Writing On Deadline

Why haven’t you posted in a while, Melissa, you ask?

To which I twitch a little, and laugh nervously, and say, why, because Book Two is due at the end of the month and I MUST SPEND EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY WRITING!

That’s right, you say, this is your first book written on deadline! What’s that like?

HA HA I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED.

Here’s the biggest difference, in one sentence: There Is No Time For Puttering.

I used to fret about whether I was in the right mood, whether the stars were aligned, whether I was really feeling it that day. I used to like to let drafts sit and simmer for a while before diving back in, so I could get some distance and perspective and see what needed fixing. Heck, I used to swear it was vitally important to go work on another project for a while and then come back with my palate all cleansed so I could look at a book with fresh eyes.

And you know what? I can totally skip all those things and just roll straight from writing into editing, as it turns out. Heck, I can write when I’m sick! When I’m traveling! When there are wasps building a nest in the headrest of the deck chair I’m sitting in! (This actually happened, no lie, and I was like WHATEVER THEY SEEM LIKE PERFECTLY NICE WASPS BECAUSE THEY’RE LETTING ME WRITE UNLIKE MY LOVELY CHILDREN WHO ARE INSIDE THE WASP-FREE HOUSE.)

If I got stuck on something, instead of mooning around for days masticating it, I’d be like RIGHT THEN, I’m gonna go walk this here dog, and I’m not gonna stop walking until I have an answer. And you know what? Maybe dogs are magic (OF COURSE THEY’RE MAGIC THEY’RE DOGS), but it usually worked.

And the really weird thing is, so far it all seems to work just as well as when I take my time and putter around and let everything stew in my subconscious for months. (Of course, it really helps that I already know these characters and world quite well. Not sure that’d be the case if it wasn’t a sequel.)

You know what else is different about writing on deadline? The stakes are waaaaaayyyyyyy up on your choices. I got 2/3 of the way through a draft, and then I was like, crap, I just thought of a way to make this much better. And I had to decide whether to go back and rewrite large chunks of my unfinished draft, with the deadline looming, or go ahead and press on to the end and get a completed draft to send out to my alpha readers that would contain a bunch of stuff I knew I was going to change.

I went back and did the edits. It was totally the right thing to do. I love how the book is turning out, and it was a much better direction. But it was SCARY. It set me back weeks.

Deadlines are terrifying. But they’re also really motivational.

There’s none of this “Eh, I’m too tired to write.” None of this “I guess I should do this boring pile of laundry instead.” None of this “I’m going out with friends” or “I should take a break because I’m forgetting what my husband’s face looks like.” THERE IS ONLY THE BOOK.

And wow, when there’s only the book, you can get a lot of shit done.

Speaking of which, excuse me…I gotta get back to these edits. I’m on deadline.


Don’t Forget Your Audience (Especially if they’re ON FIRE)

OKAY GUYS, WRITING RANT TIME! Buckle in for some CAPITAL LETTERS and also LITERAL FIRE!

For this rant, I have my day job technical writer hat on, but the general principle applies to fiction, too. It’s about knowing your audience. What does knowing your audience have to do with ACTUAL FIREBALLS? Read on and find out!

So there I am, trying a new recipe for zucchini tacos, and I am substituting the broiler where it calls for a grill, as I have done several times in the past with good results. Everything is going great until I flip my not-even-browned-yet tortillas and put them back in the oven for LITERALLY THIRTY SECONDS to try to get them toasty and suddenly SMOKE! SO MUCH SMOKE!

And I open the oven to try to rescue my tortillas in case they haven’t turned to cinders yet, and HOLY CRAP THE OVEN IMMEDIATELY SPAWNS A BALL OF FIRE!

SHIT SHIT THAT’S ACTUAL FIRE, I think, like you do, and slam the oven door shut on the INSTANT HELLMOUTH I have unwittingly created. Smoke is billowing everywhere. My ten-year-old begins asking me a number of pertinent questions from the next room, like, “Mom, is something on fire?” and “How much fire?” and “Should I leave the house?”

I pretend to be a calm and responsible grownup, saying things in a relaxed voice like “Yes, it’s on fire, but I have this under control, why don’t you go to another room to get away from the smoke?” when in fact what is actually happening in my head is that I am staring at the fire in my oven and realizing that there is STILL FIRE and I am the only adult in the house and it’s FIRE and I had better do something about it.

I figure okay, if I keep the oven door shut, that should starve the fire for oxygen, and it should go out, right? So I wait a bit, and sure enough, the fire seems to die down, so I open the oven again and NOPE MY MISTAKE FWOOSH STILL ALL KINDS OF FIRE IN THERE.

