Questioning yourself

Done today: research

Revision remaining: 46,313 words (entire book)

Daily words needed to be finished by end of November: 842

I started my revision today, but only got as far as researching.

Research is a very necessary part of the writing process — guru Robert McKee says research is the key to overcoming writers block — and research is useful at all times. Anytime you’re not sure about something, research it until you’re comfortable.

But this morning, as I was researching a certain aspect of the book, I started questioning myself. Which way should I go? Should it be option a), option b)? Is it necessary at all? Does it add to the story? If so, how?

It was enough to drive me nuts.

I think the reason I’m questioning myself is because I’ve been away from the story for a few weeks. It was a good break, giving me a distance that will help me be more objective in my revision, but it also has allowed those nasty doubts to wriggle their way into my head.

Maybe I should get back into the story with some text revision then go back to the research I have to do.

Anyone else battling this right now?

Write On!

Children's book author funny

Some quick fun laughs today for children’s book authors. Jerry Seltzer offers an inspired comic strip just for us: Tori Stellar: Children’s Book Author. I love the fourth one down with the children’s fan letter. Hilarious.

Also, on cute and funny things, I posted a picture of my Newtie into yesterday’s post. I miss him terribly, but he’s inspiring me.

National Novel Writing Month is coming up next month. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an opportunity to participate in a race to write 50K words in a month. Last year, I was revising my first novel during November, so I used NaNoWriMo to keep me on track with revising every day.

This year, I had been toying with the idea of doing full participation and trying to write a new 50K novel in the month, but I just finished my second novel and need to start revising it. Besides, to be honest, I’m so impressed with people who can write 50K in a month along with everything else they’re doing. It took me three months to write my second novel, and I thought that was good. 50K in one month! I’m officially intimidated.

But I will be revising through November. In fact, I’m going to start tomorrow, mainly because I need something to focus on with Newtie gone. So, there will be a new goal countdown starting tomorrow. Goal: Revision complete by the end of November.

What are you working on?

Write On!

Freedom of the first draft

Current word count: 23,075

New words written: 487

Words til goal: 16,925 / 412 words a day til the end of September

Today was the first day in my work on my new novel that the words stumbled a bit. I made my goal, which is great, but I know this chapter is one that will definitely need work when I get to the revision stage.

I said in my Getting creative blog post a couple days ago that if something doesn’t work right now, that’s ok, because it can be fixed in the revision stage, and a commenter, OwlandSparrow described that as “freedom.” I love that! I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it’s a great way of putting it. The first draft is about freedom, the freedom to explore the story, the characters, the action, the dialog, etc.

A lot of writers begin each writing session by going through what they did in the last session and editing it, to get the story back in their heads. I used to do this, after hearing it described as a useful tool at a seminar, but after a while, in my limited writing time, I found myself editing more than I was writing, so I stopped. Now I just move on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Lots of people use this method of writing and love it, and if it works for you, that’s great. Don’t change a thing. I think it’s especially useful if you aren’t writing every day. If I miss a day, I often have to go back so I can get into the flow of the story again. But for me, I try not to read with an editor’s eye, just with the story in mind.

The first draft of a story is about learning, experimenting, exploring; it’s about a journey and finding the path from the story’s beginning to the end, as circuitous that path might be — the direct line isn’t necessarily the best at this point.

It reminds me of something my old theater teacher in college told me, that when exploring a role, I need to try it the most outrageous way I can think of and then the most subtle — the full range — then, I can find the place in the middle that works best to tell the character’s story. In our first draft, we can be as outrageous as possible without worrying about whether it’s great writing. Then later — in our revision — we can scale it back to just the right place, and make the writing brilliant.

After spending months and months and months revising my first novel, I’m really enjoying being back on a first draft, enjoying the freedom of whatever goes.

What are you enjoying today?

Write On!

P.S. Here’s something else I’m enjoying today. My husband sent me this video and I thought it was just so much fun, I wanted to share. Enjoy!

Losing inspiration

To be honest, I don’t have any great inspiration to share today and my inspiration has been limited for a few weeks, which is why you haven’t heard from me much lately. I think I know the reason: burn out. I’m tired. My early morning writing sessions are wonderful, and I hate not having them, but I don’t really want to go bed at 9 and when I go for a few weeks with constant 5am to 6am wake up times, it starts to take a toll after awhile.

I think the other reason I’m feeling burned out is because I’ve been trying to keep up with two projects. With everything to do with my day-job taking up most of my brain, the rest is getting squeezed a bit too much with the reworking of my first novel and the first draft of my second. I’ve been pleased with my progress, but I’m going to take a break this week. I’m going to cut back to just one project again.

