Tuesday, August 30, 2016
I have the privilege of being a middle grade mentor for Brenda Drake's incredible Pitch Wars contest this year. The revision period has only just begun (and I'm so excited for both of my mentees!), but already being on this end of the contest has been really illuminating—getting to read so many wonderful queries and first pages, as well as several partials and fulls, was something of a master class in identifying common issues that were very helpful to see both in terms of being able to guide other writers through making their books stronger, and to keep in mind as I revise my own books!
One thing that I noticed in several of the partials and fulls that I read was a disconnect between the beginning (in this case, usually the first 1/4-1/3) and the rest of the book. I saw a lot of books in which the first section of the book had a very different feel, and often a completely different setting or even a fairly unrelated plot, than the rest of the book. To an extent, this is normal and even necessary—the first quarter of your book helps to establish your character's "normal world," and is all about presenting your character before they've experienced the life-changing plot turn that happens about 25% into your book.
Still, as a reader and as a potential mentor, I found myself several times falling in love with a book's beginning—only to, a few chapters later, have the book change so much that many of the things that had attracted me to it in the first place were no longer present. What I realized as I read was this:
The beginning of your book is a promise to your reader. In it, you promise them specific things, and if you deviate too far away from those things, it will feel like a broken promise and result in an almost-always unsatisfying book. (Sometimes, writers do this intentionally, and that's a whole different kettle of fish—but know that if you choose to make promises and then break them, your reader will probably feel unsatisfied. Which is a fine emotion, as long as that's what your goal is.)
So what kinds of things, in my opinion, need to stay consistent throughout a book in order for your reader not to feel betrayed by the promises made in the beginning?
1. The type of book you're writing. This one's pretty obvious—and, again, sometimes this rule is broken—but it's a big one. If a book reads like a rom-com for the first half and then turns into a slasher horror halfway through, your reader probably isn't going to be super happy with the transition. That's an extreme example, but it's true on a small scale, too; if your book begins as a quirky exploration of humanity's foibles a la Gilmore Girls but later shifts to be a serious emotional story with nary a laugh in sight, your readers are going to close the book thinking "Now, how exactly did I end up here?"
2. What kind of character your reader's going to be identifying with. You don't have to give away the character's whole arc in the beginning, but you should make sure that we have hints. Give us glimpses that show us where your character is right now vs. where they're going to end up. In a typical growth-oriented character arc, this means that you need to start out by showing us your character's false beliefs about themselves and the world around them, and also give us hints about the kind of person your character could be if they were willing to let go of those false beliefs. These hints can come through comments from secondary characters, through secondary characters who act as foils, through media your POV character consumes, even through literary devices. However you do it, though, we need to feel grounded in both who the character is now and who they have the potential to become, so that as his or her character arc unfolds throughout the story, we're satisfied rather than unmoored by his or her transformation.
3. What kind of literary devices you'll be employing in your writing. This is a big one, but not necessarily something I'd have thought of before reading through my Pitch Wars slush. There were several partials and fulls I read whose beginnings were filled with beautiful sensory detail, vivid settings, and characters who jumped off the page—but then, at that 1/4-1/3 mark as the plot took off, much of that immersive and engaging writing dropped away. While it's very common to have a dramatic setting change around this point in the book (anything from a move to a literal quest), make sure that you're still employing the literary devices you used to make the first section of the book come alive, even once your setting has changed.
If your character loves to sing, and you used his passion for singing to help readers connect with him in the first quarter, make sure that that's carried through later on as well. If losing his voice (literally or figuratively) is part of the plot, make sure that you still give equal weight to that passion anyway—even if he can't sing, he can think about singing, wish to sing, see the world through a musical lens, cringe every time the radio comes on because it reminds him of the thing that was taken away from him. If your setting in the first quarter was filled with sensory detail and a strong sense of place, but then your character moves somewhere else very different, make sure that you're still employing a similar descriptive style to immerse us in the new setting.
4. What the basic goal of the plot is. As mentioned earlier, many plots actually require making some big changes to setting, characters, or goals after that 25% mark. However, it's important to make sure that you're still telling the same story. In several of the fulls I read for Pitch Wars, the character's actions and goals throughout the first quarter were really only very loosely related to the goals of the plot as a whole; instead of setting us up for the coming plot arc, the first quarter, instead, told a mostly-different story that centered on different things. In every case, this left me feeling a little bit let down after finishing the whole book. But wait, I'd find myself thinking. I really liked that beginning section—whatever happened to that story? Even as you're pulling your main character out of their "normal world" and starting them on their quest to become the best version of themselves, it's important to keep control of your overall plot arc and make sure that your first quarter is still setting things up for the story you're going to tell, not for a side story that won't have bearing on the final outcome of the book.
