Write Like the Terminator

You want to get published? Here’s how: be like the Terminator.

The more time I spend immersed in the writing community, the clearer it becomes that a writer’s cardinal virtue is persistence. Many other talents, skills, and qualities will help you on your road, but it’s persistence that will get you there.

Anecdotally, it’s very common for the book that gets you an agent to not be your first novel. And it’s also quite common for the book that landed you your agent to not be the one that gets you published. Chances are strong you’ll have to write a bunch of books, each better than the last, before you write the book that lands you a deal. Even after publication, you are not immune to rejection, and there will likely be books you have to trunk and move on from.

This is why it’s so important not to let despair stop you from forging onward. Even if your beloved manuscripts fall by the wayside like cybernetic limbs blown off with an RPG launcher, you must stride inexorably onward—on fire if need be—your glowing eyes fixed relentlessly on your target. You load up your next ms like a fresh ammo clip, undaunted. You are an unstoppable force.

If you keep writing new books, keep improving your craft, keep learning and revising, keep submitting, you will prevail. It may take years or decades, but you’ll get there.

Because you are badass.

Now go write.

Questions to Ask During Outlining (or Revision)

I’m working on a new outline now for my restart of my WIP. For every scene I add to my outline, I’m asking myself these questions:

What changes in the scene? – If nothing is really different at the end of the scene than it was at the start, I probably need to cut the scene or combine it with another one. This question helps me catch “show the status quo” scenes or “establish the characters” type scenes that don’t add anything to the story.

What is at stake in the scene? – One of the big reasons I’m rewriting my current WIP in the first place is that I realized while plenty was happening in the first 15K words, and my characters were learning things and doing stuff, they didn’t really have strong personal stakes yet. It doesn’t matter how action-packed a story is if the characters don’t have deep personal reasons to care about what’s going on.

What will keep the reader compelled to read on at the end of the scene? – This should be an exciting question or situation they want to know more about, and it can’t be the same thing scene after scene. I need short-term dramatic pull to get them to turn the page and start the next chapter as well as an intriguing overall arc.

Does the emotional tenor of the scene follow from what happened just before? – If I murder someone’s parents in Chapter 8, they shouldn’t be chatting about boys with their BFF over cannolis in Chapter 9. But it’s way too easy to do this by mistake.

Is the one-sentence description of the scene similar to that for another scene? – For example, in the outline I’m working on, I had two scenes where my outline description was basically “Character A confides in Character B, and Character B encourages Character A.” Same two characters. When I catch this kind of thing, usually I combine the scenes into one.

It’s easiest to ask these questions at the outlining stage, because then I can catch problems before I write the scenes and save myself work. However, these are also questions I try to ask myself during revision (especially if I’m looking to cut wordcount). If I’m honest with myself about the answers, they’ll catch a lot of problems for me.

Contests: What to Do When You Don’t Make the Cut

So you didn’t get into a contest you entered. It’s a tough feeling, no matter how much the hosts tell you they had to pass up entries they loved. What do you do now?

Before I got my agent, I entered my share of contests. Some I got into, some I didn’t, but each one was a helpful and productive experience. Here are some things I’ve found useful after not getting in:

  • Read the contest hashtag looking for general tips and feedback. See what you can learn from them to help improve your query/pitch/first 250 for next time.
  • If you don’t have experienced writer CPs yet, use the contest hashtag to find some. Or just exchange first pages and queries for crits. Your fellow writers are an amazing resource.
  • Read the entries that did get in. Figure out what they’re doing right. Apply those lessons to your own entry.
  • While you’re reading those entries that got in, realize this: Whoa, there are a lot of awesome unpublished books out there. You don’t need to feel bad that you didn’t get in, because these are some fantastic books.
  • Also realize yours may be just as good or better. And if it’s not yet, you can MAKE it just as good or better.
  • If you got any feedback from the contest, learn from it. Don’t implement it blindly, but think it through. Look at your work with honest, open eyes, and hone it until it’s so sharp you’ll bleed if you touch it.
  • Continue to follow the contest. Watch which entries get requests or votes. If any feedback is posted publicly on the featured entries, read it. This is your big chance to see what works live, and get a glimpse inside the process. It’s a great way to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
  • Revise your query/first page/pitch to make them better… IF you have a clear path and vision to do so. Don’t blindly rearrange the deck chairs if you’re not sure it will help.
  • Get more feedback on your revised query to make sure it’s working. Then, if there’s another contest coming up with fresh judges, enter it! Or if you’re ready, send out a query or two. There really is a lot of luck involved in finding the right contest judge/agent/editor for your book. You have to keep rolling those dice if you’re going to win the game!

