I began this post yesterday, but I somehow managed to fall asleep at 9:30, so I didn’t get a chance to finish. (#Oops #YOLO #CollegeLyfe ?)
I’ve spent the past week and a half doing really intense revision work (like: Spend Every Free Moment Not in Class Revising kind of revision work), so I’ve been tired and not sleeping well (haven’t had time to exercise, so my legs are really restless), and… yeah. I guess it finally caught up with me last night.
Anyway: please forgive this terrible transgression against you, oh dear Wordy Wednesday reader. This makeup blog post is going to have to be a quick one, because besides not finishing writing it last night, I also slept through time I was supposed to spend on a lit paper due in a few hours. And I, ya know, still haven’t chosen a topic or anything. (I am ROCKING that life thing right now.)
This week’s (belated) Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.
As mentioned above, I’m currently in the middle of some really intense revisions.
Mostly this has involved something along the lines of what I talk about in this post (restructuring by scene) and *cough* this post (strengthening character development in the supporting cast).
(Spoiler: all these blog posts have to do with the single round of revisions I’ve been working on since, like, March. It’s all just been culminating in the mad dash at the end these past couple weeks.)
I’ve finally reached the point at which I need to actually read the manuscript, to make sure my changes work and make other changes that are difficult out of context. For example: strengthening the line-by-line writing. And although I’m only on, like, Chapter Nine right now, I’ve already found several chapters that go on too long.
Not like, “Woe is me, this chapter is 2,576 words long and I wanted it to be 2,574!” but like, “What is the point of this paragraph at the end? This solidifies the end of the chapter too much. This is too comfortable of an ending. DELETE, DELETE, DELETE.”
Chapter endings should not be comfortable. If they’re comfortable, what’s the point of continuing reading? They should be ominous. They should be uneasy. They should be surprising.
It’s called a cliffhanger for a reason.
You always want to leave something unresolved at the end of a chapter. Whether your protagonist is being accused of cheating on his math test or she’s literally hanging off a cliff, this situation needs to be unresolved so that the reader will turn immediately to the next chapter.
Take it one step further: don’t give all the info in a cliffhanger. Make the reader have to turn the page not only to learn how the situation ends, but the rest of the details of what’s even going on.
Are you more likely to read on from, “The haunted house creaked. I searched the room for a way out, but the only exit was through the door I’d come. I stepped towards it and the knob jiggled. It turned. In stepped the butler.”
Ooor: “The haunted house creaked. I searched the room for a way out, but the only exit was through the door I’d come. I stepped towards it and the knob jiggled. It turned.”
If you leave off in what feels like it could still be the middle of a scene, or end the chapter with your protagonist not quite learning all the information you led the reader to believe they were supposed to, etc., etc.–that is more likely to keep your reader going.
The SURPRISE! chapter ending requires you to pull a one-eighty at the very end of your chapter. Like the very end. Like in the very last sentence.
While the protagonist (and reader) have been concerned about something else–like someone accusing him of cheating on the math test–an entirely different problem has snuck up on him. Or maybe this problem literally does come out of nowhere and it’s not that the protag has been misleading his audience by focusing on something else, but that BOOM! This is an entirely new and not expectable problem!
A classmate drops dead in front of him. The super villain shoots him with a freeze ray from behind. The possibilities of a SURPRISE! ending are endless. They’re there to shock.
Make the reader think.
I don’t really suggest using this one, because it’s hard to make it seem not Super Written (and to make it an ending that keeps the reader from turning the light out for the night), but I have seen it done well in a few novels, so I figured I should include it.
When your protagonist spends time thinking, so does your reader. When you end a chapter with a character thinking (whether with a statement or an outright question), that leaves the reader really thinking, as they turn to the next chapter.
This can be dangerous. It can give the reader time to figure out something you don’t want them to figure out yet or, more commonly, it can leave the reader not feeling invested enough to keep reading.
Because when a reader sits back to ponder a statement or question the protagonist just asked, the reader disconnects from the story to do that. They evaluate the story as a whole, rather than staying right there, right then with the protagonist, like you want them to. And this easily leads to it not feeling like an urgent enough necessity to start the next chapter that night.
Be careful with this.
Reveal new information.
This is similar to both a cliffhanger or SURPRISE! ending, but less in-your-face and really only useful for chapters towards the beginning of your novel. It doesn’t build a ton of tension, but is just intriguing enough to keep the reader going.
This is information your protagonist probably already knows, but only now chooses to reveal to the reader. Some juicy bit of character development or world-building. It doesn’t do as much to build tension, because if the protag already knows it, the reader knows it’s not going to be some shocking revelation that guides the plot. But it does leave the reader curious.
Most importantly: leave the reader wanting more.
No matter how you end your chapter, the one thing you NEED to do is leave your reader wanting more.
Like I said: chapter endings should not be c0mfortable.
If the end of Chapter Eight is comfortable, then–like me–you’ve got some deleting to do.
Winter semester 2014: In which a girl who’s afraid of space thought it would be a good idea to take astronomy. (Basically, this semester cannot end soon enough.)
Obama visited today. The entire campus went insane. You know. The usual.
This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post about a photo. Specifically, the cover photo of my Facebook page right now:
The picture’s from last July. I was in the middle of completing a revision on a novel that involved a lot of refining for flow and structure, and I was having trouble working things out solely in my head/onscreen.
So I printed out my scene list. And chopped it up. And spread it all across my kitchen table. (Obviously my parents were thrilled.)
Being able to physically move around scenes was really effective and I’m about to do this whole process over again, so this seemed like a good time share it. (Thank you, Joan, for suggesting this topic!)
I give you: Restructuring Your Novel by Scene
Step 1: Make a list of all your scenes.
For each scene in my novel I:
Assign a number (so I know where in the manuscript it fits as is, in case I move it somewhere else)
Give a title (basically a brief description of what happens in it)
Note which chapter it’s in (a bigger picture version of assigning a number)
Color code it (a scene that shares a chapter with one other scene gets one color; one that shares with multiple scenes gets another; if it has its own chapter it gets another; and if it has multiple chapters to itself it gets another–this helps me keep track of the structures of chapters in relation with one another, so I don’t have too many of one type in a row or anything)
I also keep track of any scenes that happen to have unique characteristics, like if it’s a flashback, pure exposition, etc. (On this note: the novel I did this for last summer had two types of flashbacks–some were in past tense; others were in present–so I categorized the two types separately. You want to be as specific as possible.)
