My mom called me about doctors appointments and legal things. I just couldn’t get a short story to work for creative writing, even after staying up until one working on it. (I gave up, got ready for bed, then sat at my desk for another two hours writing another short story that honestly wasn’t any better.) I ran out of time to do the reading for a quiz I have today.
So I’m now 2.5K behind where I want to be on NaNoWriMo. And I don’t have time to write today. And I’ve got another 3K planned for tomorrow. (In my defense, I’m not actually 2.5K behind. I’m right on target for where I want my word count to be today, but that’s because I’ve been writing more on some days than planned, rather than keeping to my schedule. And I’d rather save those spare words for later, when I have term papers and final projects to do.)
But it’s okay. I’ll get back on track. I can do it.
I’m not super superstitious; I love black cats and I am yet to run screaming from a broken mirror. But I definitely do have a thing for wishing.
On dandelion wisps and Point Zero in Paris and birthday candles.
And, of course, the easiest to find: 11:11.
It’s not that I believe that wishing on things actually makes them more likely to come true, but I do believe it makes them more definite goals. If you take the time to stop and blow dandelion seeds into the sky over something, I feel like it proves you really want it. A wish is a promise to yourself that you will do whatever it takes to make those words whispered in your mind, for only you and the universe to hear, come true.
So, today is November 11th. 11:11.
Whether you’re behind or ahead or right on target for NaNoWriMo, make a wish. Promise yourself anew that you can do this. Because you can.
Sorry today’s post is coming so late! (And, you know, after midnight. So technically Thursday.)
Things are really hectic right now. On the upside: The Night Before Our Stars is tomorrow! (Or today? I never know what to say this time of night.)
Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post about how to write openings that keep readers reading.
I’ll admit, I am not the best person to talk to you about how to open a novel. I am notoriously bad at finding the right place to start, or introducing characters in unique and interesting ways, or any of the number of other things that make for good opening pages.
However, I do seem to be halfway decent at one thing: keeping people reading.
Your opening scene has a lot of work to do. It should introduce your lead cast (or set up for meeting them), give an idea for both the type of story and where it’ll take place, and give readers a feel for the tone and overall conflict that they’re stepping into. On top of this, it has to do all this in such a way that gets them to read on to the next scene, and this (in my personal opinion) is the most important part.
1. Don’t let your characters play nice.
While generally you’ll want to open your story in the sort of “before” period (aka: before things go crazy), it’s also important to remember that readers don’t want to watch things go right. That’s boring. You haven’t earned a reader sitting through things going right yet (that’s your reward for putting your characters through hell–nothing should go right until the end of the novel).
So: just because everything hasn’t exploded yet, doesn’t mean something can’t be wrong. The easiest way of doing this is to build tension between your characters. (This is also a great way to develop personalities early on. If something’s eating at your protagonist, and it’s causing tension between them and those around them, it shows the reader a lot about who they are. The opening chapter of Divergent by Veronica Roth does a good job of this one.)
2. Let the conflict boil.
This sounds simple, but something I’ve seen a lot in manuscripts I’ve critiqued is writers introducing problems in the first chapter (great!) then resolving them before chapter two (not so great).
Prepare yourself: this is about to turn into a prolonged and convoluted metaphor on boiling water.
So, let’s say you put water (characters) in a pot (your story). Then you turn the burner on. The heat from the burner represents the problems your characters must face. The more problems your characters face, the closer they–like the water–get to boiling. And boiling is good.
Boiling is conflict. Boiling is enthralling. Boiling = the reader not being able to stop reading.
So, why would you get your water all hot and boiling–then turn the burner off? If you do that, you can’t cook your delicious pasta (yeah, I don’t know; I lost myself like half a metaphor ago).
Basically: If your chapter ends with the immediate conflict resolved and no other conflict already in action to replace it, the reader will lose interest.
Fiction is conflict. Something must always be wrong. If you don’t have any conflict left, then you’re at the end of the story.
