Confessions of a Conference Virgin: Day 3 of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference

Today was the final day of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. I started it off by getting lost on the way in, but I still made it on time.

I also found that a friend and colleague of mine, James S. Kempner, had taken 3 different prizes in the PWC contests—one a first prize! Congrats to Jim!

This morning kicked off with a 1-day workshop by author and editor Kathryn Craft, who enlightened us with 13 Tips and Tricks for better writing. I wanted to whip out my manuscript right there and start applying them—they are a sure way to improve your writing.

Then on to the final day of author Kelly Simmon’s Novel: Plot workshop. Her 7 Cs checklist gives a comprehensive yet manageable way to approach plot, particularly if you are not a natural outliner. I’m a partial outliner myself, and can easily see that incorporating her ideas will help me improve my novel before I ever write a word of it.

After lunch, author Gregory Frost wrapped up his advice on Novel: Character. After a review of simplex, complex, and multiplex characters, we created a character from scratch. While we rendered a rather hilarious persona and the ghost that haunts him, the exercise showed us the basic steps to creating a multi-dimensional character with enough room to grow throughout your novel.

In the YA workshop with author Catherine Stine, she spoke about how to find agents and editors, and shared some of her experiences with agents. We also practiced our 3-sentence elevator pitches and discussed the competing yet very similar merits of writing programs Scrivener (about $50) versus yWriter (free).

My mind was far too fried to stay for the closing panel, but I’m certain it will be as informative as the rest of the conference. I’m thinking I should book my reservations for next year!

The Best Laid Plans

In an earlier post about juggling multiple projects, I said the switching back and forth every other day between two stories was working for me.

Not so much anymore.

I’ve put the middle grade on the back burner and have focused on the YA fantasy for the past week. I tried to figure out what it was that disrupted my lovely balancing act. Part of the reason is that I have always preferred focusing on a single project to completion before starting another—that allows me to immerse myself in the details of the project in a visceral way. I can live, breathe, and dream it.

The other part, the “craft” part, is that I am in two very different stages in the manuscripts. In the middle grade, I am writing what is essentially a heavily revised first draft. The YA is in its fourth major revision, and is getting close to being query-ready. So while I needed to plot, character, and write from scratch in one manuscript, in the other I needed to search for –ing words and other grammar issues, as well as incorporate the latest feedback from my wonderful beta readers.

Of course, I certainly could have chosen to continue bouncing between the two. I have often juggled more than one project in my video editing life and created products the clients loved. But, because I did not have deadlines to meet, I chose to focus on a single project to completion, especially since “changing gears” between those two very different skill sets seemed inefficient. Since I have less than 3 hours a day to write, the time it took to get “into the groove” of each mindset felt like lost time to me.

The final deciding factor, though, was the closeness of the finish line. As I reached the last 25% of the YA revision, I could smell the end of the book. I could see the words “The End” emblazoned on the horizon. I wanted to get there, gain that feeling of accomplishment, revel in the knowledge that the manuscript was one step closer to being query-ready.

People reward themselves in different ways when they reach their writing goals. Some put money in a jar, to be used for fun when the project is fully complete. That doesn’t work for me. Some people give themselves “me” time. Well, I have an 18-month-old—all my “me” time is taken up with writing.

So how do I reward myself? It might sound completely pretentious, but my reward really is the exhilaration I feel when I accomplish my goal. I actually get giddy. It is a moment when I have proven to myself that I can do what I set out to do. It lifts my spirits and gives me confidence that I can do it again—and again. As often as needed. That soaring moment when I can’t wipe the smile off my face and my eyes feel like they are literally sparkling is all the reward I need.

Juggling

Life is all about juggling, right? We’re always prioritizing something because our to-do lists never seem to get any shorter. We also have to juggle because so many things on our to-do lists require input from other people—and other people are not always as on top of things as we’d like them to be.

So I, like all of you, am juggling. I’ve got my 18-month-old daughter’s needs. I’m buying a house, so I’m neck-deep in the needed inspections and paperwork. I do have a husband, too, although sometimes he’s hard to see through the piles of diapers and mortgage paperwork. There are, of course, the hundreds of things that crop up that can’t be scheduled—like the air conditioning going on the fritz. And amid all that, there is my writing.

My writing time is precious (about 2 hours a day). In that time I not only have to write, but I have to keep up with the social networking that is so crucial for every author today. I read blogs (and write them!), as well as check in with Facebook and Twitter. So even within my slice-of-heaven writing time, I must prioritize.

As far as the actual writing goes, I am juggling two projects. They are both novels in the later draft stages. One is a middle grade that is undergoing a seismic shift into a different genre. The other is a YA fantasy that is in the middle of a post-beta-reader revision. Two very different projects that have the same deadline—December.

