The Dreaded Vagueness

Whenever I did pitch workshops of any kind, I kept seeing the same crucial piece of feedback appear over and over again, both on my own pitches and others’: don’t be vague. If you read a bunch of query or pitch feedback by people who know what they’re talking about, one thing rapidly becomes apparent: vagueness is the enemy.

This drove me nuts, especially for Twitter pitches or other short forms. How specific did they think I could be, exactly, in 140 characters? Not to mention that it seemed to directly conflict with other sage advice — not to try to fit everything in to your query. I struggled with this paradox for a long time, trying to give specific details while keeping my pitch tight.

Then I had an epiphany. The rule wasn’t be specific. It was avoid vagueness.

The problem with vagueness is that it makes your pitch sound like every other pitch out there. Consider this:

Protagonista’s world is turned upside down by a startling discovery about her secret past. She must come to terms with her own powers before a sinister enemy destroys everything she loves.

Okay. That could be a great book, or it could be a terrible book. We don’t know. More to the point, it could be about 500 different books.

If you were giving feedback on this pitch, you might ask things like “How is her world turned upside down? What discovery? What secret past? What powers? Who’s the enemy? Who or what does she love and how are they at risk?” And the poor writer might wonder how they were possibly supposed to answer all those questions in two sentences.

But the real answer is not to try. You don’t need to answer all that stuff. In fact, you shouldn’t, because some of it should be a surprise. The problem isn’t that you need to spell all that stuff out — it’s that you made all these vague references in the first place, inviting questions you don’t have room to answer.

Instead, hone in on three things: character, conflict, stakes. You don’t need to be specific about your villain, your world design, your secret startling revelations… but you do need to be specific about what your hero has to lose and the choices they must make.

That vague pitch could be any of the following:

When mean girl Protagonista learns she’s doomed to die on her 16th birthday, she has 72 hours to make amends for all the wrongs she’s done or the curse will pass to her little sister.

Protagonista’s longtime crush has finally asked her to the prom. But when she learns he’s a super zombie in disguise, accepting his love could doom her entire school to become a feeding ground for the undead.

Protagonista’s zesty spice blends can mystically cure diabetes and baldness. But unless she can whip up a recipe for forgiveness, her vengeful ex will publicly reveal her past as a stripper to drive away her fiancee.

These are not knock-your-socks-off pitches, but you can at least imagine what the book might be like… something you can’t do with a super vague pitch like the first one. Spelling out the conflict and stakes precisely gives the reader something to latch onto. Vague euphemisms for general story themes give them nothing.

So when you find vagueness in your pitch, kill it! But that doesn’t mean you have to explain everything. It simply means that if you spot vague, cliche phrases in your pitch, you should try again.

Revising in Phases

I used to try to do all my revisions in one pass. I’d gather all my feedback from CPs and beta readers, plus my own notes, and pull everything into in one document in the order the issues appeared in the book. Then I’d go through from start to finish and try to fix everything in order.

Lately, I’ve been doing it differently. I break it down and do several revision passes, each aimed at a different kind of revision.

This works better for me, because I don’t have to keep switching modes. Some people may have the right kind of brain to watch pacing in a scene and make sure the emotional stakes are coming through and cull unnecessary adverbs and clarify backstory points all at once. I, however, lack this power.

For the revision I’m working on now, I’m planning four main phases:

1) Structural Edits. Stuff like combining characters, plot changes, shifted story or character arc focus, new scenes… things that affect the bones of the book. I’m doing these first because structural edits can wreak havoc on everything around them. Gotta knock out those walls and build those additions before you can polish the counters, or there’ll still be dust and chunks of plaster everywhere.

2) Point Edits. These are edits to very specific points in the book, usually from feedback. They include stuff like clarifications, line edits, additions of a thought or detail… anything that involves swooping in, editing a sentence or two, and then leaving for another scene. This pass goes after the structural pass because who knows if the line I’m editing will even still be there? But it goes before the make-it-pretty phases because sometimes when I’m parachuting in to the middle of a page with a point edit, I can wreck the flow of the paragraph without even realizing it.

