November 5, 2012

Taking Time on Things That Matter (To You)

A few months ago, my sister and I were in the bathroom putting on make-up as sisters sometimes do. I was about to shade in my eyebrows, and a semblance of the following conversation happened:

Sister: Oh! I've finally found the perfect way to do eyebrows. I'll show you.
Me: Okay...
Sister: Take your brush and shade the wing then fade out the front and fill in with liner and smooth out with comb and fill in again and--
Me: OMG WTH IT'S JUST MY EYEBROW WHY ARE THERE SO MANY STEPS?
Sister: *while laughing* Yes, but then your eyebrows look like this. *gestures to her own which, admittedly, are fab*
Me: But I don't CARE. I'm going back to my one-step eyebrow shading.

So I did. But my sister has always liked what she could do with make-up so she didn't mind spending the extra time to perfect her eyebrows.

And it got me thinking about how we all spend a little more time on the things that matter to us, even though others might think it strange or a waste of time.

My sister is also a photographer (and a dang good one), and she spends hours upon hours reading up on the latest techniques, lenses,and equipment. She's always practicing her skills or imagining her frames, and she stays up late scrutinizing every shot to make sure her clients are happy. And she does all this because that's what she's passionate about.

What I'm passionate about is my writing. I spend ages trying to find the right words for a single sentence, or hours rewriting a paragraph because it just doesn't sound right. For people who don't care so much about writing, this would be crazy to them. And, yeah, I guess it kind of is. But this is what matters to me, so I'm willing to take my time.

So no matter what your passions, if it's something that really, truly matters to you, take the time to learn it and perfect it and ENJOY it.

Happy Monday! ♥

October 29, 2012

What Scares You?

This post is basically all about what a giant wuss I am.

But that's no secret. I love Halloween because of the crazy costumes and the decorations and THE CANDY. But even though I was and am a HUGE R.L. Stine fan, and I began writing stories about ghosts and exploding heads when I was in Elementary School, I've never liked SEEING scary things (reading is A-OK though).

Maybe it's something to do with the culture I grew up in--illnesses are attributed to bad spirits which need to be either placated or sent away with complicated ceremonies, ghosts and demons have to be warded off with talismans, funerals are long and drawn-out ceremonies in which a shaman must guide the spirit back to their place of birth so that it's not left to wander. It's a highly superstitious culture, and the ghost stories my mother used to tell me (stories from back in Laos, where apparently bad spirits were really plentiful) sometimes made it difficult to fall asleep at night.

It didn't help that I grew up in a house that was haunted. My mother would see things, and my siblings and I all experienced the usual stuff like moving shadows, footsteps when no one was there, weird noises, etc. I'm still not sure if the house was actually haunted or if it was just really dang creepy. The basement was a place of nightmares--dank, dark, and filled with spiders and centipedes. The stairs were ridiculously steep, and I lost count of how many times someone fell down them. I was terrified of going ANYWHERE in the house once the lights were turned off at night.

We lived there for seven years, but after we moved out, a succession of families moved in and out within the next couple years. One of them was a family my mother knew, and they told her a rather alarming story about locking themselves in one of the bedrooms while someone/thing rattled the doorknob as if trying to get in.

So, possibly as a result of the culture I grew up with and my childhood in a house that STILL provides the setting for all my nightmares TO THIS DAY, I'm never quite sure whether I trust some of the things I've seen because I'm just not sure what's real and what isn't.

Here are a few things that never fail to creep me out:

Child ghosts.

~ My daughter used to get up at night to sleep with me and my husband. When my sister spent the night once, she was awoken by a sound, and when she opened her eyes (she was sleeping on the sofa), she saw my daughter's little figure walking through the living room in the dark. Creepiest thing ever? Possibly :P

~ This one time, I was in my bathroom cleaning up for bed and I heard, quite clearly, a voice whisper, "Mama." Thinking it was my daughter coming over to sleep with us early, I said, "Yes?" When there was no response, I glanced into my bedroom to find it empty. I went to check on her, but she was still asleep in her own bed.

~ My husband was doing something in the front yard around 11 PM for a reason I can't even remember. He had the front door open and through it, he saw what he thought was our daughter standing in front of the dog kennel, talking to the dog. He waved at her. When he came back inside only a minute later and found she wasn't in our bed with me, he went to check on her to find she was still fast asleep curled underneath her blankets.

Dolls, especially old ones.

~ When I was a kid, someone thought it'd be a brilliant idea to manufacture dolls with eyes that followed you. And my mom thought it'd be a brilliant idea to get this doll for me and my sisters. We threw the doll in the porch, and I was forever scared of going into the porch after that.

Reflections in mirrors that aren't really there.

~ Can't even count how many times my eyes have played tricks on me, and I've caught something in the mirror that wasn't there when I turned around. Creepy as heck. Also, driving at night on a dark road (or passing a cemetery), don't tell me you've never been just a tiny bit scared of looking into your rearviw mirror and seeing someone in your backseat.