As an unpublished writer, I have the luxury of being able to work on what I want when I want. But as a serious writer, I know that giving myself deadlines and sticking to them is necessary to get ahead in my career. I wondered how best to break up my week between the two books—in chunks such as 3 days in a row each or alternating days.

I chose to alternate days. I think springing back and forth between the two plots and the two genres will help keep my mind nimble and my enthusiasm fresh. And it allows me to always have a feeling of forward progress on both projects. So far, it is working for me.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you juggle multiple projects?

Machetes vs. Machinists: Reaching word count

I never liked math, which is one reason I decided against becoming a scientist (always loved astronomy). I went into writing because you don’t need math, right? Wrong! Who knew how often numbers would come into play?

The business side of things obviously contains a lot of math. Like figuring out percentages in contracts or how many books you need to sell to earn out your advance. Or how far you can stretch your money in a publicity campaign. Or how many conferences or workshops you can go to in a year. Or if you can pay your babysitter in Monopoly money.

I never realized how many times numbers can figure in the actual writing of the book, though. I mean, it’s words, right? But the devil is in the details, and one of the biggest details authors need to be cognizant of is word count. You know—a number.

Every genre has its own word count range, and authors would do well to try and follow them. If the author becomes the next J. K. Rowling, then word count goes out the window, but an aspiring author had better treat that number as if it is set in stone.

How do you make sure you reach that magic number? I have found two ways of approaching it. One, you write without counting and then edit down, like using a machete to cut your way through the jungle. Two, you control precisely how long each chapter is as you go along, with very little editing needed on the back end, like a meticulous watchmaker.

Personally, I am a practitioner of formula one. I write my first draft with no thought to word count at all. Which is fine because my first drafts are usually written short—I tend to leave out a lot of description and depth. My second draft is where my manuscript packs on pounds. I elaborate on everything that needs depth and color and description, and my word count balloons. It is only in the third draft that I start working on word count, trying to trim and rearrange and streamline things. Normally, I have no trouble getting down to my word count.

Those who follow formula two are something of a mystery to me. I see them post things on Facebook like, “I’m 1,000 words from my end!” How on Earth do they know how many words away they are? Chapters I could understand, but words? I suspect these writers have a very precise outline they follow, which would help them figure out words per chapter, etc. If any reader out there can elaborate on this technique, feel free to share!

So which are you? A machete-wielder or a precision machinist?

Revision Paralysis

I love getting feedback on my work. I am no longer thin-skinned about it—in fact, it is one of my favorite stages of developing a novel. I want to know what worked, what didn’t and where I need to improve. I am an author who thrives on the creative synergy of back-and-forth with ideas and feedback. It’s a good thing.

 

You can have too much of a good thing.

 

I have recently gotten all my beta reader feedback from my latest WIP, The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas. The feedback is strongly favorable, but there are areas in the book I need to improve. I skimmed the feedback eagerly as soon as I got it—and it has been sitting there ever since.

 

I’d like to blame my procrastination on my 7-month-old daughter’s constant demands on my time. I’d like to blame it on the fact that every two weeks or so I am shuttling myself, my daughter and a carload of baby paraphernalia back and forth between New Jersey and Virginia (with side trips to Pennsylvania). I’d like to blame it on my other writing obligations, such as the complete revision of my middle grade novel The Egyptian Enigma and thinking up topics for this blog. But none of that is the real reason I haven’t gotten to the revisions of Oracle.

 

The real reason is that I suffer from revision paralysis.

 

I have so much feedback, so many things to revise, that it is overwhelming. Even worse, changing one thing often means changing another that wasn’t even on the list to start with. At first, I didn’t even have a list—just heaps of feedback scattered across multiple computer files. I took the first step and organized everything into a single file of feedback, dividing it into categories: Character, Plot, Setting, etc. I accomplished this in short order, and basked in the warm glow de-cluttering always brings.

 

But I still haven’t revised, because now instead of overwhelming heaps of feedback, I have a single overwhelming list of feedback.

 

The cure for my revision paralysis is near; I can feel it. The feedback, its implications, and ways to fix things are rattling around in my brain, simmering and surging. I am almost to the point where my creativity overflows and I must write things down. When I get there, I will turn to my revision file, take a deep breath, and dive in.

 

And once in, I will find, as I always do, that the water is fine and I love the challenge and satisfaction revision brings!

 

Do you suffer from revision paralysis? What’s your cure for it?

Conflicting Feedback

First readers and beta readers are awesome; let’s just get that out there right away. Having readers whose opinion you respect, and who have a sharp eye/ear/nose for writing is a boon to any writer. No writer can do without such people, and I, for one, relish their feedback.