3) Flow Edits. In this pass, I’m focusing on voice — both overall narrative voice and character voices in dialogue — and setting. Mushy-squishy, hard-to-define, subjective stuff where you really have to have your brain immersed in the flow and rhythm of the book and can’t be stopping every few paragraphs to make unrelated tweaks. While I’m at it, I can keep an eye out for places where those structural and point edits wrecked the flow or created awkwardness. I can smooth things out and make sure the prose is singing in tune.

4) Polish Edits. In this pass, I’m doing the nit-picky language type edits… cutting excess words, searching for and destroying empty words like “just” and “that,” eliminating adverbs that aren’t pulling their weight, that kind of thing. A lot of this will happen with searches for guilty words or even suspect punctuation marks. Hopefully I’ll still be able to stand looking at my book to do another full read-through checking out each sentence to make sure it’s well formed, too. This has to be a separate pass from the flow pass even though both are focused on polishing the writing, since if I’m looking at nit-picky details I can’t hear the music.

I hope to run it by some beta readers between either passes 2 and 3 or possibly 3 and 4, to get one last round of feedback before finalizing things, and to make sure I didn’t break anything too badly with the edits.

I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the amount of work, but I’d be lying to myself if I said it wouldn’t be worth it.

NaNoWriMo 2014

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but every year I cheer on friends doing it. I find it incredibly motivational to watch them post their word counts and progress.

I’ve always got some writing goal I’m working towards, and in November I like to try to set something suitably epic so I can get into the NaNoWriMo spirit even if I’m not in the right place to start and end a new novel in one month. Some years I’ve used the boost of enthusiasm I get from the NaNoWriMo excitement to finish a novel draft, to complete a revision pass, or to hit some other milestone.

This year, my baseline November goal is to complete my current major revision pass. My stretch goal is to complete the entire revision (which will include multiple passes with different purposes). Thanksgiving blasts a big hole in the middle of November for me due to family visits, so I’ll probably only get 20-25 real writing days out of the month, but I’m going to go for it!

I wish all my friends who are doing NaNoWriMo luck… and those who have other November writing goals luck, too. Get those words on the page!

(Not) Doing the Dumb Thing

Last night, I basically had this conversation with my main character:

Me: I need you to do this thing.

MC: Hell no. That’s stupid. Why would I do that?

Me: Well, you can’t deny you want to do it.

MC: Sure, but it’s risky and dumb. No thanks.

Me: It’s OK. I promise nothing bad will happen. I just want you to go have this conversation, OK?

MC: Why should I trust you, after everything you’ve done to me?

Me: …Fair point. OK, never mind. Don’t do it.

MC: Damn straight.

It served as a good reminder: don’t make your characters do dumb things for plot purposes. They’ll only be sullen and uncooperative if you do.

(It would have been a cool scene, though. Sigh.)

Subtle Revisions

I’m working on revisions now, and one thing I’m running into a lot is scenes where something has subtly changed in this revision. Maybe a character knows something earlier than they did in the previous draft, or their relationship with another character has changed, or the previous scene they just came from had a different feel to it, so the main character should be in a different headspace.

Technically, the current scene doesn’t need to change. There is no specific element in the scene that needs revision. But with the new, changed circumstances, it should probably unfold differently in subtle ways.

I’m definitely revising these scenes to account for the subtle changes — that’s not in question. But I often face a choice: should I just change a couple of words or lines to get the point across, or rewrite the scene completely?

Yeah… Another thing I’m noticing about revisions is that the answer that’s more work seems to always turn out to be the right one.

The method that seems to work best for me when revising these “something is subtly different” scenes is to open two docs next to each other. The one on the right is the draft I’m working in. The one on the left is blank. I then cut the entire scene (or at least the parts that should change) and paste it into the doc on the left. I write the new scene in my draft on the right, but I give myself permission to pull in as much as I want from the old version.

