My Writing Process Blog Hop

The awesome Jamie Dodson has chosen me to participate in a blog hop on my writing process. Jamie writes these excellent books on a teenage pilot set a few years before World War II. His post on his process, and his Nick Grant books, can be found here, so check it out!

As for the hop, I have a few questions to answer, so here it goes:

1. What are you working on at the moment?

I don’t like talking about WIPs much. I guess I think I’ll jinx it or something, but I will say this much. Right now I’m writing a dark YA contemporary. And when I say dark, I mean dark. When my MC, Nate, was fourteen, he shot and killed his neo-nazi father in self-defense. Now he has to live with the repercussions of his decision and figure out how to move on. This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. Both because of the research, which makes me feel so skeezy (of all the topics I’ve researched for stories, bruising patterns, torture devices, etc., this has been the only one coffee shop internet has banned the sites) and because the things I have to actually write. As difficult as it is to write, though, I feel like it hits on some important topics.

2. How do you think your work differs from other writers in your genre?

Oh man, this is a tough one because I don’t stay squarely in one genre. I’ve flitted from MG adventure, to urban fantasy, to sci-fi, to contemporary thriller, to dark contemporary. The only really consistent theme is that my writing gets pretty dark and is very fast-paced but descriptive. (In fact, I’m having to really focus on slowing the pace in the WIP). I also like to throw in weird twists. I came up with a more typical contemporary plot several months ago. When I told Hubby the story idea he made a face and said “that doesn’t quite sound like a Sarah book.” I tried writing it and he was right. It was too straight for me. I need little unexpected curves and turns at the end, or it just doesn’t work.

3. Why do you write what you write?

I write the stories that pop into my head, which is apparently a kind of twisted place. My favorite books growing up were mysteries, ghost stories, scary things. Agatha Christie and Carolyn Keene and Stephen King and R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. These are my influences, the twisty, less-than-normal, mysterious stories. These are the types of stories that stuck in my head and affect the way my own words come out. I tend to write the things you don’t see, the world’s underbelly, the things that happen in the dark. Hidden worlds and thieves and secret government torture chambers and hackers and hate. I’ve mentioned that I’m afraid of the dark, so I like to draw the dark things out of their corners and bring them into the light. Shapes have a way of shifting in the light. I like exposing the monster that’s really just a coat hanging from the door.

4. What is your writing process, and how does it work?

My process breaks down into eight steps that I like to refer to as the Rinse and Repeat cycle.

1. I get an idea. A vague premise. My WIP idea came from an actual news story headline. I tuck these ideas in a folder in Evernote and come back to them when I finish whatever manuscript I’m working on when the idea hits. I take each vague idea and think about how the character got to that place and where they’re going and why. If an idea grips me and won’t let go, I write a query. I like to write the query first, when the plot is simple, before it gets muddied with side plots and secondary characters. Now that I have an agent, this has become a critical step. If I feel strongly about something, I’ll just send that one with a “hey, this is where I think I’m going next.” Otherwise, I write queries for a few ideas and send them to her for her thoughts. Last time, she really liked two different ideas. I couldn’t choose, so I decided to give them both a shot and see what stuck. The first is the story I mentioned in question 2. It didn’t work, so I moved on to the next one.

2. When I settle on an idea, I start with a synopsis to figure out what actually happens. I know “synopsis” is a frightening word. Trust me, I know. But mine isn’t meant for other eyes. Half the time I don’t even have a character name, it’s just “girl” or “dude.” I’m not a plotter, but I need something to provide structure to work from. The times I’ve taken off without any sort of guide ended disastrously. And that’s all this is, a loose structure that I typically end up deviating from when I start writing.

3. Then I write the first chapter. If the story and the character’s voice grab me, I keep going. If I hit 5,000 to 10,000 words and still love the character, I keep going. If it’s not working–the voice is inconsistent, or the story doesn’t flow–I stop and move on to the next idea. Seriously, I have too many ideas to waste time on the ones that aren’t working.

4. I have an amazingly awesome CP who I’ve been working with since my second manuscript. We swap a few chapters at a time as we write. So I’ll write a chapter or two, send it to her, she’ll critique and I’ll edit, then move on to the next chapter, rinse and repeat. I’m in a couple other critique groups that work this way too. I’ve learned I don’t do well with waiting for feedback until I finish the whole manuscript. I tend to get overwhelmed at the amount of work I have to do, and I get locked in on certain things I’ve already written, so it works better for me to edit as I go.

5. When I hit about 15,000 words, I’ll send it to my agent. She’s very editorial, which I love and is one of the main reasons I wanted to work with her. Her ideas are brilliant. I like to get her input before I get too deep in the manuscript because, like I said, revisions are hard. When she read the beginning of my previous WIP she thought it started in the wrong place and wouldn’t get seen in the current market, so I revised and ended up with a much stronger book. If I’d waited, I would’ve had a lot of extra work ahead of me. As it was, I just had to re-do the beginning and the rest flowed from there.

6. When I finish the whole thing, I get it printed at a local shop (300 some odd pages is a lot to print at home! It’s $15 and the print shop lady is super sweet). I read things differently on paper than I do on a computer. The tangibleness of paper makes the story more real. I edit on paper, type up the changes, and send to a couple beta readers. At least two. If they’re opinions are consistent, I revise, if they’re different, I get a third reader, then go with my gut. This is done as many times as necessary to get the best book I can write. Rinse and repeat. I print again, make any final minor tweaks and send to my agent.