GOOD LUCK! I have been there, and my heart goes out to everyone who hasn’t made the cut. Keep working hard and improving your craft, and your time will come. I’m rooting for you!

Surely… Not

I’ve noticed a rule. Whenever a character thinks “Surely [X],” the opposite of [X] is absolutely guaranteed to happen.

Let me show you what I mean:

Surely an orphan kid could never beat the reigning champion.

Surely this must all be a nightmare, and I’ll wake up any second.

That look must mean something else—surely he couldn’t like little old me.

Her own house must surely be safe from creepy axe murderers.

You get the idea. That orphan kid is getting a trophy, it’s not a dream, he likes you, and OMG get out of the house it’s full of creepy axe murderers.

The moment you read that surely, you know: this character is wrong, or lying to themselves.The exact opposite is true. You’re sure of it.

But surely there must be some exceptions!

…I just can’t think of any. So now I have to add that word to my RUINED FOREVER list, and refrain from ever using it again.

Surely.

Query Tips, in Convenient Bullet Point Form

Writing queries was never my favorite part of being a writer, and I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I did learn some things during my time in the querying trenches. Here are some of them:

  • There are three things your query must clearly convey: character, conflict, stakes. Focus on those. They’re so important they’re the only things I’m bolding in this post.
  • Character: Give us a sense of what it’ll be like to be with your MC for the length of a book. If you talk about a love interest, don’t forget to give us at least a couple words about them to let us know what they’re like, too (besides “hot” or “cute”).
  • Stakes: Make them high, specific, and personal. Don’t forget emotional stakes can be more compelling than life-or-death ones.
  • Conflict: Make sure to tell us both about external and internal conflicts, ideally in such a way that we can see for ourselves how the external conflict will make the internal conflict even worse (or vice versa). Also make sure you show how your character has agency in this conflict.
  • Avoid vagueness. This doesn’t mean you have to lay everything out in precise detail, but you can’t be vague or resort to cliche phrases.
  • Don’t try to be too clever (especially with your first line). Let your story speak for itself.
  • Write tight. Skip subplots, don’t overexplain the setting/backstory… focus in on that core conflict.
  • Mention as few proper nouns (characters, place names, names for special SFF elements) as possible.
  • Keep it crystal clear. It should read well on a skim-through, because sometimes it may not get more than that.
  • Make sure whatever is awesome about your story is coming through organically in the query. If its strongest hook is its humor and wit, get that in there. Lyrical voice? Ditto. Terrifyingly creepy mood, or breathtakingly realized setting? Yes. But don’t force it if it won’t go.
  • Focus on the main character. If it’s multi-POV, make that clear.
  • Make it clean and error-free. Read it aloud to make sure it flows well. Your query is a writing sample.

There’s more, of course. For instance, getting your query critiqued by knowledgable fellow writers is a must… never send out a new version of your query without getting eyes on it first!

And don’t shy away from accepting that sometimes a problem in your query is actually a problem with your book. In writing Twitter pitches for an early version of one novel, I realized that the most interesting, high-stakes conflict—the one I wanted to put in the Twitter pitch—wasn’t given a central place in that draft of the book. I revised the book to focus on that conflict, and it was much better. Boiling your book down into a query can teach you a lot about how to make your manuscript better!

I could go on, but this is long enough already. Keep calm, query on, and good luck!

The 15K Rewrite

First drafts are such a wonderful, magical thing, full of infinite possibility and the intoxication of the blank page. They are also, usually, crap.