Okay, now your turn. What scares you? Any creepy stories to share?

Happy Halloween! ♥

October 22, 2012

On the Value of NaNoWriMo

Last week, I read this post from Farrah Penn, and it got me thinking about what I've taken away from NaNoWriMo about myself and my writing, even though I haven't officially participated since that first time three years ago.

For the first half of 2009, I'd been playing with an idea for a book, but it had been years since I'd written anything other than fanfiction (which I talked about here). Fanfiction was a necessary detour on my writing path, but it was emphatically just a detour, and I needed to get back on the main road, the road I started on when I was a kid using my saved-up dollars to enroll myself in writing programs instead of blowing it at the mall. But my progress was stalled because of the irrational fear that I wouldn't be able to make the transition back into writing my own stories with my own characters.

I thought about it and dithered a lot and then I heard about NaNoWriMo. It sounded insane. 50k words in one month? IMPOSSIBLE. And yet, people did it every year, and it sounded like just the thing I needed to kick my butt into gear and jumpstart the book. So, trepidation high and half-expecting to burn out after the first week, I joined.

Turns out NaNoWriMo is an AMAZING idea and not nearly as crazy as I once thought. I reached the 50k mark around November 20. I did burn out around 57k words, and the book was a phenomenal mess that would need mounds of editing and rewriting, but the fact was I did it. I DID IT. And that small (HUGE) accomplishment forever changed what I thought I was capable of.

What NaNoWriMo taught me about myself:

♥ I am capable of writing 50k or more within a month, regardless of other obligations like funerals, parties, holidays, and weekend trips (all of which happened that particular November).

♥ I can do it again if I put my mind to it. Every first draft I've written since has been completed within a month or less. Editing is something else entirely, but spitting out that first draft isn't something that scares me (much) anymore.

♥ I'm a plotter. My outlines do change, and I keep it flexible, but I have to have an outline.

♥ Writer's block can be overcome. Sure, there are times when the writing feels bland and nothing comes out right, but I write through it anyway. And when I go back to edit, I find they were either not as awful as I remembered or easily reworded for better flow. Editing words already written down is easier than staring at a blank page.

♥ I am horribly competitive. Seeing my fellow NaNo-ers' word counts jump up every day was exactly the motivation I needed to keep writing, to push for a few more hundred words, to keep going even though I'd already reached the day's word count goal.

♥ Even though fanfiction was my greatest teacher, the joy of writing my own story again eclipsed everything else, and I have never looked back.

Are you participating, or have participated, in NaNoWriMo? And did it teach you anything about yourself?

Have an awesome Monday, guys! ♥



October 15, 2012

On Queries and Putting Your Best Foot Forward

One of the most common reasons I hear (or rather, read) for why agents pass on a "weak" query is: "If it's weak in the query, it's weak in the manuscript."

Writers groan when they hear this, but I can understand both sides. The quality of a query can oftentimes be a good indicator of a writer's grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. It's also an example of the writer's style and their ability to summarize information--too much back story, not enough conflict or voice. All of this can be true of the manuscript as well.

But not always! When I read the entries for the GUTGAA agent pitch contest, there were a lot of queries that were either too long, too short, repetitive, or didn't present enough information (character, conflict, stakes, what makes it unique). If I was an agent with nothing but the query to go on, I would have passed on them. But then I jumped down to the first 150 words, and they were solidly written with a great voice that drew me in, and I would have definitely kept reading.

Sometimes, no matter how skilled a writer you are, writing a good query is just REALLY FRACKING HARD. And because agents judge whether or not they want to read your book nearly entirely on your query, this can really suck.

Unfortunately, you can't just say 'oh well' and cross your fingers that the agent will request based on the sample pages alone. Well, actually, yes, you can, but do you really want to? It's true that some agents have said they skip right to the pages to see if it draws them in, but even more agents never make it to the sample pages because the query didn't do its job.

When an agent says they pass because they fear weaknesses in the query will reflect weaknesses in the manuscript, it's because they've read a LOT of queries and pages and generally know this to be true. But the thing is, sometimes--a LOT of the times--it's not, and the agent won't know that because they just don't have the time to check every single query.

So while, as a writer, I think query-writing can arguably be a form of torture, the unfortunate fact remains that it doesn't matter whether or not the quality of your query reflects the quality of your manuscript. No matter what, you have to put your best foot forward and prove that your manuscript is worth the read by proving it first in your query.

And yes, again, that's REALLY FRACKING HARD, and no, there's no single right way to do it, but I know you can! You wrote a whole book, after all. That already means you rock.