Step 2: Print the list, cut apart the scenes, and lay them in order on a flat surface.
This step’s pretty self-explanatory. If you have access to a table that you know no one will mess with while you’re working, you’re gold. If you don’t, find a patch of floor somewhere that you can barricade other organisms from touching. (I don’t suggest taping your scenes to a wall. Although that would ultimately work too, I also feel like it would be a lot less functional.)
Last time I did this, it took me about a week of thinking and staring and rearranging for twelve hours a day in order to settle everything. You don’t want your dog to knock a bunch of scenes off the table or someone to leave a sweaty glass on one.
(Protip: Print another copy of your scene list, but don’t cut this one apart. It’ll be useful to refer to while you’re rearranging things, so you can remember where everything was to begin with.)
Step 3: Gather your supplies.
You’re going to want to have:
Post It notes
at least one paperclip
several shades of highlighters
a couple shades of pens (I use black and red)
lots and lots of love for your novel (because when your patience and sanity run out, love is all you’ve got left)
I’ll talk about why you need everything else later, but first: the purpose of the Post It notes. As you go through the following steps, keep your Post Its at the ready.
Take notes if you’re considering doing something but haven’t quite made your decision yet, or don’t think it falls under one of the steps below. Write ideas for scenes you need to add. Stick a Post It to a scene if what you need to write exceeds the space on the slip of paper. Anything, really. Your Post Its are basically your thoughts on paper.
Now, let’s move onto the fun part: actually working on your novel.
Step 4: Mark which scenes are absolutely vital to the plot.
I star my vital scenes with my red pen, off to the left of all the typed information from Step 1. (I put all of my markings off to the left, and all my made-of-words notes above/below/to the right of the typed information, so it’s easy and fast to find things. Make sure to consistently centralize information; making unnecessary work for yourself is never fun.)
Signs that a scene is vital:
At least one major plot point occurs
The rest of the manuscript would fall apart if you pulled it
(Unfortunately, simply really loving a certain fight sequence, or cute interaction between your protagonists, or cool line does not a vital scene make. Be careful not to mark something only because you’re attached to it.)
If you have more than one scene that is vital in a row, stack those scenes. You’ll come back to them later, but for now, save some space for the next few steps.
Step 5: Look at the non-vital scenes.
I’m serious. Stare those suckers down.
Consider everything that happens in each scene:
What does the plot gain from it? (use your pencil to write this, probably above or below the typed info)
Is it super necessary for a subplot or character development? (mark this with one of your highlighters)
Does it have a cool sequence/interaction/line that you adore and don’t want to get rid of? (note this in pen, again above or below your typed info)
Chances are, if you didn’t mark it as vital to the plot in Step 4, that’s because the plot doesn’t gain anything from it–so you shouldn’t have anything written in pencil on these scenes. (If you have written something, reconsider whether or not you should mark that scene as vital. If what you’ve written is still too insignificant to the overall plot or too small a part of the scene as a whole to qualify the scene as vital, leave it as non-vital for now.)
You can still move the story forward with a non-vital scene if it influences a subplot or the development of a character (so while it might not be vital to the plot, it could be vital to the novel). However, a non-vital scene can’t just do one of these things. It can’t just explain why Bobby is afraid of marshmallows or be the space for two of your supporting characters to get in a fight.
Each scene has to progress the story in multiple ways. It has to explain the fear of marshmallows, and describe the big fight, and reveal something important to the plot–even if it’s something miniscule.
Think of each important thing that happens like a meal: if you miss out on one (losing a scene in which one important thing happens), it sucks but it’s not a huge deal. Miss eating for a whole day (losing a scene with several important things), and it becomes one. Miss eating for multiple days (a scene in which A LOT OF FREAKING STUFF HAPPENS), and you’re in deep trouble.
Thus, a non-vital scene becomes vital.
So, if you’ve got a non-vital scene that does have multiple important things happening in it, mark it as vital. If it’s near another vital scene, stack ’em. If the non-vital scene only has one or two important things in it (or *gasp* none), prepare yourself for Step 6.
Step 6: Cut scenes.
If a scene does absolutely nothing important for the story, cut it. If it’s repetitious in content of another scene (your protags having a cute back-and-forth; your antagonist being annoying; etc.), chances are you only need one of them–cut the one(s) you like less.
This is the time for that Kill Your Darlings thing. If a scene does nothing to progress your plot, subplots, or character development: Cut. It.
Stack your cut scenes off to the side where you can find them later if need be, but they aren’t in the way as you continue with the scenes you’re still working on.
Step 7: Consolidate scenes.
If you have more than one non-vital scene in a row, consider consolidating them into one. Take the best parts of each scene (favorite actions/interactions, lines, and of course all the important bits) and see if you can stick them into one.
Be aware, though, that you can’t save everything. Again: avoid repetition. Just because you say something in several different ways doesn’t mean you’re saying something new.
Also, don’t be afraid to consolidate scenes that maybe aren’t currently next to each other in the manuscript. Reordering is okay.
When you consolidate scenes, either tape them together (not stacked) and use a pen to draw a line connecting them, or use that pen to write what you’re moving from the scene(s) you’re getting rid of to the scene you’re consolidating into, off towards the right side of your slips. (I suggest highlighting these written notes in a certain color, for a reason I’ll talk about in a second.)
The goal of the cutting and consolidating is to eliminate non-vital scenes from your novel. You do this by either cutting the non-vital scene or combining enough important things from non-vital scenes to create a vital one.
Once all you have left are vital scenes…
Step 8: Make structuring decisions.
Spread out the scenes you have left and look at the order they’re in. Would something work better in another place? Are you absolutely certain you need that water balloon fight in the middle of the scene that’s vital for entirely different reasons? Rearrange scenes as necessary and write down things you’re cutting/adding/changing-in-some-other-fun-way in each scene.
