What Comes After NaNoWriMo? (2014 Version)

I won!

I won!

For the third year now, I’ve written a post entitled “What Comes After NaNoWriMo?”, so since we’re into December now, it’s time to post this year’s version. (Read the first two here and here.)

In case it’s your first time stumbling across my blog, and you’re like “NaNo-what?”, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month (which is November). Writers sign up through nanowrimo.org, and starting on November first, they each must write a 50,000-word novel from scratch by November 30th.

In 2012, I thought everyone who participated was crazy. Then last year, I turned into one of those crazy people and wrote 80,000 words by the end of November, and I finished the first draft of that novel in early February. I didn’t know whether I would participate again this year, although my first time was an amazing experience. It just wasn’t one I was sure I could replicate.

Then in the spring, I had an idea for a new novel, but the problem was: could I wait until November? I did discover a way around that problem (read about it here), but as the summer months came and went, I realized that what I really wanted to write this year was the sequel for last year’s NaNo novel. And so when November rolled around, I was ready. Sort of.

Actually, I was stressing over editing the first novel. There were some problems with the end that I had to resolve before being able to start book two. So November first found me making those final changes, and I started NaNoWriMo 2014 with a bang. I wrote over 4000 words, which put me ahead of the game (you need to write 1667 words per day to finish on time, but my personal goal was 2000).

Unfortunately, it was well before the dreaded second week slump that I had my own personal slump. This year, although I enjoyed the writing process, it was a completely different experience than last year. Many days, I struggled to achieve my word count goal, and a couple nights, I didn’t come anywhere close.

It was one day last week when I confided to my husband that I’d finally reached a scene with some action – about 38,000 words in. What that means is that when I go back to edit, I’m going to have to cut out a lot of deadwood. I joked that it would end up being a two chapter novel when I got done with it.

The wonderful thing is that, after that point, I had a much easier time writing this book. If I were able to average 2000 words a day, that would put me at 60,000 words at the end of the month. And as of November 30th, I actually had 61K. The last 20,000 words were the easiest for me to write; it only took me to the end of the month to find my stride.

As with last year, my goal now is to finish the novel. Last year’s novel ended up being 148,000 words, which I have now cut down to 99,000. Still long for a the young adult genre, but it’s a lot tighter than it was. As for this one, I will be surprised if it’s longer than 80,000 words. I hope to finish it by the end of December, if at all possible, and then start editing.

I’m not about to fool myself that this one will be any easier to edit. After having such a hard time finding my momentum, it’s going to need some serious work. But yet again, CreateSpace is offering two free copies to all NaNoWriMo winners who submit by June 30th (see all the winner goodies here). And unlike last year, when I submitted so late that I didn’t have time to fix a submission issue before the deadline, I plan to make it ahead of schedule and actually get those two books for free.

How about the rest of you? Did you struggle like me and keep plugging away? Did you realize your idea wasn’t what you thought and scrap it halfway through? Or did you surpass all your goals and end up with a monster novel on your hands at the end of the month?

And for those of you who still don’t know if you can handle a project of this magnitude, I encourage you to consider signing up next year. And there are a couple opportunities before November when you can sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo and warm up those writing muscles. Why not? You might discover you have some unexpected literary tricks up your sleeves.

Does the Genre Really Matter?

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...

All seven books in the Harry Potter series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanted: Good fiction.

To be more specific, fiction that draws me in right from the start. Fiction in which the characters are believable, in which I can hear the dialogue in my mind. Fiction that makes me think, raises tough questions, makes me cry, makes me emote. Fiction that makes me want to talk to someone else about it. Fiction that saddens me when it’s over.

I like to think that if I were a literary agent, that’s what I would list under my “interests.” Because, try as I might, I can’t pin down a favorite style or genre. Now, there are certain things that I definitely don’t like. Mediocre writing, inconsistency, lack of craft. Like I said, I want the characters to be believable. If the debutante protagonist has never scrambled an egg in her life, I won’t believe it when she whips a six-course meal out of thin air. (Unless she’s magic, of course – and if she is, I better have a hint of it first.) I don’t want adverbs trying to tell me how desperately someone says something. Show me the desperation with a sweaty brow and shaking hands. I don’t want plots that are so insubstantial they can be knocked over by a sneeze.  I don’t want endings that are unrealistically happy or tragedies that are unnecessary, the only point being to make the reader cry.

I really just want a good story, one in which I can forget that I’m reading at all.

