Monday, April 30, 2012

Next Steps

On Thursday, I emailed my revised manuscript off to my agent and editor.  What happens now?  I wait for my editor's new comments.  When she sends those back, I'll go over the book again and make more changes.  I'm hoping that these will only be minor changes, but you never know.

In the meantime, I'll be catching up on things I've let slide over the past few months.  Gardening.  Cleaning.  Cooking...basically everything else in life. 

In addition, I'd like to have a contest.  One of the things I've learned as I've walked through this process is how wonderful the writing community is.  (Okay, I already knew that, but this process has just underscored that belief!)  You guys have been so great and supportive.  I want to give something back. 

Giving back is something I truly believe in.  When I was growing up, my mom called it "being nice".  Now, we say "giving back".  But it boils down to the same thing.  Reaching out and doing something for other people. 

I don't think we do enough of this. 

I would like to change that.  I'm still working out the details, but on Monday I'll announce the details of my Super Awesome Contest of Niceness. 

Until then, I leave you with a picture of my son holding this super cute puppy! (Isn't she adorable? She's not ours.  Have to work on the husband for that one!)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yes, I'm talking about you!

I'm so grateful for each and every one of you.  Read this and know I mean you.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Editing Series Addendum--What's it Like Working With an Editor?

Yesterday, one of my wonderful twitter friends, Richard (@PEART10 if you want to follow him--and you should!  He's super nice!) asked if I would write a little about the revision process while working with an editor vs. working on my own. 

The truth is, the editing process isn't all that different.  I thought once I had an agent and/or editor everything would be sunshine and lollipops (I should have known better.  I don't even like lollipops.)  But the truth is, it's not that much different than before I had an agent.  The biggest difference is in how the process feels.  I know.  That's incredibly vague. 

Let me try to explain.  Editing is editing.  It's looking at your words and agonizing over whether the sunlight is golden or just yellow.  It's making sure you type "a lot" instead of "alot".  It's sweating and agonizing over every little detail in your book. 

That doesn't change when you get an editor.  Editing is still Hard Work. 

However, a few things do change.  The biggest (and best) thing is that you feel like someone has your back.  On the days that I completely freak out and think there's no way possible I can pull this off, I remember that I'm working with Great People who won't let me send out a crappy book. 

I don't know about you, but that's my biggest fear.  I don't want to write a book that's bad.  I want to write a story that moves people, the way other books have moved me.  Knowing that I have an editor (and agent) who's in my corner makes me feel soooo much better.  It's like having a safety net. 

Now let me pause here for a minute and say that I'm lucky to be working with two people whose opinion I greatly respect.  They know what they're doing.  So when they say something's not working in my book, I Pay Attention. 

That's why doing your research before you query is so important.  I knew before I queried Dan that he represented the type of books that I write.  The type of books that I liked to read.  He represents books about "weird kids in small towns" and that's exactly the type of book I write.  After speaking with him and with my editor I was even more positive I wanted to work with them.  They both know their stuff. 

Which is the second thing that's been great about working with my editor.  Her suggestions have helped me reshape the book so that it's just plain better.  Yes, it's a lot of work.  But I don't really care about the amount of work.  I care about telling a good story, and her suggestions have helped me do that. 

So that's the good part about working with an editor. 

But there are also some things that are harder.  Most of all, there's more pressure.  Before if I messed up, I was only disappointing myself.  Now if I mess up, other people are involved.  Let me stop here for a minute and say that the pressure does not in any way come from my agent or my editor.  They've been great through the whole thing.  Really, I couldn't dream up a better team. 

The pressure all comes from me.  Like every other writer out there, I've dreamed about finding an agent.  About the day I finally sell my book.  I'm so close to that it's terrifying.  I'm afraid I'll do something to mess it up.  Not me personally--it's not like I'm going to freak out and run down the street naked.  No, I'm afraid that after all of this work, my writing won't be up to par.  That my story will fall short, and I'll lose this great opportunity.   

This says much more about me than it does about either my agent or my editor.  When I get this way, I force myself to remember the good things about having an editor.  She won't let me send out a crappy book.  Like most things, it's cyclical.  And, like most things, the good far outweighs the bad. 