Anything you write on a scene that you’ll need to address while you’re working on the manuscript itself, highlight in a certain color. This will really help separate those things from everything else you’ve got written on the slips of paper.
Look over your list while thinking about the flow and progression of the plot, subplots, and development of your entire cast of characters (not just your core protagonists). If something is missing or not quite flowing right, this is the time to figure out how to fix it.
(Protip: Don’t be afraid to actually add scenes. This process is a good way of figuring out if you’re missing something. Use those Post It notes of yours to add scenes when necessary.)
Step 9: Step back.
You don’t want to rush into changing things without really thinking them through first. Take a couple days (or at least a couple hours) to not think at all about the plans you’ve made.
If you have an epiphany about something during this time, feel free to return to your scenes and add the new changes. But don’t touch the actual manuscript until you’ve had a chance to get away from it for a bit and you’re absolutely positive you want to try a change. (“Try” is the operative word here–if something that seems good on paper doesn’t actually work in the manuscript, don’t force yourself into keeping it. Find another solution. If you want your novel to be the best it can be, you’ve gotta do what’s best for it, even if that sometimes means “wasting” time on things that don’t work. The time’s not wasted if it ultimately lead to a better manuscript.)
Once you are confident in all your decisions, stack your final list of scenes, use a paperclip to hold them together, and get to work.
(Optional) Step 9.5: Make a To Do list of the planned changes.
I say this is optional because it’s something I don’t do, but I’m sure other, more organized people would like to. Either write or type a list of all the changes you’re going to make. This would be useful for keeping track of what you’ve done and still need to do–but definitely isn’t necessary if you don’t care about organization (the notes on your slips of cut out scenes should be enough to remember all the changes you want to make.)
Step 10: Implement changes.
Everyone likes to revise their manuscripts differently. Personally, if I’m doing big changes to scene(s) or adding a scene, I’ll create a separate Word doc to work on those before touching anything in the manuscript itself. If I’m just adding a line or moving a scene to a different part of the novel, I do that right in the manuscript document.
(Protip: Save your manuscript in a new file before implementing any changes. That way you can look back at the old version if you need to review how something used to be, bring back a scene you deleted, etc.)
Once I’ve implemented my changes, I make sure the changes flow with the surrounding writing. Then, it’s time to read the full manuscript to make sure everything’s working–and, once I’ve gotten the MS as good as I can on my own, I send it to a couple critique partners.
A critique partner is the best way to figure out if something’s working or not. A lot of the time as the writer, you subconsciously become so numb to what you’re working on that you don’t notice problems anymore. Therefore, a new set of eyes basically equals a miracle.
And there you have it: my process for refining a novel by scene. (I’ll pretend this is patent pending, since it took me forever and a day to type.)
Do you have any specific processes for revising? Care to share with the class?
PS. The happiest of birthdays to my CP Kira, who becomes a Twenty Something today! 😀
Before you read this post, please note: A reader brought it to my attention that she thinks it sounds like I’m not willing to take critique, here. That is not my intention.
I love critique. I will always listen to critique, because I know I’m not perfect and I need help to make my writing better. That’s not what this post is supposed to be about. It’s also not supposed to be about me saying that there is anything wrong with my critique partners–between their opinions or the ways they critique–because there is nothing wrong with them. I love them. I love it when they’re sassy or thoughtful or sweet or any combination of the three. Me writing this post has nothing to do with a problem with them and everything to do with a problem with me.
I got so scared of making a mistake, recently, that I could no longer tell whether a decision was right or not.
This post is supposed to be about me learning that my voice matters just as much as everyone else’s–that my novelsshould ultimately reflect the style and ideals that I want them to–and that I, as a writer and individual, need to learn to trust my own instincts, sometimes.
That does not mean I will not take critique. That does not mean I’m not willing to rewrite scenes and revise plot lines and work with someone else to make my writing stronger. It just means that I’m learning to bring myself into the equation, as well. If I disagree with a suggestion, I’m going to bring it to the other person’s attention, and work with them to come up with something that we both agree on, rather than blindly following what they tell me to.
Critique is good, dear reader. But it’s all about how you interpret it. And that is the point of this post.
I really don’t know how much of all of this I should be saying. And by “all of this” I mean “talking about the revisions I’ve spent the past month doing on CADENCE.”
I wasn’t planning on talking about the revisions at all, actually, but Wednesday felt like a perfect time to mention them. And, here I am again, two days later, writing another blog post.
Because while I wasn’t planning on talking about them, right now I feel like I need to.
I finished my own changes to CADENCE on Saturday. They involved lots of rewriting, cutting and condensing and adding scenes, and attempting to deal with my apparent obsession with dialogue tags (I have no idea WHY there were so many dialogue tags in CADENCE up until this point, but I cut about a thousand words worth of them during line edits last week). Then I sent the manuscript off to four critique partners, all of whom I would trust with my life, and therefore I trust with a red pen.
The first critique landed in my inbox just a few hours after pressing send: CP Numero Uno loved the novel, loved the changes I had made (she and CP #2 had both read an earlier draft, back right before I began querying) and had very minimal suggestions for improving it.
The next day, CP #2 sent me her critique of the first few chapters, with the same sorts of suggestions: “Oh, there’s a typo here, an awkwardly worded sentence there. Maybe add something to further flesh-out what you’re saying in this paragraph?”
–All in all, those are the kinds of critiques I live for, because they mean I must be doing something right. They give me confidence in my decisions as a writer, and make me feel like my “maybe, someday I’ll be good enough to be published” pipe dream isn’t all that much of a pipe dream after all. I happily implemented my CPs’ suggestions and tucked the manuscript away for when the critiques from my other two CPs–the ones who hadn’t read CADENCE before–began appearing in my inbox.
The next couple days passed in a whirl of WriteOnCon and relaxing with books that have already been published (because, believe me: you get tired of reading ones you need to edit, after a while). Then Thursday came, and with it the next wave of critiques.
And Critique Partners Numberos Tres & Cuatro were not nearly as glowing as the first two.
