Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 2 (Semi-Optional Step): Map Out Your Story

The second thing I do when I'm revising is to map out my story—in other words, I create a scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter reverse outline. Sometimes, if I'm doing a fairly light edit or if my original outline still lines up pretty well with the story's trajectory, I will skip this step. It's not as necessary if the edits I'm going to make aren't substantial ones that make changes to the plot structure. For the last book I edited—the developmental edits for Where the Watermelons Grow with my editor at HarperCollins—I didn't make any massive changes, and so didn't do this step. Right now, though, I'm in the middle of mapping out one of my WIPs so that I can revise it based on feedback from my agent, because some of the changes I'm going to make are larger ones that will impact plotlines and overall plot structure.

Often, though, my outline changes and evolves as I write my first draft, and so I need to update it to have a really clear picture of what exists in the draft I'm about to revise. This is especially helpful if—as I mentioned doing in my last post—I haven't read through the book prior to starting the revision pass; it allows me to hold the story in an easily-visible format while revising.

Reverse-outlining my story also helps me figure out in real-time where I should make changes to the novel once I begin really revising. As I outline, I'll usually make little notes to myself, like "Make sure to add stuff about the theme of visibility here" or "Could Queenie be in this scene somewhere?" (Both real notes taken from the revision that I'm beginning for one of my works in progress!)

This step is fairly straightforward, but can be time-consuming and, honestly, kind of boring. It's so helpful, though, to have the map to guide me as I dive into revision. Between this and my self-written edit letter, I'm easily able to see what I need to change, where I need to change it, and what I've already changed in the past.

I use the notecard function in Scrivener for this. Here's what I have so far on the reverse-outline for my WIP (I'm about halfway through):

I also know people who do this with actual notecards, white boards, notebooks, or Word documents. Whatever you have access to and whatever is easy for you to reference will work well!

In my next post, I'll be talking about how I start my actual revision pass.

If you missed Step 1 in this revision process, find the post here:
Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Revision Breakdown Part 1: Write Your Own Edit Letter

Revision is not something that comes naturally to me. I had written four manuscripts before I finally cracked what it means to really revise a novel, rather than check for typos and move a few scenes around. It took me years to figure out how to get down to the bones of my story, identify weak spots, incorporate CP feedback, and figure out how to strengthen the parts of my story structure that were failing. For a long time I'd draft a book, mess around with it for awhile, and then hit this point where I knew there was still stuff wrong with it because it wasn't getting agent interest, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it.

If any of the above describes you, dear writer, take heart! Over the next little while, I'm going to do a series of blog posts breaking down how I revise, going in-depth on each point. Every author has their own revision process, and mine may not be yours—but hopefully these posts will provide a jumping-off point to give you a better feel for what a revision process can look like.

Today's post deals with my very first revision step: I write my own edit letter.

For a lot of people, the first step in revision is to print or upload a complete draft of their story and then read it and make notes. I will be up-front and say that while this used to be my first step always, it's not anymore. I've learned that a) I have a finite number of times I can read my book in rapid succession without losing my ability to spot problems, and b) I'm not very good at picking up on the big-picture structural changes my book needs when I'm reading through it. On a read-through, I have a tendency to get hung up on smaller things, and miss the crucial big-picture ones. Therefore, while there are definitely rounds of revision that start with me reading my book through cover to cover, I tend to use them both randomly and judiciously. If I have recently read it, or otherwise feel like I'm doing a decent job of holding the story in my head, or feel like a read-through would be more valuable after I've applied the changes, then I hold off.

My true first step—really a pre-revision step—is that I almost always let my book sit for awhile and send it to CPs before I dive into revision. The exception is when I've made big changes to the plot while drafting and the draft wouldn't even make sense to a CP; for instance, with Where the Watermelons Grow, I was 3/4 through drafting before I decided I was bored of writing a straight contemporary story and wanted to add magic bees. Because the plot changed dramatically at that 3/4 point, I went back through and added the magical element from the beginning before I sent it off to critique partners.

But after I've finished drafting, let the book rest a little, and gotten feedback from CPs, my agent, or my editor (depending on which round of revision I'm on), my first step is always writing myself an edit letter.

Once you have an agent or an editor (often, even once you've got some good CPs), you will start receiving edit letters to help guide your revisions. Most agents and editors don't use Track Changes or other in-text comments to give feedback on big-picture issues that need to be changed; instead, they write an edit letter, a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the things they feel need to be changed or strengthened as you revise.