This is why labels kind of bother me. Romances, for instance. Label it like that, and I don’t want to read it. Why? Because all the romance novels I saw growing up had half-naked men massaging busty women’s shoulders on their front covers, and I really don’t want to read a novel that’s connected by one sex scene after another. So I was shocked to discover a truly excellent book that is sold in the romance section. Although the story revolves around a love story (or stories, really), it’s so much more than that. I’m speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Or take the case of my friend who told me that he could not stand to read fantasy. Wouldn’t give Harry Potter the time of day because of how it’s categorized. I’ve known other people who won’t read these wonderful books, not because of the fantasy and magic, but because they’re so-called “kids’ stuff.” Well, if kids’ stuff comes with a side of good beating the crap out of evil, I’m on board with it.

How about Stephen King? He’s known as the king of horror, yet while he started that way, his more recent books (and my favorites) are much more sci-fi, fantasy, and I-don’t-know-what. They’re just good stories. Not to mention that the guy knows how to write and how to instruct writers how to write. Chances are, if you call him a hack, you haven’t read much beyond Cujo or Pet Sematary.

When I looked for beta readers for my novel RIP, I decided to go the vague route. People asked, “What’s it about?” or “What genre is it?” I told them that it was young adult, and fortunately, my beta readers were kind enough to read because they know me. One actually told me he wouldn’t have usually read that kind of book, but he was glad that he did. Good thing I kept my mouth shut, right?

But, as I posted a couple weeks ago, I was able to workshop a portion of my novel with an agent, and in my introduction, I told her it was young adult. It was almost as if, by giving that tiny bit of a description, it put blinders on her. My book was much too long. She was unwilling to consider almost anything about the content until I addressed the length. Young adult novels generally have a word count, and mine exceeded it by double. (Nevermind that books like Twilight are half again as long as mine.) Now, she is right: there are many thousands of words that I can cut, but shouldn’t she be trying to sell a story, not a word count? (That’s an issue for another blog.)

This whole issue has gotten me thinking: does labeling novels with a genre help or hinder? If I had just told the agent: here’s the beginning of my novel, would she have judged me for not nailing down a genre?

I don’t go through bookstores and read book jackets or first pages until I find something I think I want, but many other people find their books by following this practice. (Or if not in a bookstore, online.) What about someone who only picks books from the Christian lit shelves? This person might never consider reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series because it’s sold as young adult and dystopian – would completely miss the way that Roth’s Christianity colors her novels.

While talking books with a friend recently, we got onto young adult lit, specifically John Green‘s books (which are awesome, by the way – do yourself a favor, and read them). My friend said, in a semi-surprised tone, that he’d gone on a young adult lit binge lately. And he’s in his forties with no kids. I find this wonderful – that a book written “for” an audience in their teens can speak to such a wider audience.

Of course, I totally get that if there were no classifications, I could very well mistakenly shop my novel with agents who are only interested in political thrillers or erotica. And marketing is another issue. No matter what, there are people who will refuse to read anything except X, even though they would really enjoy Y, if only they would give it a chance.

But it seems, in the effort to makes genres more attractive to more people, sub-genres have to be added. You ought to check out this list from Writer’s Digest. And it’s not even complete! I just heard of a new genre called New Adult. Each genre and sub-genre has its own little specifications, and if you hope to publish, you have to try to fit the mold. Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I just want to write or read a good book? What if I want to mull it over afterward and then say, “I think I just read a really good Western. Who knew? I never thought I would enjoy a book like that.”

All I’m asking for is a little bit more of an open mind. From agents, publishers, and readers, alike. Hey, I’ll try to have one, too.

I suppose this is why I’m not a big publishing executive. The bottom line is important, I know. Believe me, I want to make a living in this business, too. But at the end of the day, piles of money aren’t going to captivate me. But a great story will every time.

One of My Least Favorite Things


Rejection (Photo credit: amanda farah)

I usually don’t procrastinate, unless it’s on a personal project with no hard deadline. Then I become a pro. Like querying literary agents. Yes, I finally did it (two rounds this year, actually), but I could have started a month earlier. I figured no one could reject me if I didn’t submit any queries. Once I made peace with the idea that my inbox would soon be filled with little pink slips, however, I got to work.

I didn’t submit willy-nilly, though. The agent has to be pretty enthusiastic about young adult lit (lukewarm doesn’t cut it), but even some agents that represent young adult aren’t interested in sci-fi or fantasy. After I went through my new copy of Writer’s Market, highlighting or crossing out, I went back and narrowed my list (checking every one on Preditors & Editors first – read why here). For the first round of submissions, I didn’t want to do a lot of work. Well, that’s not quite it. Writing a query is a lot of work, which is what last week’s post was all about. In one page, you have to introduce yourself, tell about your pertinent publishing history (if any), explain why you like the agent, and then say enough about your book to make an agent interested enough to ask for the rest of it. And just in case there’s some literary agent grapevine where they compare notes and giggle about the stupid mistakes authors make, I tried to make each query slightly different. I skipped over agencies that requested exclusive submissions. Those will go last because the response times can sometimes take months. I also skipped those who requested mailed submissions because, well, I was being lazy. And I temporarily ignored those pesky agencies that can’t live with a query and sample chapters, the ones who actually want a synopsis of the whole novel.