There’s a good reason for this. We’re just getting to know the characters, find their voices, establish the story. Here’s an example of what the first several chapters of one of my first drafts might look like:

  • Let’s choke the voice to death trying to make it beautiful!
  • Who the hell are these characters? Maybe if they putter around for a while, I’ll find out.
  • Inciting incident… 2-3 chapters too late.
  • Now let’s talk about the inciting incident in such a way as to establish our characters! Because nothing gets you turning pages quite like establishing the characters.
  • Maybe we can talk about our backstories a bit, too. If we do it while walking around or eating breakfast, that’s not exposition, right?
  • Uh-oh, nothing exciting has happened for 4 chapters. ARBITRARY ACTION SCENE TIME!

…Yeah. Really gripping stuff.

But wait! By around 15K-20K, all this flailing around has actually accomplished something. I’ve got a sense of the characters and their voices. I’ve fleshed out the inciting incident and how it impacts them. I have a better sense of what their lives and goals were like before and how the inciting incident changes everything.

Time to start over.

For the past couple first drafts I’ve written, when I got somewhere around that 15K-20K mark, I opened up a new doc and tried again. This time, I was armed with a much better understanding of my characters and my story. I didn’t entirely throw out that first try — I brought the good parts over into the new doc — but I approached it like a from-scratch rewrite.

I can’t even tell you how helpful this was. Not only was that first quarter of the book immensely better, but I launched into the rest of the first draft after the rewrite with much greater mastery of the story. The first draft of the rest of the book was better for it. I’ve heard from other writer friends who’ve done the same thing, and they’ve generally been enthusiastic about the effect as well.

Right now I’m at around 16K on the first draft of my new WIP. I’ve just hit the point where I can look back at what I’ve written and go ugh, this could be better, and I know how. And I’m about to hit a really good break point.

It’s rewrite time.

Slow Progress Beats No Progress

I’ve been working on a new book lately, but the going has been slow because of pressing day job deadlines and other Real Life things. However, I have been trying to squeeze in at least a few hundred words a day. And I have been amazed at what a difference in my sense of creative well being, connection to and immersion in the new book, and overall progress those paltry 300-500 words a day have made.

In the past, I’ve often thought “Oh, I only have half an hour, it’s not worth trying to write. By the time I get into it, I’ll have to stop.” Now I’m seeing that while I still certainly prefer to write in long, uninterrupted chunks, every little piece of time I can spend writing is a gift I can and should accept with gratitude and use with care.

Of course, this is a first draft, and I’m probably going to throw out half these words anyway. But it feels good to get them down.

Onward!

Creating a Multi-POV Outline

I recently finished a rough outline for my new multi-POV YA novel, and it was tons of fun!

I’ve never written a truly multi-POV book before, and I was new to the challenges of outlining one. I had to consider not only what order events should unfold in, and how they should lead into each other, and all that, but I also had to consider which POV to show them from. At first I flailed a bit, but then I found a method that not only worked well for me, but turned it into kind of a fun logic puzzle which served to draw ideas together to form scenes that would carry more punch than those ideas would have separately.

I am SO not an expert at this, but nonetheless, I hereby share this method with you in case it’s useful to anyone.

For each arc or section of the book (around 5-7 chapters’ worth), I made lists of the following:

Events that Need to Happen – The key points that formed the backbone of the arc, and that absolutely had to happen in this section.

Perspectives I Need/Could Use – Characters who I should definitely use as POV characters at some point in the section, either because what was happening was particularly important to them, or because they were at a key point in their own internal arc regardless of what the main plot points were, or just because we hadn’t seen them in a while.

Relationships I Need to Develop – This might be romances blooming, friendships strengthening, enemies turning on each other, familial relationships that needed establishing, etc. Any relationship I needed to establish, strengthen, or change around this point in the book, whether it seemed to tie into the plot arc or not.

