Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

WIPMarathon Intro

So I don’t usually talk about my WIPs in depth at my blog. Mostly because I have too many of them going at once—or started, anyway—and I feel ashamed that I have nothing to show for it other than sweat and tears and some rough, uncompleted drafts that no one on earth but me has ever seen. Life gets in the way, writer’s block hits, and even well-intentioned “I’m going to write every day and finish this!” goals end in getting stuck at what seemed like the climax of the manuscript. (I’m looking at you, contemporary suspense YA manuscript. I’ve shelved you for a while now, but I swear someday I’ll dust you off and figure out what went wrong.)

Well, I’m tired of having nothing to show for it. It’s been my dream practically all my life to be a published author, and—dare I hope—an author with more than one book to her name. But I’m never going to get there until I have more than one manuscript to shop around!

So luckily, shiny new idea hit in early July. Like I needed another new idea I wouldn’t finish… But how about one I WOULD finish? What if I told myself I’d write almost every single day (I’m sorry, me, but some days I’m just too busy or tired to write even a line, and that’s okay, as long as it’s not often.) and this time, I had an outline ready so I couldn’t possibly wind up stuck at the end?

So that became my goal: write this manuscript and finish it. Stop fretting about all the things people will find wrong with it, that everyone I know will hate it and I’ll have to start another project, and just write it, just have another project in the wings ready to go.

So last week I found out about a group of bloggers devoting the month of August to accomplishing their individual goals in their WIPs, and although I’m late to the game, I’ve also been writing a lot this month (more than last month even), so I decided to join in! Learn more here if you feel like doing the same (yes, you can join late, I asked!).

So here’s my intro, soon followed by my check-in:

Marathon Goal: As close to finishing the first draft of this project as possible. I originally gave myself until the end of the year, but I feel more pumped. I’m hoping I can finish long before that. I did also have a goal of writing my outline this month after finishing the first four (long) chapters in July (I wanted to get a feel for the characters before I decided the rest of the plot), and I did that last weekend, yay.

Stage of writing: Writing the first draft of my sixth novel project. (Of the previous five, one is completely retired, one is finished and got me an agent :D, and the other three are in various stages of being on hiatus.)

What inspired my current project: It’s YA fantasy. I want to say Game of Thrones meets Marvel Comics’ Runaways, but every YA fantasy these days has the “YA version of Game of Thrones” tag already, so… yeah. Also, it’s my first project with multiple POVs. Four to be precise. Because I’m crazy like that.

What might slow down my marathon goal: Getting distracted, getting busy, and having too much work to do. I write for a living, too, and if I spend all day staring at my computer, pulling the creative juices out of my brain writing for work, sometimes I’m simply too exhausted to keep doing that for my own stuff. (Seriously, I wish I had like a Kindle screen just for typing. I get so tired of staring at a glowing screen.)

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

Character Voice and First Person Point of View

I’m a fan of first person narrative. I love reading it, and I love writing it, and thankfully it’s pretty common in my favorite genre (YA). There’s something so immediate about first person narrative that lets you slip into a character’s head better than third person, to picture the action from his or her point of view. Through one character’s eyes, you go on an adventure you’d probably never get to experience, you get romanced (sometimes~) and, in YA at least, are free to regress to a younger age when you were just getting used to the unfairness of the world (and overreacting to it), and you viewed things through a not-yet-adult-no-longer-a-child point of view.

I love writing when first person voice is unreliable especially. As the writer, you know your character isn’t seeing things as they truly are, but it’s fine manipulating the reader into seeing things from the skewed point of view, only to turn it on its head later.

My only problem as a writer of first person perhaps? Learning to give each narrative voice its own flavor. So far I have one completed manuscript in first person and two works in progress in first person—the newest will actually have four different first persons at that. I know, I’m crazy, but that’s the story I want to tell. (My other two works in progress are in third person and I’ve yet to become as attached to them, perhaps because I don’t feel as immersed in them.) I’ve seen multiple points of view first person done well (among them, one I’ve beta read and hope you all see someday), and I think I can come up with some strategies for trying to make each voice different. (We’ll see if others agree I’ve done a decent job distinguishing them, since I’ve yet to share more than one first person narrative with a single human being… My cat, though, she’s seen them while getting fur all over my laptop screen.):