So I slam the oven door again, which does seem to help, and open all the windows and turn on the vent fan, and then for lack of a better idea I run to my laptop and Google “Oven Fire.” And lo, the internet delivers! Several articles appear titled helpful things like “How To Put Out an Oven Fire” and “How To Put Out Kitchen Fires.” Great! YAY THANK YOU INTERNET!

I click on the first one, very aware that there is likely still ACTUAL FIRE burning in the oven behind me, and I get like A FULL PAGE OF INTRODUCTION with scene-setting crap like (and I’m paraphrasing, here) “There are many reasons fires can start in a kitchen…” and “Cooking can be awesome, but also dangerous,” and “Let’s set the scene…picture this… you’re cooking, but you spill some grease…” and I am like NOPE and go to the next article, where I get MORE OF THE SAME. Paragraphs and paragraphs of flavor text before you get to anything like the promised instructions for how to put out an actual fire.

And I want to lunge through the screen and throttle the writers, because OH MY GOD THERE IS AN ACTUAL FIRE IN MY KITCHEN AND YOU ARE TRYING TO PAINT ME A LITTLE PICTURE OR GIVE ME RELEVANT CULINARY CONTEXT WHEN WHAT I WANT IS TO PUT OUT A FIRE.

Luckily, by the time I find an article where I only have to scroll down a LITTLE bit to find a clear numbered list of what to do, the fire in my oven is basically out, because in fact, in case you were wondering, closing the door and trying to starve the fire to death is apparently actually the right thing to do. (Note: I am clearly not an expert on things on fire, given that I was googling oven fires on the internet, so don’t listen to me.)

So here’s where this becomes a writing rant. In instructional writing, and for that matter in lots of other kinds of writing including fiction, one of the very first things you do is consider your audience. Who are they? What do they want? What are their interests and concerns? Etc.

Well, for an article about How To Put Out a Kitchen Fire, I would argue that:

  • Your audience is PEOPLE WHOSE KITCHENS ARE ON FIRE.
  • They want to PUT OUT THE FIRE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
  • Their interests are AAAAH SHIT SHIT FIRE, and their concerns are FUCK MY OVEN IS ON FIRE HELP HELP.

They do not want paragraphs of lovely flavor text setting the scene. They want to PUT OUT THE GODDAMN FIRE. You can tell them the history of kitchen fires AFTER THE FIRE IS OUT.

So maybe you should put the bit about how to put out the fire RIGHT AT THE TOP, in a numbered list or bullet points that jumps right out at you, or maybe a nice graphic. JUST A SUGGESTION, INTERNET.

Now, this is super extra true for instructional writing—you always want the information people really need to jump in their faces right away—but it’s something to consider in fiction, too.

Who are your readers? Adults? Teens? Kids? What genre expectations do they have before they even open your book? What do they want to see first when they start reading?

Also, what’s going on in your book? Is now really a good time to start telling us your cool, detailed backstory or worldbuilding? If your main character is desperately fighting off a giant spider that’s trying to eat her face, maybe you can wait until the fight is over to tell us that she was trying to collect the precious silk of its webs, which the Y’Kreeth people have used to make the sails of their ships for thousands of years, and which is found only in the deep chasms of the Marimata Rifts that separate the North from the South, but only on dry days in autumn, and… yeah. Fight off the spider first (or the ACTUAL REAL LIFE FIRE, for example, not that I’m still bitter), and THEN tell us all about your amazing fantasy world.

It’s great to think about your characters and their arcs, but it’s just as important to think about your audience. Your readers are the invisible bonus character/fourth wall/fifth element/secret ingredient that makes your story real in their heads. So consider where their heads are before you put your story in it.

And here’s a tip: if their heads are JUST A FEW FEET FROM A FIRE, maybe get to the point a little faster.


Don’t Drop That Line

You know what I wish I’d figured out earlier in my writing journey? The importance of through lines.

Take right now. I’m working on a revision of THE DEFIANT HEIR (Book 2 of Swords & Fire). I got about two-thirds done with a first draft, then realized I needed to go back and revise before I wrote the last third where everything comes together. Why? Because the Everything that needed to come together was pointing all over the place, like a pile of dropped sticks, rather than forming a bunch of lines converging inevitably toward the climax. And I had a whole section of the book that was kind of just sketched in, with caution tape strung around it saying “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.”

I didn’t have a clear through line.