7. My agent reads and lets me know if she thinks anything else should be added/removed/changed, we talk through the changes, I edit, and resubmit.

8. Final step, take a day or two to breathe and recharge, then start all over. Rinse and repeat.

If you want to read more about my process, how I find beta readers, how I tweak, etc. I wrote a couple other posts on these specific topics: Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out; Beta Relationships; and Who’s Your Critic?

So, that’s it. That’s my process! I’m supposed to pass this along to two other writers, but I only have one because I’m a rebel.

Jill Van Den Eng is an author and journalist with a keen interest in the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. She earned a BA in journalism and returned to her hometown of Kaukauna, WI as a city news reporter. The city with a river dividing it left an impact, inspiring the setting in Van Den Eng’s debut YA novel, DIVIDED MOON.

In addition to writing, Van Den Eng enjoys reading YA and popular fiction, running, solving puzzles and getting outside. She is a master gardener who keeps an herb and vegetable garden outside her home office and a novice astronomer with a really big telescope.

Van Den Eng lives in Wisconsin with her husband, three sons, two lazy cats and one evil hamster. Check out her blog and read about her process at Jilly’s Book Blog.

Just Write It

Yesterday, my amazing CP, Alison, wrote an equally amazing guest post for YAHighway. It got me thinking about my own writing process.

A couple weeks ago, I finally finished the manuscript I’ve been working on since June. Right before Christmas, I posted on Absolute Write looking for a couple beta readers. I told them I’d just finished my first draft and needed fresh eyes before submitting to my agent. I had some great people offer to read, and they all told me the same thing. When they saw the words “first draft,” they got really nervous, until they started reading and realized it read like a later draft.

“Well,” I said, “I guess technically it’s not a first draft when I think about it, but in a way it is.” Which, I realize, makes no sense. Around this time my agent tweeted that she’s convinced everyone’s first drafts are complete crap. Everyone.

This all got me thinking: what is a first draft?

See, I consider my first draft to be the first one I complete. When I type those last few words and lift my fingers from the keyboard, I have finished my first draft. But I don’t think it’s crap, necessarily (depends on the day, haha), because I’ve already worked it to death by the time I finish. Technically, I suppose, it could be thought of as a second draft, or even third–but that feels weird to me, since it’s the first time I’ve finished. See how I talk it in circles? It’s kind of confusing, so let’s back up.

Google “writing advice.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. One of the first links you’ll get is a post called 21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors. I linked it for you in case you didn’t Google it. The very first tip comes from Ernest Hemingway. It says basically the same thing my agent tweeted. If you keep going through the links, though, or talk to the majority of writers, or read writing blogs or websites, you’ll inevitably see these words over and over again: “Don’t self-edit. Just write the first draft, then go back and edit later. Keep that momentum going.” Pretty much everyone hands out this little piece of advice like Halloween candy.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but they’re wrong. Dead wrong. Don’t close the page just yet, hear me out.

Ever read Query Shark? Janet Reid gives excellent advice for writing queries. One thing she constantly harps on is following the rules. No rhetorical questions, no gimmicks, no first person, start with the plot, etc, etc. However, she says once you have a good grasp of the rules, they can be broken. The famous example of this is the wonderful Josin McQuein’s query. It breaks all the rules, but is so darn captivating it doesn’t matter. (The book, by the way, is also excellent. Go pick up a copy. Get Arclight while you’re at it. You’ll thank me for the cover alone. All the pretty!). Man, I’m all about some links today!

Janet’s query advice should extend to all writing. When you’re just starting, yes, follow the rules. If you’re having trouble getting motivated to write, by all means just get words on the page. Get the first draft down, however crappy and messy and convoluted it may be, and fix it later. I started this way. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

But it didn’t work for me. By the time I finished, I had SO MANY WORDS! Plots that started and dropped off. Threads that twisted into a tangled mass. Characters that weren’t consistent. Revising was such a headache. I would look at the draft and think “I can never do this. It’s too much.” You know what? I was right. I got overwhelmed by the amount of work the first draft would need. It was like finding some pretty necklaces at a yard sale, but they’re all in a box together and the chains are intertwined. You try to tease out the couple you like, but everything is so tightly knotted you just throw the whole mess down and say screw it.

Then I found my CP. We started working together by exchanging a few chapters at a time, initially of a finished draft, and then of a WIP. I’d write a few, then she’d email and ask how the writing was going. So I’d send her the pages, she’d send feedback, and I couldn’t not go through her comments when I got them. (How do you like that little double negative? Here’s another). Then I couldn’t not incorporate changes and fix problems she’d noticed. Next thing I knew, I had a finished first draft that read more like a second. I self-edited. And I didn’t die. (By the way, I totally have this scene from Mean Girls in my head. Except insert “self-edit” for “sex,” and “write terribly” for “pregnant.”) My writing didn’t suffer. In fact, I think it got better.

My most recent WIP went through lots of changes I as wrote. I ended up plotting more than I ever have, even though I didn’t marry my outline or anything.The initial words that went on the page: yeah, they were crap, but I fixed them as I went.  I rewrote the beginning and moved chapters around. It went slower than any other ms I’ve written, which frustrated me. I’ve always thought of myself as a quick writer. When I think about it, though, it really took the same amount of time. Before, I wrote the first draft in three months, and revised for three. This time around it took six to get through the “first draft,” but it wasn’t the sloppy, just-get-words-on-the-page kind of draft I used to turn out. It was polished, edited, neat. Reading back through and revising was a breeze.