 

That said, readers can also make you crazy.

 

There are occasions when two readers’ opinions clash. For example, two of my readers for The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas, gave me the following feedback:

 

1 – “Gram is thoroughly one-dimensional…and is utterly unsympathetic.”

 

2 – “Gram was unpredictable, and I liked her a lot.”

 

Hmmm. What’s a writer to do?

 

The easy thing, of course, would be to go with the opinion that you like best—the one that means you don’t have to go back and revise Gram’s character. However, a good writer needs to be honest, to go back and look at the character and see if there is validity to the first statement. Gritting your teeth and reading with an open mind is always necessary when you get conflicting feedback. After all, the reason you want others to read the story is precisely because they will see things you don’t – things you are too close to see. Dismissing their opinions when they are unfavorable is counterproductive to making your novel the best it can be.

 

This example also shows another truth that all writers must deal with—you cannot please everyone. Readers bring their own baggage, their own prism to the page every time they read. They will read things into the story that you did not intend. Their minds fill in the chinks with what they know, what they have lived, and what they have experienced. That is the magic of reading—the same book will be a unique experience for each reader.

 

Knowing this, writers cannot write to satisfy everybody. In the end, writers must be true to the story, to the character, and to their own vision. Feedback helps hone this vision and to open dimensions of the story you didn’t see yourself. But the bottom line is your gut, telling you what is right for your book.

 

So, what am I going to do about Gram? I have to read the manuscript and see, but I suspect there will be some “rounding” to be done for her character.

 

Thanks to all my readers for their valuable feedback! 

Triple Vision

Now that we knew we needed to re-storyboard, how do you proceed with three authors?

 

Since it was my idea to re-storyboard, I got the assignment of writing the new storyboard for The Egyptian Enigma, our middle grade adventure novel. After I sent it over to my two co-authors, they looked it over and made notes. Then, we had a meeting to discuss everything. While email is a godsend, and imperative when working with others these days, we have found that we are much more efficient and creative when we are all in the same room.

 

My co-authors and I hammered out the details of the new storyboard, until we were all happy with it. Having three authors can be difficult at times, because speed is nearly impossible. When you are a solo author, decisions are quick – you make it and run with it. With three, everything needs discussion. And although that does not lend itself to speed, it has its advantages. Three people see three different angles. Together they see things a single author could not see. This gives the work a variety, depth, and nuance that might otherwise not exist. So having all of us discuss the storyboard was vital. They raised questions I never thought of, and working through them made the resulting storyboard stronger.

 

When you have three authors, the question of how to divide the work never ends. In our group, the pattern usually is that we decide on a course of action together, then I develop the first drafts of whatever we need, and then we polish them together. I don’t know why that is – perhaps because this was my story idea to start with, so I am the de facto primary. Whatever the reason, once we had a storyboard we all liked, I got to work revising.

 

It took a while, what with a 6-month-old in the house, a trip to Arizona, and shuttling between our house in Jersey and our temporary home in Virginia every couple of weeks. But I finished the revision, and was very happy with the results. We cut 10,000 words from the story, all from the first half of the book, and got to the rockin’ second half much faster. We also had agreed to shorten the chapters, and that resulted in a shift from 52 chapters to 96. It reads much faster and smoother.

 

We’re still not done, of course. The other authors need to read what I have done and add their expertise to it. And we have many other revisions to work through – character is up next. Stay tuned for further Tri-vision adventures!

Re-vision Comes Clear

Okay, so if you read my previous post, then you’ll know that I’ve been thinking that The Egyptian Enigma, my middle grade novel, needs some revision. Trouble was, none of the agents that turned it down gave specific enough information to know what it was that wasn’t quite passing muster. But my co-authors and I had to do something, because what we had wasn’t working.

 

Now, I have a good nose for when something’s not right in a manuscript. I can feel it. However, that doesn’t always translate into knowing how to fix it. As an editor, I can usually fix other people’s books, but sometimes the problems in my own elude me. I know they’re there, but I can’t see them without a helpful reader comment or critique.

 

Lacking such precise feedback, I put my trouble-shooting brain to work. It didn’t seem to be the writing itself, which was good news. And it wasn’t the concept – obviously, if multiple agents wanted to read it, there was something to the concept. So what was it? Two tiny clues came together in my head to give me the answer.

 

One clue came from an agent, who said he loved the idea, but the first chapters didn’t grab him like he had hoped they would. Normally, this comment might not have been a smoking gun, because it is only one person’s opinion, and someone else could have a completely different view. But it resonated with me, because of one comment we heard repeatedly from our beta readers – “Once the break-in happened, I couldn’t put it down.”

