friday5 for May 27, 2016

What happens when you mix the Friday5 with The Writer's Arsenal? Why, an all writing-related edition of the Friday5, of course! And since this is primarily an author blog, I'm assuming you won't mind the diversion.

When people find out I'm a writer, not all, but many mention that they'd love to read something I've written. My usual response is, "well, hopefully one day you'll be able to!" But lately, I've been thinking a lot about ways I can share snippets of my writing with curious friends and family, without sending full manuscripts out all willy-nilly. And that brings me to today's special edition of the Friday5, which is about writing sites. Specifically, sites where writers can share their work. Now, obviously, writers can always share their stuff right on their own personal websites, but it won't have the same exposure or reach as it might on a platform specifically designed for sharing creative works. So today, I'm going to take a look at five such shared writing platforms, and maybe, whether you write as a hobby or in pursuit of publication, you'll find a good place to share a taste of your own work. 

1. WATTPAD

Admittedly, I haven't researched the numbers, but Wattpad claims to be the biggest writing community out there, and as far as web presence goes, I'd have to agree. If you know any of the sites on this list, you probably know Wattpad. From fiction to fanfiction to just about anything else your imagination can conjure, Wattpad is ready and waiting for your creativity. I don't have any personal experience using Wattpad, but it's the go-to for a lot of collaborations with publishers when it comes to contests, and sometimes even book deals. I will probably give it more of a look one day, but for now, I have a few other sites I find myself more drawn too (see below).

2. FIGMENT

Figment is the first website of this type I've ever personally used. It's targeted at YA, which is a natural match for my writing, and it also has a heavy emphasis on Fantasy and Sci-Fi (again, a good match). It's YA slant is obvious right from the homepage, with a fun, youthful design, and links to create, read, and participate in polls, quizzes, and contests. A contest is actually what first drew me to Figment, and the short sci-fi story I wrote for it, while not chosen for an anthology they were putting together, did earn me a personal email from the author judging the contest, noting that she loved my story, but it was too similar to another story in the anthology. So, Figment will always hold a special place in my heart because of that.  

3. FICTIONPRESS

If you're not one for flashy graphics and other distractions, FictionPress is probably the site for you. We're talking bare bones, with an emphasis on category fiction and poetry. Not a lot else to say about this one, but I did want to include a site that gets to the point, and is reminiscent of what fanfiction sites used to be back in the day before website design got all super fancy on us. 

4. SCRIBOPHILE

What sets Scribophile apart from the other sites is its emphasis on reading and critiquing the works of other writers. In their own words, "Scribophile is a respectful online writing workshop and writer’s community. Writers of all skill levels join to improve each other’s work with thoughtful critiques and by sharing their writing experience."  In fact, you can't even post your own writing to Scribophile until you've earned "karma points" by reading others' works. If you're looking for a site where your writing won't just sit there unread, Scribophile might be a good option, but you do have to give a little to get a little, which, let's face it, should always be the case, right? 

5. STORYBIRD

Finally we arrive at what's probably my favourite shared writing site, Storybird. What sets Storybird apart from the others? Well, for one, it's just so damn pretty. And there's something about that little blue bird that just makes me want to create adorable stories. Storybird has a whole visual element to it that the other shared writing sites don't quite capture. It's where authors and illustrators can come together to create beautiful stories and share them with a young, vibrant community of readers and fellow artists. I heart it.

So, to bring this whole thing full circle, I'm going to go back to what I said above about people asking to read my work. Well, now you can sample a taste, both here on the website, and on Figment. To read samples of my works here on the website, please click on the BOOKS link at the top (or, if you're too lazy for that, I'll include links below too). There you'll find the same story synopses I've always had here on the site, but you'll also find new links to samples from each of my completed works. The selections featured here on the site have been taken from varying points in each book, but if you'd like to read the first chapter of each book, you'll also find a link to those on Figment. As always, I'm happy to hear feedback from anyone who takes a look. Happy reading, and if you plan on checking out any of the above sites, happy writing! I'd love to hear about any experiences, good or bad, in the comments, along with any links anyone would like to share to their work!

Read a selection from Shimmer and Shade
Shimmer and Shade, first chapter on Figment

Read a selection from Skin Deep
Skin Deep, first chapter on Figment

Read a selection from The Broken Season
The Broken Season, first chapter on Figment

Read a selection from This Hideous Heart
This Hideous Heart, first chapter on Figment


HAPPY WEEKEND!

the writer's arsenal: nothing is loved by everyone

It's been a while, but The Writer's Arsenal is back. I've got a whole slew of new writing/publishing related topics I'm looking forward to covering here on the blog, but as always, if there's anything about writer's craft, the industry, query process, whatever that you'd like to know more about, please leave a request in the comments or use the contact form and I'll be happy to cover it in a future post.

Today I want to talk about something I've undoubtedly touched on in the past, but this post is going to go into things a little more in-depth, and that's rejection.

Let me assure you, nobody likes being rejected, but absolutely everybody experiences it at some point or another. Writers (and artists in general) especially need to learn to live with it, because it's something you will continue to experience every step of the way.

Anyone who has queried a novel knows that receiving rejections is par for the course. Some authors manage to luck out with regards to timing, and they hit the right agent at the right time, receiving an offer of representation without having first received many "No thank you"s. But that's just luck and timing. If they'd done things another way, the number of rejections could have easily gone up, and for most authors querying, it does. In fact, for most authors, the number is in the dozens, or easily hundreds. Sometimes it's because the book isn't ready to be published, but a lot of the time, it's just a matter of taste--just a matter of finding the right person. And in the end, it's a good thing. Because a writer wants and needs an agent who loves their writing enough to fight for it. The agents who reject a manuscript weren't the right people for the job. Though unfortunate, it's a good thing they're passing. 

But then let's say, you finally land an agent. Hooray! No more querying! No more "No thank you"s! Except, now you have to submit to publishers, and the song and dance continues. As someone who's been on sub for a while, I know it all too well. And while it's always disappointing to receive a pass (even if it's accompanied by praise and helpful feedback), I know it's for the best. I want an editor who loves my books, loves my voice, and will want to work with me on future projects. If they can't see my potential, they won't be a great editor for me to work with.