When it comes to writing, I’ll take a novel over a synopsis any day. There is little harder for me to do than cram a summary of my tens-of-thousands-of-words story into a tiny space – oh and by the way, make it catchy, too.

I knew I would have to do it eventually. As much as writing a synopsis is like pulling teeth, I didn’t want to take the chance of submitting to those agencies without one and offending them, nor did I want to avoid them altogether (and a potential, although not likely, sale). Besides, during the almost-two-year period when I contracted with a scammer agent, my first assignment was to write a synopsis, anyway. The scammer forwarded five articles with tips about synopsis writing. Even if the articles wouldn’t write the synopsis for me, I figured they would give me a clear direction. Ha.

The direction turned out to raise more questions than answers. Of the five articles, there were at least three different ideas about how to format a synopsis and the proper length. One stated that some people go by the rule of one page of synopsis for every twenty-five pages of manuscript –but went on to say that that’s probably too much for most agents and editors. (Questioning my agent didn’t help; she was absolutely clueless – didn’t the articles give me enough conclusive info? I should have started running, then.)

I did the best I could, and only after my synopsis was critiqued did I find out that my agent needed it to be under two hundred words. Um, that’s quite a departure from one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of manuscript (especially considering my manuscript was over three hundred at the time).

When I read someone else’s manuscript, there are certain things that I expect, that I believe most editors and agents expect, too. There are the general things that matter, such as double-spacing, using a legible 12-pt font (like Times New Roman or Courier), one-inch margins on all four sides, name and contact information somewhere in the header, and a heading with name and title on any pages after the first. Page numbers are a must, and I prefer a word count, although I’ll let it slide if it’s included in the cover letter. Although not following these universally expected guidelines isn’t enough to make me reject a story outright, seeing crazy fonts in a lot of different colors, for instance, will make me less friendly toward the manuscript I’m about to read.

So when it comes to synopses, is the same true? To me, it doesn’t really matter if the title is in all caps or if a character’s name is capitalized the first time it’s mentioned – especially considering these were two points that seemed very important in some of the “helpful” articles I read and not worth mentioning in others. In my opinion, if an agent has such specific expectations, they should be spelled out in the submission guidelines. Or I could just play it safe and write my synopsis half a dozen ways and submit them all, just to cover every possible formatting opinion. I couldn’t possibly be rejected for doing that, could I? Well, yes, I could, and I have rejected people for writing like insecure idiots. Two things drive me nuts: the person who should write “there” but uses “their” and “they’re,” too, because he can’t figure out which is right and the person who doesn’t trust that the words are getting the message across and resorts to excessive italics, underline, bold, and two or more paragraph styles to make it look interesting. At that point, I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t care enough about the craft to learn how to write properly.

So here I am, wondering if my synopsis (which looks okay to me) shows me as an author who is not ready for print. Unfortunately, rejection slips are never so specific. I’m sorry, Ms. Cotchaleovitch, your synopsis was so poorly written that I could not stomach the rest of your submission. But there is some consensus out there. A synopsis does need to be short. Sorry, wordsmiths. I am one of the wordiest people out there, so it’s hard for me to swallow that one, too. But you don’t want your synopsis dumped in the slush pile because it looks like a short story (or worse, a novella). More important than the length, however, is that it has a catchy opening (the hook), and that it is clear and concise. Trim all the fat – extraneous adjectives, adverbs, and interjections such as this one – from your synopsis, and when you think it’s lean enough, go back and trim some more. It’s not necessary to name every character and outline every subplot. What gets the protagonist from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end)? If it doesn’t follow that path, save it for the story (and make doubly sure it really belongs there, too). Then have someone read it. Joe Reader is fine. It helps to get honest feedback from someone who knows nothing about the story. It might hurt, but it’s better to hear the bad news from a friend and fix it before you send it out.

I dug up my old synopsis, but since leaving the scammer agent two-and-a-half years ago, my novel has undergone two revisions, and it was almost useless to me. Actually, what helped me most was going back to my query, reading my brief description, and elaborating from there. Then I cut and cut and cut some more until I got it a little shorter than two pages. Then into cyberspace and the mail my queries and synopses went. Now, my fingers are crossed.

Read the Submission Guidelines First, Folks

Teen and Young Adult Fiction

Teen and Young Adult Fiction (Photo credit: Blue Train Books)

I haven’t kept up with my blog this past week, but it’s for a good reason, I promise. Or at least the original intent was good.