This weekend I folded chapter 22 of my first novel into chapter 23, which proved challenging I think mostly because my brain was too tired to think much so I moved paragraphs around probably fifteen times to get the right flow. Then this morning I reworked chapters 24 and 25, which didn’t need much work, although I did find a much better chapter break.

I’ve got seven chapters left in my first novel to revise, so I’m going to stick with them until they’re done then go back to the new novel. My brain needs a rest from all this multi-tasking.

Oh, there’s also this picture book I’ve been revising in my critique group and the next meeting is a week from today. I guess I’m down to two projects.

What are you working on?

Write On!

Chapter One

Current word count: 16,822

Words written today: 394

Words til goal: 23,178 / 367 words a day til the end of September

Additional writing: revised two chapters in first novel. Now on chapter 20 of 33.

Yesterday I said that, as well as working on my new book, I have been revising my original novel, especially the opening chapter. In fact, I moved a lot of parts around so that a scene in chapter two became the new opener, a scene from the original chapter one was placed in the new chapter two, and 4,000 words were cut. The opener of this book has had more facelifts than Joan Rivers (ok, maybe not that many, but close 🙂 ), but this is normal, especially for the opening scenes.

To me, chapter one is the most important parts of a book, because it has to draw in the reader. The first few sentences have the biggest job of all. After chapter one, the second most important part of a manuscript is every other sentence, because each one has to keep the reader turning pages, and those at the end must resonate with the reader enough that he or she will want to treasure that book, recommend it to friends and seek out more by the same author. But that’s all after the reader has been enticed by chapter one.

There’s a generalization that most of the time, what’s written in chapter three is really the best start for the story because it takes a while for the writer to get into the story. This was very true for this manuscript. As this opener has had so much work done on it, I thought it would be interesting to detail it for you guys:

First draft of chapter one: POV not protagonist’s; scene showed the discovery of an item that is the reason for the protagonist to move.

Second draft of chapter one: same reason for scene but I tried a different POV, again not the protagonist (he can’t be in this scene). The reason I tried this second version of basically the same scene was because the first version was in an adult’s POV and I thought it would be better in a kid’s.

Third draft of chapter one: at a writer’s retreat, an agent suggested I use the same POV throughout, which meant I couldn’t use the item discovery scene as my protagonist couldn’t be in that scene. So my old chapter two, in which the protagonist is back home and first learns about them moving, became chapter one. This scene was reworked about three times for action as I got to know the character, but I’m not including them as individual drafts here.

Fourth draft of chapter one: In my new chapter one, my protagonist learned about them moving, but in chapter two he learned more about it as he eavesdropped on his parents talking, then in chapter three they moved. In the fourth draft, I realized that the story doesn’t start until they get to the new place, so I cut down all that back story to a couple paragraphs (at least it ended up being a couple paragraphs after many edits) and put it in chapter three, which became my new chapter one.

NOTE: All of this was before I had even finished the book! It was around this time that I got more dedicated, starting writing every day, and decided to forge ahead to the end of the book before I did any more editing.

In subsequent drafts of the full novel, the chapter one didn’t change too much from that fourth draft, except getting tighter and using better word choices. Until…

Fifth complete draft of chapter one: This was my latest reworking of the section, in which chapter two (technically, I think it would have been the original chapter four) became chapter one. Now in the opening scene, he has already moved in and is starting to explore his surroundings, the surroundings that bring him into the story.

I haven’t listed all the little word, sentence structure revisions that have been done in the various chapter ones. This lists just the major reworkings. But rest assured, there were numerous revisions for writing.

This kind of reworking is not unusual. Each story is different, and every time you write a new story, it will be different. But working on finding the best opening scene can take multiple tries. But it’s important work, necessary work. Many readers won’t buy a book unless they’ve read the first few pages and want to read more. I’m like that, and I know I’m not alone. If I’m interested in the title, I’ll read the jacket copy, and if I’m interested in the jacket copy, I’ll open the book and read the first few pages. If I’m not bored, I’ll buy the book. So, to satisfy readers like myself, I have to make sure that those opening pages really sing.

In my critique group a few weeks ago, a member of the group brought in his third revision of his chapter one and he sighed — with a smile — saying he didn’t think it would be his last revision. No, it won’t be. But that’s ok. It’s part of the process and part of the journey of writing the story. As I wrote all those chapter ones that eventually got cut, I learned about the characters. I now know more about the characters than what’s in the final book, and I think that’s the way it should be.