Examples of openings that let their conflict boil: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater and The Maze Runner by James Dashner.
3. Give your characters purpose.
This goes hand-in-hand with utilizing conflict in your opening. (Notice a theme yet?) The next worse thing after not having residual conflict at the end of your opening is not having a purposeful protagonist.
Don’t let your characters sit by on the sidelines. If your protagonist doesn’t play a key role in your opening scene, either you’re not writing the right scene or you’re not writing the right protagonist.
Get your characters up and doing something. We don’t want passive observers. Movement and decision-making are the lifeblood of a successful opening.
(Unless, of course, you’re writing about someone who starts out a passive observer and must throughout the story learn to be something more. In which case your best bet is to draw attention to the downsides of passivity in your opening, rather than having your character right away making decisions and doing things.)
A couple of my favorite novels that open with purposeful characters are Across the Universe by Beth Revis and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
4. End with juicy information.
A super easy way to get the reader to continue past the first scene or chapter is to have the protagonist reveal some sort of surprising, unexpected information at the end of it. Maybe he’s been hiding in the shadows all day and boom: turns out he’s a vampire. Or she’s been going on and on about how delicious the toast her dad used to make was and actually, by the way, someone murdered him and they never found out who. (Or you could also instead find out she’s a toaster. Who knows. It’s going on 2:00 AM and my brain shut off like four hours ago.)
I remember I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter doing this well.
5. End on a cliffhanger.
Ending with a cliffhanger is different from ending with an info drop, because it requires throwing something out there that your protagonist isn’t expecting. Maybe their plane veers towards the ground or the police are on their doorstep with handcuffs and no hints as to why they’re under arrest.
A cliffhanger puts the reader and the protagonist on the same level. They’re both experiencing the shock of what’s happening. It opens opportunity for the reader to sympathize with the protag, and if the reader connects with your protag, they’re much more likely to flip to the next page.
Great cliffhanger endings to openings: Of course The Hunger Games. And, to continue with the Ally Carter examples, Heist Society has a pretty solid cliffhanger at the end of Chapter One.
Do you have tips for writing openings that keep the reader reading? Let me know in the comments!
Well, look at that. Saturday, November 30th, 2013. The last day of November.
The last day of NaNoWriMo and writing a blog post every day.
I spent yesterday Christmas shopping, working on a study abroad application, hanging out with family, and slogging my way through homework (I’m halfway done with my genetics term paper!). Today it’ll be more of the same, then I’m back to school for holiday shenanigans and finals.
It’s crazy how fast this semester went, especially this month. I swear it was just the first day of November and I was spazzing about how I was going to be able to get everything done this month (although, let’s be honest, I’m still spazzing a little, because FINALS).
Somewhere on the internet this week (I can’t remember where, unfortunately) someone posted a phrase along the lines of “If you can’t find a door, find an ax.” Pushing through the rough patches with both NaNo and school this month have definitely been an exercise in that principle. Sometimes the only way out is through, and the only way through is by finding your own way, rather than following the preassigned mold.
Thanks for sticking with me throughout November. Both remembering and making time to post every day got tricky sometimes, but reading your comments made it a lot easier. This was a fun adventure, and it’s going to feel really weird when I wake up tomorrow and realize I don’t have to worry about posting every day anymore. Kind of nice, kind of sad, and all around just very weird.
School is just absolutely nuts this month, because of finals coming up and everything. I only had time to write a little over 1k yesterday because I had to spend so much time on homework and figuring out my schedule for the next few semesters (I’m thinking of adding a minor, which means restructuring when I take other classes to make room for the new ones). I was up until almost 2:00 AM doing that, then so far today all I’ve done is work on more Spanish homework. And I’m still not done with it.
Hopefully I’ll get a couple hours to write today. And hopefully my weekend doesn’t turn out nearly as busy as it looks like it’s going to be, because I am falling seriously behind on my schedule for NaNo.
In the meantime: The winning option for this week’s Wordy Wednesday is an excerpt from the novel I’m writing this month. Reminder that this is really rough and hasn’t seen any real editing yet.
