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.

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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.

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.

I’m In! My Writer’s Voice Entry #146

I’m SO excited! I made it into The Writer’s Voice! I can’t tell you how nervous I was, but I’m even more nervous now knowing Brenda Drake, Monica B.W., Krista Van Dolzer, and Cupid are out there scouring the entries for the folks they want on their team.

My fingers are crossed that they like me! I can’t thank them enough for this opportunity! Go to any of their blogs (Brenda Drake Writes, Love YA, Mother. Write. (Repeat.), or Cupid’s Literary Connection) and check out the other entries.  I’ve been reading them and there are some amazing writers out there!

Here goes nothing, I give you entry #146, Playing with Fire.

Query:

Seventeen-year-old Pollock Avery can steal anything for anyone. Her electrokinesis allows her to short out security systems with a quick zap, then it’s easy as rolling out of bed to nab a priceless painting. Since her parents’ murders, the money has kept her and her little sister out of the foster system.

When a mysterious new client offers Pollock information about the murders in exchange for stealing exclusively for him, she knows the deal is sketchy. But she can’t resist the allure of finally uncovering the killer and getting revenge. As the heists get riskier, the client grows more deceptive, and Pollock realizes he wants more than art and jewels…he wants the key to her ability.

Ending their arrangement won’t be easy, though. Pollock discovers the client will do anything to obtain the Avery sisters’ abilities, even kill them like he did their parents. When he kidnaps Pollock’s sister, she has to work fast to get her back or lose her forever. Killing a murderer won’t be simple as stealing, but Pollock’s electrokinesis packs a shocking punch.

PLAYING WITH FIRE is a 76,000 word, stand alone Young Adult novel with series potential.

First 250:

The security guard’s heavy thud echoes on the stairs below us. A static buzz fills the air as his radio clicks on.

“This is SG9. Robbery in progress at the James Anderson Museum. Two female suspects headed for the roof.”

“Are you happy now?” I huff. We burst through the roof access door and dash to the edge. The scarf covering my mouth and nose muffles my voice. “On my back, Rem.”

My sister climbs on and digs her heels into my side. I twist my long ponytail over my shoulder so she won’t use it as reins. The last time she did that I expected to be bald when we landed. I imagine my body is a spring, picturing shiny metal coils squishing against one another. My muscles contract. Tension builds.

A deep breath and…release!

Together, Rem and I leap through the night sky. I look back as the guard runs on the roof. I don’t know if he saw us jump, but right now I need to focus on the landing. I shot too far.

Gritting my teeth, I try to pull back, but it’s too late. We slam into a tall oak tree in the park a mile or so from the museum. Sharp pain shoots through my left shoulder, twigs scratch my face. I’m wedged between two small limbs. Loud cracks of splitting wood cut through the silent park as Rem tumbles off my back and falls through the branches. She better hold on to the backpack.

The Writer’s Voice- New Cupid Contest

Cupid’s Literary Connection is hosting a brand new contest, and this one sounds really exciting! (Okay, they’re all exciting but this one is neat).  The Writer’s Voice.  It’s set up much like the singing competition “The Voice.”  There are four judges/mentors: Brenda Drake of Brenda Drake Writes, Monica B.W. of Love YA, Krista Van Dolzer of Mother. Write. (Repeat.), and of course, Cupid.

Here’s how it works, tomorrow morning, May 3, at 9am EST, the submission window will open.  Contestants will submit via special widgets on any of the four blogs.  The first 75 will make it through.  Another window opens at 9pm EST for an additional 75 entries.  If you make it though, you’ll email in the query and first 250 words of your finished, polished manuscript and post the query and first 250 on your blog.  The judges/mentors will then choose ten entries they want on their “team.”  Just like “The Voice,” if two mentors choose the same entry, the entrant picks whose team they want to be on.  The mentors will then help the entrants, polishing up their manuscripts and queries and helping them shine.  The entries will go up on their blogs for agents to see and hopefully request.

Sounds cool, huh?  I’m excited!  This is a chance not only for agents to see your work, but for great feedback and guidance from experienced writers.  Go to any one of their blogs for full details and instructions and a list of genres they’re accepting. You can also follow all the details on Twitter by #TheWritersVoice.

Polish up those queries and good luck to all who submit!!

For Those of You Playing Along at Home

Round 1.2 of Cupid’s Blind Speed Date contest started yesterday (i.e. the second 50 entries were posted for the Bouncers to weed out).  Just because I thought it was fun to play agent, and because I thought you might be curious, here are this week’s stats:

Me:

Of 50 entries, I said yes to 17, maybe to 7, straight up no to 17, and was split on 9.  Of my picks:

The first Bouncer put through 5 yeses, 1 no, and 3 splits

The second Bouncer put through 6 yeses, 1 maybe, 1 no, and 2 splits

The third Bouncer put through 6 yeses, 2 maybes, 5 nos, and 3 splits

The fourth Bouncer put through 9 yeses, 2 nos, and 3 split.

