Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Monday, August 13, 2018

2018 Pitch Wars Wish List

The two of us hamming it up at Cindy's Portland book launch!



Welcome to the wish list for #TeamMascaraTracks! 

(That’s Amanda Rawson Hill and Cindy Baldwin.) Sit down and draw up a chair. We've got chocolate, lots of episodes of The Good Place, and—of course—a bookshelf chock full of crying books.



First off, a little about us:

Amanda Rawson Hill: I grew up in Southwest Wyoming with a library right out my back gate. I was one of those “gifted” kids. Smart, overachiever, played a couple instruments, speech and debate. You know the type. I never dreamed of being a writer until after I had kids! I got my degree in Chemistry and now live in Central California with my husband and three kids. My debut middle grade novel, The Three Rules of Everyday Magic, will be published at the end of September by Boyds Mills Press. WHICH IS SO CLOSE!!!


Cindy Baldwin: As a kid, my favorite things to do were either explore the woods behind my North Carolina home, dreaming of fairies and hidden castles, or curl up with a book to read stories that filled my imagination with wonder and magic. In middle school, I kept a book 
under my bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing my hair or brushing my teeth, and I dream of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without! These days, I live in Portland, Oregon with my husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. My debut middle grade novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, was published by HarperCollins in July. In addition to receiving starred reviews from SLJ, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness, it was also an Indies Introduce and Indie Next title for 2018.
After reading and loving each other’s work, and then signing with the same agent, we decided to make the writing twin thing official and become Pitch Wars co-mentors. Destiny sealed the deal when we both got book deals with planned publication dates in the same year. These days, we're child-raising, book-writing, fast-talking, emotion-loving BFFs. Amanda even flew to Portland to MC Cindy's book launch, and Cindy is excited to get to return the favor soon! We don’t shy away from total sincerity and talking about feelings. We love big and we love hard. Cindy is Anne Shirley. (She once really did end up stranded in a river, clinging to bridge pilings, and had to be rescued. It's a long story.)

Amanda is Leslie Knope. 

Together, we head up Team Mascara Tracks. This is our third year as Pitch Wars mentors. 80% of our past mentees are now agented, and two have books coming out soon! Here are some of our success stories:

In 2016, we mentored Kit Rosewater and Cory Leonardo. Kit's entry had the most request of any middle grade manuscript in the contest. Both had agent offers right off the bat, and both are doing awesome things! You can check out Cory's Pitch Wars novel, The Simple Art of Flying, in just a few months—it releases in February from S&S/Aladdin in the US and Scholastic in the UK.

In 2017, we went really overboard and mentored THREE writers: author/illustrator Remy Lai, Karen S. Chow, and Kirk Kraft. Remy's fantastic graphic-prose hybrid novel, Pie in the Sky, sold immediately in a pre-empt to Macmillan/Henry Holt, and will be out in the spring. Karen's heartbreakingly beautiful story about moving on after loss found a passionate agent advocate as well. And Kirk worked incredibly hard to revise his humor-and-heart-filled manuscript while also being one of the most positive and encouraging people on the PW feed.

While we can't promise requests, agents, or book deals, we can promise care, attention, and endless cheerleading. Over the past two years, we've walked mentees through not only revisions and the Pitch Wars agent round, but also deciding between multiple agent offers, navigating an agent breakup, dealing with a querying journey that went beyond the contest, handling nerves on submission, and many other ups and downs that come with a professional writing career. As mentors, we believe strongly in sticking around long after the agent round is over. We've forged good friendships with all our past mentees, and still keep in touch with each of them regularly.

Here are some of the things our past mentees had to say about working with us:

"I had never received such detailed notes on even a page of any manuscript I’d written, and here I’d received a comment on all of it. Comps. Concerns. Structure. Plot. Pacing. Characterization. Theme. Big picture. Small picture. Resources. Everything. I was astounded that they took the time and had thought about my book so deeply and thoroughly….Every. Single. Thing Amanda and Cindy said, every one, was right on. Over the next few months, I grew to trust their instincts more and more. They were always right, and every time I took a little while for their comments to sink in, I’d come to the same conclusion, make the necessary changes, and every time the book was better."
-Cory Leonardo, Pitch Wars 2016 mentee, author of The Simple Art of Flying (Aladdin, February 2019) 

"Amanda and Cindy have the unique ability in plucking key emotions, interactions, and symbols from a text, and carrying those gently forward while rearranging all the trappings around them. Though nearly every word of my manuscript was switched around and deleted and rewritten by the time the agent round arrived, it felt more like my vision than ever. Cindy and Amanda knew what I was after in my writing, and helped me to maintain the things I found most important, even through completely fresh drafts. This is a vital skill to have in the process of revising, and one I shall carry with me forever."
-Kit Rosewater, 2016 Pitch Wars Mentee, MG Agent Round Winner