The Recruitment Assembly doesn’t take place until after lunch, but the bathroom is already flooded with girls unbuttoning their uniforms and helping each other zip themselves into nice dresses by the time I excuse myself from the table. I try to slip past them to a stall, but the moment Stephanie Jones meets my eye in the mirror, they all stop. The rustle of fabric and happy chatter cuts off like someone has pressed pause in a movie scene. I ignore them and hurry into a stall. I lock the door.
“I heard it’s her fault the Ram got so hostile.”
“Didn’t they used to be friends?”
“Who cares. Nobody even knew who either of them were before Amelia got involved, and thank God for that, because the Ram is crazy.”
I lean my forehead against the door and let the cool metal leach the heat from my skin. My body feels like it’s turned into one of those vintage Easy Bake Ovens at the Cultural Museum in downtown. The curator let Ramsey and me try to make cupcakes in one once, on a fieldtrip when we were ten. They came out mush.
The memory does not help.
My stomach flips, and it’s nice to know I have a toilet within reach should the three bites of salad I managed to swallow in the cafeteria reappear. I don’t know what’s making me more nervous—not knowing whether or not Ramsey will actually follow through with the threat, or the fact that the entire school seems invested in if she does.
The girls in the bathroom go unnaturally quiet again. Footsteps clack against tile, approaching the stalls.
What if Ramsey’s come for me early?
I step back from the door and my calves slap against the toilet. I can’t move. Someone knocks. My heart slams against my ribcage.
“Alexa, are you in there?”
I exhale and close my eyes. “Goodness, Amelia, you nearly gave me a heart attack.”
I should not have to be this on edge in my own school.
“Oh, come on, even the Ram isn’t heartless enough to attack someone while they’re peeing.” I can practically see her roll her eyes from the other side of the stall door. “Eric wants to know if he should continue to keep an eye on your—and I quote, ‘nasty lunch of evil’—or feed it to the trash can.” The door creaks as she leans against it on the other side.
“What time is it?”
“Thirteen oh five. We should probably get ready for the Recruitment Assembly in ten, so up to you on if you want to eat any more between now and then.”
“I’m not sure I could keep much more down right now.”
“I’m sorry.” Her words are nonchalant but sincere. “I understand that. I’d be pretty nauseous if I were you. Let’s not forget how Brad Jennings puked his guts out that time she hit him in the stomach with a tennis racket.” Amelia forces a laugh, like just the sound could lighten the mood, although it doesn’t. The rest of the bathroom is still quiet, listening in. “Honestly, I’d like a little bit of a bully scare of my own, right now. I could stand to lose a couple pounds.”
I nudge the door with my shoulder. It shifts just enough to let her know I think she’s an idiot.
“You know the Ram’s going to go after you one of these days, too. And you will not be nearly as accepting of the situation when that happens.”
“Honey, I created the Ram.” Amelia’s vowels are rounder than mine, more polished. Not nearly as European as her accent was when her family first came to North America for her mother’s job, but enough that she sounds like she knows exactly what she is talking about, even though right now, I know she’s just trying to keep my mind off what will happen once I leave this stall. “She’s just a bully—a big coward. She’d never dare threaten me.”
“You positive about that?”
“Shush.” Amelia nudges the door back at me.
“I’m just saying, you seem to think rather highly of your—”
“She’s not going to hurt you at the Recruitment Assembly.” My best friend’s vowels go even rounder, like she’s losing some control of the way she speaks. Her words are quiet, and harder than usual. “I promise. Nobody will touch you.”
I unlock the door. She stumbles as it swings inward under her pressure.
Amelia is only two inches taller than me, but half a world more confident. The fact that, as I absorb her words, her lips tug down at the corners and she looks away, smooths her blouse, scares me.
“Do you know something I don’t?” I tilt my head and raise an eyebrow. “It’s just the Ram. Sure she has a penchant for turning everyday objects into weapons, but it’s not like she’s going to kill me.”
