The Madness of March–CoronaLife Day 747

The weather here has been crazy. Nice and warm and spring-like, then BOOM! Snow squalls and below-freezing temperatures. Is it any wonder that I am having trouble finding my rhythm, when Mother Nature herself is out of sorts?

In spite of it all, this has been a fairly productive week. I have completed the interior file for the public version of my genealogy book. After cutting out the living people, it was 5 pages shorter.

Next, I will get the cover templates for the hard cover and the paperback, and create those. With only a 5 page differential, the cover template size may not change. If that is the case, I can use the same files I used for the family version. Either way, it is not much work.

Then, all that remains is to order the print proof and then have it go live once I approve it.

I also received the latest edits to my middle grade novel The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone from my co-author. We have been trying to find a home for this book for years, but it is not in a “hot genre” so it has been a hard road. We are going to try the traditional route once more after this clean up, and if we cannot get traction, we will self-publish. We believe deeply in this book, we want to get it out to the readers.

So getting to those edits is the next project after the genealogy book is done.

Speaking of genealogy, my mom’s DNA sample is “processing”. Fingers crossed our unorthodox method of collection doesn’t cause problems!

How is March wrapping up for you?

How to Cut a Book in Half: 3 Tips

No, I am not doing that magic trick where a magician cuts an assistant in half. I would never hurt a book that way! Seriously, though, I had a big problem with one of my middle grade books.

I have been working with 2 co-authors on a middle grade adventure book. When we started writing it together a few years ago, we were all new to the publishing track of writing. None of us had any book-length publishing experience, although a few short stories had seen the light of day. So we wrote this awesome book together.

The problem was that it was 96,000 words long.

For those who do not know, that is a very long book. Even had it been an adult book, it would have raised some flags, depending on genre. A middle grade book, though, is usually dialed in at 40,000-60,000 words (depending on genre). So you can see how far off we were. Why did we get it so wrong? We were new, and didn’t know any better. We made the mistake and that is how you learn.

Even at that length, though, we had several agents interested in it–even asking for fulls. So obviously there was something in the idea that they liked. A good sign.

Developmental editor Kathryn Craft worked on it for us, and gave us great tips, one of which was that it was way too long. So, we headed back to the drawing board.

We have cut that book from 96,000 words to 53,000 words. Right in the sweet spot.

How did we do it? Here are 3 tips:

1) We took out all the scenes that were not in our protagonist’s point of view (POV). We realized we didn’t need those scenes to tell the story, although we loved a lot of them.

2) We dialed back the subplots. We loved our subplots. They really added to the color of the story, especially since it is a historical novel. But they weren’t necessary to move the plot forward. So we cut them down (or cut them completely) and settled for hinting at the subplots rather than fleshing them out. Instead of whole scenes, we used a line or two here and there to hint that:

  • Sister works at Wanamaker’s and wants more than to be a housewife
  • Pharmacist sells illegal booze from their store (it is Prohibition)
  • Brother has PTSD from World War I, drinks and brawls
  • Professor at museum drinks and must hide it from the administrators

3) Replotted the first part of the book. The last part of the book, where the action ramped up, was good. We had a lot of feedback that at a certain scene the book took off and people couldn’t put it down. Clearly, we needed to get people to that point much faster. We went back and revisited the longer, fuller, and thus slower-moving first part. By removing subplots and non-protagonist POV scenes, we had a clearer idea of where the main plot needed to go. We found ways to hit the high points faster, and compressed the entire timeline of the book from almost 3 months to 6 days. Much better!

Of course, after replotting and streamlining the first part, it took a while to wrestle the second part into shape, to make sure everything was consistent and the voice didn’t change. But we did it!

So that’s how you cut a book in half: ruthlessly cut everything that is not integral to the story and then make what’s left move faster. Simple, right?

Have any of you needed to make such a major edit? How did you do it?

Adventures in Queryland

I’ve sent out 4 queries for my WIP. I’ve heard back from one, and am in limbo for the rest. The long wait times are not unexpected—I’ve been here before. It is funny, though, how jazzed I get when I first send queries out. I check my email every hour for the first couple of days. Then slowly the adrenaline fades and I check a couple of times a day.

I wrote a while back about patience being a writing virtue when it comes to revision. Patience is also needed once you reach the query stage. Sometimes it takes weeks for an agent to get to your query. And some agents have that no-response-no-interest that lengthens the silence into eternity. While I am not a fan of that, I do understand where they are coming from. I do wish that all agents would set up an auto-response confirming they got your query, though. As the silence stretches, I can’t help but wonder if my email missed the mark and is lost in the ether somewhere!