Now, don’t get me wrong: neither CP #3 or 4 were mean or rude or ANYTHING of the sort in their critiques. These girls are awesome, and they really have just been giving me the tough love treatment I ask my critique partners to hit me with. However, their tough love also involved comments on rewriting scenes, restructuring whole chapters, and other major overhauls that made me want to simultaneously vomit my heart out and throw my laptop against hard surfaces. Like concrete, from the top of a very tall building.
I trust my critique partners with all my being. I know they just want what’s best for my novel. There’s a reason I chose these particular four people, out of the more-than-a-dozen who volunteered to read CADENCE without my even asking*, to be my CPs.
But as I sat alone in my room freaking out last night about which comments to take seriously, and which ones to disregard as we-write-different-styles opinion, and which ones to take into consideration but ultimately not act upon right now, it occurred to me that I’ve been spending so much time trusting my critique partners’ judgement–trying to make the novel what they want it to be–that I’ve stopped trusting my own.
As much as I love my CPs and want to make them happy, what’s ultimately important, with CADENCE, is making myself happy. It needs to be the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it. And if I don’t agree with one of their suggestions, I should trust my own judgement enough to make a decision on how to handle it.
It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true. This is not something to rely on other people to figure out. If they don’t like something that I’m doing stylistically, or they don’t like my plot or narrator’s voice, oh well. It’s not for them to decide. It’s my responsibility.
I don’t know if it gets easier, when you’re older, to look at these sorts of things and go, “Okay. I value your opinion. But since this is my novel, ultimately I need to value mine more.” Maybe it’s just because I’m nineteen years old and everyone always talks about putting others first. But it’s difficult to look at something and truly believe that my opinion matters more than–or even just as much as–someone else’s.
And I’m working on that. When it comes to me, when it comes to my own personal work, my opinion needs to matter, above my friends’ and family’s and colleagues’. I have the final say in what happens with my writing for a reason. While most of the time it’s good to put others before me, this is one situation where it’s important to put myself first, because CADENCE is my novel. I need to take ownership of it. I’m the only one who can.
So yes, it’s important to listen to and respect my lovely, wonderful, brilliant critique partners (you have no idea how much I love you guys). But it’s also important to look at some of their suggestions–like rewriting my opening paragraph because it didn’t grab CP #4 enough, despite the fact that none of the other CPs had problems with it–and say, “You know what? This opening paragraph has been working just fine for me so far. It’s gotten me requests from literary agents. I like my opening paragraph and I worked really hard on it. At least for now, I’m not going to change it.”
Someday down the line, I may rewrite that opening paragraph anyway. But for now, these opinions on CADENCE are just that: Opinions. Not law I need to follow. And they’re coming from only a couple of readers (most of whose advice has been oh-so-helpfully contradicting one another’s), out of what will hopefully someday be many (knock on wood).
It’s time to stop listening to what everyone else wants CADENCE to be, and focus on making it my own instead.
Everyone in the publishing industry is always talking about how you need a thick skin in order to take rejection and critique and reviews. But I think there’s also something to be said about knowing when to look someone in the eye and say, “No.” There’s something to be said for standing up for yourself, against your own doubts and fears; in trusting your own judgement.
I will never be able to please everyone with my writing, but at the least I should be able to please myself.
Of course I’m going to listen to my CPs about some things–like maybe how a sentence reads awkward or a paragraph needs a little more fleshing out or a sequence is confusing. But otherwise, it’s time to start listening to my own judgement. It’s time to start believing in and backing my own decisions. Because at the end of the day, this novel isn’t theirs. It’s mine.
One of my major fears, last night, in deciding what to do about these not-so-glowing critiques, was trying to figure out how I would feel over CADENCE being rejected, based on whether I took the suggestions or not. If I took them and agents rejected me, would I feel like I’d sold out? What would those what-ifs be? “What if I hadn’t listened to my CPs? Would the agents have still rejected me if the novel was more my own?” But what if I didn’t take the suggestions, and they rejected me then? “What if I had listened? What if the agent had preferred the plot to go in that other direction instead?”
I will never know how this whole thing would have turned out if I’d decided to rewrite parts–and possibly most–of CADENCE, based on the conflicting, confusing reactions of my critique partners. But it’s not something I should worry about.
I would much rather have an agent reject me for something I’ve consciously done on my own terms than accept me for something that no longer feels like it’s mine.
This story isn’t over yet. I don’t know how it’ll turn out, where it’ll end. Maybe it’ll be a happily ever after, and maybe it’ll be yet another dead end on the path to publication. But either way, it’s time to start trusting myself again.
I don’t know which is worse, jumping blindly or jumping with your eyes wide open. And I’m not exactly sure which I’m about to do.
But I’m tired of being afraid. I’m tired of not trusting my own judgement and trying to please everyone else, even at the detriment of my own happiness.
So I’m going to jump. And I’m not looking back.
*If any of you are reading this, by the way, I want to give you a massive hug, because you’re great and I love you and I’m so thankful for having you in my life. (But no, you’re not getting a copy until it gets published. And that “until” should be read as a very big “unless.”)
Before today’s Wordy Wednesday (whoohoo, a writing process post, what what!), one last reminder that the super totally crazy awesome WriteOnCon is going on right now. (CHECK IT OUT HERE.) If you’re a writer, you don’t want to miss this. (Please note that all the posts and videos will still be available after the conference is over, so even if you do miss it, you still, you know… haven’t actually missed it.)
Oh, and I got a Twitter. In case you want to be cool and follow me or something. (I’ll probably more than likely follow you back, if it’s looking like one of my more technology-savvy days.)
I haven’t talked about it much in public, but for a little over a month now, I’ve been doing a pretty intensive round of revisions on Cadence.
If you’ve been here for a while now, you probably know what Cadence is.
If you’re new (Welcome! I love you!), Cadence is a young adult spy novel that I’m currently querying. (And if you don’t know what “querying” means either, you lovely non-writer, I explain it here.)
This is my kitchen table covered in a chopped up list of the scenes in Cadence. It was this way for about a week. My parents were ready to put me up for adoption.
