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1. New Voice: JoAnne Stewart Wetzel on Playing Juliet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

JoAnne Stewart Wetzel is the first-time novelist of Playing Juliet (Sky Pony, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Beth Sondquist, 12 1/2, secretly dreams of playing William Shakespeare’s Juliet. 

When she learns the children’s theatre in her town is threatened with closure, she and her best friend, Zandy Russell, do everything they can to save it. 

But since Beth keeps breaking one theatre superstition after another in the process, she may never get onstage again.

Quotes from Shakespeare bookmark each chapter and foreshadow the next plot twist as a multicultural cast of kids fights to keep their theatre open.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

I love to revise. When I started my first novel, Playing Juliet, I worked on the first chapter for months. It was polished and perfect before I went on to the second chapter.

But by the time I had finished the first draft, the characters had changed, the plot had changed and I had to throw the whole first chapter out.

When the draft was finished, a New York editor read the first ten pages at a SCBWI conference. Of course I was expecting her to offer to buy it on the spot (don't we all) or at least to ask to see the full. Instead, she said she didn't find my main character, Beth, charming.

Charming? A 12-and-a-half-year-old narrator focused on getting onstage while her costume was falling apart had other things to worry about besides being charming. But I read over the chapter carefully. While Beth's focus was appropriate, was she a little self-centered? What if I had her do something for someone else?

Inspiration! Just So Stories, Palo Alto (CA) Children's Theater
I added exactly six sentences to an early scene that showed the cast waiting in the wings to go on. Beth notices that a younger actor playing a mouse is nervous, remembers that it's the Mouse's first play and that she'd seen her reapply her make-up in the dressing room at least four times.

Though they have to be very quiet backstage, Beth whispers, "Great nose." and outlines a circle on her own.

Sometimes it only takes six sentences. When the book was published, the review in the School Library Journal began "In this charming story featuring a relatable narrator and action-driven plot..." A blurb by the author Miriam Spitzer Franklin ended by saying the book "introduces a protagonist who will steal your heart as she chases after her dreams."

Another reader pointed out that while Playing Juliet started with lots of references to the superstitions around MacBeth and ended with a production of Romeo and Juliet, a few of the earlier chapters had almost no reference to Shakespeare. Was there a way to weave him into the rest of the book?

There was no room to introduce another play into this middle-grade story but I'd always loved reading books with epigraphs. Could I find enough quotes from Shakespeare's writings to serve as appropriate epigraphs before each chapter?

 I used the Open Source Shakespeare search engine, typed in a word like "jewel" or "duchess" and got a list of all the appearances of these words in his works. The perfect epigraph kept jumping out at me.

For the chapter in which the kids are looking for a lost diamond bracelet, I quoted "Search for a jewel that too casually Hath left mine arm" from "Cymbeline."

"What think you of a duchess? have you limbs to bear that load of title?" from "Henry VIII" made the perfect epigraph for the chapter in which Beth is asked if she can cover the part of a Duchess for an actor down with the flu during the run of "Cinderella!"

Joanne & daughter seeing Royal Shakespeare Co.
I was excited when an editor told me she'd brought the manuscript to committee, even when she added that they'd like to see a rewrite. They were uncomfortable with a scene in which Beth and two of her friends sneak out at night to break into the Children's Theatre.

I loved that scene. It was scary and exciting and the kids had the best of intentions. But I could make the plot work without it, so I took it out.

That editor didn't take the book. The next two editors it was sent to both commented that they felt the story was too quiet.

I put the scene back in. It wasn't necessary to the plot but it was vital to the development of the characters, for it showed what they would sacrifice to save their theater. The book sold right after that scene was restored.

I've brought all of the lessons I learned writing my first novel to the next one I'm currently working on. I'm going to finish the whole manuscript before I start to revise.

I will honor each critique I get, and find a way to solve any problem that's been identified. It could lead to a much richer book and may only take six sentences. But I will also evaluate how the changes have affected the story and if they don't help, I'll change it back.

Post-contract Revision Process

Sis-in-law, Elephant Cafe, Edinburgh
When Julie Matysic at Sky Pony Press acquired the manuscript, she sent her editorial comments to me in a Word document. I had the chance to approve, change or comment on the suggested changes. Most of the revision was copy edits and most of the time I couldn't believe I'd let such a glaring grammatical error slip through.

But one set of edits I disagreed with. I had capitalized the names of all the characters in the two plays that are performed in the book. The copy editor kept all the proper names—Juliet, Romeo, Cinderella— as I wrote them, but changed all the animal characters—the cat, horse, mice—to lower case.

I decided to email Julie to ask if I could change them back. She said yes, and suggested that since many of the parts were names that would not normally be capitalized, I make up a list of all the characters for the copy editor to work with. I'm so glad I asked for clarification.

Remember that you and your editor are working toward the same goal: to make your manuscript great. And you know she has impeccable taste: she picked your manuscript to publish.

Post-contract Bonus

Julie suggested I do a mood board for the cover. I'd never heard of this but she explained that all I had to do was open a PowerPoint file and create a collage using the covers of books that I like then include a second page with a written explanation of why I had chosen the images. It might be the font, the color, the mood or a combination of all three. When it was done, she would send the collage to the artist creating the design to use for inspiration.

It was so much fun to search through online bookstores to find covers I liked. Beth, my 12-year-old heroine, is threatened with losing the children's theater she has been performing in for years, but I didn't want the cover to be sad.

I wanted it to be a reminder of what Beth loves about theater, about being on stage and what she will lose if her theater closes.

The mood I wanted was joy, the joy of acting, of being onstage. The covers that showed images of flying, fairies, a figure with fantastically long fingers, captured the unlimited world the stage offers.

Because so much of the story takes place in a theater, I was drawn to covers that featured theater curtains opening. Three of the twelve covers I chose had a frame of red theater curtains and two others repeated that shape and color in the clothing of the women depicted: a partially open red coat, billowing red bell bottoms. That rich red set the color pallet that dominated my collage.

When Julie sent me the final cover, I opened the attachment with some trepidation. Up popped a design with a frame of rich red curtains opening onto a dark background that showcased the title of the book. And my name was in lights, just like on a Broadway marquee.

I loved my cover. And the Children's Books manager at Keplers, my local independent bookstore, told me the cover was so effective, the book was jumping off the shelves. My mood board had worked.

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Shakespeare puppets & stamp for JoAnne's signing
When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it was devoting 2016, the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, to celebrating him and his work, I knew I had a great tie-in with Playing Juliet.

When I was in Stratford-upon-Avon last summer, I took a lot of pictures of the buildings that were standing when Shakespeare lived there to use on my web site and in my talks.

I also bought three Shakespeare puppets: a regular hand-puppet for most of my presentations, an elegant figure in a cloth-of-gold costume to use with a sophisticated audience and a finger puppet, because sometimes a smaller figure will just work better.

When I got home, I ordered a Shakespeare stamp to use at my book signings. After all, the Bard wrote all of my epigraphs.

I've struggled to get my web pages up. I have now checked off a web page for myself, with all of my books on it, and a web page for Playing Juliet with links to 13 Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know as well as links to photos of Shakespearian sites at Stratford-upon-Avon.

I've got an author's page on Amazon and Goodreads and SCBWI. I did a Launch Page on the new SCBWI web program. This all took a very long time.

Author/illustrator guest book, New York Public Library
Kepler's Bookstore, has been a great help. They invited me to have my book launch party there, which, on their advice, was held a week after the pub date because every now and then, books are delayed. The copies of Playing Juliet arrived on time but I was happy to have the extra week to prepare for the talk.

Kepler's is still supporting me. Want a signed or inscribed copy of my book? Just order it online from them.

I worked with my publicist at Sky Pony Press to have her send copies of the books to the winner of the giveaways I ran on Goodreads and to my alumni connections.

This resulted in a featured review, with a color picture of the cover of the book, in the ASU magazine, which is sent to 340,000 people.

So far I've spoken at an event at our local library, at my grandsons' school in Ghana, and sold copies at our regional SCBWI conference. I'll be talking at other schools in the fall. When I was in New York City recently, I introduced myself to the librarians at the Children's Room at the New York Public Library, and was invited to sign the guest book they keep for visiting authors and illustrators.

And online I've been invited to do an interview on Library Lions and Cynsations.

I've been enjoying the process, but it takes a lot of time and I'm impatient to dive into my next middle grade.

the Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana
What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Start early. Well before your pub date, get your author's pages up on SCBWI, Amazon and Goodreads. Figure out how the book giveaways on Goodreads work, and think about posting one before your book is out. Don't wait until your book comes out to publicize any good news about it.