So, self-edit, or don’t self-edit. Revise chapter by chapter, or revise all at once. Follow the rules, or break the rules. It doesn’t matter. Just write it. Everyone is different, and everyone works in their own way. There is no one size fits all writing advice. Find what works best for you and do it.

I’ve heard a few writers refer to their first drafts as “draft zero.” Personally, I’m not sure what to call mine. First draft? Second? Fred? Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter (although I’m partial to Fred). As long as the ms you finally query, or submit to your agent, or whatever, is polished, who cares what you call it? Forget rules and advice and labels and everything. Clear your mind of all but the story, and write.

Can You Juggle?

My husband is a juggler. Not a professional performer or anything, but whenever he sees three similarly sized objects, they’re bound to end up flying through the air–and eventually rolling across the floor. Many oranges and apples have lost their lives at Hubby’s hands, or lack of hands I should say.

I bought him a juggling kit a couple years ago that came with an instruction manual and balls, pins, and rings. The manual took you through each step, starting with two balls, and graduating up to the more difficult rings.

I’ve tried it a couple times, but I’m terrible. I can get two things going at once, but add in a third and everything crashes to the ground. I quickly gave up, resigned to leave the circus antics to my other half.

But the desire to learn how to juggle apparently never went away. It just morphed into something a little more my speed: writing.

My current WIP has two POVs. This is the first time I’ve written from multiple perspectives and let me tell you, it’s a little scary. When the idea initially formed, it was all from one view. One main character. Then another character spoke up, demanded her story be told too.

I was terrified when I started. I’ve read several books with multiple POVs where the voices were largely indistinguishable. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a few lines into a chapter and having to look back at the heading to see which character is narrating. I knew if I went down this road, I’d have to make the voices distinct.

Everything went fine at first. I clearly visualized both MCs, clearly heard their voices, clearly saw their story arcs. Just like with juggling objects, those first two stayed in the air fine. This isn’t so bad. Went through my head. I’m…kind of good at this. I was telling two almost completely different stories at the same time. Kept the juggling pins going with no problem.

Then they started wobbling. One character’s voice overtook the manuscript. Readers were connecting with her more than the initial main character. My agent even suggested maybe telling the story from one POV. Hers. The initial fear came tumbling back. It wasn’t the FMC’s story, it was the MMC’s! She couldn’t take it over! Could she?

I considered it. I dropped his pin. I worked up an outline and started a few chapters from just her side. Tossing one pin felt weird though. My hands felt empty. So I picked up the other one and tried juggling them independently. I’d tell the first half from the FMC’s view, and the second half from the MMC’s and….

That didn’t work either. If I was going to do this, I had to learn to juggle. See, it’s not just the MMC’s story, and it’s not just the FMC’s story. It’s both of their stories. There are two protagonists, and each carries equal weight. Each has their own goals, their own motivations, their own problems to surmount, independent of the other. Even though those stories parallel each other, and eventually merge into a common goal, they still maintain separate motivations and methods of reaching that goal.

So I started over. In a different place. Both pins simultaneously flew through the air again. The story worked. The chapters flowed. The voices separated like oil and water. Everything was great.

Until I dropped another pin. I’m close to finishing the draft, and I’m afraid the voices are blending. Especially once the two MCs collide. It was easier to keep them separate when the characters themselves were separate, easier to remember they each had a story to tell, but now it’s muddy. Complicated. I’ve added the dreaded third pin to the mix. I have to constantly remind myself that they’re each a protagonist, they each need to carry their own story.

This becomes difficult when I’m trying to make sure they’re both active characters. It would be really easy to drop that third pin, to let one character to take over now and do all the work, let the other take a back seat and coast through the end of the book. It would be easy, but it wouldn’t be a good book, and it wouldn’t be a fulfilling ride for the readers.

Juggling is hard. No one randomly picks up three items and perfectly tosses them around on their first try. It takes dedication and practice and time, and it’s so simple to say you can’t do it and walk way. Many do. I dare say there are more people in this world who can’t juggle than who can. It’s a lot like writing.

I realized I’ve been juggling for a while now. All writers juggle. With every manuscript, regardless of the number of narrators. The more elements you add to your story, plot threads, characters, settings, the more pins, or balls, or apples, you toss into the air. This is my fourth manuscript. With each one, I’ve gotten a little bit better, without really noticing it. Somewhere along the way, I graduated from balls to pins. There’s still a long way to go before I reach the rings, but I can do this.

I developed a plan of attack. Finish the draft. Print it out. Separate each character’s chapters. Read them independently. This way I can make sure the voices are consistent, and that each MC has a clear, individual, active arc.

What about you? How do you juggle your writing?

Featured! Agent-Author Chat

Hey guys! I’m really honored to be featured on Krista Van Dolzer’s latest Agent-Author Chat. Scoot over there and check out my query for DOOR NUMBER FOUR, the manuscript that caught my agent, Mandy Hubbard’s eye, as well as some great advice from Mandy herself.

While you’re there, follow Krista, because she’s pretty awesome.