Good luck! ♥

October 1, 2012

Point of View: Take Two

So I've said that 1st person vs 3rd person is a matter of preference, and not something you should spend too much time stressing over. But have you ever started a WIP and then, at some point between the beginning and end (ideally closer to the beginning), you have the mind-breaking realization that maybe... your story isn't being told from the right point-of-view character?

Usually, when we first visualize a story, it seems perfectly obvious whose story needs to be told. 99.9% of the time, that's your main protagonist. (There are exceptions, notably among the classics, but for simplicity's sake, we'll focus on the narrator as the MC)

But sometimes, as you're writing, the story begins to take shape in an unexpected way. The conflict pulls you in a different direction. Who you thought was your main character suddenly fades in importance while the details seem to shine and fall into place around a different character.

At this point, you have to make a decision. Restructure the story and refocus the conflict on your main character, or rewrite the story from the other character's point of view. Either way, it requires some major manuscript reconstruction.

Something similar (sort of) happened to me while outlining my WIP. Two thirds into the outline, it dawned on me that half of the story action--events that would better serve the book if written out instead of mentioned later on--wasn't happening to my female protagonist. I still needed her point of view because she is the main character and her scenes are all still important, but I realized that she's only half of the narrative.

Fortunately, I didn't have to reconstruct the entire story around a different character, but I'd never written in dual pov before (at least not original fiction). The idea of having to do so was daunting, so it took a while for me to accept that this story needed the point of view of my male protagonist. But once I acknowledged that it needed to be just as much HIS story as HERS, everything came together.

I'm a big fan of stories with multiple points of view, but they really do need to be essential to the story you want to tell. Unless you're G.R.R. Martin.

So have you ever experienced the frustration of writing in the wrong character's point of view? Or experienced something similar? And what are your thoughts on dual/multiple points of view?


September 24, 2012

When POV Characters Withhold Information

Characters withholding information is a common and oftentimes important part of stories. Unless they're a fan of the villainous monologue, most antagonists like to keep their plans to themselves, which means the protags have to work to solve the problem and defeat the antag. This is good. Or sometimes a supporting character has to keep a secret because it'll hurt or shock the MC/incriminate themselves/reveal a motivation or facet about themselves they simply don't want anyone to know yet.

But what about when it's the point-of-view character keeping a secret from the reader? What if the MC discovers important information, but never actually says what the information is, forcing the reader to look at the context and hunt for clues in his/her reaction in order to figure it out? What if the MC is forced to do something shocking, but reacts only with 'OMG HOW AM I GOING TO DO THIS?' but, again, doesn't explicitly state what they need to do (presumably to amp up reader anxiety and anticipation)?

What do you guys think about this story-telling technique? When, if ever, does it work for you? Is it ever believable for a point-of-view character (especially if it's in first person) to NOT reveal what they're thinking/reading/angsting about in order to serve the plot?

Here's an example that immediately comes to mind. For those who have NOT read Across the Universe by Beth Revis, I would advise you not to highlight the paragraph below b/c it contains a MAJOR PLOT SPOILER.

(Highlight to read)
In Across the Universe, Elder reveals at the end of the book that he's the one who unplugged Amy. However, the story is told alternately from his first person point of view and, despite that Amy makes no secret her intense emotional reaction to the fact she was awoken fifty years too soon and will be an old lady by the time her parents wake up, Elder never thinks about the fact that HE is responsible. He never has an "on screen" moment where he displays emotional and moral conflict about what he's done to her. Instead, he reveals it at the end, delivering what's meant to be a huge blow both to Amy and to the reader.

So, the question is, does this work for you? Does the fact the character never had an 'on screen' moment thinking about it result in him/her losing all credibility and even respect from the reader? Or is the shock value, the twist, that OMG moment, enough to validate its use?

(Note: it looks like I'm picking on AtU, but AtU is one of my favorite YA SF books ever, so I'm doing it with love :P Promise!)

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Happy Monday! ♥

September 17, 2012

A Matter of Point of View

Last Thursday, the wonderfully and impressively organized Deanna Barnhart, your GUTGAA mastermind, held a Twitter Q+A for querying writers. It went smashingly. I think we even trended!

However, something I noticed was that some writers seemed a little fixated on the question of point of view. It's true that many young adult books are told in 1st person point of view. I've heard that it's because it helps put the reader more firmly in the narrator's shoes, and that teens relate better to it.

But I like to think it's a matter of personal preference. Like everything else in publishing, it's subjective. (And there are tons of fantastic YA books written in 3rd person out there.)

I have two seventeen-year-old nieces, both of whom are avid readers. When questioned about which pov they prefer, they both said they don't care and, frankly, barely even notice it. What matters is whether the story and the characters grab them, and that can be done regardless of which pov the author chooses.

Now, sometimes, it's true that a book or a character's voice just isn't working in a certain point of view. And when that realization hits, it can be a major motivational and creative vortex.