So I am back to patience again. I do intend to send out a few more queries this week, but then will likely wait a few weeks before sending out another round. And of course if I get no responses by November, I will probably suspend querying until January, since the holidays make things grind to almost a halt in the publishing world, as far as new acquisitions go.

I have heard over and over on various blogs and from successful authors that to make it in the traditional publishing world requires (aside from a great book) patience and perseverance. I think I’ve got the patience thing going on, and I don’t have any intention of giving up, so hopefully I’m good!

I already can hear some of my writing buddies wondering why I don’t just self-publish, and cut through the waiting. I have nothing against self-publishing, and fully expect to use it for certain projects in my career (particularly the genealogy books I am writing). But for my first book, and hopefully for the majority of them, I would like to have the backing of an agent and publisher. It’s just a personal preference—what I need to feel more secure when starting this new phase of my career.

So for right now I am waiting. But I am not idle. I am working on an outline for a sequel, and I have another middle grade in mid-revision right now. I am also returning to a YA paranormal that I feel is almost “there” but needs another look now that I have learned so much in revising my current WIP in submission. Because that is another piece of advice I have heard over and over:

Never. Stop. Writing.

It is the cure for over-active nerves while waiting to hear from agents.

Patience. It really is a writing virtue.

Using the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook

I’m currently about 2 revisions into one of my middle grade books. It’s about this time, when I know my characters and have worked out the kinks in my plot, that I turn to Donald MaassWriting the Breakout Novel Workbook. This is only the second time I have used it, and I am having a heck of a lot of fun with it!

The workbook forces me to look at my novel from different perspectives. It can help pinpoint problems I didn’t know you had, and point out my strengths as well. I thought I knew my characters well? Think again. Thought my plot was as strong as could be? Think again. Using the workbook is humbling, frustrating—and exciting!

It’s humbling because I find out how much about my novel I didn’t know. Because it shows me how much I have to learn about the craft of writing. I will admit that there are a few chapters where I simply do not know how to do what he is asking. I understand what he wants—I can clearly see it in the examples he uses. But I have no idea how to find appropriate moments in my own work, and even if I could locate them, I wouldn’t know how to do what he suggests. But I will learn.

Mostly, I find using the book exciting! It stirs the creative pot and sets it boiling. I start seeing the book with different eyes, and my brain begins making all sorts of new connections. I know immediately that most of the new ideas bubbling up are better than what I have, will strengthen what I have, and will elevate the end product.

So where’s the frustrating, you ask? I end up with SO MANY new ideas! Volume of ideas is not bad, mind you. It is precisely these new ideas that make using the book so exciting. The problem comes when I look at all the new ideas and contemplate putting them into practice. It’s not the doing that I find daunting—it’s finding the TIME for doing this major revision.

Like many writers, Time is a four-letter word for me. When I look at the amount of revising I will need to do on this book, I don’t see how I’m going to get it all done before my toddler graduates high school. I despair sometimes that I will be the first 90-year-old debut middle grade author in history.

But then I gather myself. I remind myself that even though I have 6 pages of typed notes and a copybook with even more hand written, all I need to do is focus on one change at a time. Do one thing at a time and eventually I will see the end of the road. I have done it before, I can do it now.

By cutting that daunting revision down to size, the despair lifts, and I am left with the excitement I started with. New ideas, new connections, new depth…

I can’t wait to dive in!

Do you use the Breakout Novel Workbook–or a similar book? Has it helped you?

Reading Your Work Cold

The Philadelphia Writer’s Conference is coming up in June. I’ve already registered to go, and am in the process of gathering the submissions for the critiques and contests. What’s been interesting is my reaction to reading the excerpts I am preparing to send.

Before I get to that, let me dump a little backstory in here.

I have a toddler. She takes up most of my time. For a while I tried to cycle my writing projects, trying to work on all of them at once. But that just made me feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything, because I never got to the end of anything. So I decided for the sake of my sanity to focus on one project at a time.

The project I have been working on is a middle grade dystopian steampunk mashup. It will come as no surprise that this is one of the works I am sending in to the conference. I have gathered notes from beta readers and crit partners, and reworked the first 2500 words thoroughly. Then I got more feedback from my crit partners and reworked it again. The opening is significantly better than it was, and I can’t wait to get to work on the rest of the book to bring it up to the same level.

The second excerpt I am sending in is a YA novel—I’m not sure if it would be called a fantasy or a paranormal for genre purposes. The girl’s got supernatural abilities (paranormal) but they come via her father, who is a Greek god (fantasy). So take your pick.

I haven’t worked on this story for many months, so I came to it with very fresh eyes. And I was pleasantly surprised—mostly because I had made changes to the story that I had forgotten I had made. The edits I had made definitely improved the story, and I found myself excited by it in a way I hadn’t been last time I worked on it.