Okay, so, let's say your book sells--yes, you've finally made it! The days of rejection are truly over now! Except...they're not. As any published author will tell you, the day your book hits the shelves (or sometimes beforehand, if advance reader copies go out) is the day the reviews start trickling (or hopefully pouring) in. Some of them will be glowing. Some of them won't. Agents rejected you, editors rejected you, and yes, now readers are rejecting you. A lot of writers find this extremely frustrating, and I can't really blame them. How can some people think your book is amazing while others feel it's utter garbage? Well, it's for the same reason some of us love sushi and some of us think it's disgusting. We all have different tastes, and authors absolutely must maintain that tough outer shell that got them through the query process, and find a way to accept the bad with the good, especially since some of the bad you'll see is just people trolling. Sad as it is, people will leave scathing reviews just to get a reaction. And if for no other reason, that's why you simply can't take it to heart. 

In May of last year, I saw something on TvLine.com that struck me so deeply that I grabbed a screen cap to keep as a reminder. David Letterman's final episode of The Late Show had just aired and having missed it myself, I was reading a recap of the show, and then scrolled down to the comments, where I saw this:

Source:  TvLine.com

Source: TvLine.com

Wow. Just wow. I see comments like this often. An article gets posted, and somebody in the comments rails on it. But there was something about this one that really stayed with me. David Letterman had been hosting The Late Show for 22 seasons. He was a late night icon. Of course, there were people who liked his style, and people who didn't, but here it was, his final episode, a time to recognize what an accomplished career he's had, and there in the comments was someone who not only bothered to say he didn't care for it, but qualified that comment by saying he's not a fan to begin with! In one fairly succinct comment, this guy captured what writers need to keep in mind whenever they read a rejection or negative review of something they've written. Some people simply don't like certain things. And even though they don't like them, they still take the time to write a negative review. This comment might as well have said, "I hated this Sci-Fi book, but I'm not a Sci-Fi fan." Of course, most rejections and negative reviews don't bother to mention that second part, but it's important to keep it in mind. 

Of course, there are people who will recommend that authors don't read reviews at all. I think that's a mistake though, because I think feedback is how we learn and grow. As a writer AND editor, I want to know what people don't like about something I've written because I want to be able to make it better. Be it for revisions, or the next book I write, I want to keep an open mind and improve, even if I know I'll still never be able to make everybody happy. The key to dealing with negative reviews isn't to not read them, it's to not let yourself get baited. Thank people for their praise, and then just let the negative comments exist. Read them with an open mind, remind yourself that people have different tastes, take in anything you can learn from, and then move on. 

Rejection is unavoidable. Even NYT bestsellers receive bad reviews. But those aren't the people you're writing for, right? Just remember, nothing is loved by everyone. And that's okay. The world would be a boring place if that weren't true. The people who love your books are the people who matter most, so keep your focus on them, and keep writing!

 

the writer's arsenal: bookmark these now, thank me later

I've talked a lot about the importance of getting yourself organized when you're setting out to write a book and today I want to give a shoutout to the top five tools I personally use and have come to rely on during my writing process (all of which I'm recommending of my own free will--no product placements here, folks!).

1. TRELLO

Oh, Trello. There are days when I still can't believe you're real. I've tried a lot--A LOT--of different outlining tools over the years. I don't think I could ever possibly list them all. But none have met my needs the way Trello has. It allows you to create these things called Trello boards, which are basically giant bulletin boards where you can pin cards under different columns. I used to only use it for laying out chapter breakdowns, but now I use it for everything. Cause why not? It's so much easier when you have everything you need in one place. I create a board for each book I'm working on, then within the board, I create character lists, chapter breakdowns, a place for snippets of text (cause sometimes you think of perfect dialogue before you've written a scene), and any other things I need to keep handy (locations, facts, timelines, continuity checks, etc). I also use it for new book ideas, marketing ideas, home renovation projects (yes, that is unrelated, but that's just how diverse this tool is! I can even share the home reno stuff with the husband so we can collab on it together!)

Here's a pared down sample of what my story boards look like:

So yeah, it's awesome. Plus, once you set up an account, you can use it via your web browser, your phone, or your tablet (it's even on Kindle!) and everything syncs seamlessly. Oh, and it's free! They do have a paid service called Trello Gold, which I'm sure is a really powerful tool for businesses that require lots of people to collaborate on massive projects, but for writers who want a space to map out their thoughts, the free version is all you need.

2. WERDSMITH

I'm not using Werdsmith as much these days now that I've migrated almost everything to Trello, but sometimes I still want a space where I can do some writing on the fly. For me, Werdsmith has risen above the rest when it comes to writing apps because it's clean, simple, and it works. I can write something on my iPhone while out shopping (cause sometimes you think of brilliant plot twists in the middle of the cereal aisle) and it's there on my iPad when I get home. A few extras that put this app above the rest include word count goals and an idea-to-project-based structure that makes Werdsmith a good place to brainstorm and then run with your brilliance when you're ready.

3. MULTCLOUD

Don't even try to tell me you don't use more than one cloud service. I know you do. We all do. Sometimes because it's forced upon us (Google, Apple, etc) and sometimes because we want to stick to the free version of each and then run out of space. And that's not even to mention that some cloud services just plain old function differently than others, and meet certain needs better than others. If that sounds even remotely familiar than you should probably start using Multcloud, an online tool that lets you manage most of your cloud services in one place. Need to move files from one cloud to another? Multcloud makes that super easy. Want to backup your novel to more than once location? Save it to one of your cloud services and then easily drop copies anywhere you want to keep a backup.

4. RAINY CAFE

There isn't much to say about this website beyond the fact that it provides really good creative white noise. Do you enjoy working to the dull roar of a busy coffee house? Are you inspired by the sound of rain and gentle thunder? Rainy Cafe provides either (or both at the same time!). If you, like me, concentrate better with a little something to block out your actual environment (and find music only helps when you're writing certain scenes), then Rainy Cafe is probably the answer to your concentration woes. Check it out.

5. TRESORIT

Yes, I know I've already covered cloud storage with my shoutout to Multcloud, but I have to give an honourable mention to Tresorit, which I've mentioned before, because unlike the cloud services you can sync with Multcloud, Tresorit is super secure cloud storage done right. I like to keep anything I consider to be highly sensitive material in Tresorit, including an extra backup of each of my novels. It has fantastic encryption and is perfect for those files you really want to lock up tight. Just don't forget your password. Just kidding. I think there's way to deal with that... I think.

