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.

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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.

Um…What’s An Agent?

It turns out blogging isn’t easy as I initially thought it would be. I started with the grand idea of blogging twice a week, then twice a month, and then, well, life got in the way. I may have neglected my little blog here, but I haven’t forgotten it. I’ve been so caught up with revising my manuscript that every time I’ve thought about a blog post my brain has rebelled. “No!” the cells holler. “We can’t think of anything else! Our limited supply of witty and clever and interesting things has been used up. We’re a dry inkwell, leave us be!!”

Well, today I gave those brain cells a what-for and returned to my dear blog. Take that brain!

So, yeah, I’ve been immersed in revising my manuscript, which inevitably comes up any time someone (usually Hubby) mentions my writing. The conversation usually goes like this:

Hubby: “I can’t wait for Sarah to finish her revisions and get a big book deal so I can quit work and play golf all day.”

Me: “Yeah, that’s not how it works.”

Friend: “Revisions, what for?”

Hubby: “Her agent wanted her to rework some things.”

Friend: “Agent, what’s that?”

Since I’ve signed with a literary agent (still not old, squeeee!!), that last question is the one I encounter second-most. (The first being, “what’s your book about?”) Friends, family, people I don’t even know that Hubby mentions my writing to (I know, I should be glad he’s proud of me, but quiet, mousy Sarah usually just wants to stand against the wall and not be noticed, so Hubby bringing up my writing induces an “eek! hide!” response. I’m working on it.) none of them know exactly what an agent is or what one does. Now, I could talk at length about what a good agent does, especially my agent, who is fabulous beyond words, but with the average attention span growing shorter and shorter, I find myself with a one to two sentence window to break it down for them.

“It’s kind of like a real estate agent, except they choose you, and it’s really competitive. They’ve got all the industry contacts and shop your book around to the right publisher.”

This answer usually gets the “Oh, you’re getting published!” response. People hear publisher and run with it, despite my, admittedly quiet and soft-spoken, protests of “No, not yet, but hopefully” before letting it go. (I can’t help it, I just don’t have a loud voice and I’m easy to talk over. At work when I pass someone in the hall and they say “hey,” I always end up doing this embarrassing thing where I say “hey” back, but no sound comes out, so I’m really just making some weird mouth movement).

I’ve tried a different approach. “It’s like a sports agent.” Which brings blank stares from people who don’t know how a sports agent works, or nods and smiles from those who are pretending. Honestly, I’m not surprised the sports comparison doesn’t turn on cartoon light bulbs. The closest most people have come to a sports agent is Jerry Maguire which, let’s face it, doesn’t really compare to the literary world that much. (I’ve yet to hear my agent yell “Show me the money!” Although, I have to admit, it would be kind of cool).

I’ve even tried “It’s sort of like Greek mythology. Publishers would be the gods on Olympus, writers–mortals–can’t get to them, so they need agents–demi-gods–to act as intermediaries. The agents get lots of requests, though, and can only represent a small number of mortals.” That’s not so great either, though.

Frustrated with my lack of a good response, I asked some *writer peeps. “What is an agent?” Here are some of their responses (with their permission of course):

“A substance that can bring about a chemical reaction or a biological effect.”

Hmm, perhaps I should have been more specific.

“They pick you based on talent and represent you because they have connections and the publishing companies don’t have time to deal with loads of peons. A talent agent gets you gigs and a literary agent gets you publishing deals.”

Closer, but let’s go deeper.

“They’re sales people (to publishing houses), lawyers (contracts), editors (self-explanatory), psychics (predicting market trends), accountants (fees and royalties), marketing assistants (this will sell/this won’t sell/this will this more palatable), translators (the editor means this…the contract means this…) and babysitters. As well as gods/goddesses.”

Yes, yes, yes to all of this. Agents wear many, many hats and roll sevearl jobs into one. I think it’s hard to wrap your mind around how much they do if you’re not neck-deep in the publishing world. How to break this down more simply, though?

“An agent is definitely a middle man. But I kind of think of mine as a representative.”

I love the word “representative.” I think it combines a lot of those hats into one big, ten gallon Stetson. Someone else used the term “advocate.” Love it.

There were a lot of excellent responses, but I think these capture an agent best.

A literary agent is someone who spots a talented writer with a great story, takes what the writer created and shows the writer what needs to be done to make their book the best they can write, what needs to be done to make it marketable, and pushes the writer in that direction. Then the agent takes that best book to the publishers and tries to show them the beauty they saw in the work. If things go well, the agent negotiates the resulting publishing contract, then sees the writer along through their career.