We always hear the advice to put a work aside for a time and come back to it fresh. Usually, this advice is intended to allow you to see the errors and mistakes you’ve made. We rarely hear about the flip side of that coin: Coming to it fresh also allows you to see the strengths of what you have written.

My YA wasn’t perfect, by any means—my crit partners still had some suggestions. But it was so much stronger than what I had remembered having, that I found myself thinking, “This is good—almost like a professional wrote it.”

When I find myself thinking that, I know I’m on the right track.

So if you have the luxury of time, put your work aside before doing a final edit. And when you do come back to it fresh, don’t just focus on what’s wrong. Allow yourself to see and revel in what you’ve done well.

Enjoying those gems in your writing will energize you to bring your A-game to the final edit, and that passion will make your words shine.

Happy New Year 2012

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all had a fun holiday.

I’ve never been a big one for New Year’s Resolutions. I figure if I can’t stick to my resolutions at any other time of year, why would ones made on Jan 1 be any different?

I did make a resolution last year – to post at least once a week on this blog. And I am proud to say that I did it! I missed one week in November, but since I posted more than once several times in the year, I figure it evens out.

I’ve been reading a lot of other blogs about writing resolutions and goals for the new year. I think the best piece of advice I read was to only make goals that are completely within your control. For instance, having blog posts written and ready for each week was totally within my control. Having my blog appear in the Writer’s Digest Top 100 Best Blogs for Writers (it didn’t) is not in my control. By choosing goals where things are out of your control, you are setting yourself up for failure.

So I thought about my writing goals for 2012. I have two:

1. Write every day. No word count goal, because my daily writing time is unpredictable (something out of my control). But write something each day. A blog post, a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence. Something.

2. Polish my two middle grade WIPs and query agents. I can do that. Note that I didn’t say, “Get an agent.” That’s because whether the agents accept me or not isn’t something I can control. I can, however, research agents that are a good fit for me and query them.

Another thing several blogs suggested was sharing your goals, because once you tell someone else you have an accountability and will tend to work harder to achieve the goals you set. So I’m telling all of you!

What are your goals for 2012?

Writing During the Holiday Madness

I don’t know about you, but from Thanksgiving on my life has been a runaway train going downhill. I haven’t stopped for over a month. I feel like I haven’t breathed in about as long. An exhausting combination of travel, family obligations, illnesses, classes, and the requirements of survival have drained me. My gas tank is well below “E.” And yet, I’m still going.

So did my writing fare in this whirlwind? Did I even manage to get a single word written? I am pleased to say that yes, I did.

I did more than just eke out words, too—I was quite productive. I attribute this productivity to the fact that I am in between books. I finished a draft of one middle grade book and got it out to beta readers before the insanity began (which I had planned). The rest of this month was taken up with back-and-forth between my co-authors and me on the major revision to The Egyptian Enigma.

Mostly this consisted of new suggested timelines/outlines. Jim Kempner and I started with two separate outlines and the subsequent discussions (via email) slowly merged them into one outline that we felt contained the best of both. It helped that we were not that far apart on most major issues.

I would say that coming to an agreement on a completely new outline for our revision (and all the writing of those outlines to get there) is pretty productive.

Today we met face-to-face to hash out the details of things we had not been able to resolve online. We ended the 3-hour meeting with a finalized new outline—one that will cut some 30,000 words from the book, streamline the plot, and sharpen the focus.

Now we just have to implement it. We’re thinking of trying something new in our process. We’ll see how that works out. Working with three of us is an ongoing experiment to find the most efficient way to get from start to finish.

How did your holiday writing go? Or did you simply decide to take the holidays off?

Collaboration: The Meeting of the Minds

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my middle grade WIP, The Egyptian Enigma is the product of a collaboration with two totally awesome co-writers, James Kempner and Jeff Pero. You will also know that we just got incredibly detailed and spot-on notes from developmental editor Kathryn Craft on said WIP. So now we have massive revisions to do.

How do you do that with three people?

The revisions are fundamental in that we have to restructure the plot. That means adding scenes, re-envisioning existing scenes, and cut, cut, cutting what we already have. In essence, it means starting over.

I don’t mean totally, of course. There are many existing scenes we will be able to rework and salvage, and our characters will remain much as they are. But since the plot needs so much work, our process is starting over again.

We are having a meeting Dec 28 to discuss everything and get a new outline for the book. We have an agenda, because with 3 authors it is important to know what we will talk about so as not to waste time or run off on tangents. We know from experience that we can only work productively together for about 3 hours and then our focus collapses. So we have no time to lose. Thus the agenda.