So there they are--my top five writing tools! Do you have any specific tools/resources you've come to depend on during your writing (or working) process? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

the writer's arsenal: digital baggage


Writers today have a plethora of digital tools at their disposal to, ideally, make their lives easier when it comes to mapping out ideas, and writing anywhere, anytime. (That's right. Plethora. Thank you, online thesaurus, for example!) But this is one of those cases where too much can potentially be a bad thing, or at least, a complicated thing, involving too many software and service options.

I recently downloaded a master password keeping app (1Password if you're interested), deciding it was time to get the minefield that is my online identity organized. The very thought of all those accounts I have out there (plus the ones I've made and undoubtedly forgotten about) is overwhelming. Services, online shops, online banking, site logins--the list goes on. Thanks to the master app, I'm now starting to feel a bit more organized with all my accounts and passwords (which I beefed up in the process) in one place, but the exercise has also brought to my attention the vital importance of a little digital housekeeping from time to time.

It's time to leave some of that baggage behind...

If spring is the time to clean house, then I propose fall be the time to organize the scope of our digital lives. I firmly believe organization is the key to productivity so if you're having trouble in that area or even if you're just feeling bogged down by all the services you're signed up for, here are a few tips to get you moving in a better direction:

1. Are your apps holding you back? Mine were. And not just because I didn't have enough space to upgrade the software on my iPhone. I simply had too many apps kicking around that I downloaded to "check out", but the problem was, most of them had been downloaded for the same purpose--I wanted somewhere to write on the go. But after a while, I had so many of them that I couldn't remember which was which. I couldn't remember which ones I liked. I couldn't remember which ones I'd synced to the cloud or which ones were even capable of that. It was time for a major purge. After categorizing my various apps into folders, I started the process of opening each one to remind myself of how it worked and whether or not I liked using it. If anything about it didn't meet my needs, I ditched it. Even if there were aspects of it I did like, I don't have time for multiple apps that do the same thing. In the end, I isolated a trio of writing apps that each serve a distinct purpose, including one for writing on the go, and I trashed the rest, deleting related accounts as I went. I then did this with the rest of my apps, cleaning up anything I wasn't really using. I could already feel the digital burden on my shoulders getting lighter.

2. Next up was cloud storage services. Most of us don't only subscribe to one, even if we didn't make that decision consciously. But doesn't it feel a bit scattered to have your online storage be so, well, scattered? I found myself signed up for several of these online storage services (again to try them out in an effort to find the one I liked best, or sometimes because of a promotion offering extra GBs for free). It got to be a bit much. So I made a list of all the services I was signed up for and started to cull the list where I could (again, closing the accounts of anything I no longer planned to use). I still find myself with multiple accounts--Google Drive, iCloud, and a few others can be unavoidable--but the ones I've kept each serve a distinct purpose and now that I've got myself organized, I can start to use each one more effectively than ever (including the use of a highly secure service, Tresorit, to back up my most sensitive documents).

3. Email. Oh email. You started out so simple once upon a time. I had one email address to meet all my needs. But that has somehow spiralled out of control to the point where I have several. As with cloud storage, there is a certain amount of necessity to it, with different emails being used for different purposes, but still, there are extras that can go. Again, I made a list of all the email accounts I've accumulated over the years so that I can decide which ones to keep and which to shut down. Even if you find yourself keeping several, as I did, it's good to have them catalogued in some way, to have them on your radar, and again, to take the opportunity to strengthen any passwords that you created back before online security was the issue it is today.

4. Which brings me to my final (for now) note about digital baggage--if you're anything like me, you have more miscellaneous online accounts than you can account for (see what I did there?). It's not easy, but it's really important (and ultimately very rejuvenating) to make a list of all the online accounts you can think of, make sure that you close accounts you don't use anymore, and securely lock down anything you do (especially if it's linked to personal information or banking info). Trust me, the very act of having an inventory of all the accounts you own goes a long way toward feeling more organized and in control of your digital footprint.

Now that that's taken care of, I can focus on writing my next WIP, and because of the work I put into cataloging/culling things now, the exercise of tidying things up again next year should be a breeze :)

What do you do to keep your digital baggage from getting too heavy?



the writer's arsenal: pitch, query, back cover copy


Call it whatever you want--as a writer, at some point, you're going to have to sum up your story in a few short, hooky paragraphs. Starting out, you'll need this fine-tuned pitch or query blurb when you're approaching agents, then publishers (though once you have an agent, they will often help you position it to perfection!), and ultimately, if you land that elusive book deal, it will likely be the beginning of what copywriters will eventually turn into magical back cover copy a.k.a. those enticing lines on the back of book that make you decide to pop it in your cart instead of returning it to the shelf.

Many authors find it easier to write a multi-page synopsis than a shorter pitch (not to mention those one-liner loglines!), though I hear complaints about having to write all of the above. It's true that writing a pitch or synopsis requires a different skill set than writing a novel. A novel is pure creative whimsy while a pitch is a marketing piece. But that doesn't mean both aspiring and experienced authors don't need to know how to do it all. I know I don't have to tell you how important self-marketing is in today's publishing landscape. In fact, it really couldn't be more important. It's not enough to write your book, you need to be able to sell it--first to an agent, then to a publisher and then to a slew of readers, which might end up being the hardest sell of all.

Because so many authors find it so hard to writing a pitch, they often wait until a book is complete before they write it. Makes sense, right? Why write a blurb about a book when you don't even know how it's going to end? Well, my answer to that, being an outliner, is that you probably should have an idea as to how it's going to end, at least enough of one that you could write an enticing couple of paragraphs. For the first three novels that I wrote, I actually found it helpful to write the pitch first, with the primary focus on: what is the primary hook of this story? Were they perfect representations of the books I was about to write? No, but there was also nothing wrong with tweaking them as I went. The reason I found writing them first so helpful is because they helped me to stay focused. Outlines are great. I'm a big fan. But sometimes when you're writing, it's extremely helpful to read a succinct snapshot of what's at the heart of the story. It's always helped me to stay on track. In fact, the blurb I have posted here on the site for Skin Deep is extremely close to the original version I wrote before I dove in on chapter one of that book.

