Monday, October 29, 2012

Is There Ever a Time to Give Up On that Book?

A few weeks ago a tweep asked me this question and it got me thinking. I've shelved a project I love. It's a book I still plan on getting published one way or the other, but for now, it's mouldering away in my virtual drawer. Why? There are a number of reasons actually - and any one of them could be enough on it's own.

Now, it's important to note that the book market has changed so much since I started trying to get published in 2009, this question has a different flavor than it used to.

For one, with self-publishing successes on the rise and e-readers gaining steadily on paperback, you can always publish a book. There's nothing to stop anyone from putting their story out there. So this question probably applies more to someone who's still pursuing the traditional route.

That said, if you want to make real money in publishing, some of these questions might apply even to a self-published project. Especially if it's your debut.

How do I know what I'm talking about? Well, maybe I don't. But here's a few questions I asked myself when it came time for me to make the decision. If you're considering putting a project aside, maybe they'll help you too:

1. Have you taken the story as far as you're capable of going for now?

As writers we're constantly growing and improving. But sometimes you reach a point with a book where your revisions are little more than reading through and changing a few sentences around, or nit-picking over word choices again. If you've reached the point where your story hasn't changed in six months and you're at a loss as to how to make it better, it might be time to put it aside for a while and work on something else.

2. Is the market saturated?

The book that I've shelved is the first book of an urban fantasy trilogy. Sound familiar? I finished the first draft in 2009 - and had a lot of agent interest over several months. Unfortunately, my writing wasn't as developed as my premise. And by the time my skill caught up with my ideas, the agents were starting to say things like "...I'm just weary of this genre..."

Now, I'm a pragmatist at heart. I know that urban fantasy is here to stay, and sometime in the future it might even be back in vogue. So putting my book aside doesn't mean it will never find an audience. It just means the timing isn't right right now.

3. Are there real problems with the story, characters or premise?

Can we put our pride aside for a moment and just admit that sometimes we get it wrong? Sometimes the story in our heads doesn't match what readers receive on the page. Or maybe a character that captures our hearts doesn't have the same draw for others? Maybe we got so caught up in what we loved that we can't see the flaws? Or maybe the book has been critiqued several time and the same feedback keeps coming - but it's changes we don't want to make.

Whatever the problem, sometimes we have to admit that a problem exists. Again, that doesn't mean the book will never see the light of day. But maybe it's time for it to sit in the shadows for a while so we can focus on something new. Because, as writers, we have to hone our skills. And sometimes in order to get better we have to move the goal-posts.

4. Are you hanging on to the story out of fear?

This might be the biggest question of the lot. It certainly kept me paralyzed for a while. If you've been pursuing publication for a book that you love for a long time, if you've invested months or years into characters you know better than you know yourself, or if the idea of starting something completely new when you weren't even successful this one makes you quake, you might be holding onto that project out of fear.

Consider this: Most published authors I know didn't get published with their first book. Sure, it happens. But not for the majority of authors. Like every other career, there are often steps on the ladder. For authors there are books under their belts (and in their drawers).

Not finding international success your first time out of the gate isn't failure. It's par for the course. Don't let that hold you back. What if your next book is the one? What if this project will be a success in three years, as your second release, or third?

What if by postponing starting on that new idea, you're actually postponing your own success?

Don't be afraid of the work to come. You've learned a lot by sticking with this book. Now, take those new skills and apply them to something else. You've had a lot of practice. The next one might not be easier to write - but it will be comparably better at the end of the first draft because you're a better writer.

Don't let fear hold you back.

5. Finally, do you need a break, rather than a farewell?

Sometimes none of the above problems exist. Sometimes it's just a matter of a story needing more time to percolate, or a writer growing weary of their own world.

If you find yourself dragging at the idea of heading back to the keyboard, or skimming your own work when you're revising, maybe the time has come not to give up, but to take a break.

Maybe what you need is a story vacation? Maybe it's time to explore a new world, safe in the knowledge that this one is ready and waiting for you to come back to it when the passion returns?