What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been- My Agent Journey

As I’m sure you guessed from the title, I’ve got some pretty big news. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. I’m freakin’ ecstatic! I have an agent! After several manuscripts, lots of queries, tons of tears, and a boatload of perseverance. Here’s how it all went down:

Back in May, I had this crazy dream one night. I don’t remember the date, but I remember the day. It was the day my orthopedic surgeon removed Carl (my leg brace) for good and cleared me to drive again. My brother, and chauffeur for the day, went to lunch with me (lunch buffet at Pizza Hut–just in case you were curious), and I told him about my weird dream. Now crazy dreams are nothing new, but this one…it felt special.

Soon as I got free time, I transcribed my dream idea into words. First, a synopsis, then a first chapter. Then the words just kept coming. I kept writing and next thing I knew, I had 30k or so written and started sending it off to my amazing critique partner. I wrote and edited and finally got it done, then edited some more and got it ready to send to betas. They liked it okay but had some concerns. So I edited some more, went through another round of betas, drafted my query, compiled a list of agents to submit to, researched those agents (i.e. stalked), whittled it down, then, finally, I was ready.

Four months after my dream, on October 12, I decided to submit a round of queries, not really expecting anything to happen, but hoping I would at least see the kind of responses I got to my query. I submitted to twelve wonderful agents, any of which I would have felt extremely lucky to have in my corner–although I must say, I did have a couple favorites.

Because I’m my own special sort of weird, and OCD, I put the agents and their submission info in a color coded spreadsheet, alphabetized by name, grouped by submission requirements, then alphabetized within the groups. See? Kind of crazy. Okay, and maybe I was really nervous about submitting and the more I played with the pretty colors, the longer I put off actually hitting “send.” But send I did, finally. Then I did that thing where I tell myself not to get my hopes up, no that blinking light on my phone is not an email from an agent, agents don’t respond that quickly, they’re busy people and–

Holy crap it’s from an agent! Just two hours later, I got a response, from one of my top choice agents. Not just a request for a full, but a literal “YES, PLEASE!” written just like that, in all caps. I couldn’t believe it! I did a happy dance in my chair, completely forgetting my office door and window blinds were open, and that I’m in a high traffic area of the building. When I collected myself, I started to read over my manuscript again, stopped myself, and submitted the full. I marked it down on my spreadsheet, colored the cell green, then I tried to put it out of my head.

I got another couple requests, but none made me quite as excited. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled with each request, but there was something special about that first email, about the level of excitement for my work. My work! Then I got some rejections. My attempts not to think about it failed. I still jumped every time that green light on my phone blinked, even though I kept telling myself it could take months for the agent to respond. Sometimes they have fulls for–

Nope. Four days after I submitted the full, the agent responded. I took a deep breath, opened my spreadsheet, and clicked the email, ready to mark “Rejection 10/16/12” down and color it in red (of course). But it wasn’t a rejection. It wasn’t an acceptance either. The agent said she found a lot to love, but had some concerns. She asked if I would be up for exclusive revisions. Uh…yeah, of course I would! I did another happy dance and tried to call Hubby, but he was in California for work and didn’t have his phone. The most exciting news of my writing career and the one person I wanted to tell was in Cali-freaking-fornia. I had to sit on the news for hours, then practically squealed in the phone when he finally called. It’s like all that excitement just built, and built, like Mentos in Coke, then came spewing out all at once.

The agent and I exchanged a couple emails, then the next night I received her notes. All six pages of them. Six! Yeah, it was a bit overwhelming, and I didn’t know quite what to think. Then I read a blog post she referred me to by Imogen Howson. Her experience was similar to mine: five or six pages of revision notes, and a lot of trepidation. It worked out well for Imogen, so I decided to give it a shot.

The agent wanted the first seventy-five pages revised. Full of excitement and nervous energy, I opened my manuscript, laid my fingers on the keyboard, and sat there. All of a sudden, I was completely petrified. “I can’t do this. How did I ever think I could do this?” I opened a new document, and found the blank page too intimidating. I went back to the original manuscript and tried writing a new first chapter. Then I deleted it and went back to the blank screen. Nothing.

So I closed everything and tried to breathe. The revisions weren’t just big, they were world-altering. Literally. I had to move the story to an entirely new planet. Problem was, I didn’t know the planet yet, and I was still too close to the original story. I needed space, in all sorts of ways. (The great folks at Absolute Write helped me realize this too).

I turned off the computer, and turned on the television. Finally, I had an excuse to make Hubby watch all the nerdy science shows! “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” “Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole,” all the space shows I could find! Coincidentally, the Sunday before I received the revision request, Hubby and I had watched “How the Universe Works,” perfect timing, eh?

Instead of going back to the computer, I pulled out my trusty legal pad, and began drawing: a planet, continents, oceans. I named the planet, the continents, and the countries, wrote back stories for how the people found the planet and how they terraformed it. I figured out how far it was from the sun and how many hours there were in a day. I named other planets in the solar system.

Then, I finally turned my computer on again, and started to write. Those first couple chapters were the hardest. I tried jumping ahead in the story, but had to go back to the beginning. When I finally had something (that I thought was crap) I sent it off to my CP. Shockingly, she loved it! She suggested places I could expand the world-building, and I was off again. Writing like crazy.

I wrote and tweaked and edited and fretted for a month. Exactly a month, although I didn’t plan it that way. Then, November 16, when I thought I couldn’t possibly edit any more, I bit the bullet and submitted, jumping every time that stupid phone light flashed. After a couple other emails, twenty minutes later, she responded. She’d read a little and liked it so far and would get back to me when she’d read the rest.