For my current WIP, tentatively titled You'll Never Know Me, I found myself at a complete loss trying to write a pitch before starting the story. It was the first time that had ever happened to me. I knew what I wanted the story to be about, but I had a difficult time coming up with the right words to describe it. You'll Never Know Me is my first real foray into writing straight-up contemporary YA and I think that had a lot to do with my inability to write the blurb up front. With both Unnatural and Skin Deep, I knew the hook. Each is a fantasy and the hook that drives each story is really clear. With YNKM, it's a far more character-driven story, and the hook seemed far more intangible at first. But now I find myself sitting close to the halfway mark and suddenly, everything seemed to fall into place. I just needed to hit the point in the first draft process where the big picture started to really come together.

Though my first dip into the contemporary YA pool has been more of a slow wade than a dive, having a blurb (which I can now reference) prepared gives me a lot more confidence in the direction I'm headed. I feel more steady about everything that's yet to be written. And if for no other reason (though it's just nice to have it nailed down), I think that's an excellent argument for forcing yourself to write that pitch/query/blurb/whatever you want to call it well before you finish writing the book. You might just find it pulling you up and over when that inevitible case of writer's block hits.

So without further ado, here is the (working draft) pitch for my first contemporary YA, You'll Never Know Me:
Louise Dunn hasn't recognized the world around her since the morning after her brother Neil’s senior prom, when she discovered his drowned body on the front lawn, with no explanation for how it got there. Buried beneath a grief she can’t seem to surface from, she stumbles through the ensuing summer, seeking solace in anything that can’t get inside her head. Then she discovers a hidden journal in Neil’s room, along with a stack of unfamiliar comic books, and everything changes.

It was no secret that Neil was gay. He’d come out the year before his death. But as Louise delves deeper into his pastimes and relationships, she discovers that maybe she didn’t know him as well as she thought, and what’s worse—things might’ve been different if she had. Between a series of unsettling encounters with Neil’s ex, and a sudden, unexpected connection with Matt, the fanboy clerk at the local comic shop, Louise finds she’s increasingly unable to ignore the tragedy that’s slowly suffocating her, and the walls she’ll have to tear down before she can start to live again.


 

the writer's arsenal: the fly on the wall


Let your reader be a fly on the wall

Write what you know. It's one of the most common pieces of advice that writers are given. And no, it's not just meant to save you time on research. That's important too. Write what you know doesn't necessarily mean write your life story (though for some people it does, and those stories can be quite compelling). Authors write about all kinds of things that have never happened to them personally, but that doesn't mean they aren't writing with an authenticity that keeps the reader believing they could have. Write what you know simply means don't stray too far from yourself when you're writing. That thing everyone talks about called voice? That's actually just you. That's the authenticity you can bring to a story by putting a piece of yourself in the writing. The one thing you have as a writer that nobody else has is your unique perspective based on your lifetime of experiences. That's your advantage and it should be a part of everything you write. That's writing what you know. 


Regardless of how fantastical your plot may be, you want your reader to feel like a fly on a very real wall. You want them to feel like they're not just reading a story, they're stepping into a rich, colorful, fully-developed world and are spying on it for a while, if not stepping right into the shoes of your protagonist. I'm not a vampire, or an astronaut, or a twelve-year-old boy, and simply outlining what those beings are like isn't enough to grab my attention. What does is the magic that mixes our world and the other--the voice that connects "I know nothing about this" with "But I'd like to learn more" and "There's something about this that I can relate to". If an author doesn't put a piece of their own humanity into their story, doesn't "write what they know", it'll show and the story will be weaker for it. The plot will be there, but the life behind it will fall flat, lacking in the kind of compelling voice that engages us to keep turning the pages. There's nothing wrong with being inspired by other authors, but make sure your writing always comes from a place that's authentically you. Giving your story a real voice is the best thing you can do.

the writer's arsenal: you are not an island

I know what you're thinking. Where's the Friday5? Right? ;) Well, I've given it some thought, and right now, I really only have time to blog once a week (I'm hoping that will change one day, but alas, truths are better accepted than denied... Whoa! Where did that come from? I've been watching too much Downton Abbey/Game of Thrones/Britishy stuff). If I blog once a week, and it's always an edition Friday5, I'll never get around to blogging about anything else! So I'm going to switch it up from time to time and do a Friday5 when there's some awesome news to report (not that there isn't this week...) and then throw in a few regular posts for variety. Today, I'm in the mood for a long-overdue edition of The Writer's Arsenal so let's get to it!


You are not an island...but you could end up on one.

I've talked before about writers vs. authors and what I personally think the difference is. In short, writers write to write, while authors write to be published (Huh. That was easy--maybe I didn't need to write that post!). Today I want to touch briefly on the subject of authors in the public space. I say briefly because it’s a topic that’s been covered elsewhere, and covered well, but I want to add my two cents because good advice bears repeating.

If you write to be published, please, please, PLEASE be mindful of the self you portray online--even if you’re not yet published. Yes, even if “nobody reads my blog anyway”. It seems simple and yet so many authors get it wrong. Famed actors will often talk about how the downside to their chosen career is the forfeit of their privacy. The reasonable ones accept it for what it is—part of the job. Others can’t seem to grasp the necessity of a public persona, go on to behave ridiculously and then blame the media for invading their privacy. Is it fair that people should have to take on the burden of being scrutinized to do what they love? No. Of course not. But if privacy is important to you, chose a career that’s not in the public eye.  Being watched is PART of celebrity and celebrity is part of the job.

Authors are also in the public eye, though to a lesser extent. Regardless, people ARE watching and so an author too must be on their very best behavior. It doesn’t matter if you’re still on the journey toward being published, a debut author, or an experienced author with many books under your hat. You must—absolutely must—mind your manners in public. And yes, in this case, public means the internet, public engagements, the line at the supermarket, etc. If people can observe your behavior, you need to make sure you give them every reason to like you and no reason to feel incensed by you. Does this mean you can’t ever let off steam? EVER? No, you can, but be SMART about it. Be diplomatic. Write opinion pieces, not rants and be wary of anything that could be too polarizing. If you feel the need to really dig in bitterly on a subject, do it in private.