This keeps me from looking at the old scene and going “Eh, good enough!” I have a blank page to start from, and once I start typing new words, it’s easy to keep going. But I can just as easily refer to that first version and reuse the good bits that I can’t say any better this time around.

Writers, what do you do when you’re revising scenes like that?

Dear Newbie Querier Me: Part One – Do It In the Right Order

While I was querying the book that landed me my awesome agent, there were several moments when I wished I could go back in time and give Past Me querying tips. I don’t possess the power of time travel (which is just as well, really, as I’d age myself out of existence in short order just trying to cram more hours into my day), but I can pass these tips on in hopes that others starting out on the querying trail may find them useful.

Making my list of things I wished I’d figured out earlier, I discovered that it’s embarrassingly long, so I’m breaking it into a series. In this first post, I’ll address my first newbie mistake: doing it in the wrong order.

So… okay, Past Me. You think your novel is polished and ready. (You’re wrong, but that’s another post.) You’ve written a query you’re happy with. You’ve researched agents. You’re ready to go. What do you do first?

Think carefully. Here’s a hint: the answer isn’t “Send my query out to my dozen top choice agents!”

First and most important, Past Me: for the love of chocolate, DON’T send out a query without getting feedback first. You may have just read through the Query Shark archives and feel like you know what you’re doing, but you are not equipped to spot certain kinds of problems in your own query. There are lots of great places to get fabulous query feedback — AgentQuery Connect, awesome blog workshops hosted by generous writers, feedback contests like Become An Agent, and more. Comb Twitter and find them. Use them. Don’t get cocky — this is too important.

Okay, Past Me, you’ve gotten feedback and polished your query. Great! But wait — it’s still not time to send it to agents. Do a contest or two before you query. You can learn whether you’re ready, make connections, get feedback, and pick up all kinds of great querying tips, all while risking nothing. Contests close no doors. Querying does. And besides, Past Me, I happen to know you’ll meet people through contests who will give you advice that will prove absolutely essential to getting an agent.

Now you’re ready. Query in batches. Send out 6-8 queries, then wait for responses. (I know you hate waiting, Past Me, but wow are you going to have to get used to it.) If you get no requests, STOP. Get feedback. Fix your query. Maybe fix your book. (Hint to Past Me: FIX YOUR BOOK.) Then try again.

If you do get a request or two, don’t get overconfident and send out a dozen more queries immediately. I know you’re an optimist, Past Me, but remember: you never stop learning. Keep those batches small so that when you inevitably think of ways to improve your query or your book, it’s not too late.

Finally, Past Me, who did you pick to query first? As it turns out, it doesn’t matter, because the agent you’ll wind up with is actually a way better match for you than the first agents you queried. But I’ll give you this tip: for your first batch of queries, or when testing a new query, pick a mix of agents you’d love to work with who also happen to be fast responders. For this first batch, only pick non-responders if they periodically post where they are in their query pile or have a fairly short “if you don’t hear from me within X days, it’s a rejection” window. You want to get a sense of how well your query is working quickly, so you don’t have to wait two months before sending out the next batch. Remember, you can send out more queries while agents read your full, so you’re not risking your chance at an agent by not querying them first — in fact, you may have a better version of the query to send them after the first round.

These tips on order might not work well for all queriers, of course. Everyone’s different. Maybe you aren’t into contests, or have some other system for who to query first that meets your needs better. That’s fine.

Except you, Past Me. Trust me, your current plan of not getting feedback and ignoring contests is not a winning strategy — but luckily, you’ll figure that out pretty quickly. Stick with it, keep learning, stay humble, and it’ll all end happily ever after.

How about you, writers? What order did you do things in? And what would you tell Past You to do differently?

More posts in the Dear Newbie Querier Me series to come, focusing on different topics!