The manuscript I was working on last year began in 3rd person. A couple chapters in, I realized something just wasn't right. I considered changing the point of view, but I had never actually written in 1st person before, and it seemed a daunting challenge. However, going with my gut turned out to be the right decision because that was the book with which I signed my agent. Even so, I still prefer writing in 3rd and that's the pov my WIP is in. Agents won't care either way so long as it works for the book.

If you need further proof, my fabulous CP Mindee has sold two book series, one written in 1st person and the other in 3rd. Both are equally amazing.

There are so many things to think about when writing a book--deadlines (professional or otherwise), plot twists, character arcs, pacing and conflict. Point of view is just a tiny part of the process and not something that should be giving you unnecessary stress.

So what do you guys think? What's your preference?



August 13, 2012

Q+A: If they ask for money, it's a scam

» Ask Me Anything!

Linneus asked: How do I know who to trust and who's ripping me off? (regarding agents and publishers) Do I pay to have my book published, or does someone else? How does it work?

(Off topic: I love your name for reasons I can't say publicly b/c of NWS-ness lol)

Research. Research, research, research. There are a lot of sites out there that list disreputable publishers/agents and give great advice on how to spot a scam.

But since you asked me, here's my simple answer: if they ask you for money, it's a scam.

A reputable agent would never require a reading fee. Nor would s/he require payment for editing services, either from him/herself or a third party. A legitimate publisher would not require you to pay or "invest" money in publishing your book (that's what vanity publishers do). Similarly, they shouldn't require you to pay to get it "professionally edited." Money should always flow TOWARD you, and your agent gets paid when you do, typically 15%.

Note that those agent examples are not the same as an agent suggesting you might benefit from getting more opinions on your work. But I WOULD be leery if the agent directed you to a specific editor-for-hire.

That's all I've got. If there's anything you guys would like to add, please comment :)

August 6, 2012

Q+A: Manuscripts and Beta Readers

» Ask Me Anything!

Emily asked: How polished should a manuscript be before you send it to beta readers?

As I'm sure you already know because you guys are pretty darn awesome, many of these questions are the sort where the answers change depending on who you ask. Writing advice, like writing itself, is subjective. Take what you like, what you agree with, and discard everything else ♥

For me, I bring in the beta readers after my critique partners have taken their axes to it, and I've finished revisions based on their feedback.

In fandom, betas were synonymous with critique partners so it took a while for me to figure out that there is somewhat of a difference (there is, right? *cough*) between the two. From what I've come to understand, CPs go after just about anything (and I love that they do!), while most beta readers will look at the big picture, the final product, and pick out the inconsistencies and poorly paced areas.

Of course, that changes as well depending on the people involved.

Actually, you know what? IGNORE EVERYTHING I JUST WROTE.

How polished a manuscript should be before sending it to your beta readers should be established between you and your beta readers. I'm pretty sure it changes with each and every writer/beta reader, so... find out what works for you, and go with that :)



June 25, 2012

Why Contests Help Everyone

I love agent-judged contests. Participants get the benefit of direct agent feedback, but the information is useful for all writers.

It's a learning experience to read through real examples of what pings an agent or what turns them off, what we should do more of and what an agent might be tired of seeing. Keeping in mind, of course, that responses might be particular to that specific agent, especially concerning taste.

For me, it's fun to see what other writers are working on. But I also like to read through the submissions and compare my response with others, including the agent's reaction. It's interesting to see how opinions vary, and whose opinions fall in line with mine.

When I was still querying, I liked to find contests a particular agent judged and read through her/his responses. It was a great way to gauge how they might receive my query.

Happy Monday!

June 18, 2012

Novel Beginnings

So a couple weeks ago, I said I had started my wip, but I left out the part where I spent an entire day agonizing on how to start it. On the bright side, a day is nothing compared to the two weeks it took to write the first couple sentences of my previous manuscript. And for the manuscript before that one, I rewrote the beginning three times. Which is to say starting a new story is always the hardest part for me.

It was never this hard when I was writing fanfiction, but that changed when I began researching agents. All the advice out there from writers and agents emphasizes how important a story's beginning is and all the many, many ways you can ruin it. There are all these lists for how not to open your story--don't open with a character waking up or getting into a car accident or mid-action scene or with back story or picking herbs in a field or description of setting or a flashback or dialogue or a prologue, etc etc, until you feel like there's no way to start the dang thing without hitting someone's 'What Not to Do' list.

By this point, writing that first sentence has become such a daunting task that you're debilitated by the fear that, if you fail, you will completely blow your chance at getting an agent or editor or reader or what have you.

With my previous manuscript, the pressure to get those first few pages right was hardest because I wasn't agented yet. Yes, it IS important to get that opening right, but don't let it become so overwhelming that it stifles your writing. Just write. You can always come back and fix it later even if it feels, at that moment, Too Important To Mess Up. Sometimes, a beginning will become clear only after you've written the ending.