To make our time even more efficient, we are all going to email each other our ideas for the new plot. We will do this a week before we meet, so we have time to read and react and absorb everyone’s ideas. Then we will discuss on the 28th and come to a final plot, a final outline. The hope is that the best of our ideas will come together and create some alchemical magic so we have a lean, strong, potent new outline.

Once we have that, I get to work. I will write the new first draft. Then it goes to Jim, who gives it to Jeff, who gives it back to me for a final voice revision.

Before all of that, though, there will be the meeting of the minds—and the synergy that comes with it.

The Premise in Fiction

I recently got my manuscript The Egyptian Enigma back from developmental editor Kathryn Craft. Her 20-page evaluation highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript. Luckily, much of it was good!

The main problem with the manuscript was that it lacked enough focus to really pull everything together. The plot wandered into odd places, and the characters didn’t always seem to have purpose behind their actions. As soon as I read this, I agreed—it was something that had bothered me but I couldn’t explain it.

Kathryn’s solution was 2-part:

1) clarify my protagonist’s goal so I could trim away the scenes that did not directly forward or obstruct his reaching that goal

I can do that!

2) stay true to the underlying premise of the book.

Excuse me, the what?

The Premise.

Now I’m in trouble, because I have no clue what that is.

Luckily, Kathryn is awesome, and she explains in great detail in her evaluation what a premise is and why it’s important: “A premise is kind of like a moral but not as didactic—it is your story’s raison d’etre. The structure of your premise will suggest story movement. That structure is typically:____________ leads to ___________.”

I have two co-authors whom I will have to talk to before crafting a final premise, but for the purposes of this post I will state the premise as: “Digging up information from the past leads to solutions for a better future.”

Having an underlying premise will help guide what plot points are needed to move the story forward. All plot points will show the protagonist “digging” into things, all of which will lead him into deeper trouble. But since we have a premise in place, we will be able to identify any scenes or plot points that are irrelevant and therefore can be cut.

Having an underlying premise also allows you to use your characters to deepen or to refute that premise, thus giving the characters more purpose and stronger arcs. My protag believes the past holds the key to a better future, and so digs at things perhaps best left buried. His brother believes that digging into the past is fruitless and painful and therefore should be avoided. You can also have characters with related premises, such as a woman digging into the past to try to understand and come to terms with her husband’s murder, or a girl digging in the past to gain the attention and favor of her mother in the present.

So having a strong underlying premise helps bring your plot into focus and helps you find new and deeper emotional roles for your supporting characters. A premise is, as Kathryn stated, a moral, but it is also a worldview held by the main character. This will shape the main character’s actions (and thus the plot) and bring him into conflict with people who do not hold the same worldview.

Now that we know what a premise is, and what the function is, my co-authors and I can hammer out a premise to act as the underpinning of our novel. Once we have that and our character’s goal, knowing what to cut or rearrange or rewrite should become much clearer.

Kathryn said that the character’s goal should be like a strung arrow pointing the way to the climactic ending.

If that is the case, then the premise is the bow holding the arrow up.

Revision: Stepping Up Your Writing Game

My two co-authors and I just sent The Egyptian Enigma out for critique. Both of them are hoping for a relatively clean return. I am hoping for a lot of red ink.

I hear you asking, “Are you nuts?” (And since I’m hearing your voice in my head asking it, then perhaps the answer is yes.)

Nobody can actually want to revise! Not this deep into the writing project. To have to wade through an entire novel again! To have to rewrite scenes and chapters. To have to rethink characters and motives. To have to do yet another storyboard.

I understand. To revisit, to rewrite, to revise, can be frustrating. Especially if the revisions are of the major variety. Revising can sometimes feel like starting at square one—for the third or fourth time.

But I find it exhilarating. Sure, I get to the same “Not again!” feeling every once in awhile, but I see revisions (especially of the major variety) as a challenge. It’s a chance to step up my game. To stretch myself as a writer. To find a new writing level inside I never knew was there.

It’s also a chance to get it right. Every writer knows what I’m talking about: That feeling that what you put on the page doesn’t reflect the intent or the vision in your head, even though it’s the best writing you can do. That feeling doesn’t go away (at least, it hasn’t for me). It just keeps shifting as you learn more about your craft. There’s always something you haven’t mastered yet.

I am an editor. And I fully agree that you cannot effectively edit your own work. But as a writer and editor, I have a good nose for when my writing isn’t quite cutting it. When I don’t feel that “click” when every aspect of the writing comes together the way it should, making the writing feel solid and seamless. However, I often don’t know why I feel that lack of solidity, or how to fix it.

That’s why I’m hoping for a lot of red from this reader. Because The Egyptian Enigma is a really good book—but I want it to be better. There is something missing that can take it from a good book to a great book, and I can’t figure out what it is. I’m hoping my reader can tell me.

I want to step up my game.

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