Jane Yolen wrote the most incredible blurb for Playing Juliet, saying "I couldn't stop reading," but I waited until the book came out to share it with everyone. I'm not making that mistake again.

My next book, My First Day at Mermaid School, is a picture book that will be coming out from Knopf in the summer of 2018 and Julianna Swaney is bringing her amazing talent to the illustrations.

Cynsational Notes

Waylon, writer cat
JoAnne's other publications include:
  • Onstage/Backstage, with Caryn Huberman (Carolrhoda, 1987); 
  • The Christmas Box (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); 
  • and My First Day at Mermaid School, illustrated by Julianna Swaney, (Alfred A. Knopf, Summer, 2018).

In Playing Juliet, Beth continually quotes the web page, "13 Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know," which can be found on www.playingjuliet.com. This site also includes photos of Shakespearian sites in Stratford-upon-Avon (see below). 

Cynsational Gallery

View more research photos from JoAnne.

Shakespeare's Childhood Home
Shakespeare's Childhood Bedroom

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2. New Voice: Hannah West on Kingdom of Ash and Briars

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Hannah West is the first-time author of Kingdom of Ash and Briars (Holiday House, 2016). From the promotional copy:

Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular and wholly original debut.

Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. 

Bristal joins the ranks of Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm’s nobility and take charge herself. 

Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice’s black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle—all with the hope of preserving peace.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Boy, am I the right person to ask about revisions. When I started querying, I was fresh out of college with no industry knowledge (I studied French) and had a manuscript so thick it could have knocked someone out, no hard cover needed.

Hannah West
After my not-yet agent, Sarah Burnes, initially showed interest, she gave me some revision advice and passed on the manuscript. I made the cuts that she suggested, and continued querying and receiving requests from other agents.

It didn't occur to me until a few months later that Sarah might actually be open to seeing the revision even though she didn't explicitly request an R&R.

I'm so glad I thought of that! We ended up signing with a plan to continue revising it pretty heavily (read: cut left and right). We did three rounds, I believe, and then I did a few more with my lovely editor after signing with Holiday House.

I think a huge amount of cutting can be a dangerous thing, as it can really throw off the pace - such a delicate thing to begin with. But I am so so pleased with the result of talented professionals putting me through the ringer. It's so worth it. The story itself is essentially the same, which goes to show you how many unnecessary words were lurking in that initial submission.

For debut authors, I would say never be too protective of the draft that you submit. It's actually really freeing to put yourself in the hands of professionals, and if you're a gifted writer, you can work in their suggestions while still retaining your voice and the aspects you love about the story.

Never react to a hard critique on the spot. Take time to think about it, and you'll usually find that you agree, or can at least envision a compromise that will improve your work.

Could you tell us about your writing community-your critique group or partner or other sources of emotional and/or professional support?

This brings me to the other Sarah in my life - the one who lives in rural Arkansas with nary a strong internet connection, eating 'coons for supper (okay, maybe the last one only applies to her church potlucks).

Having a critique partner is a wonderful thing, but having a CP-best-friend is even better. Querying and revising and waiting was a hard phase for me.

I was fresh out of college with only a part-time job, living with my parents, so I had a lot riding on getting an agent and pressing onward (who doesn't?).

In the hardest moments, Sarah was there, reading my revisions and offering encouragement even though we live in different states. (I hadn't met her yet when I submitted my abominably large manuscript, so she's off the hook).

Cynsational Notes

Hannah "lives in the Dallas area with her husband, Vince, and their rambunctious blue heeler, Robb. She proudly writes articles about sustainable living and home renovation for Modernize.com."

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3. Guest Post: Tamara Ellis Smith on Another Kind of Hurricane

By Tamara Ellis Smith
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Space. Not up, as in the final frontier, but between, as in the distance between you and me.

I've been thinking a lot about that kind of space lately, and I've been especially curious about what can happen inside of it. What I've come to believe is that anything can happen—and everything.

I learned this through the process of writing my debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane (Schwartz & Wade.) And I am hoping to nurture this through the Another Kind of Hurricane Project, a community service/creative connection project I am offering schools, classrooms, teachers and students.

Space in Another Kind of Hurricane

"Who will get my pair of pants?" my four-year-old son, Luc, asked me.

It was late August 2005, in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, and we were dropping off food and clothing at our local police barracks.

Luc's question was a good one. A great one, actually.

It is just under one thousand six hundred miles from where we live in Vermont to New Orleans. That's a lot of space. But at the other side there was a four-year-old kid who would soon be wearing Luc's green pants with the moose on them.

Lucaiah's question connected the two boys. His question—his curiosity about this other kid—made that space become vibrant and alive; filled it with potential…for interaction, for transformation, for growth.

Who will get my pair of pants?

With Isaiah and the marbles he made at a workshop in New Orleans
I couldn't get the question out of my head. So I stumbled my way through the process of learning how to write a novel, this novel – a story that became about a ten-year-old boy named Henry, who lives in Vermont and whose friend dies in a mountain accident, and another ten-year-old boy named Zavion, who lives in New Orleans, and whose house is destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and the strange, almost magical, way their lives become entwined.

I kind of frantically wrote the novel. Hurricane-style. Fast and furious – ideas whipping around me like wind; words pouring down onto the page in buckets.

I finally finished what I thought was the final draft of Another Kind of Hurricane in 2007. I found my agent in 2008. We sent the novel out that fall, and by the end of 2009…

I had a lot of rejections. I was, I'm going to say it, flooded with them. Something was missing from the story.

In August 2011, almost exactly six years after Hurricane Katrina, Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont.

Hard.

It literally hit the block I live on. The river we live right by flooded its banks and water poured onto our street from two sides. Water reached the stop sign at the entrance to the block. Sheep and pigs from the farm at the other end of the block had to be rescued in kayaks. Our houses flooded. The basement of my house flooded, destroying our water heater and a pellet stove. We lost our kids' artwork, bins of clothing, and some of my manuscript among other things.

We were extremely lucky—no one was hurt. And I know that what we experienced was only the smallest fraction of what folks went through in New Orleans. But still, living through Irene touched me deeply. But not only in the ways you might expect.

At one point during the process of hauling stuff from our basement, someone gave me a box. I was standing by the dumpster deciding what could be salvaged and what had to be thrown away. (Most everything had to be thrown away.)

I opened the box. It was filled with photographs. For those of you who aren't familiar with these, I'm talking about 35mm, developed film, no saving them on your phone, no posting them on Facebook! A picture of my siblings and me at my wedding, a picture of my sister the first time she made Luc laugh, a picture of a camping trip with friends. The photos were soaking wet and covered in mud. I knew there were dozens of similar boxes, still in the basement. I knew I had to throw them all away. But I couldn't do it. Not yet. So I went back to filling the dumpster. Hours later, as the sun was setting, I took a break and walked to the lawn at the side of my house.

What I saw took my breath away.



People I didn’t know—were saving all of my photos. Someone meticulously peeled them apart, someone rinsed them in a shallow bin of water, and someone hung them on a clothesline to dry.

It was one of those moments that shines a light. Instead of quickly chucking that box of photos, I had accidentally left a space for these people. They became like Lucaiah, my son, asking a question:

What should we do with these photographs? And I became the kid who got the moose pants. Without realizing it, I had allowed there to be that vibrant, full-of-potential space. A space, it turns out, spanning those amazing people and me.

And inside of that space, those people and I—we were forever changed; we became friends.

And all of a sudden I knew. This was the something missing from my novel. Space.

One thousand six hundred miles between Vermont and New Orleans. A space just as far and, it turns out, just as close as between those people and me.

Irene had soaked me with a giant reminder about the power of that kind of space. It's a little like the eye of a hurricane, perhaps. That lull in the middle of the storm. But not really. It's less like an eye and more like a heart. A place that quietly beats with life. Or two hearts, really. The magic of space, for me, is the landscape—or maybe people-scape—where the alchemy of one person connecting with another unfolds.

And now I had to create that – and trust that – as I headed into yet another draft of Another Kind of Hurricane.

Jeanette Winterson said in her book of short stories: In the space between chaos and shape, there was another chance.

After my experience with Irene, I revised my novel more slowly. I took that one thousand six hundred mile journey step by step. Page by page. Person by person.

What did that look like in my life? I spent less time furiously writing and more time watching, walking, talking with people. I was more curious and vulnerable, braver about hanging out with not knowing, braver about letting whatever knowing might come, come organically. It looked like sitting at my friend's kitchen table drinking coffee and telling Henry and Zavion's story. It looked like running on the river trail with my dog before the sun came up not thinking about Henry and Zavion at all. It looked like honoring that vibrant and alive space.