It's also important to keep in mind that what's not right for one story might be right for yours. Those 'What Not to Do' lists can be subjective. I agree that it's probably not a good idea to start with your character waking up and describing how the sunshine falls across her bed, but whatever you choose, you have to make it work for YOUR story. The Hunger Games begins with Katniss waking up on the day of the Reaping. City of Bones starts with a brief scene from Clary's pov before it shifts into the pov of an insignificant demon who dies a few pages later. Nightshade begins mid-action scene with Calla fighting a bear to defend a boy she doesn't know. My favorite book this year Shadow and Bone starts with a prologue.

So while I'm not sure if the beginning of my wip is right, I'm not too worried for the time being. I can always fix it later :)

How do you guys feel about openings? Easy? Hard?

Happy Monday, all! ♥



April 9, 2012

Fanfiction was my best teacher

First, some back story (feel free to skip):

I entered college majoring in education. Less than a semester in, I remembered I hated talking in front of people and what the heck was I thinking?! So I did what I should have in the first place and majored in creative writing (and to hell with it not being practical).

To be honest, my writing courses were... okay. I had one professor who was phenomenal. I was fortunate to have her both in my sophomore year and for my senior capstone. She told me all the hard things I needed to hear about my writing. The other classes, however... well. I wasn't terribly impressed, and my writing felt stagnant. At the time, I was also reintroducing myself to anime, and it wasn't long before I discovered fandom and fanfiction.

A year later, I was still feeling discontent about my writing. After reading a particularly well-written fanfic, I decided I wanted to try it myself. I quickly fell in love, and over the span of the next several years, I wrote over 70 pieces of fanfiction, varying in length from 100-word drabbles to full-length 100k+ word novels.

/end back story

The point is that fanfiction renewed my writing muse. There were numerous reasons why, but the biggest reason was this: quality writers.

I know, not what you were expecting, right? And also not the first thing to come to mind when seeing the word 'fanfiction.' In fact, after spending years in fandom, I know that most fanfics aren't that great.


It's true--fandom is filled with drivel. Lots and lots of it. And lots of it. AND LOTS OF IT. But if you keep looking, you will find those writers who leave you squinting through the sheer dazzle of their talent. Who can string words like a dream, whose stories will leave you a blubbering mess or in euphoria (and also questioning why on earth they're not published).

I was fortunate enough to call many of those writers my friends, and they inspired me and taught me more about storytelling than any college class ever did. Every time I felt down about my own writing, I went back into one of their stories and reread a few favorite passages. Almost instantly, I felt renewed all over again.

Through them, I learned what powerful storytelling was. I learned that dramatic moments were strongest delivered with subtlety, that the best stories were layered, and that characterization was everything. I learned that pantsing really didn't work for me, that my favorite relationships were those forged in adversity, rivalry and camaraderie, and that the most important thing about writing any story is to make the reader care.

But even the fanfics that weren't good helped me, because they taught me what not to do--although it took me a while to get there because, just like in any profession, you have to develop an eye for what's good and what's not through time and exposure.

The desire to continue improving within this setting meant I wrote a LOT of fanfiction, and through sheer practice and an evolving understanding of my writing, I got better.

Fanfiction was a VITAL part of my growth as a writer, and my fellow fanficcers were my best teachers.

---

I was going to write a post about why fanfiction is so beneficial to budding writers, and then I saw this in my blog feed and went "MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY!" :)

Gwen on The Benefits of Writing Fanfiction

There's also this amusing and accurate post on fanfiction by Yan at Books By Their Cover:

Rant: FanFiction

Happy Monday, everyone!




March 26, 2012

Q+A: Reworking a Manuscript

» Ask Me Anything!

Sophia asked: What are your best plotting tips, particularly when you're reworking a pantsed draft and you know you need to make big changes?

Ah, the story of my first manuscript lol. I think the answer to this comes down to pace and structure. I talked a bit about this in my post about outlining

Step back, look at the story as a whole, and pick out the following: Intro, Catalyst, Reversal, Climax, Resolution.

I know, I know. It sounds so formulaic. Cue the groans. But the thing is--formulas are there for a reason, and that's because they work. Readers have EXPECTATIONS in terms of plot structure, and when you stray too far from those expectations, you will often lose the reader.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not against breaking the rules. But in order to break them, you first have to be familiar with them and understand why they're necessary.

And the thing is, every book is different. The details, the setting, the characters--books are so diverse that no one reading will go OMG FORMULAIC STRUCTURE. Great pacing equals a great story, which in turn equals an immersive reading experience. Which, in case you didn't catch that, is what you want.

Since this was a big weekend for The Hunger Games, let's use it as an example. For those who haven't read the book, expect spoilers.