How you present yourself in public is part of being an author, just as writing, marketing and sales are also part of the job. Who you are matters to your readers (and potential readers). It’s a saying you’ve heard since you were a child, but it never gets old—if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. At least not in a public arena.   

Of course, all of that is assuming you don’t want to ruin your career ;)

 

the writer's arsenal: room for interpretation


In my post on Query Letter Dos and Don'ts, I touched on the fact that you shouldn't praise yourself in your query. I want to expand on that a little bit because I see writers doing it wrong all the time. The rule to not praise yourself is twofold--don't praise yourself and don't praise your writing. Just show your hand and leave it up to the agents/editors/readers to judge for themselves.

When it comes to talking about yourself, avoiding self-praise shouldn't be difficult. Just stick to the facts: What's your writing experience? Notice I didn't say, "What's your life story?" or "How awesome do you think you are?" Right, cause nobody needs to know that. In a query letter, you need only list your credentials. Not "I've written the next bestseller". Not "My five divorces have made me super wise in the way of women". And definitely not "You are seriously missing out if you don't take me on because I'm a literary genius". Again, stick to the facts. Let your reader decide whether or not those writing contests you won make you a literary genius. Factual credentials = impressive, even if they're slim. Overstating your brilliance = major turn off.

So then let's talk about that bit of the query where you talk about your book. Writing a good blurb is an art in itself. So is writing a synopsis (and yes, a query blurb and a synopsis are different things--we'll cover that down the line). The blurb needs to tell your reader what your story is about, without just being a bunch of buzz-words. Not "It's a hilarious, touching, awe-inspiring journey through the human condition that will rock the genre to its core". As the author, that's not for you to say. Your blurb should give a sense of the plot and sure, even the themes, without blowing them out of proportion. It needs to walk the fine line between factual and enticing, without forcing subjective opinions into the mix. You can say that your story "explores themes of human frailty", without claiming it will "shatter our current interpretation of human frailty in the modern world". See the difference? If your book is funny, that should be conveyed in your writing, in your voice, in your blurb. It's classic "show, don't tell". Leave it up to the reader to say, "Hey, this sounds funny!"

It's the difference between this:
"Hey guys, wanna know who's hilarious? It's me! I'm hilarious!"

And this:


Okay, maybe you don't find that sailor/pac-man ghost as funny as I do, but that's kind of what I'm getting at here. It's open to interpretation. Don't say you're funny. Be funny. Your query letter, or pitch, is your first impression. You want to make a good one. You don't want to be this guy:

"Who wants to hear some super funny jokes about cancer?"

Semi-related P.S.: You know how some people will occasionally say "that's funny" instead of just laughing at something? I'm totally guilty of that. But I never say it because I'm trying to hide the fact that I didn't think something was funny. Quite the opposite in fact. I usually say it when I'm really impressed by how funny something is. So impressed I need to vocalize my feelings and make it really clear that I think something's funny. Trust me, it makes sense in my head :)



"he's not really into labeling things..."

Disclaimer: Illness refuses to leave my household. It keeps hitting us in waves. I guess this is life with a child in daycare. This post should have fallen back into step with my previous Monday schedule if I hadn't been passed out, sleeping off the latest round of sick. Sigh. To be on the safe side, let's just say, for the next little while, regular posts will irregularly occur on Monday or Tuesday, depending on what's going down... and now back to our irregularly scheduled post...

Everybody knows somebody (maybe even themself) who's been in one of those relationships where, sure, maybe the whole girlfriend/boyfriend thing hasn't been discussed, or they're panning to "see where things go", or are "keeping things casual". Sometimes these relationships develop into something more--maybe it's just a conversation that needs to happen--but often they go down the road of one person convincing him/herself (usually herself--sorry ladies, but we're suckers for romance and you know it!) that there's a commitment developing while the other is continuing to see other people (yeah, that's usually the dude). When you ask your friend how things are going, you get the full-of-denial-reply, "Oh, you know. He's not really into labeling things..." Sure he's not. It has nothing to do with him clinging desperately to his bachelorhood in the face of something he's not ready for...

The reason I bring this up is because we often find ourselves wanting to label things. It helps us compartmentalize, feel in control. It helps us to better understand a given situation. As a writer, I've often encountered times when someone would ask me what I do (or when I was in school, they'd ask what I want to be) and my day job aside, my answer would be one of two words: writer or author.

Is there a difference? I've come to think so. To me, an author is a writer, but a writer isn't necessarily an author. Let me explain. Writers write. They write poetry, the write essays, journals, articles, instruction manuals, marketing copy, novels, etc and so on. Writers are people who write...well, anything really. Authors on the other hand, are what writers become when they've achieved that occassionally-elusive next level of commitment. A lone chapter does not an author make, but a completed work? I think that does.
"Only the most committed authors proceed to down the contents of their inkwell after a solid writing sesh. Darling, please be a dear and ready the stomach pump!"
It can be a fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novel, picture book--published or unpublished--doesn't matter what, but if you haven't finished something, I'd call you a writer, not yet an author. I'm not saying one is better than the other, I'm just saying that's the difference in my mind. It's my personal separation of the two, and feel free to disagree.

That said, when I was in school, even though I'd completed written works (short stories, essays, etc), I still considered myself to be only a writer. I wanted to be an author. It was something I'd talk about in those terms: "I hope to be an author one day" which actually meant "I hope to be a published author one day".  The distinction back then was, published = author; unpublished = writer.

I think that changed around the time I completed my first YA novel. It was such a weighty accomplishment. Even though it wasn't the one that landed me an agent, it was still a tremendous amount of work. It's writing. It's art. And though I'll further revise it one day, right now, I still consider it complete. Finishing it was what made me start to think of myself as an author. And yeah, I think the label is important--it's just not necessarily important to other people. But just as the girl who wants to refer to the guy she's dating as "her boyfriend" views that label with distinction, it's important to me. I don't write as a hobby (well, I do, but not exclusively). I write because I'm an author. I'm a writer and an author.