If you follow this blog, you know I’m the self-deprecating sort, so I prepared myself for her to hate the rest. Readied myself for rejection. Two hours later, I was at lunch with Hubby and the green light blinked. I saw it was from the agent and held my breath.

She loved it. She’d read the whole thing and enjoyed it so much she offered rep right then! Yes, I jumped up and down in my seat in the restaurant. Yes, strangers gave me weird looks. No, I didn’t care. Nor did I care when I jumped more in the parking lot. I still can’t believe it. I have an agent. I don’t think those words will ever get old.

We talked on the phone Monday night and although I was nervous and I’m sure I sounded like some kind of country bumpkin (nerves tend to deepen my already thick Southern drawl), I soon felt totally at ease talking to her. She’s everything I wanted in an agent, but didn’t dare to hope for. She gave me the chance to go back to the other agents who had my manuscript and give them a chance to offer. Instead, I withdrew my submission from them. Let’s face it, I knew as soon as I got that first email I would accept if she offered rep. The excitement she showed from the outset, and continues to show, well, it sold me. I have someone as stoked about this story as I am, how could I say no to that?

Who is that someone? Well, I’m thrilled to say I’m now represented by Mandy Hubbard at D4EO Literary Agency!!

So, dear reader, I want to thank you for going on this journey with me so far. I still have a long way to go to my dream of publication, and a lot of revising left. But dreams can come true. Just ask my main character in this story. One night she was a wacky dream, the next, a character coming to life on the page. I can’t wait to finish telling her story, and I can’t wait to see how it weaves in with mine. Thank you, Mandy, for having faith in the story and in me, and thank you readers for being interested in what a quiet girl from Alabama has to say.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out

When is your manuscript ready to query? It’s the question every writer asks at least once. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly impatient, so I tend to want to hurry up and start querying. I queried my last manuscript too early. It still needed work, but I thought “hey, I’ve got a good second draft, let’s see what happens.” I got some requests, but no bites, because it wasn’t ready.

So I’m forcing myself to go slow with my current WIP. I’m on my fourth draft and I’m still not sure if it’s ready. The ugly impatient gnome in my head keeps popping to the surface. “Just do it,” he whispers. “It’s fine. It’s good enough. Query already!”

I have to smack him back down like I’m playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck-E-Cheese. (Side note: I love that game! My college roomie bought a hand held version one night–cause that’s what we needed to spend our money on–and we played it constantly). The gnome has me thinking, though. When will it be ready? How will I know? I mean really, I’m my own toughest critic. I could probably tweak and change and edit forever and never think a manuscript was good enough.

So, how do you know?

I have no idea.

I think it’s a gut thing, but there are a few guidelines I recommend following.

1. Don’t submit a first draft. Please don’t. Not even Stephen King runs with his first draft.

2. Have someone else read it. Not a relative, not a friend, not even anyone you know. If you want to know if your work is actually worth reading, give it to a stranger. There are plenty of forums like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect to find good beta readers and critique partners. Let someone who doesn’t know you from Adam read it–they’re way more likely to be honest.

3. While you’re at it, grow thick skin. I had a beta recently who was nervous to point out some flaws in my manuscript. I’d told her I have thick skin, but a lot of people say that and don’t mean it. It’s not easy to receive criticism, but that’s the only way you’re going to get better. It’s like pouring alcohol in a wound. It hurts like the dickens, but you’ll be better afterward. In C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the characters, Eustace, turns into  a dragon. The only way to become a boy again is for him to scratch off the scales. It’s a long and painful process, but he does it, and when he comes out, he’s a better person. Now, that scene is a metaphor for a lot of things (namely, Christianity– Paul’s statement that you must die to yourself), but it fits here. In sports, many coaches sum it up as “no pain, no gain.”

4. Write your query and synopsis. It’s not fun. At all. But writing the query can, a lot of times, help you find flaws and plot holes in your story.

5. Edit. A general rule of thumb: if one person gives you a comment, take it with a grain of salt and use you judgment on whether to change something. If multiple people give you the same comment, you should probably change it.

6. This part sucks. Go through another round of betas. I always try to have at least two rounds, and they should be different people each time. Get fresh eyes on your newly edited manuscript to make sure your edits work.

7. Edit again, incorporating any changes from the latest betas. If there are still big issues to fix, you may have to go through a third round. If it’s small things, you can move on to the next step.

8. Nit-pick edits. Read your manuscript aloud. Yes, people will look at you weird if you do it in public, and your dog/cat may be entirely confused if you do it at home, but the best way to catch the cadence of a sentence and find errors is to read it aloud. Your eyes tend to skate over words like “the” “and” and “your/you’re.” You catch these things easier reading aloud, even if you’re just mumbling to yourself like a crazy person at the back table of the coffee shop. Just tell people you’re a writer–we have a history of being a bit nuts.

9. I like to run my manuscript through websites like YA Story Analyzer. This thing is amazing. You plug in your manuscript–it will take up to 60,000 words at a time–and chose what you want it to do: basic summary, sentence summary, repetitive sentences, highlight homonyms, pacing and flow, etc. Then it analyzes your entire text. The basic summary, for instance, finds cliche phrases, tells you the frequency of overused words (like “just” and “really”), gives you the percentage of “be” verbs and redundant phrases (“but yet” “up until”), and ends with your word count and grade level. I love it. It can be time consuming, but I think it’s so worth it.