Intro - It's the day of the Reaping, but we're first taken on a typical morning with Katniss--we see where she lives (the Seam), her sneaking out to go hunting with Gale, her relationship with her sister and mother. The rules of her world are introduced and, by the end of chapter one, we also know that Panem is divided into 12 districts, each of which must sacrifice two tributes in the annual Hunger Games.

Catalyst - Prim is selected at the Reaping, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and Peeta are ushered off to the Capital.

Reversal - The announcement that the rules have been modified to allow for two winners so long as they're from the same district. Katniss heads off to find Peeta.

Climax - The finale of the games. Peeta and Katniss run from the muttations, face Cato, and then threaten to kill themselves when the rule change is revoked. As a result, they're both declared victors.

Resolution - The closing ceremonies, the threat of President Snow, and returning home.

Now, once you've got those labeled, see where they fall in the story. With exception to the Intro and the Resolution, everything else should be pretty equally spaced through the book. You don't want 100 pages to pass before the catalyst happens, and then everything else gets crammed into the second half.

Another great technique for looking at the pace of your book is to plot JK Rowling-style. I LOVE the way she does it. It's a great visual way to look at exactly where each of your plot points fall.

In any case, that first manuscript I mentioned above? I will need to rewrite it so I'll be doing this myself some time this year =P

Anything else you guys would like to add would be AWESOME. Please do so in the comments! ♥

Have a great week!

March 12, 2012

Q+A: When to Start Querying

» Ask Me Anything!

Anonymous asked: How did you know when you were ready to start querying agents?

The answer to this particular question generally changes depending on who you ask. I'll try to answer it first generally, and then specifically.

I've read a lot (A LOT) of agent blogs and chats and Q+As, and what I consistently see is that one of the major reasons an agent rejects a query is because of weak writing. What this typically means is that the writer queried too soon--not only because their book wasn't ready, but because their WRITING wasn't ready. A writer must not only be an engaging storyteller, but she must be a master of her craft. Writing for publication is a profession, the same as any other. Learn your craft.

Of course, the problem is that most writers are too close to their writing and can't tell where they need to improve. This is why it's so important to get third party opinions. And not just any outside opinion but someone preferably with the credentials to determine your strengths and weaknesses. I'm using 'credentials' loosely here to mean anyone from a professional editor to a fellow writer whose opinion you trust, and who will be HONEST and CONSTRUCTIVE.

Once you know what you need to work on, what's left is to write. Write and write and write. There are no shortcuts to improvement. Practice makes perfect. And then, apply it to your book, and when it's in the best shape you think it can be... query :)

For me, personally--how did I know I was ready to query agents? With my first manuscript, I totally made the mistake of querying too soon. Fortunately, an amazing agent liked it enough to not only finish it, but she gave me a 2-page editorial letter on what she loved and what needed work. I immediately stopped querying that manuscript and set it aside for a rewrite.

With my second manuscript, I was determined not to make the same mistake. I edited it to the point I had no idea what else to do with it. Then, I sent it off to my CPs, whose opinions I trust implicitly. They are seriously awesome. Once they got back to me (and they're so fast!), I incorporated their feedback and acquired a couple beta readers. I also went another round (or two) with the CPs. I incorporated more feedback (keep in mind it was only the feedback I agreed with and felt would improve the book). Finally, I did a line edit and tried to catch any last minute inconsistencies.

By then, I had no idea what else to do with the manuscript. I didn't know 100% if I was ready, but I knew I had done everything I could. The only thing left was to query. So I did :)

For additional resources, Bluestocking has this AMAZING resource roundup that covers everything from determining whether you're ready to query up through the call:

Resource Roundup – Querying Your Masterpiece

ETA: Arwen asked a great question in the comments, which I'll paste here along with my answer. She said:

You addressed this to a degree, but is there a good answer to the flip side of this coin? How do you know when it's time to stop querying a given manuscript because it just isn't going to fly? 10 form rejections? 40? Never, just keep tweaking and trying again?

Great question, Arwen!

I think it depends not on the # of queries you send but on your request rate. I think a decent request rate is about 30%, but that changes depending on who you ask.

If you're seeing a lot of requests that turn into passes, then it's time to reevaluate your story. Maybe go another round with a new beta reader (for fresh eyes) or ask your CP to take another look with an even more critical eye. If you have a really low request rate, then your query isn't working for you, and you should consider reworking your query. If you're lucky enough to get some kind of personalized feedback (and you agree with it), then make those changes as well.

For this reason, I'm generally against sending 'query flurries' until you know whether your query and opening pages are working for you. You only get one chance to make an impression so don't rush it.

More answers next time! :D

Have a great week! ♥

February 27, 2012

Character Sheets

I like to keep my character sheets simple and to the point, namely because I won't really absorb a character's personality until I actually write him/her.

My character sheets contain the following information:
• physical statistics
• motivation and plot relevance
• character connections and how they perceive other characters
• history as it relates to the plot and world
• general outlook and personality traits

I don't need to know who their first crush was or what color their underwear is--unless it's relevant. Everything else can be made up along the way so long as it works.