You see, a writer friend posted something on Facebook about Harper Voyager, an imprint of the publisher HarperCollins, allowing unagented submissions of science fiction and fantasy for the first two weeks of October. When I first read it, I thought it was too good to be true. But then I saw that it included young adult fiction, and I have a young adult fantasy novel that I’ve been peddling to different agents for years. Two babies and an almost-two-year stint with a scammer agent have caused several hiccups on my road toward hopeful publication, but I recently became enthusiastic again. And why search for an agent if a publishing house is seeking submissions?

There was one stipulation that made me hesitate, and it was that the manuscripts that are chosen will be printed digitally. My dream has always been to see my book on a shelf in a bookstore or clutched in an eager reader’s hands, but I figured I had nothing to lose. Getting my foot in the publication door in any way possible would segue into traditional publishing later, I hoped. So I pulled out my manuscript and went back to the beginning, working on one final revision.

It has not gone as quickly as I hoped. I have sacrificed a lot of extracurricular activities (such as writing this blog) to proofread and edit. On a really productive night, I might get through twenty-five to thirty pages (and my manuscript is over two hundred forty double-spaced pages). I told myself I needed to have it done as early during the submission window as possible, so I wouldn’t kill myself to do one last proofread before the deadline. But with an ending that I’ve recently changed and little time to devote to polishing it, it’s become the last-minute rush that I feared. And I didn’t want to blow it by turning in a manuscript that read like I was flying by the seat of my pants.

The deadline is this Sunday. Optimistically, I thought I might finish editing by tomorrow (Wednesday), as long as that pesky new ending didn’t trip me up. Then it occurred to me that I really would be in panic mode if I tried to submit it on the last day, only to find out they required a synopsis, too. And there is nothing I loathe more than writing a synopsis (but that’s for another blog).

What was it about today that made me finally look up the submission guidelines? Was it God’s cruel trick, since I’m so close to the end of my revision? I guess it’s better finding out today rather than Saturday or Sunday. Finding out what? you ask. That I’ve been working my butt off, trying to trim my book to under sixty-six thousand words, and Harper Voyager requires a minimum of seventy thousand, although they prefer eighty to one hundred, that’s what. Usually, my problem is that I am too verbose, so I have struggled to take the axe to my poor literary babies. And this time, all that hard work has put me out of the running for a potentially career-changing opportunity. Now, I can come up with fluff all day long, but when it comes down to it, I need to be true to my story. It started out at over seventy thousand words, but over the years and after much editing, it has come to life only after I’ve pared it down and chiseled away the rough edges. And it fits right into the conventionally accepted length for young adult fiction. Why Harper Voyager doesn’t have a separate requirement for young adult fiction, I don’t know. . . but I have a good guess.

I am one of many readers for the University of North Florida’s online literary journal Fiction Fix, and let me tell you that we receive a ridiculous number of submissions—and we’re not big like Glimmer Train or HarperCollins. Like the Field of Dreams, if you publish it, they will submit. Manuscripts, that is. Good, bad, grammatically depraved, eloquently penned, we get it all. And although our submission guidelines are not all that stringent, I can attest that there are times when the format (or lack of format) of a particular story decides whether it stays or goes. No, we don’t require twelve-point Times New Roman, double-spaced, but if an author decides to single space some eleven-point font or smaller, I’m probably going to get a headache and say, Why didn’t you have more respect for the person who would have to read this? No! And what makes the people at Harper Voyager any different? Their submission guidelines are there to help them control the quality and quantity of what they have to read.

While lamenting to my mother this afternoon about the whole debacle (and admittedly feeling a tiny bit of relief that I am not going to kill myself, after all, to meet the deadline), I laid out all the facts. My story fit all the criteria listed; in fact, it seemed as if Harper Voyager was talking to me, like it knew about my story and wanted me to submit it. Except for that itsy bitsy thing about the word count. (And did I mention it’s the first thing listed on their submission guidelines?) Maybe if I did a good job of pleading my case, they would make an exception for me, right? I mean, after all, J.K. Rowling broke the rules and submitted Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Book 1)
to an agent who didn’t generally consider that kind of fiction, and look where she is today. By not submitting, am I missing out on my own J.K. Rowling moment?

Mama pointed out to me that they will probably receive so many submissions that they will be looking for excuses to reject manuscripts. Can’t meet the number one requirement on our list? Out! Don’t care if it is the best young adult manuscript ever—learn to color inside the lines like all the other kids!

Does this make them hateful and limiting? I don’t think so; it’s a business decision, to which there are natural consequences, such as being rejected for submitting something that doesn’t meet all the requirements. And I would encourage anyone who does have a manuscript that qualifies to give it a whirl—what can it hurt? As for me, I can still try the agent route. Or I could publish on my own, who knows? One thing I know for sure, I am going to read the submission guidelines first from now on, so as to curb the headaches and heartache that come with striving toward a useless goal. And I am still motivated to write, with or without Harper Voyager as the carrot dangling in front of me, thank goodness.

I am moving on, publication or not. Time to write.