Why am I revising? That is something for me to know and you to maybe, someday find out–if we are all incredibly lucky and pray really hard and the Writing Industry Fairies smile down upon us. (That exact combination of factors. It can’t happen without that exact combination of factors.)
However, what I will tell you is this: Revising Cadence for the past month has taught me a ton about writing. Which seems crazy, because I just began the first draft a little over a year ago–and I just finished said first draft in January–so how much more could I have learned already?
It turns out, quite a lot.
Of course, it helps that since January, I’ve taken an intro to short story writing class through U of M, attended the Writer’s Digest Conference East, gone to a couple of writing workshops, and oh yeah–it’s WriteOnCon right now. Not to mention reading a more-than-obsessive number of blog posts and articles on craft and revising and all that awful fun stuff.
But truly? Most of what I’ve learned–or at least, most of what I’m taking into account while revising–is stuff I’ve taught myself.
Reading articles and taking classes based on other more experienced people’s observations on writing is great, but the real learning has been coming from the things I observe and take note of myself. Like how, while rereading Divergent by Veronica Roth, I found that one of the things that helps establish her rapid fire pace is her short, snappy sentence structure; and after sifting through some of my other favorite YA page-turners, I found the same thing. So I was able to go through Cadence and work on pacing by restructuring my sentences to make them shorter and therefore punchier.
Other lessons came from my own writing. My short story The Things I Leave Behind won the children’s/YA division of the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I wrote that story back in January for the U of M intro to short story writing class (just a week or so after I finished Cadence, actually) and ever since then, everyone who’s read it has adored it. None of the other short stories I wrote winter semester garnered anything like the reactions I’ve gotten to that first one.
So what makes The Things I Leave Behind–which was just another story to me while I was writing it–so special? I finally just sat down and read through it the other day, from the perspective of someone who’d done far too much analyzing during AP English, and I realized: it’s the back story. At any given point in time, there are at least three layers of narrative occurring, one over top of the other: (1) what’s happening in the present, (2) how the narrator is reacting to it, and (3) how the bits of personal history she reveals affect both 1 & 2.
It’s because the story has layers. It’s because a good piece of writing is like an onion.
Do I get a thumbs up for a Shrek reference?
Not to say that The Things I Leave Behind is good, per say, because believe me–I don’t want to pat myself on the back. But obviously something about it is working, if it’s been so successful.
While the industry pros are always going on about how there shouldn’t be too much back story, I’ve learned, now, that having too little back story can also be a problem. It’s important to develop your world and the characters within it–and then to share that back story. Not only enough for the reader to be able to understand what’s happening on the surface level (1), but also enough to understand why the main character and their supporting cast are responding the way they are (2).
Both learning that writing shorter sentence increases pace (and often tension) and that back story can be used as a device to better allow the reader to connect with the story are important lessons–and they’re just two of the many that I’ve learned and applied to Cadence during the past month of revising. I’ve also learned that using descriptions rather than dialogue tags to identify a speaker can make a scene more immersive, saying things like “I realize” or “it occurs to me” are distancing, and there is such a thing as too little foreshadowing (because while some surprises are good, others just completely throw the reader for a loop).
Cadence is the fifth novel I’ve completed. I began writing it just a few months after finishing my fourth novel, and I can tell you without a trace of doubt that my first draft of Cadence was a hundred times better-written than the most recent (ergo, best) draft of Dreamcatcher. And now my most recent draft of Cadence–the one that I just finished my intensive revisions on, and is now making the rounds with my critique partners–is the strongest draft of a novel I’ve ever written period. By far.
Although I’ve been writing for longer than I can remember, I’m still learning. Every day I’m learning. I learn from going to conferences and workshops and reading articles with tips and guides, and I learn from reading my favorite books with a critical eye. I learn from talking to people, going out and doing things, and studying my own writing.
Even revising has become a learning process–every time I finish a draft, I know more about voice and structure and plot and sentence structure and character development than I did going in. I have a better idea of what I want the novel (or short story or whatever) to be. And I know more about who I want to be as a writer.
Me being a Super Cool Writer Person in Chicago last week–because the kind of writer I want to be is one who does proper research instead of blindly rambling about a subject.
Learning, just like anything else in the writing industry, and life in general, is a developing, changing practice. It’s something I’m beginning to embrace more, now, as I get older and realize how much I truly still have to learn. And it’s a great thing to look forward to–knowing that while the Writing Fairies might not smile down upon me in the near future, they have at least granted me the the gift of everything I’ve learned over the past month or so. And that, in itself, has been worth it.
Hey there! I’M BAAACK! (And so glad to be! I missed you!)
A round of applause for making it two weeks without me! (Who am I kidding, you probably didn’t even notice I was gone.)
If you’ve been following what’s going on with my Facebook page, you know that my vacation was to England (London, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Cotswolds, Warwick Castle, and Cambridge–probably not in that order, but I’m still so brain dead from the trip I can’t tell you)–and hopefully I’ll get a nice, detailed post up about that sometime this week. But it’s also currently Camp NaNoWriMo, and I’m failing it rather epically (today I should make the Day 1 word count goal? I hope?), so we’ll see what happens.
ALSO, before I forget! (Because despite the fact that this is THE most important day in our nation’s history, it’s also currently 9:20 in the morning and therefore I REALLY WANT TO BE ASLEEP RIGHT NOW. BUT LONDON TIME. So my brain is really and seriously and truly not working.):
Boom. Colors. (I want sleep.)
Now, onto what this post is actually supposed to be about: The Publishing Industry for Non-Writers, Part 3: From Book Deal to Actually Published. Yes indeed, “writing process” won out again in the most recent Wordy Wednesday poll. This week, I’m going to focus on what comes after you sign the publishing contract, based on the scarce amounts of information I’ve managed to find online, because, you know, otherwise I would have no idea. (Unpublished writer probs.)
If you want to know more about what comes before the publishing contract, you can read parts 1 and 2 of the Publishing Industry for Non-Writers series by following the links below:
“Wait–what do you mean I’m not done writing now that I’ve got the book deal?”
