Book recommendation

I don’t write book reviews — I’m not a fast reader — but when I find a book that I really love, I like to write it. Today’s book recommendation is for Gayle Forman‘s young adult novel If I Stay.

If I Stay book coverI discovered this book when Gayle was a speaker at the Teen Book Con in Houston last year. When I go to writers’ events, I try to support the industry by buying a few of the speakers’ books, and If I Stay was one of the novels I picked up that day.

The book’s premise intrigued me immediately: After being in a car accident with her parents and young brother, a teenager falls into a coma. But her spirit stands outside her body, and as she watches her family, friends, doctors and nurses try to keep her alive, she considers if it’s worth it.

You could say I’m drawn to the dark, and this book was no exception.

But what also touched me was the way Gayle talked about it. She said that when we’re writing, we shouldn’t worry about the market or whether a book will sell when we’re done. We should follow our heart and write the story we want to tell. That’s what she did with this novel, putting her whole heart into the writing, and that’s what made me want to read it.

If I Stay pulled me in from the first few pages, and I couldn’t put it down. I finished the book in less than a week, which is fast for me — the only time I get to read is while I’m brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.

It’s a touching and beautifully written novel that has a lot of heart.

I highly recommend it.

What book did you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Write On!

Writing a great query letter and synopsis

Manuscript update: I miss it! I miss working on my story. But I got another book idea yesterday, so that’s exciting. I’m trying to refrain from running off into another book just yet, though, as I’ve still got the query letter and synopsis for my current book to perfect.

Please note in the sentence above that I didn’t say I had to “write” or “finish” or “compose” the synopsis and query letter; I said I had to “perfect” it.

The query letter is the first impression an agent and/or editor is going to have of you and your writing. It’s the key to the first gate — for want of a better word — to get through, and it better be perfect because it has to shine through a lot of others. As an example, in the week of Jan. 22, agent Jennifer Jackson read 108 queries and from those, requested 1. That’s right, you read it correctly, there’s no typo. Jennifer requested only 1 manuscript out of 108 query letters. To be that 1 that gets a request, your query letter has to be perfect.

As for the synopsis, not every agent requests one, but for those that do, it can represent the key to the second gate. The synopsis tells the agent that you can write a coherent story that flows and has all the necessary elements to make your book a bestseller. It must show that flow, the plot twists, but also, it must give the agent a taste of the characters and emotion of the story. It should be exciting enough for the agent to want to read the full manuscript — even though he/she already knows the ending.

So, that’s my task right now, to perfect my query letter and synopsis. It’s not as much fun as writing my book or even as revising my book, but it’s necessary and can make the difference between a yes and a no.

What are you working on?

Write On!

Voice

Revision update: Got through two chapters yesterday and one and a half today. I’m really hoping to get the whole book done by the end of the year, but … hmmm, not sure. We’ll see. My husband said he’d read the book this weekend, which hopefully will give me a boost in my revision. He’ll be the first other person to read the whole thing. It’ll be nice to see how it plays out.

I’m reading Ingrid Law‘s Savvy right now, and it strikes me that this is a great example of a strong, fresh voice.

Voice is one of those weird things to identify. When I first started researching writing novels and going to conferences, I heard about “voice” all the time, but the explanations didn’t really pinpoint exactly what this quality was. Voice always seemed to be this vague thing my writing was supposed to have, something that was strong and fresh, but what was it?

Finally, in a conference I attended a few years ago, I heard an explanation I could understand: Voice is the way YOU write, the words YOU choose and how YOU use them in a sentence. It’s basically, your style of writing.

For beginning writers, their style often mimics their favorite writers or the writers of the novels they’re reading at the moment. But over time, with practice, writers develop their own style that’s unique to them. Some write in a subtle way, others big and bold, some rhythmic, others slam you across the face.

From the first page of Law’s Savvy, I was slapped in the face with her style. She writes first person, so you could say the voice is the voice of the character. Either way, it’s bold, flowery and beautiful. The story is fun, but more fun is Law’s language. Here’s a taste:

When Grandpa wasn’t a grandpa and was just instead a small-fry, hobbledehoy boy blowing out thirteen dripping candles on a lopsided cake…

And another:

The itch and scritch of birthday buzz was about all I was feeling on the Thursday before the Friday before the Saturday I turned thirteen.

Brilliant, huh? Can’t you see the voice oozing out of these word choices?

Now, of course, voice is absolutely personal, so you shouldn’t try to immitate Law’s style. Like any art, often our style is influenced by others, but after a while, it’s ours.