“You never know with her.” She straightens and her ponytail swings back and forth like a pendulum.
The bathroom is so quiet the voices of other students passing in the hallway are audible. I turn an exasperated gaze on the other girls all standing there, watching us, and they blush, look away, but don’t apologize. They return to applying lipstick and bobby pins.
To Amelia I say, “I’m just worried the Ram might give me a black eye for Homecoming. But you sound worried about more than covering a bruise for pictures. What’s bothering you?”
“Just the same.” Amelia shrugs. “Of course. Now, should we let Eric dump your salad before it becomes sentient, or what?”
Off to go attempt not to drown under my mountains of homework!
I’ve been getting lots of questions on the writing/publishing process the past half a year or so, due to my work on Cadence, so I figured I’d do a condensed overview of what trying to publish a novel is like in a series of Wordy Wednesday posts, for anyone who’s curious, specifically addressing the questions I most frequently get asked. This week I’m going to focus on the process of getting your novel ready to query, and then what querying exactly even is.
I give you–The Publishing Industry for Non-Writers, Part 1: From Idea to Agent
This is me writing. You can’t see the laptop, but just know it’s there.
The first step in publishing a book is, of course, writing one. Sometimes a writer will get an idea flash and start writing Chapter One or a particular scene right away, giving up all semblance of having a life for two weeks, and then they’ll be finished writing practically before they started. More commonly, writers will spend weeks or months brainstorming for a novel before they ever write word one. Some people are “plotters,” which means that they make complex outlines that detail various events, character arcs, etc before they begin a novel, so that they can comfortably know where they’re going before they begin to write. Other people are “pantsers,” which means that they write by the seat of their pants, or more specifically: don’t outline. Instead, they let the plot and characters take them where they take them. They might have a vague idea of where the story’s going, but they never know any specifics.
I’m personally, most definitely more on the pantser side, but I also can’t go into a story completely blind, like some writers do. While I rarely outline on paper, I usually have the basic structure of the story, and a lot of the major scenes, already worked out in my mind–and I normally spend a few months, if not closer to a year, working all of that out. Then, once I get closer to writing the end of the novel, I make notes detailing what needs to go into each of the remaining scenes and chapters, just to make sure that I don’t leave a bunch of subplots unresolved (because I’m like Dory the fish as far as remembering stuff goes), and I follow that rough outline pretty closely (although it’s always subject to change). I usually have a few different endings swimming around in my mind, and I won’t know how the novel’s actually going to end until I’m writing that final scene.
Unlike the super-writers who finish novels in two weeks flat (several of which I’m friends with–hi, guys!), I’m more likely to spend half a year working through a first draft. The shortest time it’s taken me to write a novel was four months; the longest was fourteen. Cadence took about seven. I didn’t know what direction I was going to make that plot go (I set it up with five or so different possible antagonists) until I was already halfway through the climax. I think writing this way is a lot more fun than having a structured plot to follow, although it does make it a bit trickier when revising, because then sometimes things that I’ve written with the idea of Billy Bob Joe being a bad guy don’t make sense when he turns out good in the end.
This is my Revising Face.
After finishing a first draft, the rules of the game state that you’re supposed to put it away for a while (at least a month, if not longer), try to stop thinking about it to the best of your abilities, and then pull it out again after that month-or-longer to start revising.
Everyone revises differently, but I tend to do a quick read-through myself, fixing any and all problems that jump out at me (plot, specific sentence structure stuff, whatever is bugging me), then sit back and do another one more slowly, making sure that the writing flows and the plot truly is justified. Then I hand it off to my critique partners, or “CPs,” (other writers who you exchange writing with) and “beta readers” (people who critique your writing without expecting to really get anything in return) in order to, you know, critique. Some people only have a couple of CPs and betas, others have upwards of fifteen or twenty. I have about three who I use regularly, along with another five or so who I exchange writing with more sporadically.