I get easily overwhelmed by the revision process and always need to spend a few days making a solid revision plan before I dive in; I'm totally not capable of holding everything in my head. As such, the first thing I do is write myself what essentially amounts to an edit letter—to myself, from myself. It's usually not as in-depth as edit letters I get from my agent, editor, or CPs, because I can use shorthand and still know what I mean later on. But it's essential for me to have a to-do list before I start revising, especially if I'm trying to collate feedback from multiple CPs, or if I've had ideas I want to change in addition to what my agent or editor asked for, or if my agent or editor pointed out a weakness in my story and I then brainstormed a new way to solve it.

I begin by combing through all the feedback I've received so far and writing it down, along with any ideas I've had independently. Sometimes this looks like a checklist; sometimes it looks more like a paragraph-by-paragraph freewrite of my story's problems. Unless it's a very, very light line edit, I usually will organize the revision items by size—big changes (changes that affect whole story threads, whole characters, or the structure of the plot itself) and small changes (things that generally only affect one scene, or require only a line or two of difference throughout the book). If I have a lot of items on my list, I'll even split them into big, medium, and small.

Here's an example of the first edit letter I wrote myself for one of my current works in progress:

This was a fairly light revision pass; sometimes I end up with a lot more points on that list. (Though the font size here is small so that it can all fit into one screenshot, so there really were more items than there might seem to be at first glance.)

Starting like this lets me organize my thoughts, collate feedback from different sources, and keep track of what I've done and what I have yet to do, since I will usually "check off" items on my list (usually by italicizing them) as I go. It also lets me draw attention to thinks I think I might forget, or things that will take a lot of work or finesse; these I usually bold. Mostly, starting like this helps me to work up the courage to dive into the revision pool—something that's always really intimidating to me when I'm preparing to start a big revision!

In my next post, I'll discuss mapping my book to figure out where the weak spots lie!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

So You've Written A Book. Now What?

Since my book deal went public last year, I've had a definite increase in the number of people who have come to me asking for tips on getting an agent/publishing deal. I totally get it—I spent years as that writer who never seemed quite able to break in, but couldn't figure out why not. When you're in that space, it can feel like being lost in the middle of a forest, unable to even figure out how to begin to reach your destination because everything is so confusing and the world is filled with so many contradictory directions.

On that note, I thought I'd share some of my advice to aspiring authors—especially those who have just finished their first manuscripts and aren't sure what to do next.

First, let me say: Congratulations! As far as I'm concerned, there is no publishing milestone more important than finishing that first book. Now that you've finished a book, you know that you can do it. You've figure out how to beat through the thicket of your muddy middle and emerge on the other side of "The End." That is an enormous accomplishment, and one that deserves to be celebrated!

Except—now what do you do?

1. First, let the book sit for a bit. I don't know a single successful writer who can finish a draft and then immediately dive into revisions the next day. Or rather, I don't know a single successful writer who can do that and make revisions that are really what the book needs. Drafting and revising are two totally different creative processes, and you really need to gain a bit of distance from the one before your brain can switch into the other. So before you come back to your finished manuscript, set it aside for a few weeks or a few months. Work on something new, cultivate a non-writing project, or...

2. Find critique partners, stat. A critique partner is different from a general writing buddy. A critique partner definitely isn't your mom, best friend (unless your best friend is also a talented writer who doesn't pull punches in giving you feedback), or spouse. Almost without fail, when I've talked to writers over the last year who didn't know where to go after finishing their book, they've told me something along the lines of, "My mom/best friend/husband has read it five times and they can't find anything else to fix." Let me preface this by saying that it's great if your close friends and family want to read. It's fun, they often give encouragement that helps you keep going, and they're usually good at spotting typos and grammatical mistakes and other small but embarrassing details.

However, if you want to truly succeed in publishing, you really need your book to be read by several critique partners before you ever send out a single agent query. And, I hate to say it, you particularly need your book to be read by CPs who are strong in places that you're weak, which can take a lot of trial and error to find. For several years before I signed with my agent, I really struggled to connect with CPs that pushed me beyond what I could do myself. I had one or two really fantastic CPs, but a lot of the people I had read and critique my work had the same weaknesses I did, which meant that they weren't able to pick apart the places I really needed help. I have always loved line-level writing—the way sentences sound when you read them—and so by the time I started trying to get published, I was great at that... but I couldn't write a strong plot to save my life. Because my CPs at the time also struggled with plot structure, they couldn't point out the places my plots were falling apart. And because of that, my manuscripts never quite made it to the point where they were able to attract agent and editor attention.

Once I got into Pitch Wars in 2015 and connected with lots of CPs who were plotting mavens, that changed. My next book was WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, and thanks to the help from my new CPs, that book ended up with ten agent offers and a publishing house auction. That was no accident—I had all the tools I needed to take my writing to the next level, but it wasn't until I found the right CPs that I was able to unlock that potential.

