A Day Late and 1,668 Words Short

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The novel I’m writing has been gestating in my mind for the last three years. It’s a middle grade-ish novel about a girl who pretends to be her own identical cousin in 1965 because she feels so invisible. I’m itching to get it down on paper. I designated November as my month to do it and I joined NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month was created for November by a group of writer friends. It’s become a nonprofit organization with staff, sponsors, a fund-raising gala and nearly 120,000 participants. That’s not counting those who may not officially sign in. As I did for several years.
I never signed up because I knew I’d never do it. I was already involved in a project, either well into writing it or editing it. This year I’d just completed a final (yeah, right) of my middle grade novel, Alex Bullied and sent a round of twenty queries to agents.
I was ready for NaNoWriMo!
Each day the writer must produce 1,668 words in order to reach the goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month. I began writing this blog post on a flight home to San Diego from Maryland on November first. I was already a day behind on NaNoWriMo.
Yes, I know, as someone pointed out, you can write on an airplane. Well, I can’t. But I figured I could make those words up. I started the next day with eager enthusiasm. I knew how the story started, even had notes on the first few chapters. Had some pages that could be cut and pasted. I wasn’t sure if this was cheating, but I had those words to make up.
Dog concerns (was Bug going to need a vet? No, as it turned out), previous scheduled commitments, our son moving home, upcoming friend visits, and finally agreeing to attend a Thanksgiving dinner as well as the daily grunt work of shopping, errands, cooking , cleaning and caring for pets made for a lot of holes in my tight writing schedule. The word count did not multiply as quickly as I’d anticipated.
This doesn’t make sense. In spite of the distractions, I have most of every day to write. I have no excuses. And yet, maybe I do –
The November/December issue of Writer’s Digest has a section on NaNoWriMo. There is a section about how there’s a paradox of creativity in that is seems to benefit from pressures and boundaries. I have found this to be true for me. This blog entry, for instance. I would never post a blog without it having been read to my writers group and gotten critiqued. The group, The North County Writers Bloc, meets tomorrow morning. So I have to get this done – now. It’s amazing how the words flow when they have to.
The words that are going into this new book are pretty much crap. But that’s what editing and writers groups and meetings with agents at conferences are for. I think we have to figure that writing this fast is not going to produce publishable work without a lot of revision. Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen started on NaNoWriMo. You can be sure it did not come out the best seller it was without a lot of editing.
And yet participants will send agents their first draft messes. Apparently agents shudder at the volume of queries they receive after November each year. “I have written this book in a month and here it is.” No book is written and ready in a month. So, slow down. But not until after November 30th.
This yearly challenge does seem needlessly masochistic. I feel a little like I’m drowning as I fall behind on word count. I’m sinking beneath those unwritten words.
But there are also positives to get from this exercise. I am building a habit of writing every day. My process has always been a slow one of outlines and first drafts on note paper with pencils. I want to train myself to have the ideas go directly from brain to keyboard to computer screen. While I still outline a little to help me when I’m stuck, figuring out how to go from A to B, I am getting more streamlined in my process.
Today is November 17, two days past the midway point. I am about 4,000 words short and expecting company for the weekend. I do not know if I will finish on time but I still maintain the delusion that I can.
Stay tuned.

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Other People’s Blogs

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So many blogs, so little time. To keep up, we’d have to spend most of every day reading. Not even Sunday off. There is so much media out there: blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and those of which I am not aware. When do we ever have the time to read them all, much less write our own?

And how do we find the ones we might like?

After I post a new entry, as I will this one, I receive half a dozen or so emails from Word Press telling me how So and So loved my blog and maybe I’d like theirs.

I have found a few that I like. But mostly, not so much. Sometimes I think the posts are a kind of vanity, equivalent to posting selfies on Twitter. Empty and pointless. There are a lot of would-be writers out there and a blog is a good place to start. But remember, quality still counts for something.

It’s not only aspiring writers who create blogs. Agents and editors have blogs. And, as hopeful published authors, we should follow these, right? But which ones? In pursuing some of these, I’ve noticed they tend to be sporadic about their postings. If you “follow” them, you’ll get a notice when they post. So if you find a couple or few you connect with, you may only hear from them once a month, if that.