The most important things on that list, imo, are motivation and plot relevance, which usually ties directly into character connections. Take THE HUNGER GAMES, for example.

What was Peeta's motivation? To protect Katniss and ensure her survival. His plot relevance, specifically, was to first garner sympathy from the viewers (star crossed lovers), then to protect Katniss from the Career tributes, and finally to provide something of an emotional arc later on when Katniss risked her life to return to the Cornucopia and retrieve the medicine for him. All these things are results of their character connections--their history together. Peeta is the boy with the bread. He saved Katniss from starving when they were kids, and his admiration for her eventually grew into love. Thus tying back to his motivation--ensuring Katniss survives The Hunger Games.

This information builds the foundation for your character. These impressions are what the reader will carry with them through the book. Things like his favorite color (orange, I think, was Peeta's) are nice details but not necessary at this stage and can always be thought up later on as needed.

But what about voice?

A character's voice usually becomes more clear as I start writing so, for a character sheet, I tend to gloss over those. But if I'm looking for a stronger grip on a character's personality, I'll do a character interview. An interview helps settle voice and pick out some personality quirks. Then, for fun, I'll sometimes do a bust sketch to help me visualize him/her.

Have a great week, all! ♥

February 20, 2012

Outlining: Start Big and Work Down to the Details

This week, I will (hopefully) be working on the outline for my WIP. So how do I start? Well, first, I answer these three questions:

1. What does the protagonist want?
2. What does the antagonist want?


The answers to these should naturally be at odds with each other. Each of their goals, independent of each other, can be as innocuous or grand as you want so long as they conflict.

3. How does the book end? (the climax)

Yep, I like to know how the book will end before I start outlining. Keep in mind, by this point, I'll have already finished world-building and character sheets. I'll also have jotted down a jumbled mess of ideas for scenes, how something might happen or questions for something that needs to happen, snippets of dialogue, character arcs, and what not--all of which are dependent upon knowing what my protag+antag want and where the book needs to go.

So, really, it's more just reorganizing those thoughts into something linear and coherent, because those questions will have already been answered in the plotting and world-building stage.

Some writers, pantsers and plotters alike, prefer to write without knowing how events will play out, instead letting their characters guide them. I'm not one of those =P With my first manuscript, I started writing not knowing how it would end or where it was going, and as noted in a previous post, it took me a year and a half to fix the mess.

It's essential for me to know how the story ends, because I use it to build the rest of the book. Every action and every piece of information must have a purpose—everything must work together to move the characters toward that end so that, when the plot twists happen and the climax settles, the reader will sit back and go 'I didn't see that coming... but I should have!'

However, even though I know how it ends, I don't yet know HOW the characters or the story led to it. Right now, I have a vague image in my head of the ending scene for this WIP, as well as some pieces of dialogue and character motivations, but that's about it. And for now, that's all I need.

So! I start by answering those 3 vital pieces of information. Once that's done, then I determine another piece—the reversal.

Within each scene, within every step forward into the story, there should ideally be some sort of minor reversal—conflict, questions, roadblocks popping up to impede your protag and maintain tension. But the one I'm talking about is the BIG one. It's not the climax, but it's something that completely upsets the hero's world thus far, something that either forces them to change or alters their goal.

To figure out what this should be, I answer these questions:

1. What does the protag believe s/he has to do in order to achieve her goal?
2. What does the antag do to completely ruin it?
(in most instances, this would coincide with the antag's goal as well)

The reversal is the point in the story when the protag believes s/he's almost achieved his/her goal, only to come up against a brick wall and must now back up and regroup.

Example: when Frodo completes his task to deliver the ring to Rivendell and finds himself with an even greater and more treacherous journey to undertake. Or when Will Grayson (lowercase will) goes to [SPOILER!SPOILER!] meet his online boyfriend in person and is devastated to learn he was never real, resulting in crossing paths with the other Will and the life altering entity that is Tiny Cooper.

As I said in a previous post, an outline is a map. Having answered all the questions above, I now know where my final destination is and what stops I need to make along the way. All that's left is to plot my route, to figure out how to get from point A to point B to point C. This is where I start filling in details and fleshing out the world, when I REALLY get to play with the ideas I first jotted down while world building.

And this is also where I totally confuse you guys—the details can and will change your ending and/or reversal. And that's okay! The point is that you started with a plan. How things happen, why they happen, and character arcs along the way—these things SHOULD affect the overall story and major plot points.

But to find those details and really make them work for the story, I first have to start with the bigger picture.

So there you have it. That's how I outline and, hopefully, that's what I will be doing this week.

If you catch me on tumblr, please yell at me!

Have a great week! ♥

January 30, 2012

Why I'm a Plotter

Writing confession: I used to be a pantser.