Where does your distinction between the two land? Or do you consider them interchangeable? If you write, how do you refer to yourself?

the writer's arsenal: revision--because seeing it once isn't enough

There are a lot of blogs covering the topic of revisions at the moment. It makes sense given that December is usually when writers who completed a novel in November are either adding on (since 50k is a little shy of a proper novel, MG and some YA aside) or fixing up the ramble-fest theycreated during the feverdream that is NaNoWriMo.

I'm not going to retread too much on what's already been said. In fact, there's an excellent rundown of revision tips over at the YA Highway with advice from several reputable agents. Oh, and they've got another great post here. And here. But I do have a few thoughts on revisions that I'd like to share. These are from personal experience, both revising my own work and going through the editing process on the work of others. Take what you will from them.

It's time to get our revise-on!

Revision

The word itself is thrown around easily, like so many other writing terms. PlottingCharacter MotivationConflict. But we rarely think of it in its basic sense. Re-vision. You had a vision (your story idea) and you ran with it. Now you're going to go back and take a second look, with a fresh set of eyes. At some point in your revision process, the fresh set of eyes will be an older and wiser version of yourself. At another point, they should be an actual fresh set of eyes (as in, not you; as in, somebody who can read your work critically and give you valuable feedback, which you'll take to heart---and we'll cover in a future post). Regardless of whose eyes are on the page, the experience needs to be an actual re-vision of your original idea. What's here that shouldn't be? What's missing? Well-crafted stories don't just arrive that way, straight out the gate. They need to be revisited, they need to be rethought. Sometimes you can't see the problems in what you've written until after it's all there, teetering unsteadily on a plot that needs to be tightened. To revise is to take a look at your story as a whole and figure out which parts should look differently than they do.

Never Marry an Idea on the First Date

Stories are living things. At least, stories that are still being written are. They grow, they change, and this is a good thing. Sometimes we become attached to our initial plot developments/characters/scene ideas and we cling to them desperately, even when we realize something's not working. There's a little voice in our head suddenly telling us things would make more sense if we headed in a different direction, one that wasn't part of our initial outline. That little voice is your inner-reader. That little voice shouldn't be ignored. It knows from experience what good stories should be. Sometimes it's heartbreaking to give up on a plot thread you deemed brilliant back when you first thought of it, but if that plot thread no longer fits now that your story has taken shape, it needs to go. You shouldn't hang onto something just because it was part of your initial plan. As people grow, their needs change. This is true of stories too. The first 10k of a story has very different needs than a finished first draft. The finished first draft needs you to let go of those early ideas that no longer have a place. Don't leave them in just because they're familiar. They're novel writing baggage. They need to be dumped.

The Voice, The Habits and The Ugly

I've written before about how characters will take on a voice--a life--of their own if you let them. The more you write, the more fully formed they become. They start telling you how they'd react to a given situation. Their voices become authentic, unique, and their dialogue flows because you know just what they'd say. It's a wonderful thing when this happens, both as a writer and a reader. It makes your characters real. When you're revising, it's important to remember that the character you eventually found a voice for, didn't necessarily have such a strong personality from the start. Think of the beginning of your book like it's the pilot episode of a TV series (you know, that initial episode you go back and re-watch and it feels awkward because none of the characters you've come to know and love are really acting like the characters you've come to know and love). The beginning of a story doesn't know what the end of the story knows. You have to go back and inform it. It's very important to revisit the start and work heavily on those first several chapters. That's where your writing will be its weakest. Back before you hit your stride. Put a lot of focus on them and help the voice to be consistent all the way through. Working extra hard on tightening up the first third of your book is all the practice you'll need to tidy up the rest :)

The downside of honing your voice as you write is that you can also fall into bad habits. This is where you start to see word repetition. All writers have favourite words and expressions that they use a lot. It's part of your voice and your style, but it's also a problem if it gets out of hand. Keep an eye out for frequently repeating words or overused phrases. Change them up, switch them out or just plain cut them. The writing will flow once these stumbling blocks are gone. Voice is good. Style is good. But variety needs to exist within these things.

A Few Good Tips

Every writer's revision habits are different. You need to find what works best for you. But here are a few extra pointers to get you started:

  • Keep an open mind. This is a process. As long as you keep a clear head and have a passion for your story, nothing you do to it will make it worse. Embrace change as you recognize the need for it. It's work, but it's worth it.
  • Computer screens can make you crazy. If you revise on screen, be sure to take plenty of breaks and rest your eyes. And use track changes. The last thing you want to do is delete chunks you later decide you need back. I make an effort to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but a lot of the time, I can't do a proper revision unless I do it on paper. I see things on a page that I don't see on a screen. This seems to work for a lot of writers. If you plan to revise on hard-copy, use recycled paper to print on and recycle it once more when you're finished (front and back).
  • Tackle it in waves. Your first read-through should be for big picture problems--plot holes, pacing issues, inconsistencies. Tidy up the soul of your book, then go for the body, the meat. The second read can be for typos, grammar, spelling and those sentences that suddenly don't sound so good when you read them out loud. Then do a third read to check your changes. At this point, it should seem much improved and it's probably time to have someone else take a look, to see what issues they can catch.
  • Question everything you've written. Are the characters consistent in their behavior? Do their motivations make sense? Does the timeline make sense? Does the plot flow well? Is there too much exposition? Are you telling instead of showing? Are there parts that drag? How soon into the story does the reader care about the protagonist/plot? (Hint: it should be the first page) Is there enough conflict to keep things interesting? If there's world building, have you kept to the specific rules of the world you've created? Are there any side characters who really don't need to be there? Does every scene drive the story forward? Does every side plot serve a purpose?
  • Save your drafts as different files. This will allow you to revisit that previously mentioned novel writing baggage should you miss it and it'll make it easier for you to move on, knowing it's still somewhere (sure, it's not part of the final draft, but who says you can't still keep it around, like that ex-boyfriend shoebox in your closet, full of letters and mementos). It will also save you a huge headache if you need to recall something you removed in a later draft. And hey, should your novel be published, you've potentially got deleted scenes to share!
  • Finally, take your time. This isn't a race. I know I'm always anxious to reach that finish line, but rushing through the revision process will only leave you with a manuscript that's weaker than it could be if you took the time to nail it down. Take some time away from your manuscript. Let it simmer. Let it breathe. Think about what you've written, your characters, and what they might do in situations outside your story (it will help you to get to know them better, and sometimes they might tell you if something is missing from your novel). 