"Amanda and Cindy are the best!"
-Remy Lai, 2017 Pitch Wars mentee, author of Pie in the Sky (Henry Holt, Spring 2019)

"When I chose Amanda and Cindy as potential Pitch Wars mentors, I had no idea what a huge impact they would have on my writing journey. No idea! Besides helping polish my query and manuscript, they helped me craft pitches for #pitmad and #dvpit (from which I found my agent). They were cheerleaders when I had partial and full requests, encouragers when I doubted my craft, rock-strong supporters when many other mentees found agents and book deals quickly. They understand everything, all of the emotional ups and downs, all of the ins and outs of writing. They’ve answered countless questions (and questions from other mentees) about agents and the publishing biz. (And if they don’t know, they find answers.) They do it all with humility and grace. I was so SO honored to meet both of them in person, and they are as authentic as they are over email. When they say they’re stuck with you for Pitch Wars and beyond, they mean it. And I’m forever grateful to have them in my life."
-Karen S. Chow, 2017 Pitch Wars mentee

"My mentors put me through the wringer but the knowledge I gained and the depth of revision I was forced to complete made me a better writer."
-Kirk Kraft, 2017 Pitch Wars mentee


If that sounds like what you are looking for in a mentor, then let’s go on to what you really want to know!

Our Wish List

Our favorite genres are MG contemporary, Magical Realism (both true magical realism—which comes from traditionally marginalized communities and is aware of the Latinx traditions from which it draws—and literary contemporary with elements of magic), and 20th-century historical. Within those genres we are particularly looking for stories usually labeled, quiet, character driven, heartfelt, and literary. The comedic and quirky is not really in our wheelhouse. That’s not to say that we don’t want a book that has quirky or comedic elements (we love those!), but that shouldn’t feel like the main focus or strength of the story. We want FLORA AND ULYSSES, not DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. We are particularly looking for stories the revolve around big, hard, real-world problems. If somebody has ever said, “Wow, isn’t that a little heavy for MG?”—we want it. If somebody has ever said, “This is really sad!"—we want it. We want to feel something. We want to bawl our eyes out. We want to see beautiful, powerful prose or poetry. We want books that exemplify the quote “When a subject is too hard for adults, I write it for children.” We want books that tackle tough subjects in a hopeful and life-affirming way. We want big philosophical ideas handled with the grace, wisdom and innocence of this age group.

This year, we're not accepting sci fi or fantasy, and likely won't read excerpts that are sent to us in these genres. If you're confused about whether your manuscript would be considered "fantasy" or "magical realism/contemporary with magical elements," feel free to Tweet us! Our list of comp titles, below, might also help clarify what we're looking for.

We also have strong preferences when it comes to historical fiction: We’re not the right mentors for stories where the history or world-building plays a larger role than the character’s arc. We love historicals that focus on one small, character-driven story against the backdrop of larger events that really happened, without spending too much time or detail on those larger events. Basically, if you have the next THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, well—send it our way! If, on the other hand, you love writing historical because you get lost in the details of the period you're describing, and the period itself is as important as the character arc, we're probably not the right mentors for it. For us, emotions and character arcs are always going to be the biggest draw.



Other things we especially love to see:
  • Diversity (#ownvoices in particular—if you're submitting a story with a marginalized protagonist whose marginalization you don't share, please make sure to do your research and employ sensitivity readers!)
  • Characters influenced by faith but not in a faith-based story
  • Homeschooling!
  • Unique structures and formats (some examples include letters; journal entries; verse—we've both written verse novels and LOVE the genre!; and graphic novels—neither of us have a background in art, but it's definitely in our wheelhouse to work with the text, story structure, character arc, and scene blocking. Two of our previous mentees have had manuscripts in unusual hybrid formats, and they're some of our favorite-ever books! So, if you’re doing something experimental with format, we definitely want to see it!)
  • Chronic illness and/or disability, especially nuanced, disability-positive portrayals that don't end with magical cures
  • Verse! (We realize we said that above, but please. We're nuts for verse! Send us your verse!)
  • Bittersweet endings
  • Anything involving the ocean
  • Strong, vibrant settings
  • Science incorporated in a beautiful, meaningful way! (THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. or THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH.)
  • An own voices refugee story (Please!)
  • An own voices story with a Muslim main character, whether or not the plot is about being Muslim (Triple Please!)
  • Books set in countries that don't get as much MG screentime (please, send us the next AMAL UNBOUND!)
  • A story about someone trying to immigrate to America across the Southern border (legally or illegally) or who has just recently done so. Think a modern-day ESPERANZA RISING meets FRONT DESK.


If any of these could be a comp title…grabby hands!

