoot and were satisfied with how it all turned out, but why? Ask them what the shoot was like, how long it took, how much it cost, where did they take you (if it was an outdoor shoot,) etc. I would hesitate to use any photographer unless you know someone who has worked with them in the past and can answer your questions objectively. Just because they had a positive experience with them, or even a negative one, doesn’t mean you will have the same one. You may prefer someone that’s bubbly vs. neutral, fast vs. slow, and so on and so forth. The best possible situation, however, is you can get a consensus on this photographer from more than one person. If you know a handful of people who have used the photographer, each of them being from different professions and with different personalities, and they unanimously agree they had a positive experience, then chances are you’ve found the right person to work with.
Thank you so much, Sub/Urban Photography! I love my photos! (The one in the middle is the one I chose for the book jacket.)
What kind of experiences have you had with author photos? As a member of the The Sweet 16s, I know many authors who are in different stages of the process. Please share your thoughts in the comments!
JJ’s revision supplies: Twizzlers and iced coffee.
I recently finished a fairly major revision on my contracted novel that nearly killed me.
How did it almost kill me?
I wrote 32,000 words in 7 days in order to get it turned in on time. (I essentially rewrote the entire last act of the book from scratch.) Why did I throw out the last third of my book?
Because it made it better.
Here’s the thing about revision: I hate it. I am Team First Draft; I like the process of discovery and the blank page. For me, not knowing how a book will turn out is the most exciting thing of all. It may be because I’m a Panster (or a Gardener, as G.R.R.M. says), or it may be because I’m just like that in general. As an artist, I tended to prefer my sketch work to my more finished pieces; as a musician, I would learn a piece just well enough to play competently (but with great expression!).
My actual editorial letter was fairly light: about four pages, which essentially boiled down to 1. trim words from the first act and up the pacing, and 2. make the ending stronger and more emotionally resonant.
So why I did throw out all those words?
Because I was being weighed down by the baggage of the old draft.
As a member of Team First Draft, I find writing new words easier than fixing old ones. It’s really more of a mental trick than a writing one, but I know some of our readers have been asking for revision help, and I thought I would offer my revision process thoughts from the perspective of someone who is, ah, less systematic than everyone else, i.e. a disorganized mess. (The irony here is that I’m pretty systematic in nearly every other aspect of my life, including editing.)
Revising by hand, because I am Old School.
Let me backtrack for a moment here. When I was an editor, the first editorial letter I wrote generally addressed large, structural questions. What I called the Story Questions (which I’ve discussed many times in writing for PubCrawl). The first edit is generally the biggest and most encompassing because what you are doing is shoring up the foundations of the novel. Editorial letters for the structural edit are deceptively “light” because it’s not specifics that need addressing; it’s the larger picture.
The larger picture is both the easiest and hardest thing to fix, at least it is for me. It’s the easiest because it’s often one thing that “clicks” into place and makes everything better, and it’s the hardest because of the amount of WORK required. Because one small change might affect every single interaction a character has throughout the entire book. Just as a small tremor on one side of an ocean can cause a tsunami on the other, these little changes can sometimes add up to A GIANT KILLER WAVE THAT WASHES AWAY THE LAST ACT OF YOUR BOOK.
The thing about being a Pantser is that you don’t necessarily have the larger picture in mind when you’re drafting. Or rather, you do, but it’s buried deep in your subconscious, so you’re not necessarily thinking about it when you’re writing. A Pantser is what I call an Inside-Out writer; someone who “starts small” and builds into a whole. To continue with the Gardener metaphor started by G. R. R. M., a Pantser plants one seed, then another seed, then another seed, and before you know it, you have an entire of forest of words.
By necessity, an editor is an Outside-In thinker. Someone who looks at the picture as a whole, then drills down to the smaller levels. I think Plotters are also Outside-In thinkers: they begin with the foundations, and add layers. G. R. R. M. calls Plotters Architects, people with blueprints. The entire revision process is really an Outside-In process, and for Inside-Out writers, it can be awfully hard to wrap your mind around it.
Case in point: me. As an editor, I can certainly think Outside-In; I like building information systems and finding ways to break large concepts into easily digestible components. But as a writer, I simply can’t work that way. When I am writing, I can only look at the scene I’m working on; if I think about how that scene fits into my novel as a whole, my brain breaks.
