Just When I Thought I Was Done…

Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!           –C.K. Webb

 

English: Manuscript fragment from Chapter 14 o...

Editing (manuscript fragment from chapter 14 of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man/photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

You guessed it. In the midst of querying, when I’m supposed to be done editing, I’m still editing. As a friend once told me (and I’ve heard it echoed by numerous other writers), you will always find something you want to fix with your manuscript.

I thought I was done; truly, I did. After all, I put my novel through a lot. Before I let anyone lay eyes on it, I edited out the embarrassing first draft kind of garbage that no one needs to see. Then I distributed it to beta readers. The feedback was incredible, allowing me to make more much-needed changes.

Amidst these changes, I signed up for a workshop with a team of literary agents, in which I had the opportunity to really work on the first 10 pages. After all, the first 10 pages may be all anyone ever sees if they don’t compel people to keep reading.

So I got my criticism, swallowed it even though it tasted bad, and I changed my book some more. One comment was that my manuscript was much too long, so I cut over 30,000 words. With a new ending and lots of proofreading under my belt, I figured I should quit procrastinating and start querying.

Nowadays, the majority of literary agents ask for a sample of the manuscript. The most common request I’ve seen is for the first 10 pages, although the odd agent wants 20 or the first three chapters. (Some even ask for the entire manuscript, bless their hearts.) The theme seems to be that they want to see a significant enough chunk to get a good feel for how the rest of the book will (or won’t) flow.

I was a little stumped when I found an agent who only asked for the first chapter. After I cut and pasted that one lonely chapter into my e-mail query, I realized that it wasn’t an adequate representation of my story. Without the next few pages to go with it, the pacing was too slow, and it ended in a bad place. I had edited it down from a much longer first chapter. Also, when I was concentrating on 10 pages, I didn’t pay much attention to how the first chapter ended because the first 10 pages went well into chapter two. I should have made sure that chapter one had an enticing ending. You know what the last word of that chapter was? “Okay.” Which is not okay, unless you’re John Green.

Thus began revision number four.

A couple years ago, while querying a different novel, I decided that I would make absolutely no changes (unless I found a typo) on my manuscript during the querying phase. I sent out 10 at a time, and it wasn’t until after each round of rejections that I looked over my query letter and manuscript for ways to improve.

This time, I’m making corrections as I go. Never have I made so many changes from one query to the next. If an agent happens to like the version of my book with an anticlimactic ending to the first chapter, I have that version saved. But I’m not going with the status quo anymore. I will not sit around and say, “Oh, it can wait.” It could be that the agent who’s right for me is the next one I query, and if that’s the case, I don’t want to send a chunk of my book that I know I can improve.

Painful? Yes. And I love editing. But it’s hard to think, I’ve done all I can do, only to look back and see that you didn’t.

This likely means more drastic cuts for my book. I’ve already come to the realization that I may have to trim it by another 10,000 words-plus in order for anyone to even give it a serious look. Do I think the word count alone should be the deciding factor over whether my manuscript it rejected or accepted? Absolutely not. (And I’ve climbed on that soapbox before.) But I also think that it would be a mistake to grow complacent.

So it’s time to continue cutting, revising, and searching. The right agent is out there, I know it. It will just take a more vigilant search than last time, and I have to be willing to do my part to earn a contract.

It’s Query Time

Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.

For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.

Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.

Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.

With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)

As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.

So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.

The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.

The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.

So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.

It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.

At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.

So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!

Done!

The setup for NaNoWriMo at home, if I need to ...

Ready to Write (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever had a goal that seems to hover just out of reach? I’m talking about those last five pounds that you can’t shed, that last $1000 of debt that hangs over your head, that last month of pregnancy when everyone assumes you should’ve had the baby, yet you feel like it’s never going to happen.

I’ve been through all of those and more, but that’s not what I’m talking about this time. Nope, I’m talking about a writing goal.

That’s right, it’s the end of NaNoWriMo for Sarah!

If you happen to know what NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is, you’re likely thinking, Aren’t you a couple months late, Sarah?