Front Desk, Kelly Yang
Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble, Anna Meriano
The Penderwicks series, Jeanne Birdsall
Some Kind of Happiness, Claire Legrand
Amal Unbound, Aisha Saeed
The Night Diary, Veera Hiranandani
Paper Chains, Elaine Vickers
Anything by Kate Dicamillo, Sharon Draper, Lynda Mulally Hunt, or Sharon Creech
The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin
Paper Wishes, Lois Sepahban
The Key to Extraordinary or A Snicker of Magic, Natalie Lloyd
Counting By 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Love, Aubrey, Suzanne LaFleur
The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eager
Amina's Voice, Hena Kahn
Summerlost, Ally Condie
Forget Me Not, Ellie Terry
Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, Shari Green
Echo, Pam Muñoz Ryan

And, of course, reading Cindy's book, Where the Watermelons Grow, could give you a good idea of our tastes as well! You can also check out a few pages of Amanda’s book, The Three Rules of Everyday Magic, on Amazon. Between the two, you’ll get a pretty good idea about what we love in a voice.

A Note On Animal Stories

Our first year, we took on an “animal story"—Cory Leonardo’s The Simple Art of Flying, about a curmudgeonly parrot. And while we love, love, love her book, we’re going to continue to say the same thing we have said for the last two years. Animal stories are a hard sell for us. They have to be done very well, with a great voice, something unique (Cory’s had gorgeous poetry), and lots and lots of heart. Basically, you need to be able to compare it to FLORA AND ULYSSES and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Cory did, and the comparison held up. We’re definitely NOT the mentors for animal stories that are more humor or adventure than heart. 



Other Hard Sells
  • Sports stories (There are other mentors LOOKING for this. We just don’t love it. Sorry.)
  • Historical fiction from earlier than the 1900s.
  • Anything more plot-driven than character-driven.
  • Anything that could be described with the word "adventure," especially combined with "fantasy." Unless your character's adventure is lived out largely in their own head (a la Bridge to Terabithia or Some Kind of Happiness—SEND US THOSE!), we are just not the best mentors for that! Really, if your query contains words like epic, journey, battle, quest…you should probably not send it to us.


What Will Really Draw Us In?

Voice and beautiful writing are probably the number one thing that draws us to a manuscript—though a great hook doesn't hurt (last year, the fact that Remy Lai's story of two brothers secretly baking cakes together was utterly charming was the thing that made us look twice at her query). We can help you change everything else. But the voice reigns supreme.

We can’t wait to read your work! Putting it out there is such an act of courage and vulnerability. We promise to treat your entry with the respect and love that creativity deserves. We feel so honored by every person who decides to share their story with us. We are excited to meet all of you and your characters.

Check out the rest of the Pitch Wars MG mentors here!



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Friday, August 10, 2018

A Handy Guide For Talking To Your Author Friends


My debut novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, has been out for just over a month now. In so many ways, launching this book has been more exciting and fulfilling than I ever could've imagined—seeing others, both friends and strangers, responding to a story I CREATED is never going to stop feeling surreal and incredible.

But I've noticed a weird thing in the month since my book came out. People talk to authors (and, I would imagine, to people of many different creative professions) in some really odd ways—ways they would never talk to somebody in a different profession. Which has led me to embrace a new life motto, a quick and easy rule of thumb to guide you through conversations with the authors in your life:

If you wouldn't say it to a lawyer, don't say it to an author!

Many published authors are people who have spent their lives creating art and dreaming of the day that they'd be able to see their name on a book spine. But we authors are also professionals. Writing is our business as well as our calling; we spend a lot more time answering emails and forcing ourselves to churn out words were we feel utterly uninspired as we spend chasing the Muse. Writing provides at least some of our income, and it's something we hope to keep doing long term. Writing is our career, not our hobby.

So what kinds of things should you think twice about saying to an author?

1. "I've always wanted to write a book. I totally would if I had more time!"

If you aren't telling your lawyer friends that you would totally go to get your law degree if you weren't so busy, then don't say this to an author, either. Pretty much every author out there is juggling a full plate—most work full time day jobs, many of us have kids, and some of us are battling disability or illness also. We don't write because we have an abundance of free time—we write because it's important to us and we make it a priority, even if that means cutting other things out. Just like going to law school requires sacrifices, so does writing. While we get the desire to write a novel, which lots of people find intriguing, comments like these can really belittle the amount of effort we put into making time for our work.

A better way to express this sentiment: "Wow, that's so cool that you've written a novel! I can't wait to read."

2. "If you want to write a book so you can get published and make money, isn't that selling out?" (See also: statements like "If you change your book to match an editor's vision, you've lost your artistic integrity!")