A lot of definitions will describe the through line as a theme, idea, or goal that continues from the beginning to the end of a story. I personally find it more useful to think of the through line visually, as a pure structural element.

The scenes and events in a story are beads, and the through line is the thread that strings through them all to make a necklace. Without the through line, you just have a pile of beads. The through line is what makes it a story.

If your through line is working, every scene leads to the next in a natural progression of cause and effect. Your protagonist has a goal, and is driving the action toward that goal. The core conflict runs true at the heart of the story. There’s a clear emotional arc to the story, too, as well as a plot arc; everything bends toward the climax.

It’s all too easy to drop your through line. For instance, I know one way I often do it is when something unexpected happens to cause a plot turning point. That’s good! Yay surprises! But if now suddenly my characters are doing and feeling all new things that have nothing to do with everything they were doing and feeling before, it’s going to feel disjointed to the readers. Even if the new things are all exciting and cool, if we’ve dropped all the threads the readers were invested in and excited about, they may lose interest or feel lost. We need core elements of the story to continue, sticking with us through every zig and zag, propelling us through to the end.

Another common way to wind up with a dropped through line is when you have insufficient agency for your main character. They have to be the one threading that string through those beads. If they’re running around reacting to things that fate or the antagonist keeps throwing at them, without having driving goals of their own which they’re actively pursuing, there’s no clear thread to connect the events of the story and carry it forward…and the readers with it.

The through line gives the readers something to wonder about, to be excited about, to be emotionally invested in. It’s what keeps them turning pages to the end.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be able to define your through line in an explicit word or phrase or statement. Really, it’s a combination of things: core themes, your character’s emotional arc, the main plot arc, the central conflict, your character’s goal. It’s the heart AND the spine of the story.

But you should KNOW your through line. At a deep, instinctive level—and you should also be consciously aware of it. You should be able to trace its passage through your story.

In this particular revision, I realized I didn’t know my through line well enough. I had a bunch of events, and I saw how they lined up with cause and effect to create a story, but I needed to clarify my character’s motivation and goals and emotional arc to give those events life and purpose, and to bring them all together. Once I got a better understanding of my through line, suddenly all the pieces I’d been having trouble fleshing out or fully integrating came clear. A lot of the bits that were giving me trouble or that I didn’t have energy for suddenly seemed easy to tackle.

To map the path of your story, you need to know where it starts, and where it ends, and the lay of the land along the way. But just as much, you need to know who is walking that path, and why, and where they thought it was leading when they first set foot on it.

Your through line is Ariadne’s string, to guide your main character—and you, and your readers—through the Labyrinth. Lose it at your peril.


Why Query Contests are Awesome

I didn’t get my agent from a query contest, but I entered a bunch of them back when I was querying, and I found contests to be incredibly helpful to me as a writer. But not for the reasons I thought they would be.

Some people do find their agents through contests, but I know I got far more requests querying. When you query, you can pick agents you’re interested in, and who are seeking what you write. It’s a better way to find the perfect match.

Contests are, however, AMAZING for several things:

Feedback – Some contests offer feedback to entrants. These are incredible opportunities! But even contests that don’t offer feedback often will abound with chances for query exchanges or critique giveaways on the contest hashtag.

Community – Contests are often a great way to meet other writers through the social media surrounding the contest. You can learn from tips other writers post, meet potential CPs or beta readers, and simply know you’re not alone in the trenches.

Field Testing – If your query gets picked for a contest, that’s a great sign that it’ll get requests from agents, too. If it doesn’t get picked for one contest, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything—they’re often very competitive—but if you enter a few and don’t get picked, your query or your book may need more work before you send it out to agents. Entering contests is a great, risk-free way to field test your query without closing any doors.

Case Studies in Awesomeness – You can learn a lot by checking out the winning queries in major contests, even if you don’t enter yourself. It can be especially interesting when there are multiple rounds with revisions between rounds, so you can see how the query improves, or if mentors post public feedback you can learn from. You can read the queries (and excerpts, where applicable) and see which ones really want to make you read the book, and learn from what those writers do.

I entered a bunch of query contests when I was querying the novel that got me my agent (the one I wrote before THE TETHERED MAGE). The feedback I got from contests, and from people I met through contests, was absolutely invaluable in improving both my query and my entire novel; I wouldn’t have gotten my wonderful agent without what I learned from them.