I follow one in particular, Nathan Bransford, and I recommend his blog. He posts regualrly. He is an agent turned author and knows all sides to the business and has valuable imformation to impart. Sometimes he will take submissions of first chapters or queries and will pick a few lucky ones to critique and edit. Also, he’s funny and fun to read. Recently he posted about the demise of the blogosphere and while I don’t know that I agree with him, it’s interesting. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/

Many of the sites I’m directed to by Word Press are “Indie” authors. In the interest of supporting fellow struggling authors, I “followed” a few. I found them mostly annoying. Not  because they’re Indie, aka self-published, but because their blogs are devoted only to selling their books. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but there’s nothing there to interest me.

For instance, one is constantly having contests in which a reader can win a signed first edition of his hightly-acclaimed novel. He doesn’t say acclaimed by whom or what. And I can’t help but wonder how many other editions there will be.

I know this sounds snarky, but because of the convenience of Kindle, I can check a book out in a matter of minutes by getting a sample. I read the first chapter of the book written by the above blogger and it was obvious he didn’t have a critique group. If he did, he needs a new one. I know what we like is subjective, but poor writing is poor writing.

Another Indie author supplements his book promotion with almost daily quotes about writing. This just takes up space in my inbox. It’s funny, though, once I’m following someone I hate to unfollow. I don’t know what that’s about but the fact that I will watch shows I don’t even like because theyr’e on my DVR might have something to do with it.

Then there’s the guy who constantly announces his book is on sale on Kindle for ninety-nine cents. I read a sample of his novel and I liked it well enough. If he’d done his due diligence on the editing, I might have bought it. When I read something I think is so close to being publishable, I can’t help but wonder what the writer was thinking. Not that I know what’s publishable, clearly. Just my opinion. But to put all that work into something and then self-publish without trying to get traditionally published puzzles me. Unless he did and gave up. His site says he has 42,500 followers. Is that even possible? I wonder how his sales are.

Again, I know I’m being snarky. I am not down on self-publishing. Anyone who can sit and put between fifty thousand and a hundred and fifty thousand words on paper has my respect and admiration. If they can put those words into an order that makes sense and transports me, even better. But just because a writer decides to forego the agony of prospecting for an agent and go the independent route doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try hard to put out the best book possible. Also, unlike this blog I just checked out and didn’t “follow,” if you’re going to have a blog to promote your book, for heaven’s sake, at least proof the writing on the site. This person had so many obvious mistakes, it was embarrassing.

I like a theme to a blog, not just promotion and filler. I like an essay, maybe. I’d like to read about an Indie author’s struggle. What else are they doing to market their book? What do they want for their next one? Will there be a next one? What is their ultimate goal?

I think it helps to have a theme. It keeps the blog centered. A couple of friends in my writers’ group have blogs devoted, not to their books, but to the subjects of their novels.

For instance, C.L. Woodhams, author of The Outreach Committe, a story about a group of women who murder each others’ abusing husbands, writes a blog about domestic violence. It’s informative. Womenbreakfreefromabuse.wordpress.com

R.W.Richard, author of Autumn Breeze, Double Happiness, and A More Perfect Union, is a man writing in the woman-dominated romance genre. His blog, Romance:the guys’ POV, gives the man’s view of writing romance, but also general writing tips and helpful advice. http://romancetheguyspov.blogspot.com

Of course, C.L. and R.W. promote their books on their blogs as well and want to sell copies. But they give us more while they’re doing it.

Fortunately, I have been directed to a few blogs I’m glad I follow. These women are on their own journeys to publication. They also write young adult or middle grade. Theya re doing what I’m doing. And misery loves company, right? They post often enought to maintain interest. One of them plumps her blog with book reviews. I’ve bought a couple because of her reviews. Sometimes the blogs will feature an interview with an author or reblog something someone has written about the business of writing. Check them out at  www.wordsreadandwritten.com    and    https://dawnewebber.wordpress.com   and   http://lorellepage.wordpress.com.

What makes these blogs stand out for me is the writing. It’s personal, it feels chatty, not like I’m being taught something or being sold something. They’ve beenproofed and spell checked. And they care as much as I do.

By the way, chances are you’ll find mistakes in these posts of mine. I hope not, but it happens. I just want you all to know, it’s not my writing, they’re typos.

 

Trust The Process

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Every writer, through trial and error, develops their own way of approaching their work. While some use the “leap and a net will appear” approach, I outline. I like to know where I’m going. An outline allows me to see the story, to work out plot or characterization problems. I want to catch them before I’m a hundred pages in. I also outline each chapter as I come to it. I do back stories for most of the characters. I create a back story for the story itself, so I know what went on before it began.