Generally, despite the best efforts of both the writer and the agent, a novel isn’t actually ready to be published when a publishing house decides to pick it up. And I’m not talking “there are a few typos that need to be sorted out,” but like–there are scenes that need to be completely rewritten or cut or added, and there are subplots that need to be strengthened or eliminated, and ALL SORTS OF STUFF. So the first step in the editing process, once you’re working with an editor, is to fix all these problems. Which can involve rewriting your novel from start to finish multiple times over.
Of course, this step in the process–like pretty much the ENTIRE publishing process–is completely unique to both the writer and the book. No two publishing stories are the same. So some writers will have a killer rough draft that hardly needs any work before moving on to the next stage in the process, and others will have to rewrite their novel eight times before their editor thinks it’s ready. But the point is: A book tends to change a lot throughout the publishing process. And it’s this part, more than anything, that makes having a good editor important–you need someone who knows what they’re doing if you want to make your Itty Widdle Baby Book the best it can be.
Line edits are the part of revising that everyone always talks about dreading, because they are TEDIOUS to get through. This is the point where together, the editor and writer must question every word, sentence, concept, and character trait. The editor points out if a sentence is confusing, or a word unnecessary, etc, etc, etc, until the manuscript shines–sort of like looking for the crystal inside a geode rock.
After this is done, Super Editor and Grateful Author move on to…
My critique partner, Kira, worked as a copyeditor at her college newspaper this past year. Whereas in line edits you get really picky about making the book sound good, here is where the grammar and formatting stuff becomes super important–here, you’re making it look good too. The copyeditor for a book is generally someone other than the regular editor that the writer has been working with up until that point, and copyeditors are the ones who ask questions like, “Should this sentence contain a semicolon or an em dash?” “Should this word be capitalized?” “Should this be a period or a colon?”All that sort of fun stuff.
Approving the Pass Pages/Other Such Things
You probably can’t tell, but I’m attempting to look “critical” and “thoughtful” here.
Once the copyeditor is satisfied with the novel, the editorial team moves on to doing the pass pages. This is the step where the writer finally gets to see their novel in (sort of) book form. And by “book form,” I mean that “pass pages” refer to a copy of the manuscript that is formatted like a book, generally in a PDF document, with the font and all that jazz that it’ll be printed with. This is the author’s last chance to make changes to the novel before it’s finalized and goes to print.
… And, as that denotes, this is the last say the author has in what the book will look like, period. Because work on the book doesn’t end when the author’s does–instead, the editorial and design and all sorts of other departments continue to hone the novel, making sure that it is absolutely, one-hundred-percent as perfect as they can get it, along with designing the cover and all that. Because I don’t work in a publishing house, I unfortunately can’t tell you much about what goes on during this period, except that it’s a flurry of work and a whole lot of waiting for the writer.
But, meanwhile–while all of this is going on, the author does get to do some fun stuff, like…
Getting the author photo taken
Working on the flap copy (blurb of what the book’s about, etc)
Working on the tag line (because books, like Hollywood blockbusters, have to have nifty little taglines these days)
Why hello there, Requiem! Fancy meeting you here.
This collage is of me with Requiem, the last book in Lauren Oliver‘s young adult dystopian trilogy. I was super excited to win this copy of Requiem last fall because it’s an ARC, or “advance reader’s copy,” which means that:
A) I got it about four months before Requiem even came out.
and B) It’s not the final copy of the book (while reading, I found plenty of typos that were likely fixed before the book actually went to print).
ARCs are commonly used in the publishing industry in order to strike up a buzz about a book, whether by distributing them to bloggers and reviewers, or by giving them away in contests to fans (like how I got mine). It’s really important for authors and publishing houses to advertise a new release in the months between finishing with the final edits and actually releasing the book to the general public, especially with debuts, because–no matter how well-written a book is and no matter how well-executed the concept is, nobody will know to read it unless someone lets them know it’s there as an option.
In the past, the marketing departments of publishers put a lot of time and effort into getting books into readers’ hands, but these days, with the rise of the internet, it’s becoming the author’s job more and more. Now, in general, the publishing house will simply go around to all the book stores in order to convince them to stock the book, send out some ARCs to reviewers, and the rest of the business is the author’s job–which is actually pretty cool, because it means the author gets to be more involved in whether or not their novel succeeds.
Generally, as the release date draws nearer, the author will begin doing interviews, writing guest posts on book bloggers’ sites, and giving away copies of their novel–anything to spark other people’s interest in reading it.
Like everything in the publishing industry, it’s a lot of work for very little credit. Most advertising these days is done by the author, free of charge (because, I mean, hello–who’s benefiting from you selling more books? YOU). But I hear it’s also a lot of fun and a great way of making new writer/reader friends; I really hope I’ll be able to experience it someday.
Let’s Review: Timeline from Book Deal to Book On Shelves
“It takes HOW long…?”
Something I sort of skirted over in this post, but is very important to realize, is the timeline that all of this takes place over. Generally, it takes one to two years after signing the publishing contract for your book to come out. This isn’t because publishers think it’s fun to watch you squirm in anticipation–this is because it actually takes that long for the entire process to work itself out.
There’s a lot of work that has to be done once you’ve signed with a publisher, and the work doesn’t stop when the author’s portion of it does. There are so many people involved in making a book possible, and really: I have only given you a GLIMPSE into what the whole process is like, here. So just remember this the next time you’re complaining about how your favorite author is taking ages, and ages, and AGESSSS to get their next book out.
(If you’re interested in seeing how books are printed, you can find a really cool video about it HERE.) (I know, I know, I know. It’s Twilight. But this is one of the best videos on book printing I’ve seen.)
… So, I think that’s about it for today and, unless anyone has any burning questions about the publishing industry still, that’ll probably be it for the Publishing Industry for Non-Writers series. Is there anything else writing-related you’d like me to talk about? Leave your ideas and questions in the comment section, and vote for the “writing process” option in the poll, and I’ll get on it!
This is what I look like whenever I realize I need to edit something:
… But you know what’s even worse than that? When I try to follow that oh-so-popular rule of waiting to edit after I’ve finished a first draft…
… for TWO. FREAKING. MONTHS.