10. Listen to your gut. If you feel ready, then query. You can’t sit around on a manuscript forever. Make it as good as you possibly can, then send it off into the world and cross your fingers, or pray, or turn in circles shaking your lucky pens over your head, or whatever you do. Then go work on your next manuscript to keep your impatient gnome at bay while you wait for a response.

That’s my process. Everyone is different and everyone will have different advice. I’ve learned so much since I wrote and queried my first manuscript (which definitely wasn’t ready!) and I’m still learning. My current manuscript isn’t quite ready to query, but I’m close. I can feel it. Hopefully soon I’ll be praying and shaking my lucky pens while I wait for a response.

What’s Your Relationship Status?

Writing is kind of like a relationship. You meet a shiny new idea and are initially enamored. You take it on a date, write a chapter or two, flesh the idea out, see how things go. If it works, you go on another date, and another, and next thing you know, you’re 30,000 words in and realize you’re in a relationship.

Sure there are some kinks, but it’s cool. You gloss over them. That problem chapter can be addressed later. Those irritating little issues can be fixed down the road. You don’t want to rock the boat yet, you and your draft are just getting to know each other. When you finish the first draft it suddenly hits you: you’re in love.

You and your draft live in that love for a little while. Then you sit down to revise. The idea isn’t so shiny and new anymore. The longer you spend with the second draft, the more those little issues you initially glossed over become big issues. This time you can’t skip them. You have your first argument. Then your second. Sometimes you need to walk away and take a breather, but you eventually have to sit down and work out the problems. If you don’t, the relationship will be over and all the time you’ve spent will be for nothing. It’s okay. That happens. Every relationship isn’t meant to last. You believe this is “the one,” though, so you jump in and make it work.

But then you notice newer, shinier ideas. You’re tempted to stray, to see where they go. Some relationships fail here. The problems with the current manuscript are too great. So you leave and pursue a new relationship with a new idea. Sometimes you stay, though. You ignore the new ideas and force yourself to keep giving the old one a chance. Focus. Work. Plot. Write.

It can be grueling at times. Then you finish the second draft, and what do you know? It’s better than the first. Sure there are still some problems, things you need to address, but it’s all downhill from here. You and your manuscript know each other inside and out. You’ve overcome the odds and you’re confident nothing will tear you apart.

Until you sit down for the third draft…

It’s a cycle. Just like real life relationships. There are ups and downs and not all of them last, but that doesn’t mean you don’t give it your best shot. I’m close to finishing my second draft and my manuscript and I just had a big fight. I got distracted by other ideas. It didn’t want to fix its glaring issues. I was afraid this manuscript and I wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t get past that one point. We couldn’t move forward. The thing about the second draft is you can’t ignore the problems you overlooked in the first, not if you’re going to stay together. But we got through it. It’s not perfect, but its in a place where we can move forward, and that’s the crux of writing, I think…and in life. Moving forward. Don’t let yourself stagnate. Don’t dwell in the bad times.To stagnate is to die.

I’m pleased to report my relationship status with my manuscript is “Committed.” Have you examined your status recently?

 

Who’s Your Critic?

First off all, sorry I haven’t posted lately! When I’m working on a manuscript I tend to get absorbed by it, especially toward the end. So everything else fell to the side while I was finishing my first draft. Woo hoo!! *boogies* Of course, now I’m diving into my first round of edits so I can’t celebrate too much. When it’s ready for submission, that will be the real celebration.

Normally, I let my husband read a chapter or two as I write and then hand him the draft as soon as I’m done. This hasn’t worked so well in the past because by the time I finish the third and forth draft, he’s sick of reading it. This time I decided to do things differently. I’ve been writing for two months and haven’t let him see a single word. We’ve discussed the premise and how different technologies I created might work, but he hasn’t read any of it. My plan, noble indeed, was to only give him the ready to submit version.

Tuesday morning I finished draft one. Tuesday afternoon I printed that sucker out, because I edit better when I can hold the manuscript. I decided to give myself a break and start editing Wednesday. Which meant Tuesday evening the manuscript sat on the couch.

Taunting me.

I couldn’t take it. I had to know what Hubby thought.

“Whatcha doin’?” I asked, leaning over the arm of the couch to stare at him semi-creepily.

He glanced up from his computer. “Why?”

“Just wondering.”

He started typing again, working on whatever geeky project had his attention at the time…or Reddit.

“What are you about to do?”

This time he stopped. “What do you want me to do?”

I shifted my gaze to the manuscript, lying not so innocently on the couch.

“I thought you weren’t going to let me read it until it was finished,” he said.

“What about just the first chapter?…Okay, the first two chapters…unless you want to read more.”

So he read the first two while I watched tv. And by watched tv, I mean slyly watched him to see his reaction. He laughed a couple times and I couldn’t help but ask what he found funny. After what felt like forever, he finally straightened the pages and handed them back.

“What did you think?”

“It was good.”

That’s it. That’s all I got.

I pressed. “Anything in particular you liked…or didn’t like?”

“I enjoyed it.”

Grrr. “You can be honest. You won’t hurt my feelings. What did you really think? How as the characterization? Did you connect? What did you think about the main character?”

Yeah, I peppered him. And he remained stubbornly, irritatingly, incorrigibly vague.

“I don’t know! I know I liked it. It was different than other things you’ve written.”

“Good different, or bad different?”