In general, one of my novels will go through a solid five drafts before I ever move past the revision stage, between finding stuff to fix on my own and going through my CP/beta edits. Unfortunately, though, with Cadence I didn’t get the opportunity to do that. I finished writing it in January, set it aside for a month, and then the beginning of March I had to begin hardcore revising it in order to get it ready in time for the Writer’s Digest Conference. I only had the time to exchange it with two of my critiquers, and I had only read the thing myself once before the conference. By now, it’s seen a little more love, but it was a really scary thing going in to talk with literary agents when I had barely read the novel myself.
If anyone writes this novel, I will pay you $10.00 cold hard cash.
In order to traditionally publish a novel with a major publisher, you need a literary agent. Contrary to what most people think, a literary agent is not the same as an editor and a literary agent does not work for a publishing house at all. A literary agent, instead, is a not-so-neutral third party who loves your story as much as you do and tries to champion it to editors at the publishing houses in order to sell it, thus getting you a publishing deal. It is next to impossible to land a contract with a major publisher without a good lit agent’s help, and even if you do land a contract without one, chances are you would have gotten a better deal with one. Agents know all the ins and outs of the publishing world; they know how to get you the best deal possible, and get this–they don’t get paid unless you do. Typically, a lit agent will take 15-20% of whatever you make off your book domestically, and a little bit more internationally. And they’re worth every cent.
However, landing a literary agent is almost as difficult as getting published itself. A typical literary agent gets thousands of query letters every year, requesting their services, and of all those letters, they only offer to represent one or two new writers. Luckily, there are a lot of great agents out there, so getting an agent isn’t nearly as impossible as that figure seems–but it’s still really, really hard. Some people spend years pitching one novel after another to agents without an offer of representation in sight, garnering hundreds of rejections. Others–the rare cases–get an agent in their first patch of query letters, off their first novel. Most commonly, a writer will write, revise, and query multiple novels before finally getting The Call. (“The Call” is a phone call from a literary agent, offering representation. It’s a momentous occasion that I hear generally involves lots of holding-back-tears and trying-not-to-pass-out and general-excitement-in-the-form-of-happy-dancing.)
In order to get an agent, there are a few different paths you can take, but the most common one is to query the agent. In order to do that, you have to write and send a query letter, which is almost as bad as revising your novel (I say “almost as bad” because it gets slightly easier with each novel you query, as you figure out the format; revising novels, however, NEVER gets easier). There are a few different formats you can use to write a query letter, but no matter what, the definition of the query remains the same:
A query letter is a business letter written to a literary agent (or other publishing entity) requesting their services, comprised of a “hook,” which is something that catches the agent’s attention (a brief quote from the work, etc); a brief description of the work–a “pitch,” which details what the work is about, the work’s title, its word count, and its genre, etc; and a brief biography of the writer’s history within the publishing industry, such as past publishing credits and education.
So yeah, that might have turned into a bit of a complicated run-on sentence, but if you’re interested in what exactly A Good Query Letter Makes, you can follow the following links:
Generally along with sending a query letter, an agent will request that you send sample pages–the first five or so pages of your novel–so they can get a feel for your writing style. If they like what they read, they’ll request for you to send either a “partial” or a “full” manuscript. A partial request usually is for something like fifty pages. A full manuscript request is, of course, for your full manuscript, and getting a full manuscript request is probably the most nerve wracking thing in an aspiring author’s life.
You wanna know why? Once an agent has your full manuscript, that means they’re seriously considering representing you. And they can take anywhere from a day to a year to get back to you about whether (or not) they’d like to.
Getting a full manuscript request is really exciting. I screamed and started racing up and down the hallways of the hotel I was staying in the first time I got one (I’m sure I was popular with the other guests). Getting an offer of representation off an FM is still really rare, though. More likely, the agent will email you back after a couple of months saying that they loved your main character’s snarky voice, or your innovative concept, or your great world-building–but it wasn’t quite right for them.
What can ya do?