It’s been less than a week since I finished writing the first draft of my current novel, Dreamcatcher, and already I’m dying to get the red pen out.
I swear I’m about to have a mental breakdown.
What do you think about waiting so long between drafts? Is it a good thing — because it allows you to better separate yourself from your work — or do you think it would be better to start right away so you know that all of your ideas are still fresh in your head? Let me know in the comments!
First of all, can I just say that I think the dude driving the car in the rap part of this is absolutely hilarious? They should have made the video just about him.
Now onto conference notes!!
This is basically going to be a massive condensing of everything I learned this weekend (minus anything dealing with pitching or literary agents, and anything that I saved in Word documents instead of hand writing — because, believe it or not, those require more time and effort to edit and get out to you guys — so that’ll all be in my next few blog posts). Please bear with me on the length of this post.
Writing About Yourself in the Digital Age by A.J. Jacobs:
There are three rules to writing a good book.
Remember that it’s possible to write anywhere, at anytime.
Write with style and passion — do this, and you can make any topic seem interesting (even an epic poem about a sofa).
When writing in first person (hence the “writing about yourself” part of the title), you have to make people care. To do this, share small details of life; both good and bad characteristics… find the grey area between the good and the bad. Be expansive and write about the world as much as you do yourself. And most of all, be compassionate.
Conflict drives a story. Be willing to put it in the foreground.
As a writer, your job isn’t just writing. It’s also marketing, editing, agenting — all of that. None of it’s a chore; it’s all creative stuff, and it’s all part of the process.
Start your story with a hook — make it so gripping that whoever’s reading it has no choice but to keep reading so that they can find out what happens.
Editors LOVE counter-intuitive pieces. Take a piece of common wisdom and turn it on its head.
Tweeting is the most effective way to build your platform, because it reaches the largest number of people. (Guess I should get on that, huh?)
When writing stories, readers want a narrative arc. When writing blog posts? Not so much. Books need to have a beginning and ending — somewhere they’re going. Blog posts don’t.
While thrillers are popular, they’re usually only good for about 9 weeks on the bestsellers lists, while on the other hand literary fiction can stay up there for one to two years. Why? Because it reaches readers; changes hearts and changes minds. People want something more than simple entertainment out of your story — they want to be affected by it.
There’s currently a rise in cross-genre fiction and a decline in plain and simple this-is-my-genre stuff.
In writing, it’s okay to use big emotions, but make them specific. Make the reader feel the emotions. What do they look like — their color, shape, dynamic? Be specific and unique. Use secondary emotions to back up and give meaning to the big emotions. Excite the readers’ imaginations and make them feel something.
Safe writing is fine, but it has no impact. You have to be willing to go out on a limb and test yourself.
You have to have lots of arcs in your story — the inner-journey, the general character arc, the plots and subplots; everything should have an arc, and no arc should be simple or straightforward. Make it complicated; make it like real life.
Have one thing that your character has to do by the end of the novel that they aren’t brave enough to do. Make it something they’ve sworn never to do, or never to do again. Make them do it, and then watch for the fall out.
Have a single truth or belief that your character trusts and believes in more than anything else. Destroy that truth. How will your MC recover? “Sometimes it’s destroying who you think you are to find you’re something different.”
When you get to the halfway point in your novel, the “saggy” middle, think of the one thing that would completely blow the story sideways and change where you think it’s going. Do it.
Put the biggest possible thing you can think of in the middle of your story. Make your character think that that MUST be the climax. Then, top it with the actual climax towards the end.
Your villains must be interesting; strong, 3D secondary characters. Don’t just make them evil, make them people.
The recession’s showing us what people are really willing to pay for — good stories and good writing.
Don’t be afraid of dating your novel. All of the classics are dated, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Give it a date, and stick with it.
Remember, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, that there is still time and history and change.
Writing is, first and foremost, about writing good books. Not about selling film rights or getting lots of promotion. Just writing good books.
The most important piece of fiction is quality storytelling. You need both a strong narrative and strong writing.
Catch the reader with the opening — let the reader connect with your story by telling them how we’re all human. Tell them how your story is about this, how it’s something we can all relate to.
Let your character leap off the page. Make it feel like an old friend — but remember that everything is based on personal opinion.
Be yourself on the page and in person.
Make sure to stand your ground. While somebody is guaranteed not to like your story, somebody else is guaranteed to like it.
Write from your gut!!!! Remember that writing is an intuitive process; lead with feeling, not thinking.
Every sentence should move your story forward.
Remember that you don’t want people to read your book, you want people to love your book. There’s a big difference.
Show people something they’ve never seen before.
If you care about it, the reader will care about it too.
You need to “marry” your characters. They’re in your head all the time. They’re with you when you eat, sleep, breathe, live. Your life and your characters’ lives are intertwined.
A story is about the characters, not the plot. The plot happens, yes, but it’s just the medium for your characters’ journeys.
When working with an editor, remember: they’re pushing in the same direction as you are– they want what’s best for your book, and they’ll only keep suggesting things for as long as you’re willing to hear them.
Editors buy books very infrequently — only about 10 to 20 a year of all the hundreds to thousands that come in each year.
Only 7% of all books published (including both self-published and legacy-published books) sell more than a thousand copies.
Average number of copies sold for a self-published book is 87.
There’s no checklist for writing a good book.
When editing, look for something that doesn’t sit right with you, and edit for that.
Watch out for overloading the reader with back story at the beginning of your novel!
… And that’s it for today! Keep a look out for more notes from the Writer’s Digest Conference coming over the course of the next couple of weeks!