So how to fix this problem? I “write my book again from scratch”, but this time, as an Outside-In thinker. In other words, I take my novel and break it down into an outline, i.e. reverse-outlining. I don’t outline fiction the way I used to outline my non-fiction: starting with I. Theme, and breaking it into A. Subtheme, B. Subtheme, etc. Instead, I write what I call the “long, shitty synopsis”: Once upon a time, there was a girl with music in her soul who lost her sister to the goblins. Essentially, I tell myself the story all over again with my editor’s comments in mind, and then I write it again with all new words. (It’s like first-drafting! I like first-drafting!)
Granted, I don’t ACTUALLY write an entirely new book during revisions; in fact, I’d say 85% of the time, I keep the words I’ve already written. I sometimes even re-type them to trick myself into thinking I’m writing new words. For me, so much of writing is about momentum, the feeling of forward motion, and the thought of slowing down and FIXING what I’ve written (out of order!) hinders more than helps.
What about you? Do any of our readers have as much difficulty with revision as I do? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!
Further revision resources:
Our own Sooz wrote a fantastic guide to revising on her website, complete with character, plot, and world building worksheets, which you should all check out.
Our own Jodi Meadows also wrote posts on revision, here, here, and here.
Tis Kat! Today, we have a guest post from Rowenna Miller, who is a writing tutor at a university. She’s here to talk about how the same skills she teaches can apply to both scholastic and creative writing
Photo credit to Heidi Hauck
Hi! As a longtime reader of this awesome blog, I’m really excited to be writing a guest post for Pub Crawl.
Most colleges and universities now have writing labs or writing components of tutoring centers. I’m one of the happy helpers waiting in those places to help you comb through your assignments, beef up your thesis statement, nitpick your grammar, and craft a better paper. Though I work with students grappling with lab reports and trudging through research papers for history and criminal justice courses, the majority of my work is with students taking Comp I (and its big sister, Comp II). As I encountered the same issues again and again in student papers, I began to realize…
…almost everything you need to know about writing, you learn in Comp I. Even writing novels.
Thesis Statement: Oh, the thesis. I’m guessing most of you have heard more about the thesis statement than you care to hear about anything, ever. But there’s a reason for that—the thesis is the main claim, the big idea, the “so what?” of the whole paper. Fail to include a thesis, or fail to make it clear and strong enough, and the paper falls apart. It lack clarity. It meanders. It doesn’t really *say* anything despite putting a lot of words on paper.
Your novel is the same. If it doesn’t have a main idea, a central conflict or character goal, it’s a series of scenes tripping along without a clear purpose. PubCrawl members have written a ton about this—what is your character’s motivation? What’s your story really *about*?—and I’m here to tell you, you already learned it in Comp I. You just called it a thesis instead.
Organization: There’s a lot of difference between a five-paragraph essay and a full-length novel. The basics of organization remain the same. You bring us into your paper or your story, you build the argument or the plot, piece by piece, and you draw a conclusion from your points or your plot arc. Still, organization is tricky. At least in a novel you have the basics of plotline to drive you, but the tricky bit isn’t just chronological organization—it’s building a story.
We commonly refer back to the “narrative arc” when we get into the nitty-gritty of organizing a plot, because it captures so well how a plot is more than a play-by-play. You don’t order scenes in a random order of “then other things happened” any more than you order a paper in a random order of “more things I read that prove my thesis.” In, for instance, a persuasive essay, you establish a thesis and then build an argument, layering one point on another, weaving in evidence right where it will pack the most punch. In a novel you establish central character motivations and goals early on, and then build a story that gradually increases tension and ups the stakes, using the same kind of layering and weaving techniques. The big reveal of Who the Villain Really Is falls flat too early; the whizbang statistic that proves your point gets lost if it’s not sandwiched into a paragraph effectively.
Finally, there’s the goal of organization—to end in a different place than you started. Following your plot, something about the world you create changes, and the way you organize your story shows this. In your Comp paper, you’ve shown the reader the results of research, effectively proven a point, or provided a keen analysis and the reader understands something at the end of the paper that they didn’t in the beginning. In fiction, your characters move through the story to reach new places—and even become new people.