I know that this wasn't exactly a How To post.  But it is the truth as I've experienced it.  I hope that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you can look back on this post and realize you're not alone.  Your agent and/or editor will not let you send out a crappy book, and there's a lot of comfort in that!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Editing Series - Keeping it All Together

This is the final post in my editing series.  Today I'm going to give you some tips for keeping everything straight. 

I'll tell you up front, I am not an organized person.  I don't file my kids' artwork in special acid-free folders to preserve the memories.  I put the artwork I remember to save in an old JC Penny's box then stuff that in the top of my closet.  I could be under the bed, or in the basement...actually, in might be in the trunk of my car. 

It's not that I don't want to be that person who has everything together, it's that my mind doesn't work that way.  I just think about acid-free folders until I'm reaching for that JC Penny's box and it crashes down on top of my head. 

As you might have guessed, when it comes to writing, I'm not an outliner.  I'm a panster all the way!

So when it came time to pull my novel apart and sew it back together a la Frankenstein's monster, I needed a system that would work for my, ahem, playfully unorganized mind. 

Here's what I did:

That pink mess on the right is my manuscript.  I printed the thing out and carried it around with me in a cardboard box from Kinkos.  I read it through, chapter by chapter, making notes on the pages with one of the four pens you see on top of the manuscript. 

Blue = things I needed to add.
Red = things to cut
Green = garden facts to re-check (my story takes place on a flower farm, so I had to make sure all of the flowers were blooming in the correct season)
Black = other things to check (this would be symptoms of various diseases, different little facts throughout the book, etc.)

A quick note here on the Green and Black pens.  I already checked all of my facts before sending the book out the first time, but because I'm compulsive, I underlined and re-checked all of my facts again. 

Astute readers might notice the pink post-its covering my book.  You might be asking yourself, If you have such a nifty color-coded pen system, why the post-its? 

The post-its are for all of those little thoughts I had during the rewrite.  You know, stuff like - strenghten the emotional connection between Character A and Character B in Chpt 2.  Or to capture the random thoughts that popped into my mind throughout the day.  I'd scribble my thought on a post-it then put that on the first page of my manuscript.  I ended up with 2 pages of post-its.  Things I wanted to go back and check during my second-to-last read through. 

You might notice the blue notes on my laptop.  That's because, come on, this is already 100 times more organized than I've ever been before, I have to have something that doesn't fit.  A lot of times, inspiration would strike while I was in the shower.  I'd get out, scribble down my thought on the blue notes I keep on a desk in my room, then go back to the shower. 

Told you.  Not organized. 

On my second-to-last read through, I went through all of my notes and made sure that I incorporated the good ideas and tossed the bad ideas. 

One final thing that helped immensely.  As you know, I had to cut one character's POV which was all backstory.  Those chapters were interspersed throughout the novel, so I had to go back and write new chapters. 

As you might have gathered, I don't write linearly.  Instead, I work on whatever idea I have at that moment.  It might be at the beginning.  It might be seventy pages in.  I used to keep separate files for my chapters and then copy and paste into Word when I was finished, but I move things around.  That got really messy.  Even for me. 

To help, I downloaded Scrivner writing software.  It is fantastic.  It lets me move chunks of my novel around and then when I'm happy with it, it compiles everything in Word.  Nice and neat. 

I'm told it also has an outlining feature, but I don't even know where that is...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Editing Series--Plot Part Two

On Friday, I talked about things you can do to strengthen your plot.  Today, I'm going to wrap up the plot discussion with the biggest thing I did to make my plot more interesting. 

So what did I do?  Simple.  I adopted a new motto: Make it More.  More exciting.  More interesting.  More dramatic.  I looked at each scene I had, and I tried to find ways to Make it More.  It seems simple, but it's really difficult.  When writing fiction you have to balance the need to make things believable with the need to make things interesting.  Finding the right balance is a delicate thing.

Let me give you an example from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.  Spoiler alert.  If you're the one person in the universe who hasn't watched The Empire Strikes Back, go watch it before you read the rest of this post. 