Yeah, yeah. I know that NaNoWriMo was officially over when the clock struck midnight, marking the end of November and the beginning of December. And I’d already “won,” which means that I wrote a 50,000-word novel in the month of November. (Actually, I wrote just over 61K.) But that didn’t mean I was done telling the story.

Last year, I also didn’t “finish” in November. I was certainly on a roll, writing 80,000 words in 30 days, but it took me 10 days into February to finish the first draft. I never slowed down the whole time; there was just so much story to tell.

This year’s NaNo was the sequel to last year’s. For months, I looked forward to continuing the story, but when it came to November, I struggled. I had the initial outpouring, which lasted for several thousand words, but after that, it was as if my muse had gone on vacation and at precisely the worst time.

So I “won” because I won’t sign up for something and then give up. But it was hard. I felt like the majority of what I wrote was just crap that would end up on the cutting room floor. I knew that if this were just any old novel, I would let it sit on the back burner and wait for my inspiration to return. I’m the queen of unfinished novels; I have more half-done manuscripts than I care to think about, and although I hate to admit it, I know that many of them will remain incomplete.

The difference with NaNoWriMo is that, after working so hard to get 50,000 words out, it seems like such a waste to just let the manuscript sit, unfinished. Even though it took two-plus extra months last year, I finished, and I think it’s the best novel I’ve ever written. And since this year’s novel was the sequel, I had to keep going.

Since it was such a tough book to write, I figured it would wrap up quickly and likely well under 100,000 words. Then I could sit back for a month, let it percolate a little, then return and make it worth reading after a hefty revision. To my surprise, a number of brainwaves hijacked my story when I thought I should be long done. The muse was back, although a month late. I continued writing and could see the end, but I couldn’t seem to reach it.

This past week, I had a couple 3000-word nights. My word count raced past 100,000 and didn’t look back. But still, I wasn’t done. I’d already told myself that I would absolutely finish this week. January is the month I had set aside to finish editing 2013’s novel and start querying agents, and here it is the 24th. I couldn’t let the 2014 novel hang over my head any longer. (Plus, I needed something to blog about.)

So last night, after the kids got to bed, I sat down and did some serious writing – 7000 words, to be exact. I’d joked with my husband that it would likely be a 2:00 A.M. bedtime. In reality, it was after 3:30. But I finished! I am worn out but feel so accomplished. I finally caught up to my goal, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet.

Now I get a month off from that book. And at the end of that month, I’ll go back and do a lot of cringing and cutting, and hopefully I’ll end up with a manuscript that’s at least 20,000 words shorter and worth sharing.

And in the meantime… I need a nap.

Happy 2015 Book List!

Score! Christmas Books

Score! Christmas Books

The past two years, I’ve created lists of books that I hoped to read in the upcoming year, and here I am, doing it again. 2014’s list was much more ambitious than 2013’s (23 books versus 14), and I am proud to say that I finished 17 of them. And I even got way sidetracked for a while. (Some of the books that sidetracked me I won’t ever read again, but at least they gave me blog fodder.)

I enjoy making this list just after Christmas because this is the time of year when people get generous and give me books, gift cards to bookstores, or both. This year being no exception, I am prepared to meet 2015 with lots of new fiction.

New Books!

New Books!

First of all, I am going to vow right now that 2015 will be the year that I finish Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. It’s been on my list two years now, and I just can’t leave those books hanging any longer. The first three are slow-paced, but my husband assures me that the last one really picks up, so I’m just going to knuckle down and read them.

A wonderful thing that’s happened in the past few months is that my first grader has gotten into chapter books. It wasn’t until he was almost six that we realized that he has several learning disabilities, and he’s a poor audio learner, so reading books without pictures went right over his head. But since we’ve been helping him with his working memory and dyslexia, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in his reading ability and comprehension. This summer, I plan to start reading Harry Potter to Peter, and I hope he gets as much joy out of that series as I do.