Have you ever looked at a lawyer and thought, man, they must not REALLY be committed to justice, or else they would forego a paycheck? Yeah, I didn't think so. With occupations like lawyers, doctors, or policemen, we can easily accept that a person does a job both because they love it and feel it's important AND because they need to keep putting good on the table. It's okay to want both things! Again: authors are professionals, and as in any job, being a passionate creator and wanting an income are not mutually exclusive.

A better way to express this: Dude, just don't.

3. "How's the book selling?"

Unsurprisingly, this is a question I've gotten a lot in the last month—sometimes multiple times a day. And I get it! It's well-meaning curiosity; often, friends ask me this eagerly, hoping to share in my excitement when I tell them it's doing great. I REALLY appreciate how excited people are for my book, and I'm happy to talk about it! But I want you to imagine right now that I'm looking at you with absolute love in my eyes, putting my hands on your shoulders, and saying:

If you wouldn't go up to your lawyer friend and ask her what her annual salary is or if she's winning all her cases... Please don't ask your author friends about sales. For one thing, this is just an uncomfortable can of worms, since it's essentially asking what a person's income is. For another, it can be a major tender spot for an author who feels insecure about her sales—which is the VAST MAJORITY. And finally, especially in the first few months after publication, an author may genuinely have no idea. Most authors don't have automatic access to that info; many only get it a few months after publication, when royalty statements come in, unless they ask their editor before that. (And there are lots of reasons an author may just prefer not to ask.)

A better way to express this: "Congratulations on your book coming out! That's so exciting." Then, if you wanted, you could add something about how you've seen some positive reviews of the book, or how exciting it is to see it in bookstores when you're out and about, or how much you/your kid/your friend enjoyed it. Focusing on RECEPTION rather than SALES is a good way to go. I promise, NOTHING is going to speak to an author's heart as much as a simple "congratulations, I really loved your book/am really excited to read!"

4. "I read your book, but I did notice a few big issues I thought I'd tell you about..."

Once a book is out in the world, the author has very little control over it anymore. Every book makes it to print with a few typos, even after half a dozen people (or more) have read it! If what you're trying to suggest to an author is a more big-picture, artistic fix, it's almost certainly just a matter of different tastes. Not every book is for every reader, and we authors understand that... but we generally prefer not to hear a blow-by-blow of how you'd have written our books better. If you wouldn't sit your lawyer friend down and tell them all the ways they should've handled their latest court case better, don't do the same to your author friends. Also, if you didn't like the book? That's totally fine! But express that to family or friends, or in a review on social media. Don't share it with the author (which includes tagging them in a bad review on social media). Trust me when I say that by the time a book goes to print, it's been through editorial revisions with multiple top industry professionals. Authors make choices with care and deliberation, putting thought into everything we do. Even if you don't like the book personally, or disagree with some of the choices we've made, acknowledging that there ARE reasons we made those choices can go a long way.

A better way to express this: Yeah, this is another "just don't." ;)

5. To a children's author: "So, are you ever going to write a real book, for adults?"

Look, dude. If you aren't going to go up to your real estate lawyer friend and ask when he's going to become a REAL lawyer, working as a prosecutor, then avoid doing the same thing to an author. Children's books take just as much work, finesse, and emotion as adult books do. Some of us write for children intentionally, because we view that as a sacred privilege, not because we're not good enough to hack it at writing "real" books.

A better way to express this: "So, what is it that made you want to write for children?"

6. "Is your book going to be like Harry Potter?" / "Are you going to meet J. K. Rowling?" / "So, writers make a lot of money, right?"

In addition to going back to the issues with question #3—asking about how much money an author has made—this is also like going up to a friend who's recently graduated law school and saying, "Hey, so you're a lawyer now, right? Are you going to be president soon?" Breakout stars in the book world DO happen, but they're as vanishingly rare as breakout stars in any other field. Your average children's writer has about as much likelihood of being the next J. K. Rowling as your average law school graduate has of being the next president: maybe a little more than the average citizen who hasn't written a novel or graduated from law school, but it's still really not likely. And questions like these can put a lot of pressure on writers, who have as many insecurities and anxieties about their career trajectory as any other artist.

A better way to express this: "Congratulations on your new release—I hope your book does really well!"

7. "When's the movie coming out?"

Honestly, it's about as likely for a movie to be made about the life of your lawyer friend, so. This is another question that can really hone in on your writer friend's doubts and insecurities. Rest assured, if a movie gets made of her book, she will let you know VERY CLEARLY! A close relative of this question would be anything about when the book will end up on the bestseller list (most never do).

A better way to express this: "I enjoyed your book so much. I think it would be a cool movie!"

At the end of the day, the best thing that you can say to a writer friend is something like this:

"Congratulations on your book! That's so wonderful."
"I'm really looking forward to reading your book!"
"I've requested your book at my local library!"
"I hope that your book does well!"
"It's so cool that you've written a book! That's really wonderful."

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!