Now that we're all on the same page, let's talk Star Wars.  When George Lucas wrote the story of young Jedi Luke Skywalker (okay--I know it's really Darth Vader's story, but just go with me here) he could have kept the story simple.  Luke wants to be a Jedi and fight bad guys, namely chief bad guy Darth Vader.  That could have been good enough.  Good versus Evil is a classic plot.  Vader could have been any random Joe seduced by the dark side. 

Instead, Lucas chose to Make it More.  He looked at his story and said, How can I really blow this out?  What's more interesting?  Having Luke battle someone he doesn't know?  Or having Luke battle his own father?  By making that one small decision, Lucas took his plot from ordinary, to extra-ordinary.  He elevated his story from a simple Good versus Evil to an infinitely more complicated (and interesting) family struggle complete with all the internal and external angst that waging a war against your own father creates. 

One decision.  Hugely different outcome.  That's what you need to do with your plot.  Look at the decisions you've made and see if there's a way to Make it More.  See if there's something you can change that will add an extra layer of complications to your story.  I guarantee that your story will be much better for it.

Oh, and one last thing.  Notice that Lucas' plot twist sprang from his characters.  Plot is not something separate from our characters.  Instead it is entangled with our characters.  It surrounds your characters and penetrates them.  It's what binds your story together...(cue the music here.)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Editing Series - Plot

Today we're going to talk about plot.  I intentionally placed the plot discussion after we had already covered character for two reasons.  First, the books I write (and the books I like to read) are heavily character-driven.  Even if the plot has fantastic twists and turns, I need to care about the characters to care about the plot.  And second, as you can see from yesterday's post, often strengthening the ties between your characters requires adjusting your plot. 

Let's talk about plot.  This is what moves your story forward.  This is the interesting "stuff" that happens in your story.  Plot keeps your readers turning the pages. 

I want to be honest up front.  I struggle with plot.  Maybe it's because I don't outline before I write.  Maybe it's because I can envision my characters so clearly, but figuring out what happens to them--that's a struggle for me. 

I worked a lot on strengthening my plot during this revision.  There were three main things I did that really helped tighten the plot, but I'm only going to get to two today.  I want to give some examples of the third thing I did and doing so would make this an incredibly loooong post, so I'll talk about Plot Technique Number Three on Monday. 

First (and the thing that was the most work) was that on my editor's suggestion, I cut most of the back story.  I have three POV characters and one of those character's POV was all backstory.  I completely cut that POV which made me restructure the entire novel. 

Why did my editor suggest cutting the backstory?  Simple, it wasn't moving the plot forward.  My readers didn't need to know every little thing about how my characters ended up in their current situation.  My readers just needed to know what they were going to do about their current situation.  Make sense?  The back story was slowing everything down.  I did keep a few parts, but instead of presenting them as full chapters in one character's POV, I wove them into the story as flashbacks.

The next thing I did was increase my antagonist's presence in the novel.  Before this rewrite, he was always hovering around the edges of things, but he didn't get truly scary until the very end.  I took his part and blew it up into something much bigger.  Which meant my other characters had to react.  All of this created a lot of action; whereas before my characters were sitting about and thinking a lot.  (A Big No No.  Pontificating = Boring.)

Giving my antagonist a bigger role in the story let me put my other characters in dangerous/uncomfortable situations.  People in such situations do strange things which often leads to other predicaments.  In addition, simply seeing more of the antagonist increases the tension in the story.  Remember antagonist = conflict. 

I think that's long enough for today.  I'll go over the third point on Monday because I think it's both the hardest and most important thing I did to strengthen my plot. 

Until Monday, have a fantastic weekend!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Editing Series - Strengthening Connections Between Characters

Yesterday, I talked about creating a likable protagonist.  Today, I'll talk about strengthening the connections between characters.  Why is this important? Because no one exists in a vacuum.  Even if you're writing a fast paced thriller, where plot is the most important element in your novel, your characters have relationships with other characters.  Those relationships are a great source of conflict, and a great way to add depth to your characters. 