If you’re interested in reading my previous years’ fiction lists, here are 2013 and 2014, and here are the books that I actually finished in 2014:

The Rim of the Prairie by Bess Streeter Aldrich

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Kill Order by James Dashner

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Looking for Alaska by John Green

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2) by Rick Riordan

The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book Three)
by Rick Riordan

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling

Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing by Mark Twain

And here are the books I plan to read this year:

And Another Thing… Douglas Adams`s Hitchhiker`s Guide to the Galaxy Part Six of Three by Eoin Colfer

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Paper Towns by John Green

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Messenger by Lois Lowry

Son by Lois Lowry

Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1)by Christopher Paolini

Eldest (Inheritance Cycle, Book 2) by Christoopher Paolini

Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle, Book 3) by Christopher Paolini

Inheritance (Inheritance Cycle, Book 4) by Christoopher Paolini

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus, Book 4) by Rick Riordan

The Blood of Olympus (Heroes of Olympus, Book 5) by Rick Riordan

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I know it’s a long list, but I have lots of hope to finish a good number of these. Some are brand new, some beloved repeats. And I hope to be interrupted by books as yet undiscovered. (I’m always up for suggestions!)

Happy reading in 2015!

My Gift

Have you ever had a dream that seems a little silly, but you can’t help but hold onto it anyway? Like driving by a beautiful house every day that you know you’ll never be able to afford but imagining yourself living there anyway?

Well… but who says you won’t live ever there? So many people give up on dreams that aren’t necessarily impossible, just difficult to attain. Sometimes life makes it very difficult to hold onto our dreams. Sometimes we get bitter, assuming that those who do achieve their dreams have some secret inner track that is unavailable for the rest of us “normal” people. Sometimes we give up.

Probably my longest-held unfulfilled dream is that of becoming a published author. Well, let me rephrase: an author who is published in the traditional sense. I do have books under my belt, and I do make a (tiny) income freelance writing, but back in high school, I thought that I could go to college, major in English, improve my writing skills, and somehow earn an annual income as a novelist equal to (or more than) what my husband makes.

Not only did majoring in English do absolutely nothing to further my writing career, but the idea that becoming a novelist can bring a steady income is one that seems less likely every day. It’s harder than ever to find a literary agent and then a publisher, and even they can’t promise positive or lasting results. Books get remaindered all the time, and there go the hopes of more starving artists.

In the face of this and many more discouraging statistics, it would be logical to give up on my dream. And to be honest, this dream does come and go. When my first son was a baby, I wrote very little. It suddenly wasn’t very important to me, both because I was tired and focused on new motherhood. I wrote when I wanted to, and I wrote what moved me, but as far as a career, I almost let go of the dream completely, unless someone reminded me by asking how my writing was going.

Other times, I’ve wanted my dream so much that it almost caused physical pain – and I guess that is possible, if you consider the toll anxiety can take. It’s not fun trying so hard and being rejected over and over and over and over… need I go on?

But most of the time, I live in a cycle of writing with pure joy and energy and plowing on because I know that joy is just around the corner, if only I can stick with it. That’s how this last year has been, starting with my first NaNoWriMo experience in November 2013.

If you follow my blog, you know that last year’s NaNoWriMo was the joy and energy, and this year’s I just had to plow through. Although I won (by writing more than 50,000 words in the month of November), I’m still chipping away at my novel. I would love to finish the first draft by the end of the month, but things really have to change if I want that to happen: I don’t think I’ve ever procrastinated so much when it comes to writing.

This isn’t writer’s block. I’ve had that before, don’t care for it much, but understand that it’s a normal part of the writing process. What this is is writer’s exhaustion. Three days in the past week, I neglected to write at all. I was so busy that I forgot, and I was too tired to even care all that much.

Except.

Except that I realized that I missed it. I make time for all kinds of other things during the day, all of which are important, but why is it that my novel gets shoved to the side? No, it’s not paying the bills, but since when did that become the sole criteria of what’s important to me? If I have to dedicate five minutes at a time to get it done, at least I can go to sleep at night feeling like I haven’t let myself – and my dream – down.

My dream will never have the chance of becoming reality if I don’t do my part. Which means I have to start querying again. Which means editing last year’s novel and finishing this year’s. After all, my books won’t write themselves, and I can’t expect an agent to just stumble across my blog and send me an email – “Hey, Sarah. You sound talented. Do you happen to have a novel I could represent?” Yeah right.