So, if you’re on your third and fourth version of your chapter one, don’t worry, you’ll find the perfect opener, even if it takes a few more drafts. The important thing is to keep trying.

How’s your writing or revising coming?

Write On!

Revising — again

If you haven’t already, check out my interview with author Chynna Laird. With four kids and studies for her B.A. in psychology, she has a lot on her plate, but still managed to write and get published two books. She’s an inspiration. If she can do it, so can we.

Quick check in:

Current word count: 16,428

Words written today: 392

Words til goal: 23,572 / 368 words a day til the end of September

I have a confession. For the last couple weeks, after I’ve reached my writing goal in my new book, I’ve been going back to my first novel and working on it again.

I submitted it to agents a few weeks ago, and at that time, I believed that it was ready. I had been through lots of revisions, and I was happy with it. But during my continued research for agents, I read two things that made me think I should give my novel another look: In two interviews, separate agents said they didn’t want to see a novel with an opening scene that shows someone moving as it’s unoriginal (I was guilty of that, but I didn’t think of it as unoriginal, as the move is pertinent to the plot) and I read interviews with different people saying the word count for middle grade novels is between 20K and 50K, topping out at 40K according to one (my novel was a little over 60K, but I had read MG word counts were upto 70K to 80K when I started writing it, so I thought I was well within the guidelines).

I had only sent it to a few agents and had gotten positive responses, but after seeing these things, it did make me wonder if I was hurting the chances of the book. I was well into my next novel, but I decided that I would at least look at my first novel and see if there were changes I could make. If I could figure out ways to change the beginning, I’d try it and see if it worked. All I had to lose was the time.

Two weekends ago, I did just that, rewriting the first three chapters (which had already been rewritten about six times). I found a new place to start the novel and moved a few things around to keep all the pertinent information and story flow. In the end, I managed to cut out 4,000 words and now the book gets into the story much quicker than in the earlier version. It has gotten good reviews from critiquers so far.

I’ve now got around 54K words and would love to get the whole thing below 50K, but I’m not as concerned about the word count as I was the opening. The interesting thing is, knowing that I wanted to cut back on the words, I found myself being more vigilant about deciding if a scene or section of a scene was needed. This past weekend, I cut a scene that was about 1,000 words because I realized that, although I liked the scene, it didn’t add anything new. The action in it reinforced action from the scene before it and set up the next scene, but without it, the story wasn’t missing anything (I did add in a little background in the next scene for flow). Before, when I thought I had a good word count, I left the scene in because it had some fun action. But being vigilant about whether a scene really adds something NEW is important.

I’m very pleased with the changes and have put off sending the book to more agents until I’ve finished going through the whole thing — again. I’m disappointed that I didn’t think of these things before, that I didn’t scrutinize every scene to make sure it was as original as it could be and that it added to the story, moved the plot along. But, such is life. We live and learn.

I’ll let you know how this shakes out.

How’s your writing coming?

Write On!

Preparation is key

As I was doing more research on agents yesterday, I ran across a thread on the message boards. If you haven’t been on these boards before, they can be very handy. I was searching for information about an agent who doesn’t give interviews and doesn’t have any kind of web presence, and on the message boards I found messages from writers who had queried the agent, response times and links to other information.

But one message stuck out to me. A writer said she had queried an agent and got a request for a partial, which is awesome. The sad part was that the writer went on to say that her partial wasn’t yet fully revised, so she had to send it out early.

I don’t know what happened with this writer and her partial. Maybe she got representation. I hope so. But if she knew her partial wasn’t ready for publication, i.e. still needed revision, I’m going to bet that agent knew it too. Consequently, the writer most likely blew it with that agent. She lost an opportunity. (P.S. I was just checking out my regular blogs and found a Q&A post from agent Kate Schafer-Testerman in which she says this. Click here then scroll down to the question from @jjochwat. Note that when she says if there’s a no, revise then resend elsewhere, meaning the writer blew the chance with that agent for that project.) (P.P.S. Guess this is a hot topic today. Here’s a post from agent Jessica Faust about making sure you edit your manuscript before you query. She also encourages writers to move on to their next book, saying, “Agents and especially publishers want career novelists, authors who will write book after book after book.” That’s what I’m moving onto now.)

Before you send out anything to agents, you have to be prepared. You’ve worked hard on your book, so give it the best possible chance during the submission process. Remember, if an agent says no, 90% of the time, that’s no to the project, not no to this version of the project. If they see the book again, they’ll remember and reject it automatically. So first impressions count, and you have to make sure they’re the best.