If you want help connecting with good CPs, I shared some resources here. There's also other authors on Twitter who will periodically host CP matchups. The most important thing to know is this: Sometimes, it's just going to take time. I've traded manuscripts with people who didn't end up helping me much, but it wasn't until after their feedback that I realized that. Sometimes, you have to trade first chapters or whole manuscripts with several different people before you find some who have the savvy you need. Also, if you're like me, just trading first chapters might not be enough; because plot structure is my weakness, things don't usually fall apart in my stories until about a quarter of the way through, so trading beginnings doesn't help me that much.

3. Study the craft. While you're letting your manuscript sit/finding good CPs/starting a new project, make sure that you're studying the craft. This is not an optional step. I will be totally honest with you: I went for a lot of years being kind of full of myself and thinking that I'd basically learned all that I needed to know about the craft of writing. (HA. Please don't be like me, guys. You know what they say about pride and falls.) Because of this, I didn't pay enough attention at conferences, I didn't seek out craft books, I didn't follow craft blogs. And you know what? My writing didn't really get better. For a long time, I thought that writing a lot was the best way to learn to write well, and while that's true, I can pretty much guarantee that you will never write supernally if you don't put in a lot of study hours, too.

And don't just study the aspects of craft that you're drawn to, either (another mistake I made). Study the things you don't necessarily think you'll need, because you might be surprised. If you're writing thrillers, study the conventions of literary prose; you might be surprised by how much extra punch your fast-paced stories carry if they're also written beautifully. If you're writing literary, character-driven stories, don't think—like I did for a long time—that that means you get a pass when it comes to studying commercial plot structure. A strong plot with good bones can take your quiet literary novel from "lovely" to "stupendous."

There are so many incredible resources online to help you study craft; I recommend finding a couple of authors whose work you really admire and whose style you'd like to emulate, and then going to their websites. Often, writers will have writing advice or resources, or at least a spot on social media where they talk about their own influences. Some writers, like K. M. Weiland, dedicate huge chunks of their career to educating other writers and have websites and books that are virtual treasure troves of helpful resources. There are also tons of resources on YouTube—bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has the entire course list of classes he teaches on there, for instance. Googling will take you a lot of places; you can search for "writing craft books," "writing craft blogs," "tips for fiction writing," specific things you need help with, and so on.

4. Learn how to query agents (if you're shooting for traditional publishing). Learn how to write a query letter and a synopsis (sorry, guys, you can't get out of the dreaded synopsis; there WILL come a time when you need one, even after you're published!). Learn what literary agents do. Figure out whether traditional publishing, indie publishing, or small press publishing is right for you. Research agents who represent your favorite authors; research agents who rep authors in your genre; research agents who share your interests. (My favorite resources for researching agents are the Literary Rambles blog, Writer's Digest's New Agents section, and

Then, once you have done all the other steps on this list, have your CPs read your query letter and synopsis... and start querying!

5. Consider online contests. There are new online contests cropping up all the time, and while they're definitely a mixed bag, some are really fantastic—not only because they give you the chance to get your work before agents, but because they help connect you to other writers, as well. I was a mentee in Pitch Wars in 2015, and then found my agent after the first #DVPit Twitter contest; not only did these experiences give me good industry connections, but they led me to my closest writing friends and strongest CPs. These days, there are contests just for teen writers, contests that take place in one day, contests that span over months, contests that give you feedback on your whole book or just a part of it. Some of the contests that I can personally vouch for are Pitch Wars, Query Kombat, Baker's Dozen, Nightmare on Query Street, and TeenPit, but there's lots I'm not familiar with that can also be good opportunities. There's also lots of Twitter pitch parties, like PitMad, KidPit, AdPit, and SFFPit, as well as DVPit, which is for marginalized (writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, etc.) creators only.

My biggest advice if you're entering contests is this: Don't do it just for the agent exposure. That is a nice thing about it, but in my experience, by far the most valuable thing about writing contests is the chance to connect with other writers. No writer survives a publishing career without having a strong, vibrant, and thriving community; if you're serious about publishing, make sure you're also serious about building that community for yourself!

6. Consider conferences. Conferences can be invaluable chances to learn from more experienced writers and industry professionals, as well as making lasting friendships and connections. Conferences can also be chances to workshop or query with agents and editors, though just like with contests, it's important to focus as well on conferences as a chance to build your community, not just to meet agents.

You finished a book! Way to go! Now go forth and find yourself some critique partners!