Two Bouncers agreed on 7 entries (3 yeses, 1 no, 3 splits), 3 Bouncers agreed on 1 entry (yes), and a whopping 4 Bouncers agreed on 2 entries (2 yeses).  So 33 entries have been put through to the next round.  This time there are only 3 I gave a yes that haven’t been put through.

If I were to play agent again, I would automatically reject 19 for not being YA.  Of the remaining 31, I would outright reject 7.  Based on the query, I’d reject 8.  The maybes would be rejected so that’s another 6.  That leaves 10, and considering the same factors as last time I’d probably request 5.  Remarkable how I ended up with the same number.  5 out of 50.

As it stands, 65 out of 100 have been put through to the next round.  In Round 2, twelve agents will be considering these entries.  I’m going to toss out a guess on how many of the 65 receive requests and say…20 will be requested by next Friday.

Tune in next week for the exciting (ha!) conclusion!

(By the way, if you haven’t guessed, I’m a total nerd when it comes to making lists, so yes, I have all of these in a color-coded spreadsheet.  And yes, my closet is arranged by color and by style, i.e. from white to black: short sleeved, 3/4 sleeved, and long sleeved shirts, then dresses in the same manner, then pants.  Yeah, I’m weird).

Slipping on My Agent Shoes

I posted recently asking who’s opinion mattered more when it comes to buying books: agent, reader, publisher, etc?  Recently, it seems this very question has been cycling through the publishing community.  (Check out this entry over at Jenny Bent’s blog).  Well, yesterday, I got to step into an agent’s shoes (kind of) and realized just how subjective this business really is.

I entered a contest of sorts at Cupid’s Literary Connection, a blog that “brings writers and agents together to form magical literary connections.”  I don’t know who Cupid is, only that he/she is a writer and must have excellent connections.  The contest I entered is a blind speed dating sort of thing.  I emailed my query and first 250 words of my manuscript to Cupid.  The first 50 on Friday and the first 50 on Saturday were entered into the contest.  In Round One, four “Bouncers”, three writers and an editor, weed through the first 50 and choose which will advance to the next round.  Next week, they’ll go through the second 50.  In Round Two, twelve agents are each given a set of “arrows”.  They read the entries and shoot arrows to choose manuscripts they’d like to request.  One arrow for a partial, three for a full.  They get a different amount of arrows each day and the cost per request increases throughout the week.  At the end of the week, their requests will be posted and connections will be made.

Sounds pretty awesome, right?  I was lucky enough to be one of the first 50, and even luckier that one of the Bouncers put me through to the next round.  Now I just have to wait another two weeks to see if I get any requests.

So, how did I step into an agent’s shoes?  All 50 entries are posted on the blog.  I numbered a legal pad and started reading.  Next to each number I wrote either “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” or split up my answers based on the query and the first 250.  Several received a “no” on the query and a “yes” or “maybe” on the first 250.  I’ve then been checking the blog, somewhat obsessively, and writing down which Bouncers put through which numbers.

Here are my stats:

Of 50 entries, I said yes to 22, maybe to 9, straight up no to 12, and was split on 7.  Of my picks:

The first Bouncer put through 1 yes, 1 maybe, 1 no, and 2 splits

The second Bouncer put through 4 yeses, 3 maybes, 2 nos, and 2 splits

The third Bouncer put through 12 yeses, 3 maybes, 2 nos, and 2 splits

*UPDATE* The fourth Bouncer put through 3 yeses, 1 maybe, 2 nos, and 1 split.

Bear in mind that 9 11 of those were entries at least 2 Bouncers agreed upon, so as it stands 32 entries have been put through to the next round.  There are still 9 7 entries I gave a “yes” to that haven’t been put through yet, and one Bouncer remaining.  Now, some I didn’t put through because they really just weren’t my taste and were, therefore, hard to judge, but most I tried to look past genre and judge on the premise and the writing.

If I were an agent looking for say, YA, and I received these queries one morning.  I would have immediately rejected 17 for not being the right genre.  Of the remaining 33, I would have outright rejected 8.  Based on the query alone (which is all most agents see), I would have rejected 5 more.  As for the maybes, they probably would have been rejections too because I didn’t love them, and I’d only have time to take on so many, so that’s another 5.  That leaves 15.  Of those 15, I was really interested in 10 (interesting note: only 5 of those were put through by the Bouncers).  Of course, how many of those 10 I’d request would depend on my schedule, what I already had on my plate, and if I had anything similar or had recently tried to sell anything similar, so let’s just guess and knock it down to 5.  That’s 5 out of 50.

It’s pretty eye opening.  I appreciate an agent’s job so much more now.  It’s such a highly subjective business.  I’m certain some of the entries I passed on would greatly appeal to someone else.  5 of my outright “nos” were put through by the Bouncers.  Several others had scores of comments underneath by people who loved the premise and sample; but it didn’t appeal to me.  So next time you get frustrated, remember how subjective it is and that there could be someone out there who will love your work, you just have to find them.  I think everyone should head on over to Cupid’s blog and try it out for yourself and see how your picks compare to the Bouncers!  It just might surprise you (and will give you an idea of just what some agents are looking for/interested in).