So how do you do this?  You Slow Down.  Waaaay down.  Doesn't make sense at first does it?  But think about it.  You're writing a novel.  Not a short story.  Not flash fiction.  Not a poem.  A novel.  Novels are huge, unwieldy things, a lot like our lives.  And in life, relationships evolve over time.  I hate to break it to you, but Love At First Sight and Happily Ever After only works in the movies where stories are compressed into two hours. 

Take the time you need to develop your character's relationships.  Have fun with their ups and downs.  Let's take a very basic example.  A love story.  Girl and Boy meet.  If they fall in love immediately and everything perfect and easy for them, you don't have a story.  So what do you do? 

Easy.  Break everything down into small moments.  Girl and Boy meet.  Maybe they're not in love, but in lust.  Maybe they don't even like each other.  Maybe they're involved with other people.  Take that first moment and blow it out.  Expand it and make it full of tension.  Give Girl and Boy an obstacle to overcome.  Maybe Boy plays the ukulele and Girl has made a vow never to date ukulele playing boys because a ukulele playing fiend killed Girl's Mother. 

Move on to the next moment Girl and Boy are together.  Maybe they're a little closer now.  Think baby steps.  Maybe Girl realizes she is attracted to Boy, but she fights that attraction due to her horrible history with ukulele players. 

Next moment.  Again, baby steps.  This time maybe Girl is lost in an unfamiliar city, when suddenly, she hears the plucky sound of a ukulele.  She thinks of Boy.  Follows the music to its source where she finds...not Boy, but ukulele playing fiend who killed her mother!  And who should be next to him...Boy!  At this moment, Girl realizes that Ukulele fiend is Boy's Father. (Cue dramatic music.) 

Now, Girl and Boy have another obstacle to overcome.  Another reason to slow down their relationship.  Think of it as a dance.  Your characters move together, then come apart.  They come together again, only to pull apart.  Until ultimately, they end up wherever you want them to be. 

The problem a lot of writers (including me) have is that their characters move immediately from one emotion to another.  They miss the steps in-between.  They miss that dance.  (I'm picturing a tango.)  And since they miss that dance, they lose any tension between their characters. 

It might seem like putting obstacles between characters would drive them apart, but think about real life again.  If you go through something especially difficult with someone (death, sickness, financial troubles, whatever) that shared experience can often make you closer.  It's the same with your characters. 

Remember, it's a dance.  Come together.  Move apart.  Together.  Apart.  You'll not only strengthen the connection between those two characters, you'll add another layer of tension to your story. 

And here's a secret.  Did you notice that everything I did to build the relationship between Girl and Boy added to the plot also?  Good fiction is like a spiderweb.  Everything's connected.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Editing Series - Creating Likable Protagonists

Today we're going to talk about creating a likable protagonist.  Now this might seem elementary.  If you want people to keep reading your book, you need them to like your main character(s), right?  Of course. 

Your main character should be someone the reader roots for.  Someone they can aspire to be.  Or someone they empathize with.  Too often we see this advice and we write someone who's just too nice.  This type of character never does anything wrong.  They're the kind of person you'd avoid at all costs in real life because they are just so annoyingly Good. 

On the other side, we can try so hard to avoid the Too Nice trap that we write a character with so many quirks/issues the reader can't connect with them. 

Characters, like people, are filled with shades of gray.  They're neither all good or all bad. 

I forgot that when I was writing. 

The fastest way to make me stop reading a book is when a character is just too perfect.  Give me Batman over Superman any day.  Han Solo and Darth Vader are sooo much more interesting than Luke.  I like characters who have issues.  Or quirks.  The anti-hero is my favorite type of character. 

So what did I do to mess up?  Well, it wasn't that I gave my characters too many quirks.  It was that I mentioned them too often.  The quirks grew until they took over the scene and dwarfed all the other issues in the book.  It made my characters too difficult to connect with.  That's Bad.

So how did I fix it?  I didn't remove the quirks, I scaled them back.  Way back.  I didn't realize this until my editor mentioned it, but by bringing up odd behaviors over and over again, I was actually diluting their impact.  So I cut some of it.  And she was right.  Now when my character's neuroses show up, they heighten the tension and my readers have more sympathy for the character. 