Whatever our style is, subtle or brash, it should be solid, come across strong as our style and no one else’s. I don’t think it’s something you can manufacture; it’s you.

What are your favorite examples of voice?

Write On!

Revising takes patience

Revision update: Finally on chapter 9.

Ok, so you know how I keep saying I’ve figured out what I needed to do to fix the problems I was having with my first eight chapters? Well, something was still nagging at me. We were still taking too long to get into the real meat of the story. There’s a scene that I liked and it had a purpose in the story, but it was one more chapter getting in the way of starting the real story. Ah well, I figured. At least it’s interesting, but that nagging feeling was still there.

After exhausting all my options, I was satisfied with my first eight chapters and decided to move on. The next part is where the meat starts, so I had just been working on the initial chapters in a lump before.

At 3:30 Saturday morning, I was trying to lull myself into sleep with a re-run of Baby Boom and some hot chocolate and I decided to look over the next set of pages I was going to tackle, chapter 9. And there, in my sleepless haze, I found my solution — again — I think.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve come up with the solution for this same problem, and although I think it’s the best idea so far, I’m not kidding myself by thinking it will be the final rewrite.

Revision takes a lot of patience. I’ve talked about Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision Method on this blog a lot, and when I started revising this book, I decided to try it, but the further I get along, the more I’m convinced that revising in only one pass takes a LOT of experience. You have to have quite a few books and revisions behind you, like Holly has, to really be able to fix all the issues in one go. I think I have that instinct for when something’s not quite working as best as it could, but it takes me a little longer to figure out what I can do to make it work the best.

But no matter how many revisions a book takes to get it in tip-top shape, it’s worth it. Maybe I should have insomnia more often. 🙂

How are you with revising?

Write On!

Goals and themes

Done today: nothing so far

Revision remaining: 46,313 words (entire book)

Daily words needed to be finished by end of November: 908

I’ve been feeling very unmotivated lately since our dog passed away, and I’m trying to snap out of it. But I’ve pretty much done nothing on my revision since I last posted on Day By Day Writer, and I was ashamed to see that was last Tuesday. I’ll just have to do better this week.

One thing I have been doing is thinking. As I mentioned on Tuesday, I’m trying out Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Manuscript Revision method. To start off, she suggests you write down your book’s theme among other things. This should be quite simple, but it stumped me.

The thing is, when I start writing, I don’t have a theme in mind. Both of the books I’ve written — and just about all the story ideas I have for future books — are plot-driven. Something happens that launches a character on an adventure. When I get the idea, it comes to me more as a “Hey, this could be fun,” rather than, “this situation could illustrate this theme.” In working with Holly’s revision method, I came up with a theme for this book, but it’s more of an afterthought and wasn’t something that drove the creation of the story. The story just came out that way.

This idea of needing a theme got me thinking about other things I’ve read about writing, about how the character should have a goal at the beginning of the book that he/she solves by the end. I’ve read so many guidebooks that say the key to a good story is creating a character with a goal then putting him/her in situations where it’s difficult to attain that goal. Sounds good, but for my plot-driven stories, that’s not how it goes. My protagonists have goals at the beginning of the book, but then something happens (the part that launches them into an adventure) and their goals change, then something else happens in the adventure and their goals change again. They’re constantly finding new goals, and they couldn’t possibly have had these goals at the beginning of the book because at that time they hadn’t been accidentally transported to a different planet, or whatever the situation is. Their goals become more of the how to get out of this situation kind, and they couldn’t have had that goal before the situation happened.

All this thinking gives me pause. Am I doing it right? Am I missing something important? Am I over-thinking things? I think about the books I read, which tend to be similar to the kinds of stories I write, and I see the same patterns in the plot-driven ones as in mine. Take the Percy Jackson series, for example, his goal at the beginning of the first book is to just get through a year of school without being expelled, but when he finds out he’s a demi-god, his goals change. He retains that same goal from the beginning throughout the series, even if it takes on new meaning after his world changes, but that goal isn’t what the story is about.

And that’s how it is with my books. My characters have goals at the beginning, and by the end of the book, those goals might or might not change, but that’s not the crux of the story, because the story is about the adventure, and the characters’ initial goals change or don’t change because of the way the adventure changes the character’s outlook on life or his/her world. And in between, during the adventure, the characters formulate new goals that are about getting through the adventure.

Hmmm, I think I’m starting to figure it out as I write this.

What do you think? Do you write with goals and theme in mind? Does the goal or theme come first or the story come first?

Write On!