“Just different!”

That’s when I gave up. I realized Hubby isn’t a writer. Not in the slightest. Sure, he reads a lot, but he keeps it on the surface. He’s also completely biased. I’m pretty sure I could type strings of random letters and numbers and he would think it was great, because he loves me.

Stupid love.

I kid. I’m grateful he loves me so much, but it doesn’t help my writing. (I have the same problem with friends and other family. They’re too invested to be objective).

That’s why I have a critique partner. Someone who is a writer, who can give me honest, objective feedback. It’s wonderful. We exchange a few chapters at a time and swap ideas and encourage each other and I don’t know what I would do without her.

I used to marvel at the mythical Critique Partner. I’d heard of other people having one, but I had no idea where they came from. It was like this great secret no one would let me in on. Or a magical well hidden in the jungle where you threw pennies and writers came out armed with brand new ink pens and blank notepads.

I’ve had beta readers, and they’ve all been fantastic, but there is something different about working with the same person. (I’ve got a critique group too that I’ve mentioned before that is also wonderful. There’s something special about getting together in a room full of other writers and ironing out the snags). I don’t know where others get betas, but my magic well is on Absolute Write. They have a beta reader forum that is great for connections. And that’s where I found my CP. We started as beta readers. But I enjoyed working with her so much that when we’d finished our original manuscripts, I asked if she wanted to keep working together.

And I’m so glad we did. Wednesday morning, after my frustrating night with my non-writer husband, I awoke to an email from my CP with my latest chapter. She loved it, but more importantly, she could tell me why, as well as the things she didn’t like so much. As much as I love Hubby’s support, tough love and brutal honesty is what I need. It’s what whips a manuscript into shape.

I’m sticking to my original plan and not letting Hubby read the whole thing until it’s done. Even though my CP is amazing, I’m still going to go through a couple rounds of betas, because I think you need a good balance of people who are close to you/the work, and who have no attachment whatsoever. Betas come and go, and even the ones who might not make it through the whole manuscript are amazing and wonderful and I’m so glad to have all of them. But when it comes to the long haul, CPs are priceless.

What is your process? Do you let friends/family read your drafts? Do you use betas? Critique partners? Or a combo of all the above? What works best for you?

The Word River

I tried writing my first book when I was in high school (like, 1997). It was an idea my dad gave me about a dude called “Bob the Beer Guy.” A beer salesman who was everything to everyone. When the presidential election rolls around, everyone in Bob’s area/state is dissatisfied with their candidate options, but everyone loves Bob, so they write him in and he wins. He receives national attention, backers realize his salesman attitude makes him the perfect candidate so they help him, and he ends up getting enough write-in votes to win and becomes the POTUS.  Daddy gave me the idea and I ran with it. I don’t remember how far I actually got, a few chapters maybe, before I quit. I had the idea, knew the direction and how things would play out, but it just petered out before I got far enough.

I tried writing other stories, much the same way. An idea would spark. Then a story would form. Most of them ended up like “Bob the Beer Guy.” One finally took off though. I just sat down at the computer and started typing and next thing I knew, I had a full manuscript. Of course it was extremely rough and I ended up writing my ideas down into a basic synopsis and working from that (and of course, like most first manuscripts, it now sits in a trunk and I’m completely embarrassed I ever let anyone read it). The next manuscript I completed worked the same way (with much better results, I think). Idea, then a basic synopsis, then a first chapter that took off.

When I started writing, I had no idea there were so many different ways to write a book. I thought you just sat down and typed out a story. But people use note cards of plot points, multi-colored for different characters. They use computer software and post-it notes. Cork boards and string. Basic outlines and detailed outlines. Character lists and maps. They use different colored type for different plot threads and so many more things I can’t keep track of it all.

It had me wondering: am I doing it wrong? So I tried outlining. I tried plotting. I tried a spreadsheet of plot points that a beta reader gave me, but none of that works for me. The only plotting aid that ever works is a list of characters and traits, and then only sometimes, because that involves sitting down and thinking about the characters and who they are. Which means, more often that not, I give the characters attributes. This one is snobby and that one is friendly and this one is a prick and that one is the nice guy.  It never works, because I don’t create the characters. The characters reveal themselves to me, and they only do so as I write. The more of their story I tell, the more I learn about them and how they would react in different situations. A lot of times I have to go back to the beginning and rework it because I didn’t really know the character when I started, but by the end we’re pretty intimate.

So, I’m sticking to my tried and true. I get an idea, usually when I’m trying to sleep, or in my dreams. I write the idea down and write a synopsis. Then I start writing the story. By the time I finish, the story rarely matches the original synopsis. It twists and turns and moves in ways I couldn’t have predicted.  For me, if I plan too much, I constrict the natural movement of the story, like damming a river.  It’s my job to find the river and follow it. To do that, I have to give the water room to flow, not dictate the direction it travels or how fast it goes, or what it might pick up along the way.  But that’s just how I work.

How do you write? Do you plot, or are you what they call a pantser (fly by the seat of your pants) like me?  What works for you?

The Writer’s Voice, Cheese, and The Wild Blue Yonder

You may be aware that I’ve been competing in a multi-blog contest called The Writer’s Voice. (If not, you can catch up here).  200 of us put our work on our blogs for the world to see. 44 of us were chosen by the amazing coaches, Monica B.W., Krista Van Dolzer, Brenda Drake, and Cupid. They polished up our queries and story beginnings. We edited like crazy and submitted, and resubmitted, then they posted the shiny new entries to their blogs.