 

That was the key – to make the first half as page-turning as the second half. After all, if we didn’t grab the reader at the beginning, they wouldn’t read long enough to get to the rockin’ second half. So we had to make the adventure start sooner, bring it to the front. Maybe pare down the family scenes, the character-building scenes. Or find a way to integrate them more deeply into the adventure portion.

 

In other words, we had to re-storyboard the first half of the book.

 

Up next: The revision process with 3 authors.

Re-Visioning In The Dark

I’ve been shopping my middle grade novel, The Egyptian Enigma, for a while now. It’s a good novel, a lot of fun, but I’ve had no representation on it yet. Why? The blasted economy is part of it, of course. And my query letter could have been better, and now is. Even with those problems against me, I have been lucky enough to have a handful of agents request partials and fulls. Alas, no bites.

 

The rejections don’t bother me. They are part of the business, and I certainly would not want an agent repping my book who was not whole-heartedly enthusiastic about it. So when the agents came back with, “It’s just not right for me.”, I was fine with that. Disappointed, but not upset.

 

What made it tricky, for me, was the lack of any productive feedback from those agents who had read the book. I know they are hard-pressed for time, but having taken the time to read the book, I had been hoping for at least a sentence of advice on how to improve it.

 

You see, I am no literary genius.

 

I don’t suffer from the delusion that what I write is immutable and perfect. I know I have learned much about my craft, but still have much to learn about it. I am eager for feedback, revel in productive criticism. Unlike some of my fellow writers, I actually enjoy revision. And I have come to the conclusion that this novel needs revision—something is not grabbing the agents who have read it. Unfortunately, none of the agents has given me any indication what that “something” might be.

 

So I am re-visioning in the dark.

 

When you know something needs changed, but not what, how do you proceed? I have realized the futility of continuing to send the manuscript in its current form out there—there is a fatal flaw somewhere in it. I must fix it. But how can you fix something if you don’t know what’s broken? For a long time, paralyzed by the uncertainty of how to proceed, I did nothing—just continued to send the manuscript out over and over, hoping for a different result.

 

Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

 

Coming Up: How I found the clues to the fix, and fixed it

My Writing Process, Part 2

After Donna died, I went through a painful process of rebuilding. Aside from the emotional devastation of losing a best friend at age 32, I had to learn a new skill—writing alone. For a while, I wasn’t aware of how daunting a task that would be.

I was in grad school at the time, so all of my writing was vetted by teachers or other students. Even though it wasn’t the same process as with Donna, it wasn’t much different. Even my final Master’s thesis, a story about Donna’s death, was intensively overseen by my thesis advisor. It wasn’t until I graduated grad school that I became aware of the gaping hole in my creative life.

Suddenly, the aching aloneness of my post-Donna life smacked me in the face. Whenever I contemplated writing, I froze. I couldn’t even think of how to get started. Every writing project seemed a dark, craggy canyon, full of shadows and perils. Who would catch me if I fell off a sudden precipice? Who could guide me through the darkest gullies? Who would help me climb over the rockslides in my way?

Me. Only me. Except that I didn’t know how.

All I could do was do it. So I wrote and revised and struggled and wondered if what I was writing was any good at all. I can’t tell you how many times I almost picked up the phone, or opened my email to ask Donna’s advice. Every time the impulse to talk to her grabbed me, it was a fresh thud in the gut over her death. But I pressed on, because writing is like my heartbeat—I can’t stop it. So I finally finished my first truly solo endeavor and then thought, “Now what?”

I needed feedback. Every author does, at some point, and I didn’t have it anymore. My grad school advisor pointed me to a writing group in Doylestown, PA. The location shook me a little—Donna had lived in Doylestown. Perhaps she guided me there, because it was like coming home. Sharing my passion with other enthusiastic writers broke my isolation and revved my creativity. I have been part of the writing community in Doylestown ever since, and I look forward to many more years of feedback, encouragement and camaraderie.

Even now, six years on from losing Donna, my new writing process is evolving. I still like a lot of feedback, and I still am very comfortable in collaborative projects. The middle grade novel I am currently shopping, The Egyptian Enigma, is a collaboration with two other authors. I also know I ask people to read and give me feedback on very early drafts of my other works, probably much earlier than most writers do. I am, however, becoming more confident in my own decisions, my own instincts, and my own writing.

I have never found another writing buddy who fills Donna’s role. For a long time, that frustrated me. I searched for someone to fit into that gaping wound, and it is a futile search. I can no more find a perfect match for my writing partner than I can for the best friend I lost. But I’m okay with that now. I have grown past needing that symbiotic relationship.

I have evolved, my writing process has evolved, and my writing is miles beyond what Donna and I ever accomplished together. But sometimes, in moments of need, I find myself asking the golden question: What would Donna do?

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