Showing posts with label revision. Show all posts
Showing posts with label revision. Show all posts

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 ManuscriptWishList.com.)

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!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Three Reasons I'll Never Leave Scrivener


Like a lot of writers, I spent years hearing about the mythical, magical beast that is the writing program Scrivener. When I finally took the plunge and bought it on sale a few years back, I was simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. There was so much to learn! And it seemed really complicated! And it didn't jump out to me as being something that was going to especially help my writing! Was it really WORTH it, I wondered, sneaking back over to my precious Word documents?

Since then, though, I've become a diehard Scrivener convert. The moments when I have to go back to working in Word are painful. There are a lot of fancier functions on Scrivener that I skip completely because they are, for me, unnecessary or distracting—but the basic ones that I do use are transformative for me. Really truly, to navigate Scrivener to the extent that I do you basically need about 10 minutes of video tutorials and a few more minutes to play around. That's it.

Also, I started out using the "novel" format when I opened new documents, but that honestly introduces WAY more clutter than I ever actually use. I usually select "blank" when I create a new document these days.

Want to know how I use Scrivener and why I love it so much? Here you go!

1. I can keep a metric ton of information in one file

I typically have one document per book. That's it. In that document, I'm able to keep everything I need—multiple revision drafts; research pictures, notes, and websites; queries; pitches; and so forth. In my Scrivener file for WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, I've got

—4 revision drafts
—Research on farming, schizophrenia, and middle grade conventions
—Notes on characters
—The outline I made when before I wrote the book
—A timeline of events in the book that I made during my last revision
—Outtakes
—Multiple to-do lists for various revision passes
—The query
—The synopsis
—Twitter pitches used during #DVPit
—A brief summary I wrote before I wrote the book, to give myself an idea where I was going
—My dedication and acknowledgements
—Some notes on a possible companion book

This is what the sidebar for the WATERMELONS document looks like (with the draft folders collapsed because otherwise I couldn't possibly fit it into a screenshot):


This is really easy to do in Scrivener. You use the green "plus" button in the top left corner and long press it; it will give you the option to add a new page, a new folder, or import a web page. 



As a general rule, I use pages for small things like queries and such, and folders for drafts, research, and outline—anywhere that I want to collect multiple subpages into one area. Scrivener automatically has a special type of folder included for your draft—it looks like multiple pages together, instead of like the blue folder. I usually use that for whatever my active draft is. When it's time to revise and I need a new draft, I right-click that and hit "duplicate," then use the special folder type for my current draft. It doesn't make any difference that I can tell, it just looks different so I can always tell which draft I should make changes to. 



2. I can navigate around my current draft quickly and easily

It took me some time to get used to it, but now I LOVE the ability to divide my manuscript into subsections. I typically will split the document into new pages with each chapter and then type a very brief description into the sidebar so that I know what happens in that chapter for easy navigation. I also often use the colored flags on my chapters to show me where turning points happen, so that I can get an easy visual feel for whether one section of my story is getting way longer than the others. Here's what that looks like in my WIP, which I'm about 11,000 words into:


It makes it super easy to navigate between chapters, keep track of what's already happened, and so on. I often will find myself writing a new scene and want to refresh my memory about something in an older scene, and be able to find it really easily because I remember that the older scene took place in the chapter that was about the transmission, or whatever. This feature is helpful for both drafting and revision. In revision, I also use the flags in other ways—to show me where I've identified problems that I don't have time to fix right now, for instance. I'm a really visual person, and also not a super organized person, and being able to see everything laid out like this helps me SO much. Changing the symbols is really easy—you just right-click the icon and it gives you a bunch of options:



3. The corkboard feature is perfect for outlining

In a perfect world, I'd be using the corkboard feature in the way that it was intended, the way it's shown in how-to videos—to give a brief overview of what was in each chapter so that I could see the outline of my in-process book as I drafted or revised. Honestly, though, I've never found that that helpful. Instead, I typically start a new folder in my sidebar, completely separate from my draft document, and call it "outline."


I then switch my Scrivener to corkboard view—


and use subpages in that folder to make "notecards" for my outlining method.


(Side note: MAN the plot for WATERMELONS changed a whole lot between the outline and the final draft!!!)

If you highlight the folder itself and not the subpages—like I have in the screenshot above—they show up as notecards in corkboard view.

My outlines look like this:


(Obviously, my cards are usually expanded enough to read all the text on them—this is just so that it's easy to see a whole book's outline. If you want more info on how I outline, check out this post.)