Of course, this varies slightly from agent to agent. Some are more hands on, they like to be involved in the writing and editing process. Some are only interested in one book, or one series, not the writer’s whole career. Some don’t do much at all (I recommend staying away from these–See Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors when you’re looking for agents). A writer has to decide what they want in an agent, what sort of relationship they’re looking for, and seek out the agents who fits them best.

If I have to boil it down to future people Hubby may blather about me to (he means well and I love him for it, even if I may want to sink into the furniture at the time) I think I’ll say this: agents are advocates, who believe in the writers the choose to take on as clients enough to devote their time and effort into helping those writers succeed. They have the publishing experience and contacts the writers lack and represent the writers to the publishers to sell their books.

It’s not some jazzy dressed up metaphor, but I think it conveys the gist of what an agent does. If the person I’m talking to is interested enough, I’ll keep going and explain all the hats the agent can wear, in particular my agent.

What do you think? How do you see an agent?

For some common misconceptions about agents, check out Literary Agent Carly Watters blog post on the subject.

*Special thanks to the writers at AW who contributed their thoughts, especially “SomethingOrOther,” “Maramoser,” “The Ink Goddess,” and “missesdash.”

Writing is Just Like Playing Guitar…Sort of

Writers have tons of tools in their little kits, but one of the most important is one I think is the most overlooked. The ability to take criticism.

Look, I’ll just say it plainly: if you can’t take criticism, you should find something else to do.

You’re going to be criticized. Your ideas, your word choices, your plots, your characters, your everything. Just accept that from the start.

That being said, it’s not easy. You take something you’ve slaved over, fretted over, stressed over, poured your heart and soul into for the last however many months, and you send it out into the world then duck beneath the covers and wait. It’s scary. Really scary. You’ve scattered pieces of yourself throughout your story; it’s hard not to take a critique of your work as a personal affront, but that’s exactly what you can’t do. You can’t take it personally.

On the Absolute Write forum, when you first join a sentence appears under your screen name: “new fish learning about thick skin.” I think that’s a perfect way to describe the process.

There was a point in my life when I’d decided to play to guitar. My dad bought me this beat up old thing from a pawn shop (I loved it by the way) and a few tab books and I set off full of grand dreams of all the amazing places my band, Siamese Cousins, would go (our first album was to be called “Joined at the Spine”). Then I tried to actually play. The strings cut into my fingers, especially the thin ones! It was like running wire under my nails. Especially doing any sort of slide. When I finished the song (“Brown Eyed Girl”) painful red lines striped the tops of my fingers.

For those of you who have never played guitar, you have to play constantly and build up callouses across your fingertips. The more you play, the thicker your skin becomes until one day you pick up a guitar and it doesn’t hurt anymore. If you don’t play much your skin will stay thin and supple and you won’t escape the pain. (I never progressed and quit trying after a while, but my husband is really good and plays a lot–so I know this from him).

Writing isn’t much different. As a baby writer, your skin is soft and pink. It hurts when people criticize your work. You can’t stop and dwell on the pain, though. If you stop, the callouses never grow and it will always hurt. The same holds true if you ignore the criticism. You won’t grow. So you keep at it. You keep writing and keep putting yourself out there and, gradually, you realize one day the pain isn’t so sharp, your skin is thicker and you can take more pressure.

Like I said, it’s not easy. And even after you think your skin has thickened, it’s possible for criticism to cut you pretty deep. The key is to pick yourself back up, and keep moving on.

I write this because I think I’ve got pretty thick skin. I know the feedback and criticism makes me a better writer and I embrace it. “Bring it on!” I say. “Hit me with all you’ve got! Tear my manuscript/query apart so I can whip it into shape!” I can usually take the heat, but sometimes…sometimes I get knocked down and find it hard to get back up.

I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript I just finished. The ending needs to be pretty much re-written, and I’ve got a good idea where I want it to go.  There’s just one problem: I read the first couple chapters at my critique group last week. They loved the writing, but they didn’t get the plot. Maybe I didn’t explain it correctly, because some key elements were misinterpreted, but, while I usually leave the group feeling energized and ready to write, this time I left dejected. Worried. Nervous.