How do you prepare? First, don’t even think about querying an agent until you believe your manuscript is ready for publication. You’ve done all your revisions, got the plot and structure down, deleted passive language, fixed pacing problems, fully developed the characters, corrected grammatical errors, cut scenes or words or paragraphs that didn’t add to story or character — you want it to truly shine. When you read through it for the umpteenth time, you shouldn’t be bored; it should be that entertaining. That’s when you start thinking about querying an agent.

When you’re ready to query agents, research them. Build a master list of all the agents who handle the types of books you write — think long-term here; you want an agent you can work with for a career. (Granted, you can start doing this research between drafts of your manuscript, just don’t query them until your manuscript is absolutely polished.) Once you’ve got the master list, start researching the agents themselves through interviews, news items, sales, etc. Is this a person who has the same sensibilities as you, the same goals for their books, the same outlook? Again, think long-term. Is this a person you think you’d like to work with for a long time? List the agents in order of who you think you would like to work with most. I put all this information in an Excel spreadsheet, but do whatever works for you.

Once you’ve got you’re agent list, research their submission guidelines and add those to the list. Now you can see what you’ll need to prepare before you start querying. Some agents will want only a query letter, some the first few pages of your book, some a synopsis. Depending on what your ideal agents want, prepare it. When I was preparing, some of the agents wanted a synopsis, which is generally around four pages. But one agent wanted a two-page synopsis. For me, that’s a little tight, but I wrote my regular synopsis first, then prepared a two-page for that agent. I wrote a skeleton query letter with story blurb and information about me, then I personalized that with information about each agent letting them know why I was interested in working with them.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: This is a lot of work, and I’m so anxious to get my work out there. I fully understand. In the past, I’ve sent out my work before it was ready. But here’s the thing — I was roundly rejected. And I can’t blame the agents. They were right. My work at that time was not ready for publication. (This was a different project from the one I’m currently submitting.) Unfortunately, I wasted their time and mine, as well as tasted the bitterness of rejection, all because I wasn’t fully prepared.

This time, I prepared myself for whatever the agents wanted initially and whatever they would need if they requested more. I’ve polished my entire manuscript, so I can send out fulls with no worries. Whatever they ask for, I’m ready to provide it. It has already come in handy, but more on that another time.

So, give your book — and yourself — the best possible chance at success by being fully prepared before you send out your first query letter.

Write On!

Said and other dialog identifiers

One of those rules to know before you break it is only use “said” or “asked” when identifying a speaker of dialog; avoid using words like stammered, complained, etc. For one thing, the dialog should show a stammer or a complaint, so using those is stating the obvious. But mainly, words like that slow down the pace of a story.

As much as I like to have a little variety in my dialog identifiers, I’ve gotta say it’s true that using anything other than “said” slows the pace, which isn’t something you want in a book. For some reason, “said” is so plain that our brains read right over it and thus, keep with the story. A useful thing to know.

But just using “said” and “asked” all the time isn’t good writing either. This is something I’ve known for a while and have adopted in my writing. I know that, for a scene of dialog to flow nicely, it needs to be punctuated with action. But in my current go through of my novel, I noticed that there are a lot more saids than necessary.

Here’s the pattern I seem to have adopted:

“The character says great, stimulating dialog,” said Character, turning to the punch bowl.

Here’s the better way:

“The character says great, stimulating dialog.” Character turned to the punch bowl.

We can identify that Character said the dialog because his name comes right after it. And we’ve eliminated the nasty -ing word that’s too passive.

We’ve also kept action in the scene to make it more interesting.

So, when you’re doing your revisions, look for all the places you have “said” or “asked,” and see if there’s a better way to identify the speaker. Turn your identifiers into action, and pump up your dialog scenes with all the shuffling, staring, shifting, hand-twisting, sniffing, nudging, etc., that goes on in conversations.

What errors do you find in your manuscript revisions?

Write On!

Revising on paper vs. computer

First, I hope you enjoyed the interview with Danette Haworth on Friday. If you didn’t catch it, click here. Look for more author interviews on upcoming Fridays.

Last week, I posted about revising your manuscript and mentioned Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Manuscript Revision method, and one of the interesting things about her method is that, she says, it has to be done on paper. In fact, she says it won’t work on the computer.

I’ve complete a number of drafts of my novel, including many early revisions of the first third of my manuscript before I had even finished the first draft (something I won’t do with the second book); a structural revision after my first draft when I fixed timeline problems, flow problems and moved scenes around; and straight writing revisions, when I tried to find the best wording, sentences, descriptions, dialog, etc. After all those, I felt very confident about my novel, and I had gotten great feedback. I felt I was ready to send it out and started working on the query letter and synopsis.