As I've mentioned, I'm still not finished the first draft of my NaNo novel, in fact, I haven't even looked at it since the last week of November. I've had a very busy past week and the one coming up looks even busier. I know I'll get around to it, and I know I'll eventually be working on revisions. For now, it's kind of nice to be thinking about it without actively working on it. I'm letting everything that I wrote in November settle and I know when I return to it in a week or so, I'll be ready to see it in a different light. Hopefully, my vision for it will be stronger and I can take it places I never imagined back when I started.

What does your revision process look like? Do you have any specific revision habits that work for you?

the writer's arsenal: query letter dos and don'ts

Over time, I plan to look at certain specific aspects of the query letter (and query process) in a little more detail. But you have to start somewhere, and I think the best place to start is with a top line list of dos and don'ts when it comes to querying. Query letters seem like they should be straightforward and there's certainly plenty of information on them around the web, but in my experience some of the info is conflicting and some of it amounts to few actual takeaway tips. I'm hoping to keep the tips in this post clear and concise. And then we'll get into more detail in future posts (let me know in the comments if there's an aspect of querying or anything publishing-related that you'd like to hear more about down the road). I'm going to stick to tips that mainly apply to querying fiction. I'll cover non-fiction in another post, as it's a whole different ball game.

I apologize ahead of time for typos--it's a long list and I'm doing the bad thing by posting before I proof. I'll fix it up as I notice the inevitable errors :)

  • DO finish your book before you query. This should be a no-brainer, but people often get excited and want to start the process as soon as possible. But please, don't do this. You should be focusing all of your efforts on finishing, then revising, then polishing your book. Then, and only then, should you start querying agents and publishers. 
  • DO ensure you're only reaching out to reputable agents/agencies/publishers. Check out the services offered at QueryTracker. Use Preditors and Editors, an online resource for writers to help them avoid being scammed. Also check out the Thumbs Down Agency List at SFWA and the forums at Absolute Write. These resources exist for education and support. You'll need a lot of both as you attempt to enter this crazy business.
  • DO your research. Know whether or not the person you're querying represents your genre. Querying someone who doesn't is only going to make your rejection/non-response rate go up. Keep to the people you might have a shot with. They're the ones who know their stuff when it comes to your genre. They're the ones you'd want representing you anyway.
  • DO also research the person you're querying beyond just which genres they represent. Do they have a website? Twitter? Blog? Do they have preferences when it comes to query letters? If they do, ALWAYS follow them. ALWAYS. They've provided those guidelines for a reason. Respecting them will get you started off on the right foot.
  • DO include sample pages ONLY IF the agent has asked for them in their guidelines. Otherwise, keep it to just the query letter itself. Most agents will say how many sample pages, chapters, etc they would like to see included, but if you come across a set of guidelines that simply say "sample pages are fine", keep it to the first 5-10 pages, or if your first chapter lands somewhere in that range, cut it off there. It's enough to get a taste, and it's certainly enough to help them decide whether or not they want to read more. 
  • DON'T select sample pages from what you believe to be "the best" part of your book. Sample pages should always be from the beginning of your book--not an exciting passage from chapter nine (even if it is awesome). The opening pages of your book should be attention-grabbing enough. If they aren't, you have more revising to do. 
  • DO send your query letter via email whenever possible. It's faster and more environmentally friendly. Very few agents/publishers still prefer submissions via snail mail, but if they do, adhere to that request. Include a SASE and remember to actually put a stamp on it. An envelope with your address on it is worthless without the stamp.
  • DON'T send your query letter on weird stationary (this goes for email and snail mail). For snail mail, don't include anything other than the query letter, SASE and sample pages (if they were asked for in the guidelines). No glitter, no spritzes of perfume, no sample marketing materials, and no sample covers you've designed yourself.
  • DO send email queries from a professional sounding email address that identifies who you are. sexykitten789@gmail.com will make you look ridiculous. If you don't have an email address that is some variation of your name, make one.
  • DO keep your content in the body of the email. No attachments unless the person has specifically said it's okay. That includes sample pages. Paste them into the body of the email, below the query letter.
  • DO format email queries as emails. Don't try and use the snail letter format in an email. It looks silly. The subject line should read, "Query: <title of book>" unless an agent specifically requests otherwise.
  • DO prepare your subject line and body of the email first and then add the recipient's email address last. This will prevent you from accidentally sending it off before it's ready to go. Hitting send won't get very far with a blank To: field.
  • DON'T send query letters out in big batches to multiple recipients, even if a bunch of agents have identical guidelines. Their names aren't identical and that's reason enough to separate them out. Nobody wants to be reduced to a name on your mass query mailing list.  
  • DO address your letter to the specific person you're querying. Dear Sir, Dear Agent, Dear Publisher, To Whom it May Concern, etc is not a good first impression (especially the Dear Sir--you're just going to offend somebody with that one). Since you've done your research on the people you're querying, there is no reason to not address each letter you send to the person it's indented for. If an agency asks that you send one query letter to the agency and they'll decide who it's right for and no name of contact is given, simply address it to the agency: "Dear Agents of <insert agency name>". Don't just leave out a salutation. You have one shot at a first impression. Make it count.
  • DO keep in mind that a query letter is a professional letter. Keep it that way. It certainly can be genial and polite, but don't let it slide into casual territory. Keep your language professional, clean, concise and on point.
  • DON'T lose sight of what the query letter is about--your book. It's not a platform for you to talk about yourself, your family, your pets, your dreams, where you grew up, where you traveled in your youth, any adversity you've overcome, etc. It's about the book you've written and your specific, non-emotional qualifications to write said book. The person you're querying isn't your pen pal. Don't tell them about your life. This isn't a personal correspondence. It's a business letter.
  • DO keep to this format: intro or hook (if you have one), brief but enticing plot summary, brief author bio/qualifications, thank you, sign off. The letter shouldn't be longer than 3-4 paragraphs. Some agents would also like to know how you found out about them and why your book would be a good fit for their list. If they mention this in their guidelines, then go for it, otherwise, keep it short and sweet.
  • DO make sure you include the following vital pieces of information in your letter: title, genre, word count and what the book is about. Those are the things agents/publishers need to know. 
  • DON'T mention future books in a series, or other books you've written (unless they were published). A query letter should be about one book. Even if your book is book one of a planned trilogy, don't mention this. If the agent is interested in the book, that's something you can discuss when you speak on the phone. 
  • DON'T write one huge book and talk about how it could be broken into shorter books. When you query, your book should be ready to stand alone as one cohesive unit. And the word count should be reasonable (90-100k for adult fiction; 60-80k for YA, 50-60k for MG. There are exceptions but don't stray too far).
  • DON'T even think about mentioning the word film. Or movie. Or merchandizing. Your query letter is about the manuscript you've written. That's it. The time to talk about anything beyond the book itself is not now. That may comelater, after you've actually sold your book to a publisher, and even then, let the conversation come to you. Publishing is not the film industry.
  • DON'T praise your own book in your letter. Just don't. It may seem harmless to refer to it as a hilarious tale of blah blah blah, but just don't. The book should speak for itself. The plot summary should hint at the themes and give a sample of the voice (I'll discuss the plot summary in more detail in a future post), but it should do these things without you having to spell them out.
  • DO include information about any relevant writing awards you've won, writers' groups you're a part of, and/or relevant education you've completed. If none of these apply, don't try and find things to force in their place. Just keep your letter simple.
  • DO mention it if you've been published before. If you have, always include details (title, pub date, publisher).
  • DO remind an agent of who you are if you've queried them in the past, especially if they've requested material from you.
  • DON'T feel the need to point out that this is your first book. Nobody needs to know that. Your lack of publishing credentials will speak to that.
  • DON'T feel the need to copyright or get a patent for your book. It's not necessary and it makes you look paranoid. As long as you are querying reputable agents and publishers, nobody is going to steal your book. 
  • DO mention comparable books if the agents asks for it in their guidelines, otherwise, don't feel the need to do it unless it's a fantastic comparison. Don't say it's the next Harry Potter or Twilight or whatever. Don't compare your book to bestsellers just because you want it to sound awesome. Only compare it to books if the comparison is pitch-perfect. Otherwise, you just look silly.
  • DO include your contact information at the bottom of your letter--email, phone number, address.
  • DO proof your query letter before you send it. Even if you've saved it as a template somewhere on your computer and you know it's been proofed. Check it again.
  • DO proof your query letter before you send it. Oh, I just said that? Well, do it again. The last thing you want to do is hit send and then realize you've made a silly typo. Most agents will be forgiving of an easily-missed typo, but more than one starts to get you in serious trouble.
  • DO send your query letters out in batches and wait to hear back from a few before sending more. Many people will recommend you don't query your top choices right away in case the first version of your query letter isn't your best (it's probably not). Query agents you are interested in, but maybe aren't your top choices and based on their feedback, revise your letter before sending it to your top picks. If the query letter seems to work and you receive some requests, feel free to stick with it and send it along to those top agents. But don't query 100 agents at once or you'll be sorry if you realize the query could be stronger. Again, you only get one first impression.
  • DO keep track of who you've queried and when. I like to create a spreadsheet in excel that also includes info on expected response time, whether or not sample pages were involved and any other relevant info on the agent or agency.
  • DON'T reply to rejections. Not even to say thank you. Just read them and move on. Agents don't expect or want replies to rejections, especially form rejections. If you receive a rejection on requested material, a simple "Thank you for your time" email is acceptable, but don't ever ask for more feedback. Don't ask if you can send a revision. If an agent would be open to seeing a revision, they will mention it in their reply.
  • DO respond to requests for more material in a timely manner, usually within 24 hours. Follow instructions carefully. If they only want to see a few chapters, don't send the whole thing. When you are ready to send along your materials, change the subject of your email to something along the lines of "Requested material: <title of book>" so that it stands out in the agent's flooded inbox.
  • DO be patient. Patience is HUGE in publishing. You're always waiting for something and the wait starts now. Agents/editors are busy. Very busy. Give them time to get to your query or submission. If they are a non-responder, they'll usually mention it in their guidelines (ie: if you don't hear back within six weeks, consider it a pass). Respect that. If they say it's okay to follow-up, then do so. If they don't specify a time, eight weeks is a good rule of thumb. I know that seems long, but trust me, it takes that long sometimes. Sometimes it takes even longer. After eight week, a polite, "Just wanted to follow up on my query from <date>" is acceptable. Include the original query in your email. If you still haven't heard back after another six-eight weeks, follow-up again, but after that, it might be time to start thinking about moving on.
  • DON'T re-query a book to the same agent after they've rejected you. They'll remember and they'll be mad at you for trying to trick them. Only send a revised manuscript if it's been requested, the only possible exception being if you've done a major overhaul and have received some positive reactions to it from other agents, then it's okay to see if a previously semi-interested agent would like a second look.