Sometimes it wasn't easy – just ask my friends how fun I was to be with sometimes!—but it faithfully continued, like that photograph saving experience, to take my breath away. And to offer epiphanies and spark creativity and teach me what I believe in.

What did that look like in my novel? I cut a lot of words. I am what my editor would call an emotional maximalist! I know, this might be shocking to you. She's an emotional minimalist, by the way, so we're a good team! This left more room for my readers to bring their own experiences and ideas to the story.

It looked like rearranging the timeline of the story, allowing Henry and Zavion to make wrong choices and take missteps. It looked like Henry being an animal fact fanatic, allowing him to feel something other than guilt, and Zavion finally remembering breaking his mother's coffee cup because of a sensory trigger, the bell-sound of a bracelet. It looked like these two very different boys from two very different places almost meeting, and then meeting. And creating comfort and hope and even healing there.

It isn't always easy for them either, but in that space they are brave enough to be open to, they find reflections of themselves. They find connection. They find friendship.

They find another chance in Another Kind of Hurricane.

Space in Another Kind of Hurricane Project

It is my deep desire to create this kind of space for kids across the country to nurture their own connections, friendships and chances.

Tamara's sons: Jafeth (age 4) and Lucaiah (age 14)
The Another Kind of Hurricane (AKOH) Project (created with Kirsten Cappy and Curious City) empowers classrooms to reach out to schools in need. In Another Kind of Hurricane (Random House), two boys from opposite ends of the country make a connection through a pair of donated blue jeans—a pair of jeans with a marble in the pocket.

The AKOH Project encourages classrooms and schools to identify a school in need, hold a blue jean drive and slip letters and items into the pockets of those jeans. We know that reading fiction builds empathy, and we know that children can feel powerless when disaster strikes in other parts of the world. The AKOH Project hopes to turn empathy into the power to build connections between communities.

Cynsational Notes

Tamara Ellis Smith writes middle grade fiction and picture books. She graduated in 2007 from Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Tam’s debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane was released by Schwartz & Wade/Random House in July 2015. She is represented by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

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4. Be aware when research & prep becomes a crutch. At some point, you need to jump in & WRITE.

0 Comments on Be aware when research & prep becomes a crutch. At some point, you need to jump in & WRITE. as of 3/18/2016 11:12:00 AM
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5. a fine use for bullets

I hate outlining

I hate outlining

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” Right you are E.L. Doctorow. I can’t argue with you.

Up until recently, I’ve been a writing pantser–someone who flies by the seat of her pants like a magic carpet. Weeeeeee!!! It was a fun, exhilarating, spontaneous, surprising, unfettered, chaotic, halting, sputtering, who-knows-how-the-heck-I-got-here way to write.

When I’ve considered a popular alternative, outlining, my skin literally crawled. No kidding. It wriggled clean off muh bones. (See why I can’t outline? I can’t even write without doubling back and making silly asides.) SO, anyway, outlining was not attractive to me. What a time and fun-sucker. Why not just jump in? I wanted to be surprised! At the same time, I liked the idea of pre-planning as a means of making steadier writing progress.

But as a card-carrying AntiOutlineist, I yearned for a way to enjoy the benefits of outlining without actual doing it. There were plenty of alternatives involving Post-it Notes, index cards or oversized sheets of paper, but I wanted something even simpler. It if could involve my adoration for list-making, that would be a bonus. That’s why I chose bullets. Round. Simple. Readily Accessible. Inexhaustible in supply.

Now, my little warm cinnamon crumb cake, you know I mean these kinds of bullets. . .

  • Yes,
  • I
  • knew
  • you
  • would.

When I recently approached an extensive novel revision, I chose bullets to help me compile the sequence of events and actions of my characters. I didn’t write long descriptions of each scene. I wrote just enough to ensure I’d have what I needed when I returned to my list later. As I compiled this list, naturally, I’d identify roadblocks. But then, I could easily scan back to see, and then change, the sequence of events to release that blockage. I was able to think through each character’s actions or responses and their natural consequences. I could think proactively about how to crank up the story’s tension or humor or tenderness.

And now, armed with my bullets (hardy har har), I’ve had an easier time approaching the revision process. Plus, I’ve felt energized and encouraged because the bullets serve as an assurance that it’s going to be okay. Keep going. You know you can work this out. You’ve already untangled your plot and mapped out a path for your characters. And I know they won’t fail to surprise me, so there’s still fun to be had.

E.L. Doctorow is right–we can’t just yack about writing, we need to actually do it. But, before you do, see how you like writing with a batch of bullets by your side. G’head. Give it a shot. (Ouch.)

I’m one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I’m very good at doing that, but I don’t like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out.  ~ Neil Gaiman


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6. New Voice: Melanie Conklin on Counting Thyme

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie Conklin is the first-time author of Counting Thyme (Putnam, 2016). From the promotional copy:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. 

The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. 

All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision? 

I’m a serious student of revision techniques. Because of my background as a product designer, I’m a very visual thinker, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach revision because there are always new challenges to encounter!

Prior to going through the editorial process with Counting Thyme, I had figured out a few things about revision: first, that I thought better on paper. I printed out my manuscript and used different colored post-it flags to track different elements through the document, so that I could find them and also so I could see their distribution and revise to where needed. I had also learned to make an outline of my manuscript before revising, so that I could “see” the whole thing at once.

After I survived the gauntlet of revision-under-deadline, my process had changed in small but significant ways. My editor also works on paper, so I learned to take her pages, punch holes in them, and put them in a binder. This may seem like common sense, but it seriously hadn’t occurred to me to make it easier to flip through the book!

I also learned to note the changes I was confident about directly on the manuscript, and to use full-sized Post-its to write every single guess, question, and thought to myself about anything I hadn’t figured out yet.

Basically, I would distill my editor’s letter, then read through my manuscript while noting any possible solutions on hundreds of Post-its.

Why Post-its? Well, I stick them on the bottom edge of the paper so that they hang off the edge of the manuscript pages, which makes it easy to find the notes again, whereas notes on the paper can get lost.

My outlines evolved, too. Now I outline on note cards, one for each scene, and pin them to a tri-fold board (the greatest invention ever). I generally organize the cards into three acts that form a road map for the manuscript. Again, this makes it easier to visualize the book and its major elements as I work through the planning pass for a revision.

Usually, by the time I’ve read all the way through my manuscript, the best solutions have risen to the surface, and I’ve answered all of my Post-it questions, leaving a bunch of notes ready and waiting. Then it’s just a matter of opening the Word doc and making the actual changes!

Doing a planning pass on the manuscript does add time to your revision, but I’ve found that it saves time overall because you have the freedom to think, explore, and choose, so when you open your Word doc you are full of confidence and can work more quickly.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Obviously, I’m super into the creative process, which applies not just to the act of revision, but to writing in general. I studied English Literature back in college, but it did not occur to me to write books myself until I had quit my job to stay home with my young children for the time being.

I found writing offered the same creative outlet that I’d savored in design, and in many ways my writing process have evolved to mirror my design process.

In product design, the end goal is to get one product on the shelf. To get there, you may throw away hundreds of ideas. But remember, the end goal is one success. I think that mindset has made my approach to writing more flexible, especially when I’m developing a new character or voice.

When I first think of a character, I really explore them. I keep a notebook for each book idea, and in that notebook I let my thoughts run wild. I blab for pages about backstory, then change my mind and cross it out. I turn to a new page and draw the character’s house. I write about their family. About where they live and the hurts they carry. What has changed in their life? What wound keeps them from moving forward? What lesson do they need to learn? How must they grow?

Often, I write the opening chapter of a book quite early in the process, but then I always pause and take this time to expand my ideas before I decide anything. Doing this can help you avoid making boring choices. Generally, the very first idea you have may not be the most original idea possible, depending on how much time you spend brainstorming.

To generate more interesting and original ideas, I like to use lateral thinking techniques—in a nutshell, it’s the idea of picking seemingly disparate ideas and pairing them to gain a new perspective.

For example, you might flip through the dictionary (or any book) and randomly pick a word like “apple.” Then you ask yourself, how is my character like an apple? Are they shiny on the outside, but rotten at the core? Have they weathered storms and survived? Maybe they see the world in slices and are trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the full picture. In this way, introducing a new connection point can lead to some very creative character development.

But the bottom line for me is to trust your writing process. Develop your routines. Nurture your mind by reading widely. Try new techniques, and gather them as your arsenal against deadlines.