Stranger things have happened, I suppose, but this girl isn’t going to sit around and wait for a miracle to happen. Writing may present a challenge, but it can also fill my tank when it’s empty. I owe myself this gift. The gift of five minutes a day, the gift of keeping my dream alive, the gift of trying to make it become reality.

And if it doesn’t work… well, I’ve always loved dreaming.

Why Do Authors Write Such Depressing Books for Adolescents?

It’s Thanksgiving, and I am actually ahead on my blog for the week – and that’s something to be very thankful for.

Thanks to Scarlett Van Dijk for hosting my post on her blog this week. I had a lot of fun writing it. It’s my answer (or at least a part of the answer) to the question of why authors seem to write so much depressing material for adolescents. Check it out here, and then spend some more time with Scarlett’s blog; I think you’ll enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sarah

 

The Challenges of Parenting the Second Novel

When I had my second son, people warned me not to compare my children to each other – something that’s nearly impossible to do. And the same is true, I’ve found, with novels.

And so I come to NaNoWriMo again. (It’s November; get used to it.) The first two weeks have been rough this year, which blindsided me (and I can say the same of the early days of being a mom of two). If you followed me last year, you know that I “won” (which means that I reached the 50,000 word minimum) by the 14th of the month. (And if you didn’t follow me then, you can read about it here.) I had inspiration on my side with a brand new story that wouldn’t quit. I wrote well over 4700 words on the first day, and I didn’t slow down much from there. By the end of November, I was at 80,000 words and continued writing until February, when my first draft clocked in at 148K. From there, the challenge was to trim it down to under 100,000 (which I did two weeks ago, thank goodness).

Fast forward to this year: last week I wrote about middle-of-a-trilogy blues. I get stuck constantly. I carry my MacBook with me everywhere (just like last year), and any time I have a spare minute, it’s open to my novel. Whereas last year, scenes competed for my attention and I couldn’t get them down fast enough – bombarding me when I was in the shower or chauffeuring the kids or researching an article – this year, the computer sits open, the cursor flashing, waiting for me to type. Mind you, I am extremely busy, but still, the story isn’t constantly running in the background like last year. There’s no backlog of scenes waiting to be written at my earliest convenience.

Today is the 15th of the month, the halfway point. If you’re serious about finishing, you should have 25,000 words down, and I do, thank goodness. My goal is to type 2000 a day, just to give me a little cushion in case I have a rough day. November 1st I did pretty well with 4000 words. Not as much as last year, but it got me a day ahead of my goal. And I used up that 2000-word credit five days later when I only managed to get 200 words down. Determined to catch up, I pulled my average back up to 2000 words per day, but it’s been tight. I’m an over-achiever, and surpassing my goals is kind of my thing. I still have over 1000 words to type today to make it to 30,000, so forget last year’s astronomical word count.

It’s not the word count itself that bothers me as much as my difficulty in getting the words down. Again, I can see a parallel with my kids. The first baby was a breeze. Yes, we had some challenges early on, but looking back I realize what an easy kid he was and still is. Contrast him (I know, a no-no) with his little brother, and the story changes. That little dude was a challenge while still in the womb, and the challenges only escalated after he was born. Even the nurses at the hospital were perplexed by his inability to be consoled – and those maternity ward nurses have some sort of baby voo-doo that almost always works. We’ve tried to parent both kids the same way, so why are they so different?

The difficulties, the challenges, the things that make me want to scream and rip my hair out at times are also the beauties of these two very different people – if only I can take a deep breath and remind myself that no two people are exactly alike. It’s amazing to watch them grow into their personalities. Sometimes they’re predictable, and other times they take us by surprise. It’s the times that I try to force Ian (the younger one) to be more like Peter (big brother) that I frustrate him and unnecessarily disappoint myself.

So it is with my stories. I guess you could say that last year’s was the big brother: sometimes challenging but always a joy. There were so many new discoveries, each one a kind of adventure.