Regardless of what issues you face, the most important thing to remember at this point in your journey is that changing projects doesn't equal failure. Do you know that NYT Bestselling author, Beth Revis wrote ten books before she churned out Across the Universe?

Did you know that Lauren DeStefano wrote a book that garnered her a top agent, but the agent couldn't sell that first book? It wasn't until she started on a short-story that turned into a little dystopian novel called Wither that she became one of 2011's biggest success stories?

Conversely, do you know that it took John Grisham over five years to write and get an agent for A Time to Kill?

If you're a writer, you're a writer. Whether this book is your breakout novel or not, it's a step towards what you define as success. Don't be afraid to try something new. But also don't recoil from the hard work involved if it isn't time to put this one aside.

Because your next step might just be the next step.

Your Turn: Are you grappling with the idea of putting a project aside? What could help you make the decision one way or the other?


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are You Contradicting Yourself?

I recently read a guest blogpost from an indie publisher - someone clearly working at the front of the 'new' publishing frontier. Someone who had really interesting things to say about what a writer can and can't do on their own. Someone who encouraged writers to look outside the box, and reconsider what 'getting published' means.

Someone who stated outright that an agent was no longer necessary for publishing success in this day and age.

This publisher let loose some fairly radical ideas about the future of publishing and encouraged authors to contact them if they wanted to be a part of that.

This person answered a lot of comments on the blog post - most of which were dedicated to defending the insistence that authors no longer needed the traditional model of agent / editor / advertising. Frankly, I was impressed with the foresight - excited, even.

Given this particular publisher's success, I clicked on the links, wondering if they would work with agents anyway (maybe mine?). Only to find their submissions policy read:

"We are only accepting submissions from agents at this time."

(Insert eye-roll here).

I don't want to work with someone who presents themselves as moving forward in new and exciting directions, but turns out to be doing exactly what everyone else is doing. I'm guessing you don't either.

Once I got over the irony, I realized there was a lesson for all of us in this:

Be careful what you put out there. Be careful what you defend. Because the rules can change - or your opinions might.

But first and foremost, think carefully about what you say in social media. Are you contradicting yourself? Because, take it from me, if you do, it makes you look like a tool.

Your Turn: No question today because I'm busy scanning old blog posts for the ones I don't agree with anymore... #wink

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Next Big Thing

I have very kindly been tagged in this really interesting blog-hop by a lovely tweep named A. J. Bradley. You can find her blog here. The purpose of TNBT blog hop is to find out about an author's current WIP. Since I haven't really talked about mine much, I thought it might be fun. So, thanks for tagging me AJ! And... here goes:

1: What is the working title of your book?

Listen to Me. 

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?

I am a big fan of the website wherein authors write letters to their teenage selves.  Early last year I was reading it (again!) and observed how many of the letters began with something like "I know you aren't going to listen when I say this, but..." I realized that's exactly what I'd say if I was writing to my teenage self because I know she would have eagerly spoken with me - then dismissed everything I said and run off to do what she wanted anyway.

It got me thinking: What if a teenager really could talk to their adult self? How would that work? What would they say to each other? What would the dynamics of the relationship be? And, maybe most importantly, how would they change each other's lives? 

3: What genre does the book fall under?

Depending on what day it is, I've either decided it's YA contemporary with a time-twist, or YA magical realism. (I think my agent's going with the magical realism). 

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in the movie?

This is such a fun question. Don't we always think about this stuff when we're dreaming? I know I do. The problem is, I'm so busy writing these days, I don't really know a lot of the current actors. I'm always on the lookout for people who remind me of my characters, but I literally haven't found anyone who made me gasp and go, "That's Stacy!"

That said, the 18 year old Channing Tatum plays the hero (in my dreams). Or maybe a teenage Chris Helmsworth... *Sigh* 

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When Stacy Watson looks in the mirror she can see and talk to her adult self. But her adult self lies. A lot. And it could cost Stacy the love of her life.

6: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I'm really excited to be represented by Brittany Howard of the Corvisiero Literary Agency in New York. That's a fairly new development for me, so I still grin every time I get to say that. Brittany is currently working through edits with me, but we hope to be submitting later this year, or early next. 