Were there really holes in my plot? I didn’t think so. I thought I’d explained away any gaps and problems throughout the story. My husband and CP both thought the same thing, but that little nugget of doubt had been planted. Every time I sit down to finish editing, that doubt creeps back to the surface. “Are there really problems?” I think. “Is it worth it to finish? Will anyone want it?”

The answer, of course, is yes, it’s definitely worth it to finish. I still believe in the story. I still love the story and I have faith it’s something people want to read. The only answer is to uproot that dadgum seedling of doubt and throw it away. Develop even thicker skin to keep it from wriggling back in there.

So, it’s a process. You don’t just start writing and are magically able to take criticism like a champ. Heck, there are some published authors who I’m sure still have trouble with criticism. But you pick up the guitar every day and play. You grow. You take the criticism with a grain of salt; mine what you think is helpful, discard the rest, and move forward. You’re a new fish, learning about thick skin. Learning. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with time, and practice, it will happen.

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 Synopsis Blues

I finally sat down to do something I’ve been putting off for a long time.  Write my synopsis.  Writing the book was pretty easy.  Revising even easier.  Writing the query was hard, but I already kind of knew how I wanted that to look.  The synopsis?  Sucks.  It is by far the most difficult part of writing, for me anyway.  My synopsis and I have been in a Mexican standoff, just glaring at each other, daring the other to make the first move.  More than anything I want to draw my weapon and take it down, but every time my hand twitches the synopsis grabs its gun first rendering me immobile, paralyzed with fear (i.e. I start writing, hit a wall, and surf the internet until I’m bored, then try it again and repeat the sad process). If you aren’t familiar with how this works, let me break it down for you.

You sit down and write a book.  There are all these characters and events that come together to support your main character.  Plot lines interweave and converge.  Characters grow and evolve.  All leading up to the climax where everything fits together.  You end up with several thousand words (mine is currently about78,000), which is inevitably too many.  So you send the manuscript to beta readers.  They read it and, if they’re good, tell you what stinks and what works.  Which characters they loved, hated, or both.  You rework elements of the plot, add and remove characters, cut those nasty adverbs, and whip your manuscript into shape.  Some writers go through several rounds of betas.  There really isn’t a set number; you go through as many as are needed.  Stephen King has said he only writes the first draft, edits, and then is good to go. (Le sigh, if only we could all write like Stevie, eh?).  After all of this, you should have something you’re proud of.  A book you enjoy.  Thus you begin to query and hope someone else enjoys it too.

Unfortunately, some of those agents you email don’t just want a query.  They want a synopsis as well.  A one to two page overview of your entire book.  You have to take the whole story, all the characterization, voice, growth, and plot, all 78,000 words, and boil it down to about 1,000.  That means ditching plot threads and teasing out the main one.  Pretending supporting characters don’t exist unless they’re absolutely necessary.  Oh, and it has to flow, sound like your book, and be good enough that an agent wants more.

If this sounds easy to you, then please, by all means contact me and help me with mine.  For most writers I know the synopsis is the most painful part of writing.  I’ve written dozens of drafts and finally gotten one I think is coherent enough for critiques.  I finally got my plot condensed into a page, only to get feedback that it lacks voice.  The critiquer is right.  It tells the story, but it doesn’t give the feel of my story.  So, it’s back to the drawing board.  I’ll take what I have and rework it some more to infuse my voice.  And if it doesn’t work?  If I send it out to every agent I can find and no one wants it?  Well, then I’ll keep writing my current work in progress, revise, write a query, and then once again face my nemesis: the synopsis.  I’ll do it over, and over, and over until I have something that someone wants to publish.

How do you handle your synopsis?  Do you put it off as long as possible, or do you get it done and out of the way?  How do you keep from getting the synopsis blues?

UPDATE: I think I’ve finally beaten it!…okay, I came up with something that I’m sure could be better but I’ve gotten it in pretty good shape.  There are always ways to improve your writing, but at some point you have to step away.  It’s like knitting (which I tried once for a brief period several years ago…it didn’t last long…for good reason).  You work the yarn, knit and purl (still not too sure what that means), undo the parts you really screwed up and rework it, until you finally have something done (in my case a potholder or bookmark or in one instance a doll scarf that was supposed to be a potholder but went miserably awry).  You look at it and think, “not bad, it could be better though.”  Here’s the thing: the more you un-stitch (or whatever it’s called in knitting- I was seriously bad!), the more it messes up the yarn and it looks worse and worse every time you try to fix it.  So it’s better to just step away.  I’m at that point with my synopsis, and I’m totally okay with it!