My NaNoWriMo 2014 novel is the second child. I’ve been there and done that – wait, wait, wait. It still has surprises, if only I can allow it to follow its own path. But in order to do that, I have to give it the freedom to do so.

One day last week, in the effort to plow through another 2000 words, I realized that I was going through the motions yet again.  I had allowed my so-called experience to make me complacent and fall into a predictable and not very fun routine. My novel has certain plot points, not unlike milestones for children. My characters have to travel in my story, and since I’m averse to writing outlines, I don’t know much of what happens on the journey from Point A to Point B. I just know that I somehow have to get them there. And that “getting there” part can be a real slog.

Last year, I had even less of an idea how I would move the story along, but I didn’t let that bother me. Scenes kept popping up in no particular order; I typed them, and when I had time to breathe, I tried to connect them. It was these bursts of inspiration that kept me on the edge of my seat, that made me excited to get up every day and write.

I was thrilled that my word count exceeded my expectations. It was great to not have to worry about it. This year, sometimes it seems that the word count is the end goal, but it shouldn’t be at all. The point is to write, to finish something that I otherwise might give up on halfway through. That’s what’s beautiful about NaNoWriMo to me.

I mentioned in a previous blog that I already know how my current novel will end (even if I don’t know all the in between stuff). Hard-pressed to finish a scene, I realized that I could give myself a break and jump ahead to the ending. Why not? Words count, after all, no matter where they fall sequentially.

While I was thinking through that scene, my fickle little muse stopped by for a visit. It was one of those moments when I realized that something I was already planning to write would make so much more sense if… well, I can’t tell you, but it was one of those brainwave-y moments that authors live for (or at least this author does).

It’s the kind of thing that happened all the time last November, when I was new at the whole writing a novel in a month thing, when it was exciting and much like embarking on a voyage into unknown waters. It was with a kind of joy that I realized new and surprising things can still happen with the second novel of a trilogy. Instead of coaxing it along and expecting it to be a good little novel that writes itself –surprise! – I need to be open to all the scenes that want to be written, even if they’re out of order or don’t seem to belong. After all, this is a different novel, and it deserves the same chance, the same attention, I gave its big brother.

Much like parenting my second child.

Here’s to second children, and here’s to second novels.

Here’s to writing first and counting my words second.

Here’s to another 15 days of creativity and exploration, and best of luck to all my fellow WriMos!

Sometimes You Have to Freeze Your Characters in Carbonite (Don’t Worry, It’s Temporary)

What a difference one week makes! If you read last week’s blog, I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo and nervous about starting. Not because of the whole 50,000 words in a month thing. I did it last year, so how hard could it be to do it again?

What I was worried about was finishing last year’s NaNo novel in time to move on to the sequel, which is this year’s NaNo novel. I was still deep in my last edit, and although I didn’t have many pages to go, I was at the crucial point where I needed to make the most drastic changes.

During the editing process, I cut almost 50,000 words (ironic – don’t you think? – since that’s the number I need to type this month). Cutting I can do all day. But the closer I got to the end, the more it became like slogging through verbal quicksand. It was the part of the editing process that I dreaded most. I had quite a bit of hard work ahead of me. On the one hand, I still needed to cut 3000 words, and on the other, I needed to add to the ending to improve it.

Then something wonderful happened, something that I hope happens many times this month (although it hasn’t yet): I had a brainwave. Whenever I read a novel with a plot twist or a really clever scene, I wonder if it was always a part of the plan or if it developed over time or maybe if it popped up out of nowhere, just in time to save the story. And while I’m not saying that I came up with something brilliant like the vanishing cabinet in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, this brainwave explained some of the points that I was afraid would never gel. This included making quite a few cuts and changing the ending even more than planned, and I just couldn’t stay up long enough to finish. Editing when you’re half asleep isn’t always in the best interest of the story, but on the plus side, I got to sleep on the brainwave.

November first, the first day of National Novel Writing Month, wasn’t much better. I had my weekly editing work for Fiction Fix and my son’s t-ball game. When the afternoon rolled around and I finally got a chance to edit, I would fix a scene, move on, add some more, realize that this affected an earlier scene, go back, rewrite again… and stare at the computer screen a lot as I tried to figure it all out.