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your MS?

The very first draft was written in two stints of about six weeks each, but the stints were four or five months apart. I then spent another nine months revising, getting critiqued, revising some more, etc. From the day I sat down and started writing, to the day I got offered representation was almost exactly eighteen months. 

8: What other books would you compare this to in your genre?

Hmmm... maybe The Future of Us by Jay Asher? 

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book? 

Listen to Me is the third manuscript I'd finished, and the fifth I'd started, so I had well and truly adopted the "Writer" moniker by that time. As for the story itself, I was inspired to write it because high school was really painful for me. It was both cathartic and freshly wounding to relive a lot of my experiences and use those feelings to fuel this story. I wanted to show teenagers that I really (truly) remembered that pain. But also give some hope that those wounds don't need to drive you forever.

At the end of the book, Stacy learns some of the lessons I learned in my twenties and early thirties (but of course, she's still young). I found it fun to let someone who is so real to me benefit from my experience - and hopefully avoid some of my mistakes.

In the end though, writing (for me) is all about the readers. If one young woman read this story and felt like someone else understood what she'd been through, I'd be ecstatic. If the story offered her hope that the pain of bullying and conditional love didn't have to be a burden for the rest of her life... I'd literally weep with joy.

10: What else about the book might make it pique the readers' interest?

There's a really hot make-out scene about halfway through.

Seriously, though, don't you wonder what it would have been like to talk to yourself now, when you were seventeen?

Your Turn: Let me know if there's any other questions you'd like me to answer about my book or the process of getting an agent. I'm in the mood to chat!

Well, that's it ladies and gents. If you read this far, thanks for sticking with me! I get to tag a couple fellow writers to let us into their WIP's, so keep an eye out for similar blog posts from Raewyn Hewitt over at Dreaming of Other Realms, and Katharine Amabel at Beyond the Hourglass Bridge 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Repeat After Me: I Shall Not Write "I Heard..."

There's  a writerly niggle I've encountered in a few of the novels I've purchased lately (and my own - but thankfully that's not available for public consumption yet), and it's driving me nuts:

I heard the sound of gravel crunching under Noah's boots as he meandered up the driveway....

Carl wondered what was going on when he saw a crowd gathering in the quad...

Dave smelled the aroma of Charlie's cookies rising from the hot oven. It made his mouth water.

Did you pick it yet?

Just in case the answer is no, consider these alternatives:

Gravel crunched under Noah's boots as he meandered up the driveway.

A crowd gathered in the quad. What was going on?

The tantalising aroma of fresh-baked cookies rose from Charlie's oven. Dave's mouth watered.

Not only does the second technique use fewer words, it places the reader much deeper in the focal character's point of view (and trust me, that's never a bad thing). The closer your reader can get to feeling like they see, hear, smell and touch anything the focal character is interacting with, the more compelling your read will be.

So, hark back to the title of this post and remember: every time you come across the phrase "I heard / saw / smelled / noticed..." or "Devon heard / saw / smelled / noticed..." eradicate it. Push the reader deeper. Don't tell them what the character is aware of. Let them hear, see, smell and notice through the character's eyes.


Your Turn: Why do you think we often fall into this kind of phrasing? How do you bring your reader deeper into your novel?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Common Manuscript Mistakes and the Writers Who Make Them

One of the advantages of critiquing a lot is that I get to see mistakes in other people's work that I know I'm guilty of. While self-editing is never as effective as being critiqued / edited by someone else, it's useful to have something specific to look for in my own work.

Earlier this year I was interviewed by Sharon M. Johnston of YAtopia and Downunder-Wonderings. She asked what the most common mistakes were that I saw in manuscripts I critiqued. Well, here's the unabridged version of the answer to that question. I hope it's helpful for you in your self-editing journey.

1. Wordiness

An inability to identify the most efficient way to phrase a sentence.

There are two aspects to this; the first is simply using too many words out of ignorance, or lack of revision. But the second is something that's easier to watch out for: Using complicated words, or flowery phrasing in the belief that it adds weight to your writing. 