  • Try to figure out who the narrator is before you start writing. What makes him or her different from the other characters you’ve written before? What are their strengths, and what are their weaknesses?
  • How would you write dialogue for this character? Chances are, you “get inside the heads” of dozens of characters all the time anyway when they speak to your narrator. This time you just have to think of how the new character would describe everything unfolding in the room.
  • How are they unreliable? Everyone is, to a certain extent. Figure out the “truth” of the scene, and then figure out how the character would interpret that truth. How would they describe a scene in a different way than the last character from whose point of view you wrote?
  • Don’t go overboard with the voice differences. Having one character drop the “g” off of “ings” seems like a good idea to remind the reader that this is Character B speaking, not Character A, but it’s really just distracting. If Character A is serious and Character B takes everything as a joke, there are ways to express that better than speech differences, like smarmy commentary.

What other tips and strategies do you have for writing different first person points of views? Share them with me!

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

Happy Labor Day! (Are You Laboring?)

Happy Labor Day to the rest of you in the US! If you’re a writer, particularly a freelance one, holidays are hard to take off, though. If you shimmy your schedule around just right, you may be able to take a day off here and there, but usually they’re out of the question. Especially if you’re being good and writing creatively every day like you ought! In which case, even when you don’t have the business writing to do, you’re still keeping up the discipline by working on a WIP.

An advantage of being a freelance writer, though, is that you can make your own schedule for the most part, and there are a number of days where you work fewer than eight hours. (And some days when you work more, ack. I try to avoid those. I never once pulled an all-nighter in college, but I have for some clients!) Of course, there’s always so much else to fit into any given day: cleaning, cooking and running errands… I don’t think I’ve experienced boredom outside of things like waiting in lines in years.

This week I have a huge freelancing project from one of my favorite clients, one that may extend for a number of months. I’m also roughly 10,000 words from finishing the first draft of the YA WIP that I started earlier this year and that I’ve been determined to work on almost every day for over a month now. (And boy, is it taking a lot more out of me than the first completed book!) I have big, exciting edits for another project. I have two other WIPs not touched in a while… Oh, and I have to live outside of staring at my computer at some point, too.

So how have I managed it so far? And why am I here at the blog? Because I’ve finished my work quota for the day. (Admittedly, I haven’t picked up the WIP quite yet, but I will.) So far (after fighting off panic about how much I need and want to do over the next few weeks) I’ve decided to:

  • Get the work writing done right away in the morning. I need to work on the non-fiction stuff when my mind’s still focused and I have the drive. Whenever I feel my drive slipping, I keep telling myself I’ll be done after lunch, and then I’ll have the afternoon to devote to other projects.
  • Turn distractions into a reward. I can easily spend an hour just goofing off at my favorite websites first thing when I get online if I choose (it’s nice and brain-numbing). Not so this week. I check my email, shut off the Internet, write two articles, check one fun website, rinse and repeat…
  • Stick to the WIP. I’ve spent too many weeks working on this one nearly every single day to give up now when the end is so close. (And I’m at risk of never wanting to pick it up again after all it’s put me through!) I just need to be more lax when it comes to word count. My best days were 2000-3000 words, but now I need to be okay with 500 on any given day, and then I can focus on other projects.
  • Take breaks! When I waste time goofing off online, I feel guilty spending too much time away from the computer doing anything more substantive than a quick run to the washing machine to start a load of laundry. When I’m disciplined, I feel I deserve a 15-minute break to read or step out for fresh air. It recharges me, and I don’t feel guilty.

So far, so good, I don’t feel like a burn out is imminent. What do you do when you’re incredibly busy, but there’s so much you need and want to do? How do you fit it all in?

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

Ending at the Beginning

It’s no secret that the beginning of a manuscript has to entice people to keep reading or the rest of your manuscript may never see the light of day, no matter how wonderful and exciting it becomes later on. Actually crafting that compelling opening is easier said than done, though–at least for me.

When I sat down to write the manuscript that got me an agent, I wrote the scenes that my brain told me came first. Meanwhile, I was also incorporating a little bit of an old manuscript I’d been working on for years. (See this entry.) The result was an odd mishmash of chronology for the first four chapters or so. One of my beta readers thought the jumps odd and wanted more clarification, particularly when it came to worldbuilding. (The manuscript is fantasy.) I thought about it and added a few more passages I thought clarified things and I was ready to go.