I actually entered an early draft of the novel that would become THE TETHERED MAGE in PitchWars when I was still revising it, figuring it would be a good way to test my query at least… and wound up getting requests from all four of the mentors to whom I applied. I had to frantically finish my revisions and send off the full, and wound up getting picked as a mentee… and then got an offer from my lovely agent just a few days later and had to withdraw! But I knew from the huge difference between the judge reactions to that proto-TTM novel and the reactions to my previous novel that I’d finally gotten this right, and this was THE BOOK.

So if you’re a writer looking for an agent, I highly recommend checking out contests. Even if you don’t wind up participating, you can learn a ton and meet great people just by stalking them. (Er, stalking the contests, that is, not the people.) You don’t have to win contests to get published, but they are a fantastic place to find community, learn, and practice, so you’ll be much more prepared to revise your novel into its fully evolved badass form, write a killer query, and get the agent of your dreams.


Success Over 40 and Other Mythical Creatures

So, there was some talk recently about whether you’re washed up as a writer after a certain age and do you have to get published in your twenties and when should you give up and blah blah blah. I think a lot of people have said what needs to be said—which comes down to IT’S NOT OVER TIL IT’S OVER, BABY—but I also get that there are people out there who are despairing of ever finding the end of the publishing rainbow as the clock ticks on, so I wanted to share a bit of my personal story in case that might encourage anyone.

First of all, I am *GASP* over 40.

Okay, not a lot over 40. But turning 40 is a thing that happened in my past. (NOW YOU MAY LOOK AT MY PICTURE AND GO “WOW, MELISSA, I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED.” WHY, THANK YOU. MOVING ON.)

Second of all, I have literally wanted to be a published writer since kindergarten. I know this because I remember we did an activity in kindergarten where we folded a piece of paper into like 6-8 squares and had to draw pictures of different things we might like to be when we grow up in each square. I put “Writer” in the first square and “Artist” in the second square, and then on reflection added “Princess” in the third square. And then I looked at the other squares like, dude, what more do you want from me? WHAT MORE IS THERE?!

I am sure my parents were thrilled to see I had selected such practical career choices. (In fact, I remember one of them—I’m not sure which—explaining to me that you couldn’t become a princess as a job, and that you had to be born the daughter of a king, and I remember thinking that was TOTAL BULLSHIT.)

I wrote picture books as a kid. I made my first real stab at a novel when I was maybe seven or eight, and got about 30 typewritten pages into it, which isn’t bad for a seven-year-old. It was about a princess who was a powerful mage AND had a magic sword AND rode a unicorn AND a dragon (though not at the same time, that would be weird), because WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL?

In fourth grade, I wanted to publish a book of poems, and my dad got me Writer’s Market. I read that thing cover to cover (what was WRONG with me?) and submitted some stuff and was Terribly Serious about it all.

In my late teens/early twenties, I wrote a really (REALLY) bad novel about a teenage boy who was secretly a prince AND a dragon AND a mage AND a really good swordfighter, because WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL? …So, yeah, that didn’t get me an agent. Thank goodness. But I tried. An agent even called me up and basically ranted at me on the phone about how I was wasting my potential. She ended the call by saying she had no doubt I’d be published someday. (Needless to say, she didn’t offer rep.)

It was very weird. In retrospect, I’m honored, and she was right on all counts.

I had to calm down and stop writing Mary Sue characters. I had to improve my craft, develop humility and empathy, and embrace revision. I had to grow up, both as a writer and as a human being. (Now, some people are already quite grown up as writers and human beings in their twenties. YAY! I salute those people. They’re amazing. That was not me.)

I got an agent when I was ready, as a writer. I got a publishing contract when I was ready. Before that, I still had more work to do. And that’s fine. I did the work. I learned the things. I wrote and wrote and wrote, I kept learning and getting better, and I didn’t give up.

And now, yay! I have a book coming out in October! MY LIFELONG DREAM IS FINALLY COMING TRUE!

It literally took, what, 35+ years?

And that’s fine. All that time, I was leveling up. Every shelved book earned me a ton of XP. Every word I wrote was a step toward this goal. Some people level up faster than me, and that’s great. But I made it! And you can, too.

The only way to be sure you never get there is to step off the path. Get back on that unicorn—or dragon—or BOTH AT THE SAME TIME, WHY NOT—and ride.


In Which I Squee About My Cover

Have you seen the beautiful cover for THE TETHERED MAGE?!

Caruso_Tethered-Mage_HC

(Design: Lisa Marie Pompilio; Art: Crystal Ben & Arcangel)

I love this cover so, so much, guys. One of the many reasons I was super excited when Orbit offered to publish my book is that their covers are FREAKING AMAZING. And wow, they did not disappoint all the little writer dreams of awesome book covers I’ve been having since I was a tiny little girl.