Two points: First, all these revisions were done only on the computer. Second, I didn’t have time to go through every chapter with my critique group, which would have been great. But at five pages twice a month, that would take another couple years!

When I stumbled on Holly Lisle’s method, I decided to give it a try, as I had, for the first time, an actual print out of my entire manuscript (I had printed it for my husband). I was also sick and not fit to be doing query letters. So, for the past week, I’ve been going through the pages, and — surprise surprise — I’ve found a lot of areas that could have been better.

I’ve made a career out of editing — it’s my day-job — and all my editing is currently done on the computer, but that’s for shorter pieces and writing I didn’t do myself. If there’s one thing all editors know, it’s easy to read over a typo because your brain will fill in what it’s supposed to say. And often, you’ll read over the same mistake over and over again. That’s why it’s good to have other people editing your work too.

Also, it’s easy to get distracted while reading, and this can happen when reading on a computer screen or the printed page. How many times have you read the same paragraph three times?

All of these are hurdles to editing your own work, but changing the venue, so to speak, doing one draft on the computer and another on paper, can help you find problems you didn’t catch the other way. This is perhaps for no other reason than you’re tricking your brain into thinking it hasn’t read this material a bunch of times already.

So, if you’re used to revising your work on a computer, no matter how convenient it is and no matter how environmentally responsible you want to be (that’s one of the reasons I hadn’t printed all 235 pages of my manuscript), try editing it on paper and see what a different perspective can give you.

Also, and this is one of the most important revision tips of all, no matter how eager you are to get your book out to agents and editors … PUT IT AWAY FIRST. Let it sit for at least a couple weeks, but a month is better. Let it sit for a while between every revision you do. This distance also will help your brain to see the writing for the first time, so to speak, giving you a better edit. You’ve worked hard to write this book; give it the best shot at publication by giving it time to be revised and revised before you send it out. There’s only one first impression. Make the most of it.

Write On!

Revising your manuscript

There’s a saying: Writing is rewriting. This is so true. Rarely is a first draft the final draft. I say rarely because, well, you never know, someone might have been that brilliant at one time in history. But if you think you might be the exception to the rule, here’s some quotes from some pretty great writers:

“Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.”  Richard North Patterson

“To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over.” John Hersey

And two great ones from Oscar Wilde. First, like any good piece of art:

“Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.”  Oscar Wilde

And second, one that speaks about rewriting so well:

“This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back again.”  Oscar Wilde

I love that last one.

Think those award-winning books or bestsellers were brilliant the day their authors typed The End? Think again. Most writers go through revision after revision after revision. Kathi Appelt went through about six different drafts of her award-winning The Underneath.

So, how do we revise? There are plenty of ways, and different writers will find their own processes that they like best. Some authors, after they’ve finished the first draft, go back to the beginning and start again, examining the story structure, the characters, etc. Then when they reach the end, go back over it again from the beginning looking at sentences and word choices. Repeat as often as necessary until the manuscript shines. This is what I did with mine.

Author Holly Lisle has found success with a one-pass manuscript revision method. Holly says she uses this method with all her manuscripts and rarely has need for further revisions. Even when her book is in the editor’s hands, she usually only has one or two rounds of changes.

Holly’s method is really intense, combing through every page looking at scene structure, whether the scene adds to the story, characters, dialog, voice, description, word choice, etc; making notes, deletions, changes, etc. It sounds awesome, and I’m thrilled it works for Holly, but it takes a lot of discipline, and I think it’s something most writers would have to work toward. Definitely a good goal.

When I was doing the first major revision of my novel, I found it hard to see the whole story when I was editing one small part. What finally helped me was to make a timeline. Holly suggests you write the theme and brief blurb of your story before you begin your revision so you can keep this in mind, which is useful.

The difficulty, I think, for most writers, especially those less experienced, is seeing all the problems in one pass. Holly has been writing for many years and has her style down, but for others of us, we might need many more passes. Sometimes, a manuscript improves on pass one, then improvements on the improvements are found on pass two or three or four.

But that’s ok. When you have to figure out some structural problems in your manuscript, it might not be so easy to also recognize the best word choice, say, or dialog problems.

When revising is such an important part of writing, no matter whether you can revise in one pass or you need 10, don’t rush it. Take your time. Do it right. Cover all the bases of your story, no matter how many passes you need. Remember, writing is rewriting.

Write On!