March 26, 2012

Q+A: Reworking a Manuscript

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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

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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! ♥

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