I finally got it, finally realized exactly how it needed to end, and it dovetailed perfectly with the opening of the second book.

Half of my goals from last week were in the bag: I’d finished editing and gotten my word count under 100,000.

And as soon as I finished, I was supposed open up a brand new document and leave my editing hat at the proverbial door. Forget cutting! Now is the time for extraneous adverbs and adjectives. For people to ask sweetly and say quietly and walk quickly and wear elaborate gowns with one hundred buttons down the back, belled sleeves, and sweetheart necklines. Sometimes you have to break all your rules in order to get the job done – and tell your inner editor to shut up while you do it.

Typing that first page was painful. All I could think was, This isn’t a good opening line! No one will ever read beyond this.

And that’s how it’s been all week. My inspiration has just kind of fizzled. I’ve kept up with my word count, but the only reason I’ve been able to do so was because I typed over 4000 words that first day. I’ve seen a lot of things that need the axe. Even as I type, I think, This’ll get cut in the next draft.

But not in this one. Right now, I must plow on. It may be a tough slog the whole month. At least I’ve figured out why, not that it really helps. You see, I’m in the second book slump. This happens in trilogies. Okay, instant fix: don’t write a trilogy. It’s not that simple, though. My story needs to be told that way. And I’m not saying that all middle books should be thrown away, but often it’s necessary for the plot to slow or tough things to happen in order for better things to happen later in the trilogy. And so I think that the writing process naturally reflects some of the difficulties within the story. (And besides, it can happen in series with more than three books. Think about New Moon from the The Twilight Saga or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: necessary but often painful to read.)

The best example I can think of actually comes from the movie Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back. First of all, what happened to Mark Hamill? Yeah, he’s still a stud, running around the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda on his back and all, but he’s not nearly as cute as in the first movie. Plus he loses an arm (Luke Skywalker, I mean, not Mark Hamill). And then Han Solo turns into a carbonite-cicle. It’s depressing stuff. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you still love it, but yikes. Thank goodness for Return of the Jedi, right?

And that’s what I have to keep in mind. There will be ups for every down. And the great light at the end of the tunnel is my book three, but I can’t get too distracted by that right now because, God-willing, I won’t start on it until NaNoWriMo 2015. What I need is to get through this book – not just get through but give it the attention it deserves, see it on its own terms rather than compared with its companions.

There is a time for choosing my words with great care, for analyzing and fine-tuning, but November is not one of those times. Editor, hop in the backseat. Writer, say whatever you want because you can always cut it out and make it pretty later. After all, the great thing about first drafts is that you can make all the mistakes you want and fix them before anyone finds out. My inner editor needs to take a forced month-long vacation, so I can get some work done.

Haunted by My Story

November is so close it’s almost scary.

It was just a few weeks ago that I was surprised by October’s arrival, so how could I let November sneak up on me, too? Lots of important things happen in November: Thanksgiving; Christmas shopping; several important birthdays, including my elder son’s; two clients’ book projects are due; a slew of writing assignments for a new client…

And the month-long time-gobbler that is both daunting and exciting, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Last year, I participated for the first time, and I will say again and keep on saying that it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. In fact, I think it’s the best writing I’ve ever produced.

The goal this year is to at least match the enthusiasm and success of last year – or surpass it.

For the early part of this year, I wasn’t worried about NaNoWriMo 2014 because I was still finishing my 2013 novel. In early July, I produced 10 copies for beta readers. And then what typically happens when I’m busy with one project – I had a great idea for a new novel.

If you keep up with my blog, you’ll know that I decided to hold off writing, saving that new story for NaNoWriMo this year. But as my beta readers started giving me their critiques on my 2013 NaNo novel, I realized I wanted to edit it and write the sequel for NaNo this year. (And don’t worry about my new novel idea – I wrote a few important scenes and took plenty of notes for when I’m ready to start up with it again.)

I figured that it would be easy to edit last year’s book by October and even start querying literary agents again, saying, And if you like this, I’ll be working on the sequel in November.