Friends in my critique group call this "purple prose" and it can be as simple as 

"He was the single most perfect specimen of adolescent glory I'd ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on", 

or as complicated as  

"His kiss sent me into the stratosphere in paroxyms of ecstasy that erupted from the top of my head like the molten plasma of a volcanic eruption..."
Learning to phrase an idea efficiently, using an economy of words that are straightforward is a skill that has to be learned by most writers (certainly, by me -- it's something I'm still working on). As far as avoiding this, I think you need to be edited / critiqued by someone whose writing isn’t wordy – allow them to show you how to make your sentences more streamlined, your scenes more focused.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of writers confuse writing instruction with judgement of their creative talent. I say "unfortunately " because I really believe that learning the craft (in part through being critiqued by writers who are more skilled, or whose skill-set doesn't match my own) actually unleashes creativity. It equips me to better deliver the vision in my head.

2. Telling

Most novice writers "tell " because they don't know they're doing it.

Avoiding this is much harder until you can develop the analytical skill to identify it. But as a rule, you want to look for parity of words. In the short-term, showing often takes longer than telling (but because it paints a deeper world, in the long-term your novel will be shorter because things don't need to be explained). To figure out if you're telling on a surface level, take a look at a page of your own writing. Do your sentences conveying action use the five senses (i.e. smell, touch, sound), or are they statements of fact?

It's the difference between:

"Carl punched Adam in the nose." (Telling)


"The smack of flesh on flesh sickened my stomach as Carl hurled himself at Adam." (Showing)

Another form of telling I often encounter are moments when the author uses the protagonist or POV character to tell the reader what they want them to know about another character. The POV character will proceed to "tell" what's going on in another character's head, or interpret another character's body language.

Words that often crop up in these moments  are "as if ", "seem" in all its variations (seemed to, seemingly, seems), or the name of an emotion (I.e. “Something told me Carl was angry.”).

Writers need to learn to trust the reader to gather what's implied in dialogue and body-language. 

One note on this kind of telling: if you remove this from your manuscript and the reader can't follow what people are feeling / thinking, the problem is in your showing. So offer more body-language, physical sensation, etc, rather than adding narrative.

3. Implausibility

Of all the things I see in manuscripts, this is the one that bothers me the most (especially when I’m guilty of it, I might add). It ranges from unlikely dialogue right through to plot points that defy sense. The reality is you can do anything in a book. But there has to be a plausible foundation in the world-building, character motivations, and plot.

The most common implausibilities I encounter are:

1.      Vital information or item falls into protagonist’s lap via means they didn’t anticipate or fight for.

Literally: Previously unknown character shows up and says “You know how you need three acres of land before Saturday so you can throw those para-Olympics before little Johnny dies? Well, I have four acres, and you can use it.” 

Another version I see a lot in paranormal is a character suddenly "sensing" something the reader needs to know.

You have to get clever with these situations. More importantly, your protagonist has to get clever. They have to earn the answers, or discover the vital item(s) through intentional pursuit.

2.      Character One explains things to Character Two that Character Two already knows – but the reader doesn’t.

These conversations often start with something like “I know you know this…” or “I’ve already told you…”. The worst offenders have both characters explaining things they both know to each other, or finishing each other’s thoughts.

The only fix is to sprinkle pieces of information into the internal narration (or dialogue) as the book goes along. Don’t try to give the reader everything at once. And definitely don’t try to fill in backstory within the first 25-30 pages. Let the reader get hooked by the current action first.

3.      Character makes a decision not to ask a question, or not to follow a lead, or not to explore something which very obviously could provide answers to the story question.

I.e. Maddie has just learned she can heal wounds supernaturally. Johnnie mentions that his Grandmother told him stories about people who could do that when she was a child. Instead of asking to talk to the Grandmother, Maddie googles “healers”… Yet at the end of the book, it’s the Grandmother who has all the answers.