Of course, most (but not all) agents ask for a sample of the manuscript along with the query. I only had 5 or 10 (sometimes a bit more) pages to grab their attention. Partial and full requests came in… And the vast majority were only from agents who had requested queries only (no sample pages) for the first e-mail. I started wondering if that meant my concept was enticing enough but not my first few pages…

And then I got an R&R on a full request. The problem? The beginning, of course! The agent agreed with my beta reader (maybe they’re really in tune–that agent was my beta reader’s agent by then!): I needed to fix up the beginning and work on clearly worldbuilding. So that was two people who thought my beginning needed work–and maybe more, and the others who rejected it didn’t have time to tell me.

I took a time out from sending queries and spent a slow three weeks reshaping the beginning. I cut long scenes, rearranged ones I wanted to keep and cut, cut, cut passages. Then I drafted a new first chapter–twice. I didn’t much like my first attempt at a new beginning. Then I was struck with a different idea, and I wound up writing two completely new chapters. This version started with action, and I used that action to worldbuild. At first I was wary about re-doing the beginning, but I loved the final result!

I sent out the revision and continued to query other agents with my brand new beginning. Material requests rolled in, and this time they were from agents who saw sample pages at the start! I got a few passes, but of those who took the time to detail their reasons, all were complimentary–particularly about my worldbuilding! And, of course, it was this beginning (10 pages with the query) that netted the full request and then my first offer of representation.

I’m learning. Both of the beginnings of my two WIPs start with action. I like them–but at the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have to go back and tweak the beginning at the very end!

How do you write beginnings? Do you fix the beginning later or think of a compelling image to start the book before you start?

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

The Soul-Sucking Synopsis (I Exaggerate, but Barely)

Ask virtually any writer, published or unpublished, who’s gotten as far as the querying stage at least, and they’re bound to agree: when it comes to writing the one- or two-page book synopsis or writing the entire tens-of-thousands-of-words manuscript, the latter is probably easier. I’m not kidding.

Luckily for me, my agent was one of the types who never asked for the synopsis (and he agreed with me on how awful they are)—not even after I signed with him! (It may be needed in the future, of course, so I can’t hold a digital fire and delete the wretched things off my hard drive…) But I wrote several versions before I started querying anyway because a fair number of agents do ask for one, either upfront or after they request further materials from you.

My first attempt was a joke. I tried writing about two sentences per chapter, but I couldn’t stick to it. In the end, I had about five single-spaced pages, which wasn’t going to fly. (I hear tell that sometimes agents will request 5-10-page+ synopses from you, but probably not until they sign you, and perhaps not even then, so don’t worry about writing a long one while still querying.)

When an agent requests a “one-page synopsis,” from what I understand, you can write it “Internet style,” which is single-spaced, chunk-like paragraphs and two spaces between paragraphs (see this blog entry as an example). The “two-page synopsis” is double-spaced and manuscript style, with indented paragraphs and no extra spaces between paragraphs. I found that the two are actually almost the same, when you take into account the spacing. The two-page one did allow for a few more sentences, though. (And every sentence you can wring out of the space counts. Really!) Expect both versions to be between 500-1000 words, and the closer to 500 words, the better. Yes, you have to distill your entire book into fewer than 1000 words. (I wound up with about 600 for the one-page and 760 for the two-page.)

I’m probably not the best source of advice on the subject, as I’m still not that proud of my synopses. Still, I’d be glad to share the tips that helped me rip the final results from my brain over a long period of three weeks and several drafts:

  • Aim for the limited space from the start. Originally, I thought I’d write up a summary of the book as I pleased and cut out any extra words later. Yeah… That wasn’t going to cut it when during my first try, I came up with a 3500-word version I needed to cut down to as close to 500 words as possible. I started over from scratch without even looking at the first version.
  • Follow the greater plot and cut out the subplots. If you ever write a longer version, you can put the subplots in there, but when every word is crucial, you’ll have to skip entire storylines. I actually skipped almost all of my beginning in which I set up the world, except for a couple of sentences that explained the world clearly. (When I changed the beginning of the manuscript drastically, I didn’t even have to change the synopsis since I never was able to fit in information about the start!) It helps that you have to…
  • Name only three (or four?) characters. The main character is a given, but most of the characters s/he interacts with will have to be known by their roles such as “Tanya’s sister” or “the old neighbor.” Other characters you might choose to name are any love interest(s) or antagonist(s). Everything I read said to name no more than three characters, but I could not do mine without four. Maybe some agents/editors are flexible… Oh, and by the way, put the names in all-caps the first time you write them in the synopsis: Sixteen-year-old TANYA RICHARDS ….
  • Try to add your voice. I had a lot of trouble with this one. You don’t want your synopsis to be boring—you’re probably using it as one part of your package to sell your book to an agent or editor—so it’s got to have some of that query-like, back-of-the-book-type flair. Try to project the same tone you use to narrate your book. (By which I don’t mean write in first person if your manuscript is in first person. Write in third person always with synopses.) I don’t think I quite did that (it was hard enough for me to get the story out in such limited space), but I know my fellow writer and beta reader did with her sassy book synopsis.
  • Delete unnecessary words. After the horrible first attempt at a synopsis, I wrote one that was about 1100 words. That’s the one I was able to get down to two pages and then one page. To do so, I deleted as many adverbs and adjectives as I could and made sure every sentence added something important to the summary. If not, it had to go, no matter how much it hurt to cut it.

Have you written a synopsis? What tips worked for you?

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

The Query Conundrum: Tips for Creating the Perfect Query

During my entire agent search, I visited writing forums and writer blogs on pretty much a daily basis to get tips on how to get my book out there. (Also to distract myself from all of the waiting that’s unavoidable in this business!) One topic I saw discussed time and time again was the query. Some people claimed to spend weeks on crafting the perfect query–and sometimes even then, they’d go back and do a second or third version of the query for the same book. They’d post queries for other writers to critique and compete in agent-sponsored contests for professional feedback on their queries. It’s clearly a major source of frustration.

Me? I wrote my query in about half an hour and never revised it. I did ask one vague question on a forum before I began, though, having to do with how to phrase the “it’s a stand-alone story with series potential” aspect and if I should mention the unsatisfying (?) but still conclusive (?) ending I hoped would cause people to want more but not scare away anyone who wanted a stand-alone book. I also sought feedback from my beta readers, but they both thought it was fine. Of everything in the writing process, I spent the least amount of time on writing the query. (And don’t worry, not everything went so smoothly for me–my multiple stabs at the dreaded synopsis took weeks and weeks… A story for another day!)

The query resulted in about a 10% interest from agents (i.e., requests for partials/fulls), although of course it obviously wasn’t to every agent’s taste (which accounts for the other 90%!). Still, I was pretty confident in the query, especially since pre-major revision to the beginning of the book (which inevitably changed the first 5/10/30 pages a chunk of agents ask for with the query) I was pretty sure my query was getting more response than my pages, since almost all of the requests pre-revision were from the agents who only got the query with no sample pages (their preference).

..But I’m not going to post the query. Sorry! The manuscript’s being prepped for the submission stage, and I’m not yet comfortable sharing the details online. (Not that anyone’s going to steal it, but even so!) But I will share some tips I hope can help you nail that perfect query:

  • Read the back/inside dust jacket teasers for your favorite books. This is essentially what you’re trying to recreate for your book. Break down what those writers (not necessarily the authors themselves) did to get you to pick up the book with just a few sentences. They didn’t give away the ending, of course, but they set up the conflict, introduce the main character (and a central secondary character or two) and hint at the major problem behind the plot of the book.
  • Think of yourself as a salesperson. Maybe one reason I enjoyed writing my query was because my other hat as a writer tends to lean towards salesmanship. (Whatever my clients’ clients have to sell, be it product or service, I spend hours writing to try to convince the random web visitor they can’t do without it, even if I’d never heard of it until I got the assignment… Without being too knock-you-over-the-head about it!) The few sentences in a query need to “sell” the book; they need to be so dripping with voice, danger, conflict, and/or some form of drama, they scream, “Pick me up and read me to find out more!”
  • Get critiqued. If you’re struggling, there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to your beta readers, writing forums, and agent-sponsored contests for help! That’s what they’re there for.
  • Query in batches. Test to see if your query is getting any response. If you query 10-15 agents and not a single one requests material, it may be time to re-write the query from scratch. (Or your problem may lie in the sample pages. Try a few agents who ask for the query only at the start to see if it’s the query or the pages that’s the culprit!)
  • Double-check the individual agent’s preferences. This involves more than just knowing whether or not the agent reps works in your genre or wants samples pages/a synopsis from the start (although paying attention to these points is essential, too!). Some agents–although they’re rare from what I saw–actually do want the whole story spoiled in a query. Others are very strict about the length of the query or want to know whether or not you’re sending the query out to other agents at the same time. (Tip: DO send it out to multiple agents. The process takes too long to limit yourself to one agent at a time!)
  • Break it into manageable chunks. My query was probably a tad longer than what I’d seen in all of the advice–which sometimes says the thing ought not to be more than three or four sentences or so. But don’t make it too long. (The whole query letter ought to be no longer than a page–and that includes the bio, info about word count and genre, and introduction as well as the book teaser.) The actual book teaser part doesn’t have to stick to three or four sentences, but it should fit into these four categories:
  1. The hook. Most places say one-sentence. Mine was four (albeit very small sentences, intentionally chopped up for the effect of “voice”). Let this opening line (or lines) especially drip with the voice of your work. Let it say something unexpected–or better yet, twist something expected into something unexpected. It may be the furthest an agent reads into your query, so it better work to grab their attention! For example (totally made up story here), which is the better hook? “15-year-old Andy just found out he’s a fairy” or something like “Most 15-year-olds are looking forward to getting their learner’s permit so they can learn how to drive. Andy’s got to worry about learning how to control the glistening fairy wings that just sprouted from his back so he can stop floating in front of his friends.”
  2. The world. Not every story necessarily needs this part in the query, but mine did since it’s a fantasy. Explain briefly what kind of world your story takes place in, so the drama you’re going to allude to makes sense.
  3. The set-up. Explain where your main character finds him or herself at the beginning of the story and what kind of problems he or she faces before the big drama/action of the book kicks into gear. (Hint, a lot of times your main character will evolve from the person he or she was at the beginning by the end of the book; explain how he or she starts out in the query.)
  4. The conflict. Here’s the juicy part. Explain the main conflict of the book in one to three sentences and take us up to just before the big climax–without spoiling us about what that big climax may be. Leave it open-ended!

Do you struggle with queries? What are some tips that work for you?

Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

Give Brainstorming a Try–Even When You Usually Write on the Fly

One of my favorite books, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, has a few jarring moments when the author speaks to the reader outside of the plot of the book. When I first read the book in high school and again in college, I was especially drawn to Fowles’ explanation of how the characters seem to write themselves without his conscious input:

“It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live.” (Fowles, ch. 13)

He also mentions how the novelist cannot plan the worlds that they create through fiction, and goes as far as to say “a planned world… is a dead world.” Non-writers in the classes thought it silly, but this seemed to perfectly sum up how I write: sit down with a few ideas germinating and just write with no specific plan of where you’re going–more likely than not, the ideas come to me, and they sometimes surprise me as much as they do the reader.

On the other hand, I envied anyone who could sit down and write an outline for a book they wanted to write. They had a skeleton of the book in hand and could write without pesky writer’s block butting in. I just could never do it myself.

But about a week ago, I did. I outlined the rest of the second book in a planned series (after writing the first few chapters) and all of the third book. True, things may change when (if) I get to putting the words on paper (er, computer screen), but for the first time ever, I know exactly where I’m going with this! And plus, the experience was similar to that of writing on the fly: I sat down with a few general ideas as I wrote, and the rest came to me, surprising me all the while.

So how do you come up with ideas? You take some time to brainstorm! Next time you write, try the following, even if you don’t usually come up with ideas before you write the draft:

  • Discuss ideas with beta readers. You trust these people to have first access to your drafts, so they’re likely to be the only people on the planet who will be able to help you come up with ideas, since they’re the only ones who’ve read it! I never thought to discuss ideas with a beta before, but one of mine was so anxious to know “what would happen next” that he triggered a conversation over dinner. Ideas both of us came up with served as the general ideas I sat down with as I wrote the outline–and they evolved quite a bit as I wrote. And now at least the two of us know what happens, even if few others ever do!
  • Run with one idea. One idea is all you need to start. Describe how that idea impacts the world of your novel and see if more ideas come to you.
  • Don’t be afraid to try. You’re not married to the ideas you come up with–they’re just going to serve as a guideline once you write. If you come up with something different later, that’s fine, and no one need be the wiser!