Wordy Wednesday: Restructuring Your Novel by Scene

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

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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
  • tape
  • at least one paperclip
  • several shades of highlighters
  • a couple shades of pens (I use black and red)
  • a pencil
  • 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.

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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?

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~Julia

PS. The happiest of birthdays to my CP Kira, who becomes a Twenty Something today! 😀

Story Time: Jump

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 novels should 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.

 

~Julia

*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.”)

Wordy Wednesday (“The Practice of Learning”)

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.)

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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.)

IMG_1875This 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.

Snapshot_20130814_7Do 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.

IMG_2021Me 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.

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~Julia

Wordy Wednesday (“Girl”)

August is one of my favorite months of the year. As much as I hate how it signals the end of summer (ugh, I’m going to be back in classes this time next month; HOW DARE SUMMER VACATION END?), it also brings with it this really great thing called WriteOnCon.

WriteOnCon is a free, online writing conference targeted towards the kid lit audience. Anyone can attend, but it’s really, primarily for picture book-through-new adult writers. It’s a ton of fun, super educational, and a great way to network with other aspiring authors without having to spend a cent on attending a conference in-person. Outside of the scheduled panels and lectures, WriteOnCon also hosts a bunch of critique forums, where you can post the query letter, first 250 words, and/or first five pages of your novel (or other work of children’s fiction) in order to get feedback from other aspiring authors and even some industry pros.

The forums are already open right now, but the conference itself won’t be taking place until next week (it’s Tuesday the 13th through Wednesday the 14th–full schedule available HERE). During the conference, the forums get even COOLER, because then a bunch of anonymous literary agents (known as “ninjas“) descend upon them to critique and make requests. It’s basically the funnest thing ever.

If you write kid lit–from picture book, to middle grade, to young adult, to new adult, and everything in between–make sure to check WriteOnCon out!

In other news, this past weekend mi madre and I went to Chicago in order to do some in-person research for a novel (I’m sure you can guess which one). Although I can’t tell you much about what we did while there, because that would–you know–give away important plot points in the book, I figured I WOULD share just a few pictures with you.

IMG_2009The Bean! We spent a lot of time exploring Millennium Park on Saturday. Although I’ve been there too many times to keep track, it was a unique experience visiting during Lollapalooza, which was happening right across the street at Grant Park. I was a little bit jealous of everyone attending, because what I heard of the music was fantastic. Lollapalooza is definitely on my have-to-do-this-before-I-get-too-old bucket list now.

IMG_2016We treated ourselves to a fancy brunch on Sunday, in a restaurant located high above the city. They stuffed us with waffles and fruit and rolls and ten different kinds of desserts and it was delicious.

IMG_2025This gorgeous view of Chicago is courtesy said-restaurant’s bathroom. (Please note that I was not the only creep taking pictures there.)

The trip was super helpful, and I am now busily working away at adding the new information I learned to the manuscript.

The winning category for this week’s Wordy Wednesday is poem/song lyrics. This poem is one I wrote a couple years ago, at this point, exploring the idea of whether life is worth it if you don’t get to really live.

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Girl’s heart pounded on

as the verdict came in

It was a matter of time

and her ending looked grim

 

She spent the next days

filled up with sorrow,

which beat was the last

Would she live to tomorrow?

 

She sat on the couch,

face pressed to the glass

watched the runners pass by,

hearts freed of their past

 

In Girl’s dreams she saw herself

running, flying and free

She wanted to be happy

but they said she couldn’t be

 

Then one day her friend came

and stopped at her door

and Girl’s heart forgot rules

as he said, “Run just once more?”

 

Boy reached out his hand

and she took it in hers,

looked back at her house

saying no words

 

She liked this much better

than sitting, dying inside

and she gave it her all

with Boy by her side

 

He pointed out beauty

although he knew what he’d heard

and they walked in the heat

and their hearts flew like birds

 

Girl was no longer sad

but she loved life too much

She knew her heart fumbled

at every foot’s touch

 

The day came when the heat

was replaced with rain

and she knew it was over

she’d never fly again

 

But she didn’t give up

she wanted life’s beauty

and with Boy she snuck out

away from her duty

 

Against pavement feet hit,

they sprinted through rain

Boy made this one count,

knew it ended her pain

 

As her heart gave out then,

she was filled with joy,

that she had known life

and that she had known Boy

 

They ran past a pond,

the surface like glass

And he watched her pass by,

her heart freed of its past

*********

51

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday (“The Publishing Industry for Non-Writers, Part 1”)

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

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Brainstorming/Writing

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.

Revising

Snapshot_20130602This 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.

Querying

This Is a Query LetterIf 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:

AgentQuery Guide to Query Letter Writing

Writer’s Digest Dos and Don’ts for Writing a Query Letter

Examples of Successful Query Letters at GalleyCat

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.

Snapshot_20130605What 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:

Dear Author,

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.

Sincerely,

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.

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… 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.

After all, it’s my job and I love it. 🙂

42

~Julia