This worked fine for short stories and drabbles. But for longer, chaptered stories, this resulted in meandering scenes, vague plots, and then surprise twists that weren't properly foreshadowed at the end. Pantsing works for a lot of writers, but it clearly wasn't working for me. I turned to outlining.

My first original manuscript (I wrote a couple novel-length fanfics) was a partial pants job because I wrote it for NaNoWriMo and my outlines had yet to reach any sort of coherent structure. I had only outlined part of the book, and I didn't actually know how it would end. To make my daily word count, I wrote down whatever struck me, and once I passed the 50k mark, I was so burned out that I just stopped even though the book was far from finished and I still had a week left in November.

It took me months to continue writing it (thanks to Tithe), and over a year to fix the mess I'd made. I had even skipped an entire plot point that I hadn't known how to resolve and left a note reminding me to come back and fill it in. *facepalm*

Learning to outline.

My second manuscript, in comparison, was meticulously outlined. I prepared by thoroughly world-building, completing simple character sheets (I'll cover character sheets in a future post), and writing a structured outline broken down into acts and scenes. As a result, I completed my first draft in four weeks.

Why outline?

• There's less chance of running into a plot hole b/c you'll hopefully have sorted those out BEFORE starting to write. Being able to look at the plot and story events as a whole works wonders for spotting inconsistencies and plot holes.

• There's also less chance of hitting writer's block. Having an outline means you know exactly what needs to happen and how to get there, so you can power on.

• Being able to look at the story as a whole can also help you spot issues with pacing. You can easily see the scenes that might sag and quickly make changes in order to avoid massive rewrites later on.

Stay flexible!

Being a plotter doesn't mean I stick rigidly to my outline. There can and WILL be surprises along the way. There were moments while writing my second manuscript when a new scene naturally developed that hadn't been in my outline, and I went with it. There were also moments when a plot idea struck me, and I made adjustments accordingly.

The purpose of an outline is to be your map. Some writers like to set out into the writing wild and find their way as they go. Some work well with only a compass to point them in the right direction. I like to have a clearly plotted route, with each stop marked along the way.

But that doesn't mean I can't take detours or change my final destination :)

Today's art: Rokudo Mukuro (I've been feeling nostalgic)


Have a great week! ♥

January 23, 2012

Writing and Querying Resources

Happy Monday! If you're either looking for critique partners or preparing to query, here are a couple resources.

LadiesWhoCritique.com

"Ladies Who Critique is a critique partner matching site for writers of all levels – published, unpublished, aspiring, hobbyists, even closet writers or complete newbies!

Think of it like a dating website, but ‘The One’ is your perfect critique partner. You can find 'The One' by searching for members based on the genre they write, their writing and critiquing experience, interests and more. Ladies Who Critique is completely free – and always will be!"


eta: "Men are totally welcome. We have a handful of guys using the site already. I know the name suggests otherwise, but actually the more the merrier! Come on over my friend!" ~Laura (site founder)

Resource Roundup – Querying Your Masterpiece

This post by bluestocking is a great collection of info and links covering everything from whether you're ready to query up through getting The Call. (my crit partner is awesome)

Have a great week, guys!

January 11, 2012

2011 Numbers

2011 Numbers

I read 36 books in 2011, excluding about a dozen manuscripts from CPs and beta exchanges. Not a bad number, but not that great either. It's about one book every 1.5 weeks. I'd like to do better in 2012.

In 2011, I also wrote about 110,000 words. A good number, but nowhere near what other writers would be able to boast =P Since I want to write two novels this year, I'm hoping to beat this number!

Have a great rest of the week! ♥

January 2, 2012

2012 Goals and a Brief 2011 Review

I'm terrible at keeping resolutions so I generally give myself one goal to strive for. In 2011, it was to get an agent.

This year, I'm keeping it simple. My goal is to write two novels. I'm already world building the first. Whether or not I write the second book will depend on a number of things. But if not that one, then I'm sure I'll be able to find something else.

The things in 2011 that I'm MOST proud of:

♥ Starting a new blog. I already had a blog over on LJ, but I wanted one a) clearly separate from fandom and b) on blogger where the majority of the aspiring writers community seemed to be. It was scary and I had no idea what to blog about, but I don't regret it at all.

♥ Trial and error with a couple critique partners until I found Bluestocking, Mindee found me, and Anna and I sort of found each other :) I am so, SO lucky to have these ladies on my side.

♥ Sold a short story and a novella to two epublishers (under a pen name).

Signed with an agent o_o Same agent as my CP Mindee. We think it must be fate :)

♥ I never gave up. Despite the oftentimes crushing disappointment and the perpetual self-doubt, I knew that the most important thing was to not give up. Pick yourself up and push on, push on, push on.



Here's to 2012
 

Lori M Lee Copyright © 2010 Design by Ipietoon Blogger Template Graphics from Questofdreams (Lori Lee)