I did all that for Alex Bullied. But thirty rejections tells me that it may not be good enough. The agent who asked for the full manuscript and then rejected it did give me some suggestions. He felt the plot did not hold  his interest as he had hoped and that the secondary characters needed more strength. With the help of my critique group, I am editing. I see what I missed and am correcting it.

A woman in that critique group, Amy, recently scored an agent for her young adult novel. She has worked on her book for three years or so. She has workshopped it at conferences and writing retreats. She hired a professional editor. High five to Amy. What this tells me is that it is accomplishable. That it is not a pie in the sky dream to try for an agent. What it tells me is to keep trying.

I try to remember: there’s no glory in easy.

There are times when my brain and creativity go on hiatus. Weeks go by while I do everything except sit my tail bone down to do the rewrites that I know are going to improve my book. I do not believe in writer’s block. I know the ideas and words are there. I trust the process; knowing that I’ve never take a break that I didn’t benefit from in the end. It always results in a pay off that I would not have anticipated and could not force.

Eventually I get out of my own way. I let it come to me, I let it flow. I think that’s part of it. We get so uptight, worrying that we’ll never get it right, that we stand in our own way. Relax, enjoy the process. Trust the process, whatever yours is.

And stay tuned.

 

 

Journey Towards Publication Update

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One day back in October 2014, I sent three queries. The following morning a reply from one of the literary agents awaited me. It read:

“I enjoyed reading these opening chapters a lot. Funny and turning a bully on its head this way is great and refreshing. I’d love to keep reading — can you send me the full MS? I aim to read all full MSs within eight weeks of receiving them, if possible, but please let me know if the status of  ALEX BULLIED changes with another agent such that you should need a more immediate reply. Thanks so much!”

He wanted the full manuscript. The full manuscript! And he’d asked for it the day after I sent the query! This was a new experience for me. I enjoyed the feeling of validation and being wanted all day. I sent the manuscript, called and emailed people and celebrated with Husband.

The wait began. I continued to send out queries, even though I thought getting an agent was a done deal. Twelve queries in all. October and November came and went. The eight weeks passed. I decided after ten weeks to give the agent a little nudge.

He replied to my email with this:

“I haven’t had a chance to look yet, I’m afraid — it’s been a very busy fall, but I am still looking forward to reading. Thanks for your patience, and more soon!”

Still encouraging, could still happen.

Then came this, on February ninth:

“Thank you for the chance to read ALEX BULLIED and for your patience in awaiting my reply. I have had a chance to carefully consider it now, and though I continued to enjoy your writing, I am afraid the plot at times lost my interest — many of the secondary characters felt too flat for me, so even though the writing and voice were strong, I wasn’t as fully immersed in the story as I’d  hoped. I’m sorry to not have better news for you, but this is, of course, such a subjective business, and so hope you’ll continue querying until you find the right agent for ALEX BULLIED. With warm regards, blah blah blah.”

I knew it was a rejection when I saw the email in my box. If it were an acceptance, it would be by phone. Bad news is always in the mail. But, I learned a couple of important things from this letter; I need to take a look at those secondary characters and he thought my writing and voice were strong and I appreciated that slight ego boost.

Since June of 2014 I’ve received about twenty rejections. I have another twenty-two or so queries still out. Of those it’s probably been long enough to assume half of them are a No. So that leaves maybe ten that are still in the maybe zone.

This probably sounds depressing to you and you may be feeling sorry for me. But don’t, this is typical. I know a writer who sent over three hundred queries before giving up and self-publishing. And remember, The Help wasn’t accepted until query number sixty-one.

I recently read a young adult novel called Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is her debut novel and I loved it. It has a great hook — about a teenage girl after what is assumed to be The Rapture and her quest, not for faith, but the truth. The writing, I thought, was wonderful. I could hardly put it down. I took it to my middle grade/young adult critique group and it’s being passed around and read by each. I wanted them to see what we need to aspire to.

I’ve also just finished a middle grade novel called Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt that I thought was incredible. The story follows Doug, whose family moves to a new town just before he enters eighth grade. He hates the town, has a dodgy home life and school is not his thing. What does become his thing is the Audubon’s Birds of America book on display at the local library.

He begins to draw the birds in the book and each picture has an emotional impact on him The story is set in 1968 and told by twelve-year-old Doug and his voice is unique and compelling. He leaves information hanging, but as the reader, you don’t care. He dares you to guess what he means. I was willing to not know everything at the moment. It would all be clear soon enough and the pleasure of getting there was worth it. I highly recommend this book to anyone, adults included.