I love the colors. I love the way the bird silhouette grabs your attention right away, but you can keep seeing more details as you look closer (the city in the wings!). I love the swoopy line thing on the M. (See that technical term I used there?)

I look at this cover anytime I start losing steam as I work on Book 2, and then I’m like HELL YEAH! and rev up my writing pace again.

Anyone who knows me well will also not be surprised to hear how ridiculously happy I am to have a raptor on the cover of my book. Let’s just say it’s no accident I called my magical military unit the Falcons… I’ve been a bit of a bird geek since I was in third grade. (I’m a really low level bird geek, though… That particular XP tree goes up REALLY HIGH. I only have my skill bought up to, like, the point where I’m the person my friends ask what the cool bird they saw was. And then I nod sagely and say “Probably a red-tailed hawk,” which is an accurate statement for, like, I don’t know, 80% of the raptors you see over highways in Massachusetts—bear in mind I just MADE THAT NUMBER UP AND IT’S NOT REAL. Not to indulge in a huge parenthetical digression about birds when I’m supposed to be talking about my cover or anything, but suffice to say I THINK I JUST MADE MY POINT about how I like birds.)

Also, I was really amused to realize my cover reveal came on the Ides of March. As I said on Twitter, it’s kinda appropriate… Let’s just say there maaaayyyyy be a certain amount of political intrigue, betrayal, and murder in this book. (That’s really not a spoiler. Like, if you look at the nutrition label for this book, it says “CONTAINS INTRIGUE, BETRAYAL, AND MURDER,” right there.)

I can’t wait to see this cover ON MY BOOK! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Permission to DNF

I like to finish things.

I’m the type of person who vastly prefers to complete one task before moving on to the next; otherwise, the unfinished thing lurks in the back of my mind, raising its hand periodically to go “Hey, still not finished, over here.” And I’m like “ARGH I know! I’ll get to you soon! Sorry!” Unfinished tasks piling up causes me more anxiety than anything else.

I hate putting aside a book I’m reading without finishing it. Not only is it another thing my brain never crosses off its list, but I feel like I’m abandoning a friend. Leaving the hero hanging off the cliff as he calls after me: “Um, okay, I’ll just wait here a while, I guess.” Meanwhile, I walk away with an apologetic wave, going “Too busy, sorry, maybe later.”

But I’m realizing now that I need to change how I look at not finishing books. I’ve got two kids, a day job, writing, a household to manage, deadlines… and, if I can manage it, maybe even things like eating, sleeping, and a social life! (HA HA HA but no, seriously, that would be nice.) I can’t read three books a week like when I was a teen. There will never be more than 24 hours in a day, no matter how much I wish I had a time turner.

If I want to ever make it through my TBR pile—if I want to be able to walk into the bookstore and come home with a couple books without feeling guilty about the others I haven’t read yet—I need to let go of the idea that I start books to finish them. I need to abandon the Clean Plate Club idea of reading, and approach it with more of a buffet mentality: I’m going to try all kinds of stuff that looks good, but stop after just a nibble with a lot of it to give myself room to get a second helping of those really amazing potatoes (with me, it’s always the potatoes).

The last two books I finished were UPROOTED by Naomi Novik and THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin, and HOLY CRAP, those were both AMAZING. So, so, SO good. Not finishing them was never an option. I HAD to. Part of my brain is still living in each of those books. They were everything I wanted and more than I could have imagined.

I’m a bit late to the party with both, and the reason for that is I didn’t want to let go of the idea I was going to finish Marie Rutoski’s THE WINNER’S CURSE (which I in turn was late to the party for because I didn’t want to DNF something else, and so on, and so on). And the only reason I made it to the party at all was because I finally convinced myself it was okay to put aside TWC when I was maybe 2/3 through, because while I genuinely liked it and was enjoying it, I didn’t feel that compelling drive to finish it. And that meant I kept prioritizing the 500 other things on my Must Do list above reading.

Well, no more. Now I’m going to give myself permission to start novels and not finish them. I’d rather read the first 5 chapters of 10 books than dutifully finish just one book I’m only kinda into.

That way I get to support more authors (by buying more books), learn more as a writer (by at least sampling more books), and have a greater chance of finding those precious books which are so good they don’t give me the option to set them aside, and leave me yearning for more when they’re done. Like really good roasted potatoes, or cheese fondue. (Mmmm, fondue.)

I feel liberated already! Better run out and buy more books to celebrate.