Too often, we are rushed and panicking, but cutting corners usually just leads to a big old meltdown.

In my experience, your process will get you there every time—even if that involves writing with a cabbage leaf on your head, which I have done.

Writing is that hard, I know. But if you trust your process, the answers will come.

Cynsational Notes

 See more insights from Melanie on:


"Read nonfiction. Seriously, the weirdest stuff happens in the real world. Sometimes it’s super helpful to step away from your fictional world and flip through a non-fiction book (or watch an hour of NatGeo. Did you know that a blue whale’s heart weighs a thousand pounds?)."

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7. Lessons from the NaNoWriMo Trenches

Hey PubCrawlers! So, you participated in NaNoWriMo. First, congratulations on what you accomplished, even if you didn’t (technically) finish. That takes a lot of work, a lot of guts, and a lot of stubbornness. So…what’s next? Let me start by telling you what I’ve learned over my years of participation (and also as a literary assistant).

  1. Sometimes the book you’ve written isn’t one you end up loving enough to keep.

It can hurt to write that many words, only to realize it’s not a story we want to show to the world. But it’s okay to feel this way – every word written is important, regardless of what happens after. Even if it stays in a drawer for years, you accomplished something that helped you grow and learn as a writer. Even the most prolific writers learn something new about themselves every time they write.

A lot of us have this tendency to believe that everything we write should be work-shopped and queried and edited and shaped. But I’ll be honest – I have at least two NaNo novels that have never seen the light of day. They’re not great – structure-wise, they fall apart halfway through. The characters are inconsistent. The story is so-so. And I love that I am the only one who has the privilege of reading them and seeing just how far I’ve come.

Getting to know who you are as a writer is never a bad thing – it’s one of my favorite aspects of this contest.

  1. Don’t query the book on December 1st (or even in December, period).

This one comes from the agency side of my experience. Agents get an influx of queries those first few days after NaNo and it’s usually a sign that a writer is querying his/her NaNo draft fresh out of the contest. I get it – finishing a novel is incredibly excited, and lots of us are guilty of querying too early, NaNoWriMo or no. But if you decide to revise the book and query later, querying too soon means rejections, which means you’ve crossed a handful of agents off your query-able list when it comes to that project.

  1. When revising, an outline works wonders, even (or especially, if you’re a pantser) when the draft is already on paper.

When you write 200 pages or more in a matter of weeks, plot lines can get crossed, characters can disappear, motivations can get muddied, and epiphanies can change the entire trajectory of your book. But what can you do? If you want to finish, you have to keep writing. That is, after all, what NaNo is about – disengaging the part of your writing brain that tells you to edit as you go, and getting the words on paper.

When you outline after the fact, you can see where the events you might have missed should go, where the characters who faded away might re-emerge (or that they aren’t needed, period), and where the dead-ends can be smoothed back into roads.

This tends to be the first thing I do with NaNo novels – it’s the easiest way for me to get on track with revision.

  1. Apply what you learned to future projects.

Before finishing my first NaNoWriMo years ago, I had a hard time finishing a novel. I constantly went back on passages I had just written and edited them, making them absolutely perfect. I felt like, if I could just make this chapter perfect, the rest would follow more easily than if I just wrote anything and everything on my mind.

I was…not entirely correct. Because I spent so much time smoothing and perfecting and correcting, I lost sight of the story itself. Writing another chapter became even harder, because suddenly nothing was as perfect as the chapter I’d spent all that time fixing. So I’d spend just as much time fixing the next one. And the next. And the next. Until finally, the process became boring and tedious and I’d give up.

NaNoWriMo gave me the freedom to simply do what I had to do to finish the race. To get the words out. To write “The End”. And I realized that editing and perfecting and smoothing is so much easier and so much more satisfying when you’re doing it to a finished product. Sometimes you end up rewriting half the book. Sometimes you don’t. But until you make that lump of clay, there’s really nothing to shape anyway.

  1. There are whole communities of people who want to write with you.

And you don’t have to stop when NaNo ends. If you have trouble finding beta readers, critique partners, or just other writers to commiserate with, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful place to meet people. In person, in forums, as buddies, whatever. Whatever you’re comfortable with – the set up is tailored for introverts and extroverts and extroverted introverts alike. Going to a write-in can be so helpful – not only do you got words into the draft, you have the opportunity to exchange information with other people looking to hang out with writers.

  1. It’s okay to not finish the race.

Seriously. This year, I ended November with 35,000 words, and I’m more than okay with that. The most important thing is that you’ve challenged yourself as a writer. Challenging yourself is the whole point of the contest – and for some people, that might mean finishing 10,000 words or 120,000 words (yes, I know some people who manage insane word counts and it boggles the mind). Whatever you’ve achieved, that’s exactly what it is – an achievement. Don’t ever worry that you’ve achieved less than someone else – one word written is still one word more than zero.

 

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned from participating in NaNoWriMo. I’m intrigued – are there any lessons you’ve learned or wisdom you’ve attained from participating? I know there are a lot more insights than the ones I’ve listed above, and I’d like to hear about them!

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8. When to Pop Out of the Notebook

As much as I LOVE notebooks, even I have to admit there is a time in every writer's process when it is time to pop out of the notebook and onto a laptop or lined paper.

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9. Steph and Stacey’s Critiquing Cheat Sheet

Hi all, Stephanie here, with my critique partner and fellow pub-crawler, Stacey Lee! Today we are talking about manuscript critiquing.

Stephanie: When I first started writing, I thought revising was proofreading. In fact, I knew so little about revisions I believed that if there were mistakes in my manuscript it was no big deal because that’s what editors are for. Thankfully I outgrew this delusion rather quickly. Unfortunately it took me a much longer time to find solid critique partners and figure out what it means to revise.

So, for any of you who might be in need of a little revision or critiquing guidance, Stacey Lee and I have put together a critique checklist.

We’ve geared this information toward critique partners, but it can also be used as a checklist, if you are revising your own work.

Steph & Stacey’s Critiquing Cheat Sheet

First, if you are working with a critique partner, before you dive into their work always make sure you know what they want help with.

  • Do they want you to point out every nit-picky detail?
  • Do they only want big picture help?
  • Do they actually just want a cheerleader? 

Are they looking for big picture help?

  • Plot (Do you get a sense of what is at stake, of what the MC wants, and what lies in their way?)
  • Pacing (Is the pacing too slow? Are there scenes that fail to move the story forward, or that feel episodic? Do scenes drag? Do you want to stop reading? Or does it move to fast? Do you feel as if a lot is happening but you don’t feel connected?)
  • Character (Are the characters flat or cliché? Are they relatable? Memorable? Is the MC a character you want to read about?)
  • Showing vs. Telling (Most early drafts tell when they should be showing)
  • Clarity (Mystery is good, confusing is bad)

If the big picture items are good to go, pay attention to:

  • Descriptions (Is too there much, too little)
  • Setting (Is there a sense of place? Could this be set in a better place?)
  • World building (Is the world too vague or confusing? Or are there too many details)
  • Dialogue (Is the dialogue stilted? Is it easy to read or does it read like an info dump? Does it read like actual conversation? Does it speak for itself or do they rely on adverbs?)
  • Inner Monologue (Did the writer rely too much on inner dialogue, which tends to be ‘telly,’ rather than showing the scene through dialogue or action?)
  • Tension/Conflict (Is there tension in every scene? Are there internal and external conflicts?)

If the pages you’re reading are fairly polished, pay attention to the details:

  • Details (Are there enough details? Too many details? Do their details show things about their main character, supporting characters or the world they’ve created?)
  • Sentence structure/variance (Are sentences clunky? Are they always the same length, same tone, same rhythm?)
  • Character voice (Do their characters have distinct voices? Is the voice of their work appropriate for the genre and category?)
  • Dialogue tags (Can they cut any dialogue tags? Do they need extra dialogue tags? Is it always clear who’s speaking?)
  • Word choices (Are there any unnecessary words? Are the words they’ve chosen appropriate? Do they have any pet words, or word echoes? Could they use stronger words? )
  • Passive voice (Can sentences be written in a more ‘active’ voice? Can they get rid of ‘fog bound’ phrases such as “There are,” or “It was,” and/or place weak verbs like ‘is’ or ‘get’ with stronger verbs?)

Stacey: Finally, a good critique partner helps you identify the weak spots. A great one identifies the weak spots, and suggests fixes for them. One of things I appreciate about Stephanie is that she always tries to give me solutions, and even if I don’t ultimately use those solutions, they inevitable unlock other possibilities in my head. Or, we’ll go to our favorite pearl tea place and brainstorm. My brain is her brain and vice versa.