Getting creative

Current word count: 21,859

New words written: 966

Words til goal: 18,141 / 422 words a day til the end of September

Another good writing morning. Yay!

I’m at a strange part of my story for me. My characters have moved to a different world, and I haven’t created a different world before, so it has been intimidating but fun. I keep reminding myself that if it doesn’t work for any reason, that’s what revisions are for.

My words written each day has been over my goal in only about an hour or two, which means that my fingers are pretty much not stopping as soon as I hit the computer in the morning. To do that, I’ve got to know somewhat where the story is going. So preparation is key. How can I get that preparation when I only just woke up minutes before? Being fully engrossed in my story all the time.

For busy writers, whether they’re busy writing or busy with the rest of the things in their life, tapping into creativity whenever you sit at your computer can be daunting, and difficult, but it’s a must.

If being a writer full time is our goal — being a published writer — we can’t sit around waiting for the muse to whisper sweet plot lines into our ears. When we’ve got publishing deals signed, we’re going to have to deal with deadlines and make sure we meet them (Check out what Editorial Ass said recently about Making Your Delivery Date). And to make those deadlines, we won’t be able to wait for the muse.

Being creative when you’re tired from your day-job and you’ve got bills to pay and a family to feed and laundry to do, etc., can be difficult. To make sure that creativity is there, on call, ready to be tapped into whenever you need it, make sure you’re fully engrossed in your story ALL THE TIME; not just when you sit in front of your computer, but all the time.

Some of my most creative ideas have come not while I was writing, but while I was doing something mundane in my life. That’s the time when my mind can wander back to my novel and explore, even though I’m not actively writing at that time.

Driving: I’m not advocating not paying attention on the road, but driving is one of those activities that, as long as you’re being mindful of the other cars, you can allow your mind to think about other things too. Next time you’re driving around, between work and home, the grocery store, kids school, turn off the radio and bring your story into your head. Let the characters play around in there and watch. If something interesting happens, make sure you write it down so you won’t forgot — but after you’ve parked the car, of course.

Walking: Exercise is necessary to keep up your energy, and if you’ve got a dog, it’s necessary for the dog too. But your walking time can give you a few minutes to mull over your story as well. I also use my walk the dog time to read, which is an excellent way of increasing your writing skills, but you have to make sure you don’t trip.

Showering: Another mundane but necessary action. While your brain’s on soaping up autopilot, allow it to also consider what your characters are doing.

Cooking: Turn off the TV in the background, and while you stir your sauce, let your brain wander back to your book.

The more you find ways of bringing your story into your head when you’re not at your computer, the better prepared you’ll be when your fingers hit the keyboard.

When do you get your best ideas?

Write On!

Writing creates writing

Current word count: 19,901

New words written: 1,067

Words til goal: 20,099 / 436 words a day til the end of September

I had a good writing day and made my weekend goal in one day. Yay! Hopefully I can do the same tomorrow. We’ll see. The story is coming together again now that the characters are clearer. It makes such a difference.

But I’ve noticed two interesting things:

1. Although this novel is steaming along, I must admit, as I get closer to the third act, I am nervous I’ll mess it up. I felt the same way when I was writing my first novel, intimidated by the ending. There’s a voice deep at the back of my head that says, Ok, so you’ve been doing all right up to now, but there’s no way you’re going to write a really great ending, the kind readers will remember and cherish and want to read over and over again.

I’m ignoring this voice, keeping it far away. But it’s there. And I every time I write, I think, just see what the characters are doing today. Of course, my subconcious knows that with every word I write, I’m closer to that intimidating ending. I just won’t think about that.

Do you have this problem?

2. Last week, I had an idea for a new novel, and added it to my list of ideas. But it keeps creeping in. The characters are waving at me, not too close, but they’re there. The idea keeps popping into my head, and expanding. It’s as though my brain is on a creative streak, and I think it’s mostly due to the continued writing. I think writing creates more writing. When I started writing my second novel, it gave me a creative boost that helped me go back and revise my first novel — for the better, I think. Writing creates writing.

I’m beginning to feel addicted. 🙂

Do you?

Write On!

Getting to know your characters

Current word count: 18,262

Words written today: 267

Words til goal: 21,738 / 444 words a day til the end of September

No kick up the you-know-whats for me. I knuckled down and got back to the first draft I’ve been working on. My daily word goal has risen because of my break, but I really want to keep to that end-of-September finish, so I’m going to try to stick with this.

I realized that something was bugging me about the story. It’s being told in two POVs, and one of them isn’t introduced until chapter eight, which had been gnawing at me for a while because I knew it was too late in the story. I was forging ahead with the writing anyway. But I think that was holding me back. So I started to work on a new earlier chapter that will introduce this character.