And there you go! That's why I'm a diehard Scrivener user, even when much of the program's more complex functions I don't find particularly helpful. Also, software tutorials are NOT my strong suit, so I apologize if any of this has been confusing! I've found that Google is a wealth of Scrivener know-how, though, and that simple searches can turn up the answers to basically anything you need.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Overcoming A Fixed Mindset In Editing


Every time I get ready to dive back into a draft of a book a round of edits after feedback, I feel slightly paralyzed. Maybe you've forgotten how to do this, an insidious little voice whispers inside me. Maybe you're not up to the challenge.

Maybe you just wrote a bad book, and you're not good enough to fix it.

It feels a little bit like sitting at the top of a roller coaster: You know that once it gets going, it'll be fun. You know that you won't regret buying your ticket, and you know that when you get off you'll feel charged with adrenaline. And, in the case of a book, you know that you'll emerge with a stronger and more vibrant manuscript, a book more closely aligned with your vision for that story. You know that rewriting is the heart of writing and that you've successfully edited books in the past, taking them from crappy first drafts to solid—maybe even moving—final ones.

But still, right up there at the top of the coaster? It's kind of a stomach-flipping, scary, actually-I-don't-want-this-ride-to-start place to be.

Since I'm currently stuck at the top of this roller coaster—I've gotten some initial CP feedback back on my latest manuscript, and while I'm excited about diving back in and making it stronger, I'm having a hard time shaking off that naysaying little voice trying to convince me I don't have a prayer—I've been thinking a lot about this the last few days. The epiphany I landed on tonight was this: Really, all of this boils down to one issue.

A fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.

These two terms have become pretty commonplace in the last decade, so I won't define them at length, but suffice to say they're exactly like they sound—seeing skills as things that are either innate (fixed) and stop at a certain threshold, or as things that are flexible and can be learned (growth). Research has shown that not only are people who have a growth mindset better at learning skills and adapting to new situations, they're also happier and more likely to take on challenges with excitement instead of being paralyzed by fear of failure.

If you're old enough to be reading this blog, it's very likely that you, like me, grew up in a fixed-mindset culture. We praise prodigiousness and overnight sensations (ignoring the fact that prodigies are really just kids who manage to put in the roughly ten thousand hours required to become an expert in something very young, and that nearly all overnight sensations only become so after a years- or decades-long slog behind the scenes) and make a big deal out of things that come easily. We reward and sensationalize "natural talent" and focus much less on hard work and effort, to the point that many of us have the innate and often unrecognized feeling that if something doesn't come quickly to us, we'll never attain mastery.

What I realized tonight is that each time I get ready to plunge into a round of edits, that fixed-mindset upbringing is what's responsible for that little voice whispering in my ear, the conviction that maybe I just wrote a bad book and I'm not good enough to fix it. Fixed-mindset culture assures me that this is true—that I don't have the skills to take my book from crappy first draft to polished finished draft, and that I'll never be able to learn them. My own fixed mindset keeps me mired in fear, unable and unwilling to step into the revision trenches and do the work that needs to be done.

In essence, every time I hit this point, I find myself needing to pep talk my way back into a growth mindset. I remind myself that I've revised successfully before, and that I can do it again. I remind myself of how many finished manuscripts I've got behind me now. I tell myself that it's okay if I don't get it right the first time, because it always takes multiple rounds of revision before things are as strong as they can be.

That last idea—that it's okay if I don't get it the first time, that struggling with something isn't the same as failing, and that it's just fine if it takes me several tries to get it "right"—is an especially important one for me to hold on to when I'm at the top of the revision coaster. Other things that are important for me to remind myself are:

—I'm always learning. Just because something seems like a daunting fix doesn't mean I won't be able to adapt and learn the skill I need to fix it.

—Challenges are fun! As much as part of me would love to be able to write perfect books with minimal effort, I also know from experience that diving in to a challenging round of edits and then seeing how much stronger the book has become is a thrilling experience.

—I can take as long as I need.

—It doesn't have to be (and never will be) perfect; it just needs to be strong, dynamic, and hitting the right emotional notes.

—I'm surrounded by friends and critique partners who can help me identify my book's weak spots and give me a pep talk when I'm feeling down.

—It's okay to be scared. As I'm constantly telling my three-year-old, being brave means doing hard things even when you're scared.

What are some of the ways you overcome a fixed mindset when you're writing or revising?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Your Beginning Is A Promise—So Don't Break It!



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

Rewriting Is The Heart Of Writing


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:

Rewriting.

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.