Except that if today is the corner, then November is right around it, and I’m not done editing the first book yet.

Forget agents – I’ve got to finish this book in order to be able to properly start the next one. There’s nothing that says I absolutely have to start with the opening scene. If I feel like it, I can start with the last one (and yes, I already know what it will be – a cliffhanger leading up to book three, hee-hee). But I so want to start with confidence. That, and I don’t want a lot of editing to slow me down. 50,000 words in one month is a lot. Granted, I wrote 80,000 last November, but they say that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, so…

If only I’d written the first book perfectly to start with, right? But that would make me a magician or a novel goddess or something, which I am not. Or if I am, someone forgot to tell the big publishing houses because I’m still waiting for my million-dollar advance.

Instead of dreaming about gross improbabilities (or impossibilities if I don’t get myself in gear), I need to do both stories justice. The ending of book one was so hard to nail, but talking with several of my beta readers helped cement what I need to do to make it more satisfactory, yet leave readers hungry for the sequel. Now I’ve just got to make that happen, so I can pick right up where I left off on book two. By Saturday.

Picture me biting all my fingernails at once.

So I’m posting a tad earlier than usual in order to fully immerse myself in last year’s novel, and I hope that the next time I crawl out of my writer’s hole to blink at the sun, I will have nothing but positive results. And since sharing goals is a great way to stay on track, here they are:

  • Finish editing book one (soon!)
  • Get it under 100,000 words (I still have 3400 to cut – eek!)
  • Write seamless transition from the first to the second book
  • Write 14,000 words by the end of November 7th

Like I said, it’s daunting and exciting. And did I mention terrifying and exhilarating? Time to go to bed so I can indulge in a few NaNo nightmares.

Happy writing!

When Books Disappoint

English: Open book icon

English: Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so proud of myself earlier this year: I’d created my 2014 book list, and I stuck to it. I read nine of the 23 books on that list in the first quarter of the year. That’s pretty good, right? I could even afford to get a little sidetracked. Which I did as soon as my birthday hit in April. Yes, I kept plugging away at my book list, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to treat myself to some new fiction.

I love books, but I also love my goals – to a fault. I’ll drive myself (and my family) crazy with them. At war with myself over the new books that I want to read and the books that I already own that I should read, usually the new fiction wins. I mean, it has the whole excitement factor with it. And in April, I discovered two new-to-me authors, both young adult. I can blame a movie trailer for one, and the other came recommended by several people. If you read this post in April, you may even know which books I’m talking about.

Being the dutiful goal-reacher that I am, I continued reading whatever it was I was in the middle of at the time, and I let my husband go ahead and read the new books. We were particularly excited about the newly-purchased series, whose first book-to-movie adaptation was due to be released in theatres over the summer.

As soon as Thomas finished the first book and moved on to the second, I had to know: “Was it as good as we thought?”

Poor dude. He didn’t want to burst my bubble. His answer was, “Well, it’s not The Hunger Games or Divergent.”

But of course, what is? I set my standards pretty high, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to read books that are just like the ones that I already like. I want variety, originality. But I also want excellence.

So I eventually got around to the series and plunged right in. It wasn’t a challenging read, but that’s okay. It was more action-oriented, which I already expected, after seeing the movie trailer. It also raised a lot of questions, which I love. But…

I was getting toward the end of the book, pretty much after the big plot reveal. Of course, the plot was still moving forward because there are sequels, but things were winding down. Then something gruesome happened, something that was written purely for its shock value. This one scene was written 1) to freak out the characters and 2) to appeal to the adolescent male readership. Marketing is important; I get it. There was still hope for the overall story. On to Book 2.

The weirdness continued. Gruesome and sometimes unexplainable (or explained on a very rickety foundation) things happened. The characters were baffled, so we were in the same boat. The story ended. The loose ends that got tied up didn’t make much sense. But there was still hope for Book 3.

Can you guess what happened? I was very dissatisfied with the ending of Book 3. And since it’s adolescent lit, I’ll put it in adolescent terms: it sucked.

