Tuesday, June 26, 2018

When to Shelf that Manuscript

I have a number of manuscripts on my shelf. My first and second manuscripts are never coming off that shelf. In fact, I can't even think of anything from either book I would want to resurrect. They exist simply as stepping stones. The first one got me writing. The second one landed me my first agent. No sale, but still, the push of having an industry professional think my work was good enough to sell gave me the strength to keep writing amidst the rejections.

Every manuscript serves a purpose, either to get you to that next stage, develop your writing skills, or room to create a world or character that might not work this time but you can resurrect for a later work with a face lift and an updated backstory. The big question is WHEN do you decide it's time to move on, set that book on the shelf, and start something new?

I went to a conference this year, and one of the author/instructors made a point that hit me hard.

Don't reject yourself.

She and a coworker had both been writing on the side. After a handful of rejections, he gave up. She pushed through, and now she's published. He's not. We hear all the time the stories about how very successful authors almost gave up on themselves.
  • Stephen King threw Carrie in the trash, and his wife dug it out for him.
  • J.K. Rowling's publisher was going to pass on Harry Potter when his daughter said, (very wisely) you have to print this!
  • Marie Lu had something like 100 rejections before she got that one yes.
I looked back at my sub lists, and on my last two novels, I gave up on them after thirty or fifty passes. I don't regret shelving them for now. Both have parts and pieces I plan to yank out and stitch into something else, but for my current manuscript, I'm going all the way. I am not going to reject myself. (That doesn't mean I won't make edits as needed to either the manuscript or the query, but I am going to exhaust all possibilities before I put it away.)

Every day I chant my new mantra: Don't give up on yourselfDon't give up on yourself. And it's still really, really hard. Each pass is another question. 

"Am I good enough?" 
"Is this book good enough?"
"Is this a bad time to query?"
"Should I have queried a different agent?"

Then as the list of potentials dwindles, the question becomes, "What if I can't do this? What if I don't come up with another idea?"

I think even published successful writers face this challenge, and the answer is: there are always new ideas. 

So when do you put it away? I don't know. I wish I did. Just remember it could be agent 101 that says, "yes," but you'll never know unless you get there.

Keep writing!

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Trope List

You all know what a trope is right? Because my husband didn't. It's the mean, blond cheerleader, the overprotective mom, or the sassy gay BFF. If you want to explore an incredibly comprehensive list of TV tropes, as in they are gathered by genre and then sub-divided alphabetically, check this page out:

Tropes are so easy to fall back on, as easy as using the term, "fall back on" (another trope) to say they are a lazy way to solve a plot or character problem because they rise to the top of the list when you're looking for solutions. When you need to drum up some drama in your YA novel, a love triangle might come up as one of the first solutions. But readers (and agents and editors) want something new and different.

I decided to make a list of things I will not use in my working drafts. This could always change, and please don't feel like you have to follow my list. On #MSWL, I just saw an agent ask for a revenge book, and another for vampires! You never know what will come back en vogue. The purpose of this list is for me, to avoid the easy fixes so I'm forced to look deeper. 

  • No love triangles
  • No all white, CIS, overly attractive cast
  • No revenge plots
  • No vying for the throne
  • No fantasy set in Middle Ages England
  • No insta-love, they have to earn it
  • No vampires, mermaids, werewolves, (unless I can think of a really unique twist.)
  • No chosen one
  • No dystopia
Okay so my first thought might be to have a girl wronged by the king, who sneaks into the palace to reap her revenge, and while she's there, she meets the prince and falls in love. But, uh oh, she also has a boyfriend back home.

Off the top of my head, I can think of 6 novels that use this exact plotline. 

So I have to think about what I really want to accomplish in my book. I want to get her into the palace, meet the prince, and grapple with the betrayal of her old life while falling for a new one. 

Maybe it's her mom that doesn't want her to go. They have a fight, and in her anger, my MC commits to being a maid in the palace, a contract she can't get out of even after she sobers up and changes her mind. Maybe it's the princess she falls for instead of the prince. Maybe this all happens in a fantasy version of conquistador Spain. I don't know. The purpose of the exercise is to brainstorm other, non-trope ways to tell the story I want to tell. Like they always say, your work needs a hook, and your hook is either turning these tropes on their head or breathing new life into them. 