Anyone could come by and comment over the weekend. Every time I saw a new comment under my entry, I jumped in my chair and rushed to click on it. You have absolutely no idea how happy it made me to see others who enjoyed my work. I write because I love it and can’t imagine not doing it, but I also write because I’m a reader and I want my words to affect others the way my favorite works have affected me. So thank you, each and every one of you who commented either here, or over on Krista’s blog.

Yesterday was D-Day. The agents came through. Eight total.Lauren MacLeod of The Strothman Agency was the first out of the gate and Twitter was all a flitter! Agents were coming, agents were coming! We all rushed to put on our prettiest ballgowns and nicest suits and stood waiting, trying to look appealing. She swept through the four blogs and voted for seven entries, but not mine. Andrea Somberg of Harvey Klinger, Inc. appeared next and voted for a whopping sixteen entries, hooray!! But still not me.

While Andrea was still out and about, Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency showed up. I raced around the blogs, refreshing and hoping. She tagged six entries, pushing the first entry into full request territory. The crowd cheered! No Sarah, but I wasn’t too worried, that was only three agents, still five to go. Then Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency swooped in and voted for ten! More full requests! I refreshed, refreshed, refreshed, but no dice for my entry. Later in the afternoon, the word on Twitter was that Taylor Martindale of Full Circle Literary was out and about. I scoured the blogs and found seven entries with her name on them, pushing two more into full territory.

I kept my eyes glued on my Twitter feed. Never had I been so glad I decided to join! As afternoon turned to evening, and evening gave way to night, I started to worry. In the previous Cupid contest, one agent didn’t vote for anything. Could these last three not be interested? Then, Roseanne Wells of Marianne Strong Literary Agency popped up. I opened all four blogs at once, running through each entry. By now, I knew the comment counts for each one so I knew when an entry got a vote. She voted for seven. My team, Team Krista, was lagging behind now, and more than wanting myself to get a vote, I wanted my team to win, and more than that, there were several entries I absolutely loved still sitting alone on prom night with no date.

As I was refreshing, I noticed Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency out and about. There was hope! She picked a member of my team, joy! Then my heart sank. She only chose one entry from each team. I was about to call it a night when I clicked on one more new tweet. Louise Fury of L. Perkins Agency made a triumphant entry! Better yet, she tweeted as she voted! It was glorious! It took stalking to a whole new level!

She started on Brenda’s blog and I refreshed as she tweeted each vote, rejoicing for those who were picked. “Go to Krista’s blog next,” I begged. “Please go to Krista’s blog next.” She went to Monica’s. Hubby yawned and I stifled one myself. I had to stay awake. I kept refreshing. Still on Monica’s blog. Hubby and I did our nightly Bible reading, then I immediately scooped up the computer. Still on Monica’s. It was late, and I was so sleepy. So, I decided to go to bed.

Of course I promptly loaded Twitter on my phone and kept an eye on Ms. Fury’s flurry of activity. Right before I put the phone down, she was spotted on Cupid’s blog. Of course Krista’s would be last. And she was taking her time combing through the entries, which is amazing and wonderful that she took such care, but I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I turned the phone off, my hope dwindling with every yawn. No sense stressing over it, I didn’t feel like it was going to happen. My poor little entry was the cheese in a giant game of The Farmer in the Dell. I went to sleep.

This morning, I stretched and picked up my phone, as I do every morning, to check the weather and email. I had a tweet. To me. My coach, Krista, asking if I was awake. Because “Playing with Fire” had a vote. I sat straight up in bed and read it again. Then I squealed, and started hopping up and down. Hubby ran in. “You got a vote?” “I got a vote!” We fist bumped, we hugged, we fist bumped again. I had a vote. I’m not the cheese!

Louise Fury, much like the comic book character of the same surname, swept down in the eleventh hour and voted for NINE of my team’s entries. Twenty-five total. I don’t know how she’s going to have the time to read all that. I guess maybe she does have super powers.

I had a vote.

While getting ready this morning, I danced and bee-bopped around the house. Then I realized what my celebratory song was and burst out laughing. It was “Wild Blue Yonder,” the Air Force anthem. (Edit to add, I realized I crossed it with “The Stars and Stripes Forever. Just think what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to sleep when I did. Ha!). Except I was singing my dad’s made up lyrics: “Be kind to your web-footed friends, ’cause a duck could be somebody’s mother,” and “Off we go, wearing our striped pajamas.” No idea where it came from, but I hummed it in all it’s silly, ridiculous glory.

My triumph waned as I went through the blogs this morning, adding the new votes to my spreadsheet (oh yeah) and tallying. Some of my favorites still didn’t get picked. Some entries were still the cheese. There are some amazing stories out there though, and while they might not be what these eight agents were looking for, the writers are all phenomenal, and I have no doubt they’re going to go places.

So that was The Writer’s Voice. Exhilarating, nerve-racking, exciting, frightening, silly, crazy. I met a wonderful group of writers, who I hope stay connected, I got some incredible help with my work, and I got a partial request. We also, all forty-four of us, got personalized feedback from author Tara Dairman, whose debut novel, The Delicious Double Life of Gladys Gatsby, come out in 2014. How awesome is she? Thanks for your comments Tara!! Oh, and my team won. Go Team Krista! What an incredible experience.