As hard as it is to get rejected off full manuscript requests, these are the best kind of rejections. They remind you that even though you still don’t have that shiny agent contract in your hands, you’re at least doing something right, for an agent to have even wanted to have read your FM in the first place. The other kind of rejection–the more common one–is the form letter. This is a letter that’s generally only a couple of lines long that is not at all personalized to you that generally looks something like this:
Thank you for thinking of me to represent your work of fiction, but I feel that I did not connect enough with the material at this time to further consider representing it. However, I wish you all the luck in placing your work with an agent who feels differently.
Coolio Agent Person
Or sometimes the agent just never replies at all, which is a “no response means no” sort of deal.
Like I said before, agents get literally thousands of query letters a year. They don’t have time to respond to each one individually. So although getting form letters can be disappointing, it’s important to remember that each rejection is just one query letter closer to an agent who will say yes–because, after all, all you need is one “yes” in that sea of rejections in order to get published. And: Every. Writer. Gets. Rejections. Even the super rich and famous ones. Even JK Rowling.
… And now that I have completely flooded you with information, I think that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Want to learn more about publishing? Vote for the “writing process” option in this week’s poll. Have any specific questions you want answered? Feel free to ask me–in the comments, through an email, on Facebook, or in person. Whatever floats your boat, I’m always open to talking about writing.
Hey there! So I’m currently at home for spring break, busily revising novels and watching too many movies and plays (I’m literally seeing one or the other every single day over break–this is like Julia Heaven), and I’ve got some exciting news to share with you. So without further ado, here we go:
Requiem–the last novel in the Delirium Trilogy by Lauren Oliver–is coming out this week!!! AND I AM SO EXCITED. Ever since I got to read Requiem as an ARC a few months back, I’ve been dying to gush about the book to you, but I knew I couldn’t say anything until the book was actually released. AND IN A COUPLE OF DAYS I WILL FINALLY BE ABLE TO. So be watching out to a review or something sometime in the next couple of weeks!
I made a Facebook page! I’m going to be using it to put out smaller updates than what I’d talk about on here, but still very fun stuff, so I’d love for you to like it. 🙂 Thanks!
Well, that’s it for now I guess (I’m sure there’s something else I’m supposed to be telling you that I’m just forgetting), but I’ll talk to you soon! Have a great week!
I have two things to tell you today–one good, one bad.
The good? As of right now, I’m 32,000 words into NaNoWriMo (and 66,500 into Cadence as a whole), which means I’m (remarkably) ahead of schedule by a few days–probably the furthest into the competition I’ve ever been at the two week mark–and that’s honestly so weird and unexpected, because I wasn’t even supposed to be doing NaNoWriMo this year; I didn’t decide on it until like 11:55 PM on October 31st. And, even then, I was only shooting for 25k or so.
Yet, in the midst of doing all this writing, I’m still getting a ton of studying done, and turning in my assignments on time. I have no idea how it’s happening, but I think the magical writing fairies deserve a big thank you right now. If I manage to keep working like I am, the first draft of Cadence should be done by the end of the month. Whoohoooo!
The bad? This is the last chapter of Cadence I’m going to post. There are a lot of reveals in the next few chapters after this, and although Chapter Fifteen isn’t the most ideal stopping place, I don’t think there’s a better one. I’m really sorry–I’ve been enjoying getting your feedback so much, and thank you for reading all these blog posts all these months, but for the sake of maybe, someday publishing Cadence, if I’m super lucky, it’s more than likely not a good idea to post any more of it on the internet, at this point. And yeah.
So: Thank you again, for sticking with Olivia and Caden and everyone else through the past fourteen chapters, and I hope you enjoy this final installment. You have no idea how much your support means to me.
So this week I’m participating in this really cool three day event called The Great Write Off. You should go check it out when you get the chance, because it’s basically like a mini-NaNoWriMo sort of fundraiser sort of thing, and it’s awesome. (And speaking of NaNoWriMo, now that it’s October, the website’s launched for this season! YAAAY!)