A related, and very important, piece of advice is to make sure that you're beginning your book in the right place. I often find it helpful, after I've finished drafting a book, to take a hard look at my first chapter and make sure it's really living up to its potential. Typically? It's not, and I have to revise it at least some of the way, if not scrap it altogether. With my last book, I had an opening paragraph that I absolutely adored, and all my critique partners did too... But in the course of revising, I had to face up to the cold hard truth that it wasn't pulling it's weight. That beloved opener got scrapped and replaced, and the first chapter was much stronger as a result. (Maybe in the future I'll do a blog post specifically tackling first chapters...)
Now it's your turn! Tell me: What do YOU think a beginning needs to do in order to make promises you'll be able to keep?
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and I got serious about writing novels many years ago. For a long time, I figured I was ahead of the curve: I wrote my first novels as a teen, had studied what it took to be published, read voraciously and had learned to apply techniques from my favorite books to boost the quality of my own prose.
But there was a big, huge part of the puzzle that I was missing that whole time:
Not just revising in the way I used to think of it—rearrange a scene here, fix some typos there, streamline my timeline and call it good. It wasn't until the last two years that I truly learned how to rewrite: How to dig deep, find the heart of my story, and then change anything that is necessary in order to reveal that heart to its fullest extent.
And, not at all coincidentally, it wasn't until I learned how to do that that my writing started getting noticed in ways that ultimately led to an agent.
Recently, we got a new piano after a year of being without one. (Hooray!) Music runs deep in my blood, so you can imagine how happy that's made me. In the first few weeks after getting it, I played every chance I got, combing both my sheet music and my memory for songs I enjoy. One of the things I found myself playing was from my teenaged music composition days—a flowing piano solo that I worked on for a long time before it ultimately went on to place in a national music composition competition. I remembered as I played it how much I especially love one section of it—a minor-key bridge whose stormy restlessness is meant to, and for me does, evoke the feeling of the ocean.
I've always found it interesting that, of the whole piece, that's the section I like the best, because for a very long time it wasn't part of the song at all. The rest of the song is gentler, in a major key, and fairly repetitive. As I was working on it, my piano teacher kept telling me that I needed a section that took the motifs I'd used throughout and made them new and different, instead of just repeating the same melody with a few small changes. (He was right, of course, and that inability to get myself too far from a single motif is why I never became a composer!) I went back to him and back to him, asking if a new idea I'd had was different enough, and he always said no. Until, one day, I was messing around and boom. The new section was born. It pulled the whole piece together and made it a hundred times better—and now, more than a decade later with my musical skills at least a little further along, I recognize that it's by far the most sophisticated part of that piece.
As I thought about the story of how that song came to be, it occurred to me what a perfect metaphor it is for any creative endeavor, writing included. Often, what we initially start out with as writers scratches only the very surface of an idea. Just as often, it takes us going back again and again to that idea in order to really dig deep and bring up all the emotion that we can from it.
And this is what true revision is: Going back to our story and asking more from it than we did originally. Being willing to look at the possibility of making big, dramatic, terrifying changes, if those changes will more fully reveal the heart of the story. Being willing to sacrifice anything—characters, plot points, favorite scenes—to get to that point.
I have a young adult novel that is, without question, the book of my heart. All of my books have pieces of my heart, but this one dials deeply into my soul more than anything I've ever written. The setting, the characters, and the themes all speak to really deep parts of myself. Last year, once on my own and once with a mentor as part of Pitch Wars, I revised that book on a large scale twice. The second was especially big—during Pitch Wars, I gave that manuscript a dramatic overhaul, so that it was hardly recognizable as the same book it had been to begin with.
And then it didn't get me an agent. These days, about eight months after shelving that book, I can see why not, and I can also see that it's not ready yet for the YA market. It's been on my mind again this summer, though, and within the next year I'm planning to overhaul it yet again—what will likely be the largest revision yet. This time, I'll be taking an axe to the actual plot, and when it emerges I suspect that once again, it will be an almost entirely new book (one which will hopefully have a chance at marketability!). It's a little daunting, thinking about revising this book so heavily another time, but it's also exciting—because I know that there's still more, thematically and emotionally, that I can pull from this book than I have in the past.
This is what I wish I'd known, years ago as an experienced-but-still-totally-green writer who thought she knew everything: I wish I would've known that truly, the heart of writing is rewriting. Drafting is fun, and streamlining is crucial. But most books will, at some point, need more than a quick-and-dirty revision to clean things up. Even if they don't need such a dramatic overhaul as my YA novel (most books don't, and mine since then haven't), it's quite likely that there are parts that will still need true rewriting. With the middle grade book that got me my agent, I cut several characters, changed the timeline of the book (and therefore the plot structure), and added in a whole magical realism element that wasn't there for most of the first draft. And, as hard as it was to do some of those things (my very favorite character went on the chopping block!), it was right.
So as you sit down to revise, never fear those big changes. They might just uncover the true hiding place of your story's heart.