Grammar Counts: Ugh, grammar! If there’s one self-identified weakness I hear from students more than any other, it’s “I’m really bad at grammar.” That’s ok. Grammar is not easy, and it’s not much fun for most people, either. The thing is, clear writing hinges on good grammar. Grammar is the structure we build the rest of writing on. It’s how we ensure clear communication and avoid confusion from errors (like the infamous “Let’s eat Grandma”). Moreover, good, enjoyable writing—the writing we demand out of the novels we read—is based on the making the most out of the fundamentals of proper grammar.
I hear the outcry already—“But you can break grammar rules in creative writing!” Absolutely, yes, you can. Fragments, run-ons, and all kinds of gross grammar insubordination that doesn’t fly in a term paper will work in creative fiction and non-fiction alike. Effectively breaking the rules, however, relies on following them most of the time, and in understanding *why* breaking them works. Ignore grammar, and unclear sentences and awkward wording are right on your tail.
Originality: In Comp I, we call a lack of academic originality—that is, lifting ideas from other sources—“plagiarism” if the sources are not credited. I’m not going to rail on the horrors of plagiarism, because I’m sure PubCrawlers already know it’s bad news. Instead, I’ll offer a reminder—there’s another, more subtle reason a lack of originality stinks in a term paper and why it’s vital to be original in your fiction writing.
Unoriginal writing is boring.
I can tell when a student is playing it safe, parroting ideas instead of presenting their own. I can even tell when students have their *own* ideas but are afraid to incorporate them into their papers. Their papers are boring. Fiction is much the same. If your ideas are derivative, if the stories have already been told, if the characters are stereotypes—it’s boring. It’s not adding anything new to the canon, and that’s the whole point of writing to begin with. So dare to be original.
So, if you took Comp I and thought those days were over—consider breaking out the basics again to apply to your writing now!
Writer, writing tutor, toddler’s mom, rebellious Sunday School teacher, Revolutionary War reenactor, seamstress, trespasser, and omnivorous reader. Say hi on Twitter @RowennaM or visit me at http://www.rowennamiller.com
So what are the top three things that inspire my daily poems?
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” ~ Douglas Adams
I was inspired to write this post today when I was putting an appointment in my calendar...and saw that I was supposed to have posted this morning. Oops!
"My sole inspiration is a telephone call from a director." ~ Cole Porter, composer and songwriter
Deadlines and assignments mean that I cannot take all day cleaning my proverbial closet. I write and rewrite...and bam!--even if it's not the world's most perfect piece, I post it or send it off--done!
2) Life. Especially the sad parts.
"I've had an unhappy life, thank God." ~ Russell Baker, author, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist
The difficult and/or unhappy times of my life are rich grounds for writing. I can create this richness, though, even when my life is humming along, if I listen to what's happening in my chest cavity. If I walk into the world looking for my poem, all senses open.
The last time my mom and I took a nature walk. She's the shorter one.
3) Someone who believes in me.Two or three someones is even better.
"Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher
My husband came with me on a quick trip to meet with my agent and two of my editors this week. I wanted him to meet these significant people in my work life. New York can be exhilarating...and it can scare the pants off me, too. It always takes me a day to remember how to use the subways and navigate the city. His presence on the subway and in those meetings meant the world to me.
My sailing-around-the-world friend, Bruce, is a daily supporter of my work, even when he says the poem doesn't work (which of course I know he's just not reading correctly--he's clearly tired from working on the boat all day).
Every writer in my critique groups past and present and everyone in the Kidlitosphere community: we cheer each other on; that cheering echoes and echoes and echoes inside all of us.
And so? Here's today's (raw) poem written 1) for a deadline, 2) based on life, and with the support of--well, all of you.
LOOKING FOR INSPIRATION by April Halprin Wayland bald little god sits on the pond’s rim, his feet all in his head turning side to side toward fluttering leaves toward ebbing tide below impatient clouds that mumble, This is going too slow so they snap out a spiky lighting streak and Man—does little god go! He jumps right up and does he run! He’s going, going, getting things DONE!
poem and drawings (c) April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
Get inspired by the bounty at Buffy's Blog today--thanks for hosting, Buffy!
posted by April Halprin Wayland, Monkey, and our always inspired dog, Eli