Now, Sarah, you may be thinking, aren’t you being a little hypocritical? Aren’t you okay with not-happy endings?

Oh, there’s a big difference. If the not-happy ending is justified, if it’s realistic, if it fits with the character of the story, I’ll buy it. I may be very broken up about it, but I’ll bow to the author’s decision. But you know what? I still had an inkling of hope. Because there was a fourth book. Although it’s a prequel and wouldn’t change the crappy ending, I was hoping for some kind of explanation or justification. And the prequel gave an answer – sort of. It was still a very unbelievable premise for why things happened the way they did throughout the series, but I guess for 13-year-old boys, they’d buy it. I mean, people die and get shot up, so it’s all cool, right? I mean, as long as the hero gets the girl (doesn’t matter which girl), we can all go home happy.

I grasped for anything that could save these books in my very discriminating eyes, but a scene in that final book kind of killed the whole series for me. I won’t spoil what actually happened, but I’ll give you a for-instance:

Say we have a novel with zombies. They’re so in right now, so why not? So let’s have our protagonists being chased down a residential street by zombies. The only way they will survive is if they can get inside one of these deserted houses and lock the door. So what do they do? They outrun the zombies and make it into a house, and the zombies are so far behind that they feel pretty good about their hiding place.

Except.

Except the last idiot in through the door neglects to lock it. Not only that – she doesn’t even shut it! So when the zombies catch up, brainless as they are, they’re eventually going to try the wide-open door, right? But that’s okay because it makes for great tension, and when the girl realizes her idiotic mistake and has to kill a zombie in the process of slamming and locking the door, it will bring up all kinds of questions about life and death that she can now explore, and – BOOM! – we have an opportunity for character development.

Wait – you’re not cool with that? It ticks you off that she left the door open because no person in the world would possibly do that? Well, in this book that I read, although there aren’t zombies, something very similar happened, and it ticked me off that an editor would ever let something that flagrantly unrealistic pass. It was a device, and neither a subtle nor a good one, at that.

But, Sarah, these are kids’ books. Don’t be so hard on the author.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yes, kids’ books are written differently because the audience is different, but a terrible device is a terrible device, no matter the target age. And since the advent of Harry Potter, it’s not only become acceptable but expected that parents will read this fiction, too. Not because they’re screening it for their kids (although they do that, too) but for their own enjoyment. And it’s not just the parents. People of all ages, with and without kids, read YA lit now. And they’ve come to expect excellence, just like I do, because audiences of all ages deserve as much, right? So what if 13-year-old boys don’t appreciate all the nuances yet? Give them excellence, and they’ll appreciate it, even if they can’t articulate why. It’s like a taste test. You may not realize how awful that cardboard-tasting cake is until you taste the real thing, but once you’ve had that taste, don’t ever try to pass cardboard for the good stuff again.

I’m glad that people write lit that will excite young boys. What a difficult demographic to please! But after finishing that last book and reading some of the reviews, I saw that I wasn’t the only reader who was underwhelmed. Several expressed the hopes that a fifth book might be published, in order to right all the wrongs of the previous four. Others were outright disgusted in what they’d originally thought was the greatest series they’d ever read. And what’s sad is that it could have been a “greatest series.” I know the author has the talent. There would have been lots of changes, sure, lots of work, but he could have pulled it off.

Oh well, you win some, you lose some, right? It’s not like this is the first time I’ve ever been disappointed. And as my mom tells me whenever I come across something I don’t like, I can at least take notes and know what not to do, myself. So it wasn’t an entirely wasted experience. The author made me care for most of the characters, and the story had some cool elements. It just… wasn’t executed all that well. And I suppose that’s the most annoying part. When something has potential, when it’s grasping but doesn’t quite reach, I’m so much more disappointed than I would be if I had no hope for the book to begin with.

It kind of gives me hope that if those novels can be so successful, maybe someone will look at mine.

Or maybe the author just had a favorite uncle in the publishing industry. Gosh, I’m cynical tonight.

On the bright side, the other novelist I discovered at the time was John Green. And boy, does he ever deliver. So my birthday books weren’t a total bust, after all.