In addition, I used other characters to highlight my MC's good points.  For example, let's say you have a MC who is beautiful or nice or "insert good quality here", but she's so painfully insecure that she doesn't believe it.  You can have other characters remark about her appearance (or whatever), but she shakes her head and turns away.  Now the reader knows two things.  One, the character really is beautiful/nice/whatever, and two, she doesn't believe it.  Nice trick, right?

Sounds strange, but not mentioning my MC's quirks as often and having other characters highlight her good qualities worked.

So what do you do if you have the other problem?  What if you've written a character that's just sooo perfect your readers throw up a little in their mouths when they read about her?  (Okay, maybe that's pushing it...then again, maybe not.) 

Easy, you do the same thing in reverse.  Tone down their Wonderfullness.  Don't keep mentioning how beautiful she is.  Or how smart.  Mention it a time or two and then drop it. 

Play up some of her negative qualities.  Don't pretend she's perfect.  No one is.  Even Superman has clumsy Clark Kent as an alter-ego.  Think about people you know.  Think about the Best People you know.  Even they have issue/traits that are irritating. 

Have other characters talk about those problems.  Maybe your MC is beautiful but vain.  Do the same thing I mentioned above for the quirky protagonist. 

Have one character say something like, "Golly gee, MarySue is beautiful, but she sure spends a lot of time looking at herself in the mirror."  MarySue can overhear this and walk away in a huff as she pulls out a compact to make sure her mascara isn't smudged.  See?  Now you've moved from a flat, one dimensional character to a fully developed one.  (But, please use more interesting examples than this in your story!)

The trick to creating a likable protagonist is the create a relatable protagonist.  They don't have to be perfect.  They don't have to be irreparably flawed.  Your reader does have to care about that character, which means your characters need to be real.  Real people are never all good or all bad.  We're filled with quirks and contradictions and shades of gray.  Make sure your characters are too.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Editing Part One

My manuscript with my notes

Yesterday I promised to write about the editing process.  I wanted to do this because frankly, there's not a lot out there about what happens after you get an agent.  Now, please keep in mind that everyone's experience is different.  What happens to you could be completely different than what I'm going through. 

As you know, I'm working with an editor to make some pretty substantial changes to my manuscript.  I'm hoping to share what I've learned through this process because I know so many of you are writers trying your best to get your work out there. 

I can't cover everything in one post (that would be way too long!) so I'm breaking this up into a series of posts.  Today, I'm going to give you an overview of the way my editor broke things down for me, then tomorrow, I'll get into specifics. 

So, what did I get back from my editor?  After she read my manuscript, she sent me an eight page single spaced letter where she detailed the issues with my book based on the characters.  Each character had over a page of suggestions on how to deepen and strengthen their role in the book.  This was great because when I was doing my initial revisions, I never thought to tease out the characters and approach the revisions this way. 

Although I had never thought about it before, it makes perfect sense to work this way now.  Why? Because if your reader doesn't care about your characters, they won't care about your story.  Make sense?  Yeah, I thought so too. 

Woven into the suggestions on dealing with character, were suggestions on how to tighten the plot and increase the tension in the novel.  I had a lot of backstory, a lot of character development, but not a lot of plot.  Who knew plot was so important?  Kidding.  Sort of. 

Anyway, the letter focused on ways to strengthen the emotional core of the book = characters.
Create more tension = plot.
And weave in the backstory = the "why" behind everything. 

So these are the three elements I'm going to focus on in this series of posts.  Wednesday and Thursday, I'm going to talk about character.  How to create a likable protagonist and how to strengthen the relationships between characters.  Friday, I'll talk about plot, and Monday, I'll handle backstory.   On Tuesday, I'll give you my tips for keeping everything straight while you're revising. 

I hope this is helpful to you.  If you think of any questions along the way, just put them in the comments and I'll try to answer them for you. 

Oh, and one more thing.  Along with the detailed edit letter, my editor also sent back several pages of my manuscript where she had written notes, and we had an hour long phone conversation where we brainstormed different ways to deal with issues in the book. 