Also, for anybody who doesn’t know, New York has distinctly good food. Even its airports:
For another’s perspective on the awesomeness that was WDC, make sure to check out my new friend Ari’s blog:
I have news. Quite a bit. So first of all, let’s get some basic facts out of the way:
1. As you may know, last weekend, I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference 2012 in New York City.
2. While I was there, I learned a lot (but not alot) about both writing and publishing.
3. I also pitched my novel to real-life, honest-to-God literary agents.“
5:45 — I tried brushing my teeth with my retainer still in
5:50 — I painted my nails and then immediately took all of the polish off of one when I tried screwing the cap back onto the paint bottle
6:00 — I thought I lost my straightener and went into a fit, only to realize two minutes later that it was right where I left it
6:52 — I’m currently making a blog post listing embarrassing things that I did this morning (this totally counts)
Hey guys! My mom and I are just finishing packing up right now before we head to the airport, and I AM FREAKING OUT!!!! 😀
(Remember this face? It’s back again. WHOOOO!!!)
I’m so scared I’m going to forget to pack something, but hopefully that doesn’t happen, right? (I’m eyeing my packing list as I type this. If anything goes missing, it’s totally the paper’s fault, not mine. Yup.)
Talk to you all when we get to New York!
T-minus 0 DAYS TO THE WRITER’S DIGEST CONFERENCE AHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!
Originally I was going to do this as my Wordy Wednesday (1-18-12), but I’m up early and can’t think of anything else to write about, so:
I wrote the novel I’m currently editing during my freshman year of high school (it was actually a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program project, but that’s another story). I then did a base edit of the story during my sophomore year, decided it was perfect-beyond-perfect, and sent it out to a bunch of literary agents with a crappy query letter and no prior writing experience for my bio paragraph.
Needless to say, I got rejected by all of them.
Question: Why? Why was my perfect-beyond-perfect novel rejected without a single full manuscript request???
Answer: Because it wasn’t perfect. Because it was too long, poorly constructed, and riddled with typos and errors that were so glaring that I’m lucky a satellite didn’t fall on me in response (like, really lucky).
However, since my sophomore year publishing exploits, I’ve (thankfully) learned a lot more about Publishing and its very important little sister, Editing. 🙂
Don’t edit while you write. I know, I know. It’s difficult. You want to go back and fix all of the grammar in that scene at the end of chapter two while you’re writing chapter five. DO NOT DO IT. Unless it’s something that’s extremely pertinent to the plot, like changing a character’s name or something, do not edit while still writing the first draft. Editing Mode and Writing Mode are two very different things and you can’t be in both of them at once.
Write quickly, edit slowly. Whereas while you’re writing it’s good to get everything out as quickly as possible in order to maintain focus and not lose your inspiration, it’s good to let yourself take breaks and think things through while editing. It’s that whole “write for yourself, edit for the reader” thing. Don’t rush it.
Let it sit. As I just said above, don’t rush it. Let your novel sit for a couple weeks, maybe even a couple months between drafts. While you don’t want to lose interest in your story, you also want to give it (and yourself) some breathing room.
Get help from other people. If you ever find yourself thinking, “THIS IS HORRIBLE AND I’M NEVER GOING TO SHOW IT TO ANYBODY EVERRR BECAUSE IT’S AWFUL AND IT STINKS LIKE MEDIEVAL STREET SEWAGE AND I’M GOING TO DIEEE!” then it’s probably time for you to send a copy to your writing friends to critique for you. At one point or another, you’re going to get sick of your story and sick of your writing and just sick of yourself, and at that point you need to let your story go for a little while and let somebody else deal with it. When your writing friends send it back, you’ll have had the time and distance away from your novel you needed, along with a fresh insight into your story.
Edit as many times as you can bear! Never be satisfied until you have no choice but to be. Don’t feel like you’re going to throw up if you read your novel ONE. MORE. TIME yet? Then you aren’t done editing! The only reason you should ever stop trying to improve your writing is because you can’t stand to do it anymore (and believe me, I’ve been there). You just need to keep pushing through, and bend until you break — you’ll thank yourself for it later.
Be open to suggestions. Back to what I said about getting help from other people — they’ll offer you fresh insight into your story. Sometimes you’re not going to like that insight. Sometimes the change seems pointless, or stupid, or like it wrecks your story. But sometimes it saves it too, and you just have to be willing to listen to what your writing friends are telling you. (But if it’s something like, “Ehmmm, well, I don’t like that Harry ends up with Ginny instead of Hermione, so you should def change that, yeahhh!” then you probably shouldn’t take that advice. While listening to your readers is good, it’s also good to think on your own two feet. Don’t let somebody else change your plot because you don’t want to offend them or you think they’re a better writer than you or something. Don’t be a pushover, stand your ground. You’ll know if something’s worth fighting for.)
Be okay with not being perfect. Face the facts: Your novel is never going to be perfect. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be good, it just means that you’re going to have to accept that there will always be mistakes and there’s nothing you can do about it. Try to make them the smallest, tiniest, most miniscule mistakes possible, obviously, but understand that you’re going to make them and you’re just going to have to suck it up and live with them.
Got any editing or writing tips of your own? Share them below! 🙂
T-minus 5 days to the Writer’s Digest Conference!
(Heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho, now back to the world of editing I gooo…)
I bite my thumb at you, Editing. I bite my thumb at you.
I really hate how you’ll look at your novel and go, “Oh my goodness, this is perfect!” and have a little party with yourself or whatever, and then you send it off to your friends to edit, and they send it back with all those friendly red marks all over it, and you’re like:
… And the worst part is that your friends are right about all those friendly red marks that are so prevalent, it looks like your manuscript was just attacked by an ax murderer.
How in the world did I miss all of that? Like, really, these things should have been obvious! (Kind of like how I just learned this past week that there’s a difference between Past Perfect Tense and Passive Voice. How did I not know that?)
So now I’m desperately going through edits and revisions of my novel in hopes that it’ll be ready to go (again) by the time we leave for the Writer’s Digest Conference in a couple of weeks, and I’m kind of freaking out that it won’t be ready on time, and yeah.
Deep breaths, Julia. Deep breaths.
At least these edits have less to do with your-plotline-sucks and you-need-to-completely-rewrite-this as much as you-don’t-know-how-to-use-Past-Perfect-Tense (which is the majority of them). But I am still freaking out because my mom and I have gone through this novel a thousand and one times ourselves and never caught these things.
Anybody have any interesting revising stories or tips? I’m all ears. 🙂