In the comments, let us know if we’ve missed anything in our critique partner checklist. And for those of you in need of a new critique partner, we’re planning on doing a critique partner connection soon, so stay tuned.

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10. PubCrawl Podcast: Revision

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Happy new year! This week JJ and Kelly are back after a holiday hiatus, traveling through time with an episode recorded in 2015 about REVISION! Once again, apologies for the mouth-breathing: winter is a rough time for JJ’s sinuses.

Subscribe to us on iTunes, or use this feed to subscribe through your podcast service of choice! If you like us, please leave a rating or review, as it helps other listeners find the podcast. Thanks in advance!

Show Notes

You can browse all our Revisions posts at PubCrawl via the tag! (Check out our Resources page too.)

Things we discussed in the episode:

  • LET THE MANUSCRIPT REST. No seriously, put it aside for as long as you can.
  • Have a clear vision for your work.
  • Revision is different for everyone, but JJ works from the biggest issues to smallest, generally pacing.
  • The skills needed to revise is mostly patience.
  • “Kill your darlings”—keep all your beloved bits in an “Orphans” file.
    • Be wary of your emotional attachment to your initial version of your book, especially if the story is going in a different direction.

What We’re Working On

  • Kelly’s been making paper snowflakes!
  • JJ is procrastinating on writing her middle grade by writing other things in her middle grade universe.

What We’re Reading

Off-Menu Recommendations

  • Writing Excuses podcast
  • Still Hamilton, you guys
  • Hilariously, we mentioned wanting Serial to come back, and then the day after we recorded, Sarah Koenig dropped the next season like she was the Beyoncé of the podcast world

That’s all for this week! Next week we got back to our Publishing 101 series, this time with a more advanced course. Publishing 201, if you will. We’ll be covering MONEY: advances, royalties, etc.

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11. Building Blocks of a Novel: Word Choice

Hi all, Julie here!

Recently I found myself looking out a hotel room window at a cityscape. The view made me think of the components of a city—streets made up of buildings, buildings made up of walls, walls made up of bricks.

I found myself thinking of all the unnoticed bricks that were holding up the city below my window.

This observation got me thinking about novels. I started considering all the components of a novel—chapters made up of scenes, scenes made up of paragraphs, paragraphs made up of sentences, sentences made up of words.

This whole metaphor gave me the idea for a series on the building blocks of a novel. This post will be on words—the most basic building block. The next will be about sentences, then paragraphs, then scenes, then chapters. Of course, most things as intricate as a novel are greater than the sum of their parts, so maybe the final post in the series will be about how a novel transcends (or hopes to transcend) all these things that go into it.

Starting with words.

Word choice is one of the most fundamental aspects of writing, so much so that we don’t talk about it much. But the wrong word can leave writing flat or confusing, and more importantly, the right word can make writing come alive on the page.

There are so many ways in which word choice impacts a piece of writing! Since we’re talking about novels, I want to focus on clarity, voice, and sound.

Clarity

One of the most powerful things about word choice is the subtle change in meaning that can happen when a writer changes just one word. Consider the differences between the following:

“She dropped the package to the ground.”

“She chucked the package to the ground.”

“She hurled the package to the ground.”

Swap package with bundle and ground with pavement and the meaning changes even more. Consider the difference between “She dropped the package to the ground,” and “She hurled the bundle to the pavement.”

This is a painfully simple example, and the lesson here is so basic and elementary, it’s easy to assume this is something we all know how to do and dive into what we perceive as more “advanced” methods of improving our writing. But all the symbolism and metaphors and motifs in the world won’t rescue a sentence from the wrong words. Without clarity, our meaning is lost. We can all think of at least one book we’ve read that felt muddled and murky. Just as you wouldn’t want to watch a movie that was shot through a blurry lens, you wouldn’t want to read an out-of-focus story. Word choice instills meaning and tone, and without intentional language those things suffer.

Voice

Word choice has a huge impact on that elusive aspect of writing we call voice. There are many ways to define voice, but for this post, I’ll turn to something Kat Zhang wrote in a fabulous post on the subject for this blog:

“Voice is, I think, the way a story is told. Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc, can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.”

By carefully selecting the right words, a writer can alter the voice of a story from tense to sarcastic to poetic. I often turn to The Catcher in the Rye when I need an example of a story told with a distinct and unmistakable voice. Imagine how word choice would affect the voice of just the first line:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

~ JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

If Salinger had changed just a few words—substituting painful for lousy and stuff for crap, for instance, the voice would have been significantly altered.

This example also demonstrates how strongly word choice impacts characterization, especially in a first person narrative. But even in third person, word choice will help or hinder characterization. If I write, “The family always dined at six,” your idea of the characters will be different than if I write, “The family always ate at six,” or “The family always broke bread at six.”

Rhythm and Sound

I’ve written about adding sound to your prose on the blog before, but I want to mention it here because sound ties in to any discussion of word choice. Comedy illustrates this beautifully. Think of Bill Murray’s line in the movie Stripes: “That’s the fact Jack!” So much of that comedic moment relies on the sound and rhythm of the words. Comedian Brian Regan has a whole bit about forgetting to do a project for science when he was in the sixth grade and handing in a “cup o’ dirt.” The entire joke depends on the staccato sound of the words. If Regan had said he handed in a “container of soil,” the joke would lose all of its impact. Of course, the importance of choosing words for their sound and rhythm applies to all writing, not just comedy. If you can think of a book that received praise for its lyrical prose or its taut tension, you can be sure it contains excellent examples of words carefully chosen for their sound.

Returning to our metaphor of a city, the words you choose for your novel really are comparable to the bricks used by the builder. When bricks are well chosen and do their job, they go unnoticed. They hold everything in place and create beauty and function. The words you choose will do the same. The right words will hold up the structure of your novel and give it style without calling attention to themselves.

What are your thoughts on word choice? Do you have any advice to add? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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12. PubCrawl Podcast: Interview with Beth Revis

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This week JJ talks with New York Times bestselling author Beth Revis about her publishing journey, revision, how she learned to revise and critique, and what she’s reading and enjoying!

Subscribe to us on iTunes, or use this feed to subscribe through your podcast service of choice! If you like us, please leave a rating or review, as it helps other listeners find the podcast. Thanks in advance!

Beth SquareBETH REVIS is the New York Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe trilogy, as well as The Body Electric, Paper Hearts, and the forthcoming A World Without You. She lives in the Appalachian mountains with her boys: one husband, one son, and two very large dogs. You can find out more on FacebookTwitter, or online. If you never want to miss a thing and also get exclusive insider opportunities, sign up for her newsletter here.

Show Notes

  • Our previous podcast episode about revision, as well as all the articles we’ve ever written about Revision on PubCrawl!
  • The podcast episode where we discuss the vagaries of The New York Times bestselling lists
  • Learn to revise by editing! Beth learned to revise by practice, and by critique other people’s work. JJ learned to revise by editing other people’s manuscripts.
  • Creation vs. Discovery writers, or rethinking the Plotter vs. Pantser dynamic by JJ

Beth’s method of revision

  • Approach your booze of choice.
  • Make up a list of all the changes that need to be made.
  • Take out all the compliments.
  • Work chronologically through the manuscript.
  • Beth uses the split screen function on Scrivener, with the old version on top and new on bottom.
  • Go through the list of changes and work page by page.

What We’re Working On

Just to let you guys know, both JJ and Kelly will be doing an AMA at the /r/YAwriters subreddit on MONDAY, JANUARY 25TH. Come and ask us questions about publishing, revision, and whatever else might cross your mind!

What We’re Reading

Off Menu Recommendations

  • Jessica Jones (TV show)
  • Daredevil (TV show)
  • Bojack Horseman (TV show)
  • We Bare Bears (TV show)
  • Steven Universe (TV show)
  • Adventure Time (TV show)

Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice

Paper HeartsYour enemy is the blank page. When it comes to writing, there’s no wrong way to get words on paper. But it’s not always easy to make the ink flow. Paper Hearts: Some Writing Advice won’t make writing any simpler, but it may help spark your imagination and get your hands back on the keyboard.

Practical Advice Meets Real Experience

With information that takes you from common mistakes in grammar to detailed charts on story structure, Paper Hearts describes:

  • How to Develop Character, Plot, and World
  • What Common Advice You Should Ignore
  • What Advice Actually Helps
  • How to Develop a Novel
  • The Basics of Grammar, Style, and Tone
  • Four Practical Methods of Charting Story Structure
  • How to Get Critiques and Revise Your Novel
  • How to Deal with Failure
  • And much more!