I have to end by saying that although this has been a long and involved revision, it's been a great process.  I've learned more in the past three months than I have in several years.  Now that I'm no longer just writing for myself, I push myself harder.  And I think the book is better for it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Welcome to Wonderland

I feel a little bit like I've stepped into Wonderland.  Everything's a  I finished the edits on my book on Saturday and now I'm putting it aside for a week before doing a final read through.  Now that I'm not frantically nose down in my book, I don't know quite what to do with myself.  It's strange. 

After finishing, I slept from 9:00pm Saturday night to 9:00am Sunday morning.  This Does Not Happen to me!  Since having kids, I wake early every morning.  You wouldn't think sitting in front of a computer for three months would be exhausting, but let me tell you, it is! 

So, what to do now.  I have an entire week off.  (Well, not really off.  I'm still teaching.  I still have 4 kids.  I have an article for KY Gardener due....)  But off from the book which is what I've been doing for three months straight. 

You would think I'd seize this time.  You'd think I'd lounge around watching favorite movies, reading great books (that part I will do!), or eating chocolate (I'll do that too!) But you know what I really want to do?  Go through the book again. 

I'm seized by this fear that it's not good enough.  That there's some small thing I've missed.  And if I don't pick it up right now, the whole thing will fall apart. 

Of course it won't.  In fact, I've ordered myself not to look at the book until Saturday.  I'm making myself Let Go.  I need to put some space between myself and the book so that when I do read it again, I can catch everything I missed last time.  I need to forget a little, so that I'm surprised by my plot choices.  I need to look at it like it's something new. 

To fill my time, this week I'm going to write a series of posts on my editing process.  I'll start tomorrow and continue through Thursday.  In the meantime, since I can't sit still, I'll be mentally moving on to the next book, trying to figure out Exactly What Happens...

Friday, April 13, 2012

RIP Darby the Wonderdog

As you already know if you're a writer, life doesn't stop just because you're trying to finish your book.  Kids need to eat.  Papers need to be graded.  Dogs need to be walked.

And sometimes, those same dogs reach the end of their journey. 

Yesterday, was that day for our dog Darby.  Her death was peaceful and loving as could be hoped for.  My husband and I were with her, holding her as she breathed her last.  She was fourteen years old, and she was so, so tired. 

We got Darby when she was a pup.  Before we had kids.  When life was much simpler.  She was one of the last ties to our life before we became parents.  It was so hard to let her go, and so hard to realize that fourteen years had passed.

Life is terrifyingly short. 

If you're like me, you don't pause often enough to reflect on where you've been.  To remember the milestones in your life--whether those milestones are as big as becoming a parent for the first time, or as small as sitting on the front porch with someone you love, counting the stars.

As we left the vet's office, my husband and I spent some time talking about the strange, winding path our life has taken.  We remembered how it felt to be young together.  When spending time together was enough.  We talked about the tiny moments and the big moments in our lives.  And how all of those moments were so beautiful it hurt. 

This was Darby's last gift to us.  We hadn't realized it until she died, but she held our past for us.  And in her death, she gave it back to us. 

So Thank You Darby the Wonderdog.  You will be missed.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Don't be afraid...

to step through the looking glass.  We all have some Alice in us.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Can you keep a secret?

I want to tell you a secret.  Everyone lean in real close. 


Okay.  That's good.

I'm almost finished editing The Book.

It's true.  I should wrap things up on Saturday.  Then I'll put it away for 7-10 days before doing a final read through.  After that, I'll send it to my editor and cross my fingers that she doesn't come back with more big changes.  (Although she has a Great Eye so if she says it needs more work, it needs more work.)

I'm sure my editor will have suggestions, but hopefully they'll be of the minor variety instead of the Gut The Whole Thing variety.  Minor changes are much easier to handle. 

To celebrate, I'm trying to dream up some Fun Things for the blog.  Things like give aways and drawings for critiques.  I want to start in May, so feel free to offer suggestions. 

If all goes as planned, next week I'll write up a looong post about the editing process and what I've learned.

Until then, Happy Reading & Writing!