In the book Doug is shown how the birds are drawn by a library employee. He is taught how to take the drawing apart, shown how Audubon created the feeling of wind under a wing or the bird’s distress. After I finished the book and wiped by eyes and blew my nose — it had me almost weeping — I realized I needed to do with my next book what Doug did with those birds. So I have begun to reread it, to analyze how Schimdt created this story, to tear it apart and put it back together. And how I can apply all that to my next book, the one that no agent will be able to reject.

Stay tuned.

 

 

Love That Synopsis

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Friday night at the SCBWI Writers’ Conference, I sat on my balconey looking out on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, contemplating my consultation with Krista Marino of Random House Childrens’ Books, coming up the next day.

I’ve been revising my third novel, Morning of the Mermaid, the story of the first mermaid. At my first SCBWI conference, three years ago, when I thought the manuscript was pretty complete, I was told that actually it needed to be “taken to the next level.” It took me a couple of years and the writing of Alex Bullied before I figured out what that level was and how to reach it. Since finishing Alex, I’ve begun a complete revision of the mermaid book. I submitted the first ten pages and a synopsis to be critiqued at this year’s conference. I wasn’t expecting much, but thought perhaps she would let me know if I was headed in the right direction.

Then a thought occurred to me — had I changed the synopsis to reflect the changes in the story? I couldn’t remember. I know I sent the pages in a hurry. I’d waited until the last minute of the deadline. And the synopsis and I — well, let’s just call a spade a spade — are not on the best terms. It seemed likely I’d botched the synopsis. I hate being anything less than professional, but it seems I’d done just that. I could have gone on my laptop to check, but I decided to let the crap fall where is may. It was too late to do anything about it.

I sat there a bit longer hating the synopsis.

It’s a common feeling. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t hate the synopsis. We complain about it, agonize over it and search relentlessly for the magic formula to write a good one. They are a necessary evil. But we don’t have to like them.

Or do we? I had an epiphany. What if I decided to love the synopsis? Change your mind, change your life, right? What if I entered into the writing of a synopsis with the same joy, the same determination to have fun, as I do when writing a story? Why not embrace the process? Why not enjoy it? Would that not be reflected in the finished product?

The internet is full of advice on writing the synopsis. Every writer’s, agent’s or editor’s website has tips. Every writer, agent, or editor has probably written an article or given a talk on the synopsis.

The amount of information can be overwhelming. And yet, we continue to read, hoping we’ve finally found The Answer. I say, take it all in. Read it all. Make notes. Try it all. And enjoy it all. Love the synopsis.

One of the workshops I took during the conference was all about this subject. There was sensible advice about format: it should be in twelve point font, one page, single spaced (approximately forty lines at a twelve point font will fit a page), written in third person, present tense, and the first mention of a character should be in ALL CAPS.

Here are some of the tips given at the conference:

* Focus on the primary plot, no subplots

* Summarize each chapter into no more than two sentences.

* Link all the best sentences in a single, chronological block of text.

* Revise the block of text for length and clarity.

* Read each finished draft aloud.

So if you are not already full to the brim of synopsis advice, this is a good start. Let go of those bad feelings about the synopsis. Start fresh with enthusiasm and confidence. You can do it. I hope I can. Stay tuned.   

Beta Readers

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Eventually we finish an improved, edited version of the first draft of our novels. We’ve run every chapter past our critique groups. We’ve read and applied editing tips. We’ve sweated over and changed our openings a dozen (or more) times. We’ve spell checked, grammar checked and read it over and over until we know it by heart. But is it really done? Now what?

Beta readers, that’s what.

I don’t know why we call them beta readers. Beta is the name of the second letter in the Greek alphabet. It’s the second of a group or series and the second brightest star in the night sky. So beta is second. Wouldn’t it be alpha readers? Alpha, the name of the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the beginning of everything, seems like it would be more apropos. I suppose, though, that we, the writers, could be considered the first readers.

Now we need second readers, but the first to read what we hope is the finished manuscript. Or close to finished. You would think family and friends would be lining up. Not so much. And really, are those the folks we want to read this first finished draft? An instructor in a writing class I took early on told us that when you have a very early draft, it’s good to give it to someone who is not going to be too critical and will probably tell you how wonderful you are. That’s when we want those loved ones to read it. It encourages up to soldier on with the project. eventually, though, we’re going to need people who can give us constructive criticism so that our manuscripts can get better. Mom or Sister may love our words, but they are not agents or publishers.