So what are your favorite/least favorite tropes? What would you pay a dollar to never see ever again?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Birth of a Novel

1. Idea - I'm usually driving or taking a shower or watching a commercial when an idea for a new novel hits me. At this point, it's pretty vague like a sci-fi version of Riverdale where they're all androids. I keep a file of all of these random ideas and read through them occasionally for a good laugh or inspiration. I know in today's market, my book needs to have a really good hook AND amazing characters AND a unique plot to stand a chance.

2. Storyline - Whether I'm agented or not, I write a query first. I want an idea of where this is going, who my main characters are, what they want, what they're fighting for, and how they'll grow over the course of the story. It's just a framework, a place to start. As I write, things always evolve and sometimes my finished story barely resembles this first query.

3. Research - If I'm writing the above idea, I will watch every single episode of Riverdale, read old Archie comics, and then I'm going to brush up on Asimov. I also collect pictures of how I want my characters to look and get images of places where my story is going to take place. IE, if there's a beach scene, I'll collect a few images of ideal beaches so when it comes to describe the color of the water, I have a picture right in front of me.

4. First Draft - This is always the part that scares me the most--the blank page. There's lot of hype around the "great first line" so I work to come up with one of those first. For me, once there are words on the page, I can write.

I'm not a pure plotter, but I'm not a pure pantster either. I have my query for an overall map, and before I sit down for a writing session, I usually have the next two scenes in mind. I can't work with things more rigid than that. I like to be able to change the sex of my characters in the middle of a scene or blow something up if I'm in a bad mood.

5. Second/Third Draft - This is the one where I roll up my sleeves, pour a big glass
of wine, and sit down ready to rip shit apart. I write speculative fiction so one of my biggest jobs at this stage is to organize my information. Did I dump a load of world-building in chapter one? Is there another place where it would better fit?

Then I look at my characters. In my first drafts, I'm pretty good at getting the what and how down, but in my second run, I need to look at the why. Why would Archie reasonably decide to erase Jughead's memory function? What is he feeling in this scene? Many writers have to reduce their word count. I usually have to build mine.

And my third task in this stage is description. I go through my initial descriptions of scenes/people, look at my reference photos, and decide if someone (or thing) needs a bit more color or fluff. I know some writers have a natural affinity for this. I'm more of a plot/character based writer so this is something I have to force myself to do, like taking vitamins.

6. Let it sit. - I won't look at it for at least two weeks, but I will send it to Beta Readers at this point.

7. The Kindle Read - I've heard of several ways to get better perspective on your novel. Change the font, print it out (that makes me swoon because it's sooo much paper!), read it out of order, but I just send it to my Kindle and read it there.

It's amazing how many typos and mistakes I catch there, enough so that I begin to think, "Oh my God, I am not qualified to do this!" But there are also parts where I get so caught up in it, I forget I wrote it, and I'm supposed to be editing.

I also take this opportunity to give my work a sensitivity read. I like to work with anti-heroines who can be mean and cruel and insulting, but I mark places that might be too mean, or cruel, or insulting and make notes to dial those back.

8. Final Edit - So this is it, my last pass before I consider it as good as I can get it. I incorporate my Beta Readers' notes, my notes from my Kindle read, add a title page, a header and footer and consider it done. (This is a lie, a book is never done.)

I know this sounds like a long process, and it is! It usually takes me 6-8 months to get here, and that's considered fast in the industry. Please don't feel bad if you take a year or two or more. Everyone has their own speed, steps, and free writing time.

But what's your process? How do you get ideas and how many drafts do you go through before you consider it "done"?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Five Things I Learned from Mistborn: The Final Empire, about writing Fantasy

This post appears on the New England Speculative Writers' blog. If you are in the New England area and a speculative fiction writer, you should consider joining. This is a relatively new group, but very supportive and gung ho about presenting writing opportunities to the base.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Explain it to a Five-Year-Old: English

"Mom, I can spell, 'done.'"

"Okay, let's hear it."


Making cringey face. "Close, but it's actually D-O-N-E."

He makes bigger cringey face. "But that's not right. If you have an E at the end, it should be a long O. Because the E is silent and gives its strength to the O to make it long."

Wringing hands together. "Well, yes, in most cases, but not in this one."

"Okay." Scribbles out DUN, rewrites DONE. "How about circus? S-I-R--"

"No, it starts with a C."
"Okay, C-I-R-K--"

"And another C. It's C-I-R-C-U-S."

Little eyebrow furrows together. "So the C makes an ess sound and a kuh sound in the same word?"