Enter for a giveaway of PAPER HEARTS: Some Writing Advice! Beth has generously donated a signed copy!

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That’s all for this week! Next week we return to our regularly scheduled PubCrawl podcast posts and discuss X MEETS Y, or THE HIGH CONCEPT IDEA.

 

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13. New Voice: Melissa Gorzelanczyk on Arrows

On Twitter? Follow @MelissaGorzela.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melissa Gorzelanczyk is the first-time author of Arrows (Delacorte, 2016). From the promotional copy:

People don’t understand love.

If they did, they’d get why dance prodigy Karma Clark just can’t say goodbye to her boyfriend, Danny. 

No matter what he says or does or how he hurts her, she can’t stay angry with him . . . and can’t stop loving him. But there’s a reason why Karma is helpless to break things off: she’s been shot with a love arrow.

Aaryn, son of Cupid, was supposed to shoot both Karma and Danny but found out too late that the other arrow in his pack was useless. 

And with that, Karma’s life changed forever. One pregnancy confirmed. One ballet scholarship lost. And dream after dream tossed to the wind.

A clueless Karma doesn’t know that her toxic relationship is Aaryn’s fault . . . but he’s going to get a chance to make things right. He’s here to convince Danny to man up and be there for Karma.

But what if this god from Mount Olympus finds himself falling in love with a beautiful dancer from Wisconsin who can never love him in return?

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

Like Melissa on Facebook.
Revising post-contract is a lot different than pre-contract.

The best part about post-contract revision is you have a clear path set by someone you (hopefully) trust. Your editor!

When my edit letters come in, I like to allow the feedback sit for a day or two before diving into the changes. That feels long enough to let any emotions attached to what she is telling me disappear.

 I wouldn’t recommend writing from a place of feeling wounded or defensive. You need to be open.

Once I’m open to the critique, I go through her letter and write a list of all the problems in my manuscript.

After that, I brainstorm possible solutions, making sure my favorites work on a big picture level. The process breaks down to finding solutions within all of my story elements—plot, setting, character, theme—and then onto chapter/scene/sentence level from there.

One thing to remember when revising post-contract is that your book will actually be out in the world someday. While this seems obvious, it’s easy to forget when you’re focused on the work at hand. Mainly, you want your editor to continue liking your book, right? Do not forget that now, in revision, you should also fix the things that don’t ring true to who you are.

Because people are (for reals) going to be reading your book in the near future! Make sure you feel proud and certain about the changes you are making.

Pre-contract is much harder, especially if you don’t have a critique partner you trust. The key is to find at least one.

Trade samples of each other’s work, and see if you like what the other person is saying to help make your story better. See if they work on the same turnaround as you. See if you feel comfortable being yourself when you email back and forth.

Melissa's office
My second piece of advice is to trust your story and your gut. Long ago, a valued beta reader of mine suggested that I consider taking the teen pregnancy aspect out of my YA novel Arrows. I decided not to, and that ended up helping my book sell to Delacorte. In fact, my book was pitched as “MTVs 'Teen Mom' meets Greek mythology.”

I’m not saying the beta reader was wrong. Maybe my book would sell a million more copies without the teen pregnancy plotline. Who knows. I’m just saying you don’t have to revise according to every comment, especially pre-contract.

Before sending your manuscript to beta readers, I suggest doing at least a couple revisions on your own. One of my favorite revising methods is a modified version of Susan Dennard’s revision method (just scroll down). Take her ideas and adapt them to fit your style.

For me, a simplified approach works best. My plan always starts with printing my manuscript and reading it in one sitting. I might make notes in the margins, or I might not. Then, like Dennard, I paperclip my chapters together and figure out what is or isn’t working with the plot, characters and setting.

This takes time! And this isn’t the place for line edits! Because believe me, for those first revision passes, your deleted scenes file may end up as long as your manuscript. That is okay.

Shed no tears.

This is how all books are made.

“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
Ernest Hemingway

How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?

Promoting my debut has been both exhausting and interesting. I’m still a few weeks from publication date (I’m writing this on 1/4/16), but I truly feel I’ve done all I can leading up to this point.

I try to remember that promoting a book is a slow burn, kind of like the publishing process as a whole. It doesn’t happen all at once.

The things I’m doing pre-publication are the things I’ll be doing all of next year.

Promotion starts by figuring out two things:

1. How much time you can devote to promotion.

2. How much money you can/want to spend.

I think every author should plan to spend some time and some money on their promotion, but no one really knows the magic combo. Personally, I devote half of my work day to promotion, as well as some nights and weekends, which I started doing when my book was about four months from publication.

Up to that point, I was working on promotion as things came up. There wasn’t a set schedule or plan. So I guess you could say that about four months to publication, I panicked, created a master spreadsheet and worked really hard to meet my goals.

As far as money, my guess is that I’ll have spent about $1,500 to $3,000 on promotion by the end of 2016. This estimate includes postage (budget more than you think you need), thank you cards, thank you gifts, bookmarks, buttons, postcards, my book trailer, conferences and my launch party. All of this is tax deductible.

I have no idea if this is high or low as far as a marketing investment, but as a debut, when deciding where to spend money, it made sense to go “all in.”

I’m curious how I’ll feel at the end of 2016. My advice is do what feels right for you.

Melissa's office
If you’re wondering where to start with promotion, I’d highly recommend joining a debut author group. I’m a member of the Sweet Sixteens and the Class of 2k16.

Being able to ask fellow debuts questions has saved so much time in random Google searches/panicking. Plus it’s a safe place to share failures and successes, and well, meet people who “get it.” My author family is a whole new awesome kind of family.

Another thing you can do is study what successful authors are doing. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Add your personality and style to their ideas. For instance, if they are on Goodreads, you probably want to be there, too. If they are doing giveaways on Twitter, why not try one?

For your own sanity, stay organized. Write all of your ideas on a spreadsheet and add deadline dates so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed.

Work on your promotion in bite-sized pieces. One blog post at a time. One bookmark order at a time. One Tweet at a time.

In my opinion, being a debut is a good time to say “yes”. Try all the blog articles you can. Answer every interview you can.

Yes, you want to make a book trailer? Figure out how to do that. Yes, create a professional website and blog, Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter. Yes, send a monthly newsletter (I use MailChimp). 

Yes, you can do this!

Cynsational Notes

Melissa recommends: Ten Things Nobody Tells You about Being a Debut Novelist by Tim Federle.

https://thesweetsixteens.wordpress.com/

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14. When Revision Doesn’t Work

I used to think professional workshops were where you would go to get answers, but now I know that the best ones are where you find more questions.

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15. Revision for Pantsers

JJ's revision supplies.

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Our own Jodi Meadows also wrote posts on revision, here, here, and here.

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16. New Writers Digest Class: Writing and Selling Children's Books 5/21

I'm teaching a new Writers Digest Webinar this Thursday with critique incuded, and if you are interested in writing for kids, you should be in on it! The class on Middle Grade Fiction has been by far the most well-attended and often-asked-about - I think I've repeated it three times. But I kept getting requests for Picture Books, too! So this is a new class: WRITING AND SELLING CHILDREN'S BOOKS.

The live webinar is Thursday, 5/21 at 1pm eastern. Critique of your work OR query is included, and all questions will be answered.

If you cannot attend live DON'T WORRY! Everyone who signs up for the live webinar WILL get a critique and ALL questions will be answered, even if you can't be "in the room" on the day you'll have the opportunity to send questions in. And you'll have access to the program materials for a year.

The class will cover a brief overview of the children's market from baby books to middle grade fiction (some of this will be info that has been covered in prior MG only webinars). The ALL NEW sections are all about picture books, chapter books and early readers, including common Picture Book pitfalls, self-editing picture books, agent-snagging tips and more.

Some success stories:

I found my client Jennifer Torres from a WD Webinar when she submitted an early version of her awesome middle grade book STEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN to be critiqued. Not too long after that, she revised, queried me, I signed her, and we sold her book in a two-book deal to Little Brown.

I also saw this on twitter - Julie Falatko not only got an agent after the critique, but that agent went on to sell THREE books to Viking/Penguin. Awesome!




There's more info on the Writers Digest Website - hope to "see" you there! 

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17. Publish: Revise the Big Picture

Hi folks, I am writing a summer long series. It's called Publish and is in conjunction with my TEENSPublish workshop at the Ringer Library in College Station, Texas. The tribe is working hard. The title of our anthology is A New Generation: TEENSPublish 2015 Anthology. We have moved into the next phase of our project: revision.