The beta reader thing is tricky.

The beta read is not an editor. He may find and mark mistakes and this is good but mainly you want your reader to answer questions. Did the beginning grab you? Did it bog down anywhere? Did the characters, the dialogue seem real? Was any of it confusing?

One downside of beta readers is that they can take their own sweet time getting around to reading our manuscripts. This waiting, on our part, can be agonizing. Did our first pages bore? Is the manuscript so bad that they’re afraid to tell us? We swallow our pride and call, only to find out that they haven’t even picked it up yet.

My friend Jack is the perfect beta reader. He sits down immediately and reads through the entire thing. Jack is smart, well read, and a writer himself. This is the reader we want. His critique is valuable. These people are harder to find than you might imagine. But keep looking because getting that informed overview of you story is not just helpful but necessary.

Stephen King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” But I wonder if the scariest moment isn’t the one just before you hand over your manuscript to someone to read. And judge.

Critique Groups

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Critique groups are like sardines — you either love them or hate them. Me, I love critique groups. Sardines, not so much. I think the love/hate issue with the former depends on whether you’ve ever been in a good one. I don’t know if there is a good sardine.

I’ve been in a few groups. The best have strong leaders with some knowledge of what constitutes good writing and how to go about improving. I’ve gone — one meeting is all it takes — to classes or groups with egocentric asses or clueless idiots as leaders. This doesn’t work for me. Getting together once or twice a month doesn’t work for me, exchanging pages beforehand doesn’t work for me — feels too much like homework. What I do like are read-and-critique groups that meet once a week, with members I can respect. The writer brings pages, usually not more than eight, and five or six are best. A chapter, basically. She may or may not pass out copies.Then she reads and everyone reads along or listens and gives their knee-jerk critiques.

This is amazingly helpful. Some have mocked the critique group, calling it “writing by committee.” It is not that. Be assured, it is always your story and you can tell it in any way you want. However, if you want your writing to improve, to maybe get to that level of traditional publishing, you may want feedback.

The writers who do not want to be critiqued generally believe they are already way too good to allow people to tell them what doesn’t work. This is a big mistake. It stops the progress of their writing. You have to be open to change. You have to be open to getting your butt kicked. It’s for your own good, believe me. Anyway, if you’re going to be any kind of artist, you’d better develop a thick skin. A critique group is a good place to start doing that.

Another great thing about committing to a weekly critique group is that, at least in ours, everyone is required to WRITE. Members can only go a couple of weeks before they are prodded to bring something: a new chapter, a revised chapter, an old or new short story. Knowing that I will have to read a new chapter every week makes me write a new chapter every week. And I get my first feedback on it immediately. I’ve written three complete novels since joining this group. I’ve seen other members finish novels and memoirs. We help each other with queries and synopses. I’ll be reading this blog entry to them. By the time  you read it, it will have been improved.

Often when  you read articles or blogs by agents and editors, they will tell you that if you’re going to spend any money on your manuscript, use it on a freelance editor. That’s good advice. But a professional editor can be expensive. My critique group serves this purpose nicely. They can weed out the offending grammar and unnecessary adjectives, tell me when my POV or tense changes and notice if the plot is going off the rails. Better still, they know my voice and the way I tell a story.

I still think we should all use an editor, if possible. We want to give that person the best we’ve been able to do with our book, so that hopefully she will not have all that much work to do on it, making it less expensive for us. Having run our manuscript through our critique group helps with that.

If you do get a group together, its a good idea to establish some ground rules. For our group, which we named The North County Writers Bloc, we have guidelines which set up how the meeting will be run. New members are given a copy. None of the rules are carved in stone but it helps to have some order.

You’ll find some critiquers will specialize. In our group we had the man who encouraged starting a chapter with dialogue, someone else who looks to shorten sentences, others specialize in opening up the plot, or finding those pesky passive verbs or pointing out problems with tense or point of view. And often, when others are being critiqued you’ll find you learn something, too.

Here’s what a few members of the North County Writers Bloc had to say about this blog entry:

“Yes, I agree. I’ve completed four novels. For a guy who doesn’t type, that’s pretty good. My stress is my business and it is forgotten when I’m writing. So is this extending my life.”

“I learn from others’ writing styles, vocabularies. It’s great entertainment, having all these stories. Orin ( a recently deceased member, sadly) always changes my beginnings.”

“If I hadn’t found NCWB, I would never have written anything. Let alone anything halfway decent.”