"Mmm hmm, you see modern English is sort of a mash-up of other languages, so it doesn't always make sense."

"Okay." Tears off page. Starts with a new one. "I think I get it. Fun, F-O-N-E."

Reaching for wine bottle, getting corkscrew. "No. In that one the O would be long, so it would be fone, except phone you spell with a P-H that makes an eff sound when you put them together." Filling glass of wine to brim.

Son sets down pencil. "How am I supposed to know when an eff sound is an F and when it's a P-H?"

Drinks long sip of wine. "Well it's an F in fun, fairy and food; and a PH in words like phone and graph."


Guzzling wine. "I don't know. It just is. You just have to memorize it."

"I'll never know all this stuff." Pushes notepad off the table and pouts.

"Hey, it takes a long time." Kneeling down beside him. "There are adults who don't get all this stuff."

Brightening. "Really? There are grown-ups who can't spell?"

Thinking back to Facebook feed and gross appropriations of 'your.' "Yes, absolutely."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Don't Give Up!

I don't know about everyone else, but I've been feeling pretty helpless with the state of politics these days. We call, we march, we protest and continue to lose to bigotry and ignorance. I had the great opportunity to meet with RI Congressman Jim Langevin this weekend, hoping for some strategy. If you're feeling like I am, he said to keep being vocal. We only lose when we're silent. If you're in a red state, call your reps. Repeatedly. It does help. And for blue staters, don't forget to call your reps and tell them when you support their legislation. Mr. Langevin thanked me for supporting him on bill HR 3497 to limit automatic weapons because, usually, he only hears from the naysayers. The intelligent, compassionate side of Congress is still there for us, and they need our help, so let's make sure we give it to them!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Reviewers are Your Best Resource

If I've said this before, I think it bears repeating. Book reviewers are an amazing resource for writers. Why? Because they read, a lot. Possibly as much or more than the editors and agents we're pitching. They've seen it all. They know what's been done a thousand times. They know what's unique. They know what's missing from the market, and ultimately, they are your readers. They are who you really need to sell this book to, and they are letting you know exactly what they want and don't want, right there on Goodreads.

I say this because I read and I review and I write, and the book I'm pitching now is a product of many, many hours of work and plotting inspired by reviewers.

It started out as a revenge book, because who doesn't love a plucky teen girl seeking revenge for her murdered family? Lots of people, which is why lots of authors have used that as a basis for their plot. I was already at work on it, making plans, adding characters when I read a review for another book that said...

Oh boy, another revenge plot.

It was a blow to my plans, yes, but a necessary one. Trying to break into an already saturated market as a new voice with no publishing cred...well, I have to be different. That one line pushed me back into my plotting and forced me to think about what I really wanted to accomplish. Where did I want my character to go? What was she seeking? Where did I see her ending up? Ultimately, there was another way to get her there without sending her in as a vengeful assassin.

So how do you start?

Read the reviews for books you love, your mentor texts. Read the reviews from reviewers who feel like you do, who gave it five stars and put it at the top of their reading shelf. What did they like about the book? Were they the same things you liked about it?

Then read the one star reviews. What did they hate about it? Do you agree or disagree? Is it just a matter of taste?

On the flip side, read the reviews for the books you didn't love. Why did the five-star reviewers give it five stars? Do you agree or disagree?

Keep in mind that books, like art, are VERY subjective. Someone's Van Gogh can be another person's Monet and neither one is right or wrong. (Except if you don't love Monet, you're wrong.)

Once you have your notes, you can start weaving new ideas into your own novel.

  • You loved the way Author A wrote her dialogue, but didn't like the controlling male love interest. 
  • A reviewer said that although the revenge plot was tired out, Author B added a new twist by making the MC a girl with autism. 
  • Another reviewer loved the world-building by Author C, but thought the character was a Mary Sue.

Now back to your novel. What did Author A do to make her dialogue so inviting? Are there ways you can infuse those things into your work? Is there something unique about your main character that you can showcase? What about Author C's MC made her a Mary Sue? Was it an inability to act? Was she another plain girl everyone loved? What can you change about your MC to avoid falling into the same trap?

It's something I like to call Frankensteining. Take a piece from this, a part from that, meld it with your own ideas and start piecing together a novel. None of this is different from simply reading and making notes. But you have a whole team of readers making notes alongside you, who have read things that are still on your TBR pile, or ARC's of books that aren't on shelves. So utilize it. Don't be another revenge plot!