I'm certain I've missed a few things but I'll definitely add to this list as I think of more. If you have any questions about any of the above, or anything I didn't cover, please ask away in the comments!

I will cover the next step, a.k.a. what to do when an agent offers representation, in a future post.

For today, I will leave you with my query letter for Unnatural (titled Unnatural Disaster at the time), the book that snagged me my fabulous agent:

Dear <agent>,
November "Ember" Edwards is not a witch. She can't successfully perform a single spell, which would be a total non-issue except that everybody else can. Ember is what The Ravendale Finishing School for Young Sorcerers labels a "dud", a weak link in the gene pool, and it's sink or swim when she and a group of fellow non-graduating students are led into the woods for the post-academic culling, an annual event that pits the duds against a series of so-called natural disasters, forcing them to either summon their latent magical abilities or die trying.
Thankfully, Ember is not alone. Her boyfriend Ren Hargrove is also a dud, and Ember thinks they have a good shot at surviving if they stick together. But first, she'll have to find a way to get Caden Rowley, the mysterious stranger who turns up in the woods, out of her mind, a task that's much easier said than done when he causes her to feel the first sparks of magic she's ever known—something she's learning she can't live without.
I’m seeking representation for my young adult novel, Unnatural Disaster, which is complete at 63, 300 words. I graduated with an Honors Bachelor of Arts in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of <redacted>. I'm currently on maternity leave from my position as an editorial assistant for <redacted>.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration.
Warm regards,
Kate Pawson Studer