The trick is to put sensible obstacles in front of the protagonist that either force them to cut a conversation off before too much is revealed (if it’s vital to have some info given at that stage of the book), or stops them following up a lead they’ve been given. (In the above scenario, for example, they could visit the Grandmother who appears to be mental and a dead-end in terms of information. But they keep going back. And the author can foreshadow that Granny is tricking them, trying to keep herself safe from the people who’ll kill them all if they find out Maddie can heal and Grandma knows why…)

Alternatively, you can present competing priorities. If you can create two or more seemingly equally important tasks, then the protag is initially forced to follow one and not the other. The protag can choose to follow the lead that will only provide half the answers.

In all these cases, if you aren’t sure whether your book / writing / plot falls into implausibility, consider this: If someone reads it and you have to explain the motivation, it probably isn’t sensible. If there is an easier, or more likely solution available that is being ignored, it probably isn’t plausible. If you (the author) have to decide “The Character is just that way” to make a decision make sense… it doesn’t make sense.

Your Turn: Any questions? Are there any mistakes in your writing that you're aware of, but uncertain how to fix?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Margaret Atwood and a Slice of the Publishing Pie

Margaret Atwood is one of the publishing world's most enduring and respected authors. During this conference speech she outlines the evolution of publishing, what we're doing the same and what we're doing different from fifty years ago - and where it might be taking us.

Even though she gave this speech a year or two ago, it's frighteningly relevant.

Watch and learn my authorial friends. This is one of the most educational (and amusing) twenty minutes you'll ever dedicate to your burgeoning career.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Gimme a Sick Pass and Tell me Your Favorite Romantic Read

Today I am sick. Sicky sick. Like, not exiting my bed except for the necessities, sick.

While I'm in this state of NIL WRITING I'd love to read a really good, solid love story. YA is ideal, but I'll look at anything that's driven by two people falling in love for real.

Anyone? Anyone?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

If the Muse is Late for Work, Start Without Her

Doesn't it seem like when one thing goes wrong, it's the domino that knocks the rest to the floor? And if one thing goes right, it lifts everything else right up with it?

Well, this week I'm suffering from an Abundance of Good Things. I have critique work coming out of my ears, editing notes to get through for my agent (#beamingsmile), a son who's just too cute for words, and big, big plans coming to fruition for next year...

All of which means, very little time to blog. And yet... and yet...

Here I am. Why? Well, two reasons really:

1. You guys are awesome. All of the writing things going right just now have either been supported by, or cheered for by you guys. When I got to announce my new agent, I was genuinely touched by your response. The outpouring here and on twitter left me gobsmacked. I felt loved. So, far be it for me to turn around and say I'm too busy now.


2. Sometimes you just have to keep going, even when there's not enough time, and too many demands.

It's number two I want to focus on from here.

See that headline? It's a quote from some author's uncle. The uncle in question was an artist and he understood the creative mind. How easy it is to say "This is too hard! I'm just not inspired." So when his writer nephew approached him for advice, this is what he said.

"If the muse is late for work, start without her."

Self-explanatory, isn't it?

If you're sitting at the keyboard and the word aren't coming easy (and believe me, I know the feeling), just keep going. Start without the muse. Start with something that isn't your best work. Start with something that wouldn't see the light of day.

Because, the beauty of writing is, we can always make it better. But until we have words on a page, our dreams are nothing but ideas.

So... if the muse is late today, or if she's tired, or if she's being a back-biting cow... well, start without her. Maybe she'll come to the party, or maybe she won't. But either way, you'll be that many words closer to achieving your dream.

Your Turn: Do you have any sage advice (sticky-note wisdom? Inspiring quotes?) to keep us focused today? Share them here!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Characters: It's the Motivation that Counts

...My motto is, you can do anything in a book. And I mean that. YA fiction in particular has some incredibly inventive fantasy elements and plot twists. But if you really want to take the reader into a whole new world, or behind the curtain of a crazy sky, there's one thing you need: Realistic motivations.

Unfortunately, time and again, I come across manuscripts with amazing and thoughtful premises that are driven by plots with only the flimsiest of character motivations to support them. And I've realized there's a very common theme among them:

Click here to read the rest at YAtopia.