Revision starts with the big picture. I have written a rough draft. It's time to consider the big picture. I have written a terrible manuscript as it should be. This thing is worthy of being printed out and being used as a doorstop. That is all.  Now the work of revising begins. I squint my eyes and dive in. Why is my story boring? Does my story make sense? Does it have a beginning middle and end? I gotta fix that stuff.  This might take days. I will cut some of the boring bits.  I will rewrite some of the boring bits. I will add some bits so the story is less boring. I think I will buy a cupcake. Stress. Stress.

Cupcake is eaten, it is time my favorite game: Does this chapter really need to be a part of my book? I start out with assumption the chapter needs to be axed and then try to find 5 reasons that that shouldn't happen. Here are 5 sample reasons to keep a chapter.  The hero meets the villain. Check. The hero realizes he is just a sham and must find a way to change. Check. The hero hurts someone really close to him.  Check. The hero finds out a secret that changes everything.  Check. The hero snogs with a girl he never expected to snog with. Check. Gosh, I love this chapter. I am genius.

Here is the chapter I cut. The hero gets out of bed. (I didn't write that, did I?) The hero thinks about the scenery on the way to school for two pages. (I suck.) The hero does exactly what I expect him to do when he gets to school. (I really suck.)  The hero spends a long time at the water fountain and I don't know why. (Maybe I should take up a hobby like needlepoint.) The hero falls asleep at the end of the chapter. (Yikes. I mean Yikes!) Salvage not possible.

Some chapters are good. Some chapters are bad. Easy decisions. Many are in the middle. I put these on the organ donation pile or the fix later pile. Organ donation chapters are getting axed but there is some stuff in there I will use somewhere else. For example, one chapter was totally stupid, except for the part where the hero gets into that massive fight with his best friend. That I will keep. Organ donation, it's like recycling but better. Some chapters are not so bad but they do need tweaking. There is enough happening to keep them in the book, but it's not pretty. I will make them pretty later. These chapters go in the fix later pile. This revision is about the big picture.

I have just cut 10 chapters, and put 20 scenes on the organ donation pile, and have eaten another cupcake (the came two in a box). I will make a healthy smoothie now and think about going for a walk or watching endless Netflix episodes. Here is important news: PROCRASTINATION is part of the process.

Have fun revising the big picture.  I will be back next week with more on revision.   More fun ahead.

Here is a doodle.



And now a quote for your pocket. Praying we all unarm the truth and love unconditionally. 

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. Martin Luther KIng

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18. Publish: Revision is not sexy.

Hi folks, I am writing a summer long series. It's called Publish and is in conjunction with my TEENSPublish workshop at the Ringer Library in College Station, Texas. The tribe is working hard. The title of our anthology is A New Generation: TEENSPublish 2015 Anthology. We have moved into the last phase of our project: revision.


Yep, revision.  It's where you take your precious pages and hack at them with machete.  Fun. Fun. Fun. And NOT sexy. It's about "we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster." If you saw The Six Million Dollar Man back in the day you know what I'm talking about. 

So what is the blessed technology that will help you on this journey? The first technology is language. I bet you didn't even know written language was a technology. It is. So time to tighten up the writing. Yes, this is just like going to the gym every day and working a circuit. 

This circuit goes like this. Ditch the "to be" verbs. Rip out adjectives and choose stronger nouns. Toss the adverbs and choose stronger verbs. Look for repeats and remove the "peats". Stop feeling things and just cut to the chase. Find white space. Make it all pretty. By the way this activity is like building a spiderweb. takes a while. Not so interesting laying out each little strand, but when it is done, it is a masterpiece. 

Oh, you get double extra charged writing if you vary sentence lengths. 

Now a second technology.  Grammar. Yes, grammar is a thing and getting it will help you create stories that sing. Go to OWL. Try Grammarly. Grammar Girl. The Blue BookBuilding Great Sentences. Add in some AutoCrit. Don't wing this stuff. Grammar, you will thank me. I liken grammar improvement to beating the dust out of rugs with broom. Hard work but eventually it is all cool  Here is a secret. It's not about making everything "correct."

Revision is hard work. It's tedious at times. It's not fast. It does lead to what you meant to say. And that is everything,isn't it.

I will be back next week with more revision stuff. The last in this series!

Here is a doodle. My son Jesse at age 3.



A quote for your pocket:

Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar. E.B. White

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19. An Eraser-Free Workshop and the Language We Use for Talking About It

When I visit a classroom, one of the first things I often say to kids is, "Today, please don't erase. I want to see ALL the great work you are doing as a writer. When you erase, your work disappears!" Often, this is what kids are accustomed to and they continue working away. But sometimes, kids stare at me as if I've got two heads.

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20. Enticing Kids to Revise, Revise, Revise

One of the biggest challenges you might face in writing workshop is this: getting kids to see the power and purpose of revision. Here are a few tips for helping kids understand how important and rewarding revision can be, organized by writing process phases.

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21. Dear Insufferable Teen Me,

   I've had so much fun reading the Letters to My Younger Self of my fellow Teaching Authors.  Some TA's I know well, and some I have never met in person.  Every single post has resonated with me in some way, and allowed me to know them a little better.  Go back and check out Jo Ann's, Esther's, Carla's, and April's posts.  You might find a little of you there.

      Now it's time to talk to someone I haven't thought about in a long while, 16-year-old me.  I don't like her because she was cocky, insufferable and over confident as a writer.  She once told a Pulitzer Prize winning author that she never revised anything, "because I get it right the first time."

      See what I mean?

      Hello, Rodman (as you are known, back in the day).

This is Your Future Self speaking, and I have some bad news for you. You do not win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize as you predicted in the class prophecy. As bad as you are in math, I am sure you didn't realize that you would be a college senior in 1976. Saul Bellow wins. He gets interviewed by Johnny Carson instead of you.

Here's even worse news.

There is no Story Fairy.  You know her, first cousin to the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.

13-year-old me
Right now, you think that Story Fairy waves her Magic Story Wand (sound effect: harp strings) sparkly story dust showers you and ta da! a story, appears, full-blown in your head.  A couple of hours later, you are ready to mail it off to the latest writing contest.

And you always win those contests.   Local, regional, national, you win them all. You are editor of your school paper. You write a weekly school column for the local paper for four years,  without breaking a sweat. Writing is easy. It's the one thing you know you can do. Even though it is not considered a real asset in your teen world (like cheerleading and looking like Christie Brinkley), Writer is a far better label than Nerd or Girl Without Boyfriend.

You eventually become an adult (even though you don't really want to) and something terrible happens.  Story Fairy deserts you.  You write as fluently as ever, sailing along on your little blue typewriter when bang!  You hit a wall. You don't know what happens next. The main character just sits there, staring at you, refusing to move or talk. Hey, Fairy.  Where are you?  There must be something wrong with me.  Maybe I'm not a real writer after all.  And you quit writing.

But you can't stop. You keep journals.  You go on writing and hitting walls.  Sometimes a kind editor will scrawl a sentence on the form rejection letters you receive. You write very well, but this isn't really a story. No one ever explains why it's not a real story. And you keep writing.  For many, many years. All alone.

Then one day, through a set of Magical Circumstances, you find yourself in an MFA Writing Program.  You discover there are lots of other people just like you, who write all the time, never get published and don't know why.  You go to lectures, work with real writers and talk to your new writer friends.  Eventually you learn (you are a very slow learner) that there is no Writer Fairy.

Stories don't just happen.  They come in dribs and drabs.  A character chatters in a corner of your brain.  You remember family stories.  Music will paint a mental setting, like a stage without actors. You go back to the journals you've kept since third grade and discover story treasures there.

In other words, writing takes a long time. Right now, a long time means two days, only because you are a slow and terrible typist. You discover it takes months and years to turn those dribs and drabs into a story. You will stop and start, write and rewrite. A little voice in your head tells you when something is not quite right.  You write some more. (This is different from that other voice that says Who do you think you're kidding?  You're not a writer!  You tell that voice to shut up and go away.)

There is no bibbety bobbety boo to writing. It takes the three P's--patience, persistence and perspiration. It means writing something--even a journal entry--every day you possibly can. (In years to come, you will read that Stephen King writes every day except Christmas.  You learn that most people are not Stephen King.)

Still there, Rodman?  Still awake?  Here comes the good news.  You never give up, you read and write and learn from others and when you are really old (like forty), you start writing real stories that other people (editors) like and publish.  You will still get rejection letters (sometimes they come in something called an e-mail that hasn't been invented yet, so don't worry about it) but you keep on writing.  Because it's a compulsion.

Because you are a real writer. You always were.