I’m hoping it will also help me see him a little better. I feel as though I know the other POV character better than this one, so I need some work in that area. My first novel was all in one POV, but it’s a lot of fun seeing this story through two different sets of eyes.

In seminars, I’ve heard a lot about doing background information for your characters, even filling out questionaires on their favorite colors and foods. For me, I like to get to know my characters through the writing. They come out and tell me what to say. Their personalities, their passions, frustrations, etc., rise up as the story goes along. The challenge is remembering everything that comes out in the story and keeping true to that throughout.

How do you get to know your characters?

Write On!

Writing point of view

Current word count: 8,453

Words written today: 710

Words to goal: 41,547/462 per day til end of September

I woke up too late to write yesterday, so had two days of no writing. It made me determined to get up early this morning, and I rolled out of bed a little after 5. Ugg! I’m now really tired, but I did 710 words, so that makes it worth it.

So far, the story is still swimming along. In this book, my POV will be shifting from time to time between two different characters, and up til now, I have just been writing in one of the character’s POV. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be switching to the other’s POV, and I’m a little intimidated. I don’t know that character as well as yet. But I’ll get to know him during the writing.

A few years ago, I was told at a writers retreat that children’s books are usually single POV and that’s what I should be writing. I agree that most books are in single POV, but there are exceptions, and they work fine. I don’t know yet how successful mine will be, but it’s a necessity for the story, I think, at least the way the story is going now. It’s either that or have none of it in the kid’s POV, which I don’t want.

The best part is, this is just the first draft. This is where I can try out different things. The final draft might not be in split POV. I don’t know. But the important thing is to try doing your story in different ways and see what works best. For now, I’m doing split POV.

Anyone else writing in split POV?

How are your word counts coming?

Write On!

Writing a good synopsis

Once I finally had a query letter I was happy with, it was time to write a synopsis. In the past, I had thought it would be easier to do it the other way around — write a 4- to 6-page synopsis of my novel, then write the 1- to 3- paragraph query blurb; work down in size. But it didn’t work for me. While I was struggling with my query blurb, I tried writing the synopsis and it came out drab and boring. But once I got over my trepidation of the query blurb and found my voice again, I re-wrote the synopsis in the same style and it came out much better (gaining approval from my critique group).

One of the things that helped me was Erica Orloff’s synopsis boot camp. I found this after the boot camp was finished (it’s five days, so check out all the subsequent posts), so I wasn’t able to participate, but I wish I had seen it earlier. (Erica, if you read this, your synopsis boot camp was awesome. Any chance of a repeat? Monthly? Too much. Quarterly?)

Why pay attention to what Erica Orloff has to say about writing synopsis? Well, as she points out, she has sold more than 25 novels on the proposal alone! (Presumably she sold a finished manuscript first, before she made a name for herself, but either way, that’s impressive.)

Erica offers up the opening of two of her synopsis. She also says a synopsis should be around 5-6 pages. I went for 4 pages as I’m writing middle grade and that’s a little less complex than most adult books (what Erica writes). Other research I did for my genre suggested 4 pages would be good, and once I had a winning version, I cut it down again for one agent who specifically asked for a 2-page synopsis in the submission requirements.

But I still had to get to that workable synopsis first, and Erica’s boot camp really helped. Reading Erica’s beginning and how she edited the beginnings and other parts of the boot camp participants, you can see a pattern emerging. Here’s some of the tips I picked up:

  • Voice is king
  • Don’t tell the story just in chronological order; show themes, emotions, choices
  • Reveal characters
  • And make it exciting (as exciting as your book)

Another great thing was that you could use the query blurb as the beginning of the synopsis, even if you’re sending them both to the same agent/editor. I would have tried to avoid that, but frankly, after seeing that it’s ok according to synopsis guru Erica Orloff, it makes sense. They’re two parts of the same package, marketing the same book. They should have similarities. If you think of your submission as a press kit (hey, my day job is in journalism), there’s nothing wrong with the cover letter, press release and any other supporting materials have the same words, sentences, etc. As long as they are the right words, sentences, etc., it reinforces the idea of what you’re trying to sell, i.e. my novel.

And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with our query letter and synopsis: sell our work.

So, I’ve got a query I like and a synopsis I like. I’ve got a few last corrections for the manuscript, then I’ll send out. This won’t be for a few weeks, probably, as I’ve got some things coming up. But soon. I’ll let you know how I get along.

How are you doing?

Write On!