Love, Future You, Mary Ann Rodman, published author.

P.S.  No, you don't marry Robert Redford or ever look like Christie Brinkley, but you do OK.

Future you and your mom, at a signing for your first book, My Best Friend
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

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22. The Story I’ll Paint: Part 1 – Getting Started

The countdown begins for publication of The Story I’ll Tell, set for release on November first. In celebration, I thought it might be fun to do a series of posts about the process of making the illustrations.

So, without further ado, I’ll start from the beginning.

Story-ill-tell-advance-copy

Once upon a time, I woke up as usual, had my coffee breakfast, and got to work when—ping!— an email arrived in my inbox. (It didn’t actually go “ping,” but that seems like a nice idea.) It was from an editor asking if I might be interested in working on a picture book. It sounded promising! Emails were exchanged, manuscripts sent and read, deadlines were set, and contracts negotiated and signed.  After the whirlwind of activity and excitement settled, it was time to sit down, put pencil to paper, and do what might be the most important part of illustrating a picture book: getting started.

With The Story I’ll Tell, I was fortunate to have a lovely manuscript. Ideas jumped up in my mind, begging for attention. I started sketching and writing down notes, and created a folder where I collected evocative images from magazines and the Internet. Where did the characters live? What culture were they from? What kind of world did I want the reader to step into? These were some of the many questions that had to be explored.

Photograph of a pile of papers with hundreds of thumbnail sketches

After the initial brainstorming, it was time to start planning out the book with thumbnails. Some pages were clear in my mind while others were harder to pin down. After seemingly endless rounds of sketches, I sent in a complete set…

…and soon after, received my first round of detailed feedback from my editor and art director. Lots of feedback. For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to adjust to so many notes and suggestions. But at every round of revision, my art director and editor pushed me to make the book into something far better than I could have ever achieved alone, and I’m so glad they did.

Some pages didn’t change much at all:

Dragon-queen-before-after1

…while other pages changed quite a lot:

Airport-thumbnails

This isn't even close to all the variations of this page.

By the end of the initial planning phase, I had drawn hundreds of thumbnails. The vast majority ended up in the reject pile. In the case above we ended up changing the text slightly in order to change the setting of the illustration. Once we had the basic concept down, it was time to start working out all the details.

Coming in part two: Finding a harmonious composition.
Other posts in the series:
  • Part 1 – Getting Started
  • Part 2 – Finding Harmony
  • Part 3 – Devil’s in the Details
  • Part 4 – Adding the Magic
  • Part 5 – Painting with Guts

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23. The Story I’ll Paint: Part 1 – Getting Started

The countdown begins for publication of The Story I’ll Tell, set for release on November first. In celebration, I thought it might be fun to do a series of posts about the process of making the illustrations.

So, without further ado, I’ll start from the beginning.

Story-Ill-Tell-studio

Once upon a time, I woke up as usual, had my coffee breakfast, and got to work when—ping!— an email arrived in my inbox. (It didn’t actually go “ping,” but that seems like a nice idea.) It was from an editor asking if I might be interested in working on a picture book. It sounded promising! Emails were exchanged, manuscripts sent and read, deadlines were set, and contracts negotiated and signed.  After the whirlwind of activity and excitement settled, it was time to sit down, put pencil to paper, and do what might be the most important part of illustrating a picture book: getting started.

With The Story I’ll Tell, I was fortunate to have a lovely manuscript. Ideas jumped up in my mind, begging for attention. I started sketching and writing down notes, and created a folder where I collected evocative images from magazines and the Internet. Where did the characters live? What culture were they from? What kind of world did I want the reader to step into? These were some of the many questions that had to be explored.

Photograph of a pile of papers with hundreds of thumbnail sketches

After the initial brainstorming, it was time to start planning out the book with thumbnails. Some pages were clear in my mind while others were harder to pin down. After seemingly endless rounds of sketches, I sent in a complete set…

…and soon after, received my first round of detailed feedback from my editor and art director. Lots of feedback. For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to adjust to so many notes and suggestions. But at every round of revision, my art director and editor pushed me to make the book into something far better than I could have ever achieved alone, and I’m so glad they did.

Some pages didn’t change much at all:

Dragon-queen-before-after1

…while other pages changed quite a lot:

Airport-thumbnails

This isn't even close to all the variations of this page.

By the end of the initial planning phase, I had drawn hundreds of thumbnails. The vast majority ended up in the reject pile. In the case above we ended up changing the text slightly in order to change the setting of the illustration. Once we had the basic concept down, it was time to start working out all the details.

Coming in part two: Finding a harmonious composition.
Other posts in the series:
  • Part 1 – Getting Started
  • Part 2 – Finding Harmony
  • Part 3 – Devil’s in the Details
  • Part 4 – Adding the Magic
  • Part 5 – Painting with Guts

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24. Changing the Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25. When It Gets Crowded in the Revision Cave

Recently a friend asked me whether she should address the concerns of a beta reader who had clearly missed something in her novel that everyone else got. This started me thinking about the challenges in revising a story when you’ve received critiques from many different people, particularly when their comments contradict each other.

We’ve talked a lot at Publishing Crawl about revising your novel on your own and with editorial letters, but what about earlier in the process — maybe before your book even reaches agents or publishers? I am a big believer in beta readers and critique groups, and I participate in an amazing writing group. Almost every piece of fiction I have written has benefited from the sharp insights of other writers who tell me what’s working and what needs work, and call me out when I’m being lazy. If you’re fortunate, there will be a consensus, a clear sign to what you should focus on, but often there’s very different feedback from everyone, and it isn’t at all obvious who is “right” about your story. Now what?

First and foremost, it’s your story, so you have to follow your instincts. That said, you do have to be open to the possibility that you can make it even better by listening to suggestions you may not immediately agree with. And always remember that you can’t make everyone happy, but that isn’t the point; you’re trying to figure out how to make the story as good as it can be, which should also be the goal of your critiquers.

My record for critiques on a single piece is probably around twenty, for some of my short stories at the Clarion West Writers Workshop, which is where I developed my process for juggling feedback and planning a revision strategy. Whether I have seven or 17 critiques, my first step is to read through everyone’s comments and my notes from the crit session, jotting down the key points and organizing them into four categories:

  1. I totally agree with this comment and I will definitely do this
  2. I disagree with this note, but they’re probably right, so I’d better fix that
  3. That’s very interesting, I’ll keep that in mind
  4. Nope

Although here I’m focusing on what needs to be improved in the next draft, make sure you’re also noticing the good stuff, which can show you where your story is on the right track, as well as give you an ego boost that is likely sorely needed about now. This is the stuff you don’t want to break when you’re fiddling with everything around it — which can easily happen, especially if you’re trying to follow every suggestion you received.

Once you’ve listed everything out, categories 1 and 2 should give you a pretty clear idea of what changes to make in your revision; however, sometimes you will get two or more recommendations that are  incompatible, and you have to choose one. Assuming you don’t want to settle for the fastest and easiest fix, you should consider what makes the most sense for your characters and their story, and what fits with the rest of the feedback you’ve received and strengthens what was already there.

You can also consider the source of the feedback: For example, if you’re writing a YA novel, you might weigh criticism from other YA writers or readers more heavily than feedback from someone who rarely reads YA or doesn’t enjoy it. (Their perspective is still valuable and probably shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but they may be unaware of some of the nuances of your particular genre.) Or certain readers “get” your work or connect with your story more than others, so they have a better idea of what you were trying to accomplish.

Once I have a sort of road map of the changes I want to make, I usually dive in and start editing from beginning to end, in a linear order, layering in changes as I go. Of course every edit ripples throughout the piece, so the more time I can spend focused on and immersing myself in the story, the better to keep it all in my head, and ultimately put it on the page. I’m also keeping in mind some of the criticism that I am less sure about, or even some of those “nopes,” because as the story changes, they might make more sense or I’ve become more receptive to them. As I change the story, I feel more free to take it wherever it needs to go. If I take it too far or it doesn’t work, I can always revert back to the previous draft!

When I first started revising this way, it sometimes felt like I was writing by committee, and I resisted taking too many suggestions from others. Whose story is this, anyway? But if you’re committed to telling it in the best possible way, so it will reach the most readers, getting lots of feedback from many different perspectives is incredibly helpful. Don’t forget that every reader is different — just look all those wildly differing reviews on Goodreads! (No, don’t.) In a way, they’re all correct, because reading is such a personal, unique experience. And so is writing. In the end, you decide what your story will be, and you’re the only person who can write it.

Everyone’s writing and revision process  is also unique! So, how do you reconcile varying feedback from multiple readers?

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