Things that COULD Happen but Don’t Need To – This was often a wonderfully fruitful list. Some items were things from my original sketchy outline that could happen here or elsewhere; others were new things I brainstormed on the spot; others might be ideas I’d originally had but wasn’t sure about anymore. I could draw scene ideas from here that combined well with the relationships, perspectives, or events in the previous categories, or I could send ideas here to die if they didn’t fit in anymore. It gave me freedom to brainstorm and be creative without feeling like whatever I put in this list was canon.

I had a fifth heading at the bottom of the page: Scenes This All Suggests. By the time I was done filling up the previous four lists, usually there were some clear combinations and clumps forming, where a needed POV fit perfectly with a needed plot event and a relationship I had to develop. (For a made-up example, I might go “Hey, I need ninjas to attack and kidnap Hubert, and I also need to establish romantic attraction between him and Bessie, so I can have the kidnapping scene be from her POV so she’s all worried about him and we know she likes him!”)

I found the lists made it easy to look at the elements of my developing story, moving them around and recombining them like Legos. Seeing the lists right there next to each other helped my brain make connections, and often I’d wind up excitedly brainstorming new scenes right there in my notes as I thought of cool ways to combine things to increase dramatic tension or add layers to a scene.

It was a lot of fun, and turned the outline from a messy tangle I couldn’t get a grip on to something I could understand and manipulate much more easily!

I’d love to hear from others who’ve written multi-POV. How did you handle the planning stage?

Contest Giveaway: 35 Word Pitch Feedback

Two great pitch contests are coming up that use a 35 world pitch: PitchSlam and NestPitch. I have a particular soft spot in my heart for PitchSlam, since I had the great pleasure of participating (go Team Spyder!) last year, and was amazed at the time and care the hosts took in giving feedback to each participant.

As part of my continuing efforts to give back to the writing community that has done so much to support me, I’m offering free feedback on your 35-word pitch to the first 10 people to post in the comments!

Before you do, though, you might want to read this post I made a while back on avoiding vagueness in short pitches, and to make sure you’ve clearly conveyed character, conflict, and stakes.

I will happily give ONE of the following kinds of feedback (your choice—please specify if it’s not clear):

A) If you have a few pitches using different approaches and you’re torn between them, I will tell you which one I think is working best (or if I think you should combine elements of a couple different pitches, I’ll tell you that, too).

OR

B) If you have a pitch but are having trouble getting it down to 35 words, I can try to make tightening suggestions.

OR

C) If you have your 35 word pitch and just want feedback, I can tell you the one thing I think would most improve your pitch.

I can only take the first 10 commenters, alas, since my time isn’t infinite, but I will do more giveaways in the future.

Good luck to all participating in both these contests!

Contest Requests: Awesome, But Not Where the Rainbow Really Ends

I adore pitch contests. I think they’re an amazing way to meet other writers, get feedback, connect with the writing community, test out your pitch/query/first page without closing any doors, and more. They are absolutely amazing, and I think every querying writer (or about-to-query writer) should participate in them.

That said, you know what? In my experience, querying is flat-out a better way to get agent requests.

When you enter a contest, you’re not targeting agents who are seeking work like yours, or who you’d be eager to have represent you. You’re putting your work out there in front of a whole bunch of agents, some of whom may be perfect fits, but others of whom won’t be. When you query, on the other hand, you’re deliberately selecting agents who you think are a great match for you.

Here are my own stats from when I was querying and entering contests:

Requests from Twitter pitch parties: 2

Full/partial requests from blog contests: 2

Full/partial requests from querying: 14

One of the agents who requested a partial from a blog contest never got back to me on the material she requested, too. And, like many writers, I got my agent from regular querying. She found me in the slush pile.

So… By all means, do contests! If you get picked, yay! If you get requests, double yay!!!

But if you get picked and don’t get requests, don’t feel bad at all. You’ve proven you have a strong pitch and pages, or you wouldn’t have gotten picked for the contest. The particular agents just weren’t a great match for you. You can find better matches with regular querying.

And if you didn’t get picked for the contest, never fear! You’ve still gotten all the best benefits contests have to offer (see feedback, connections and friends, etc, above).

The only way to not win a contest is not to participate. Any which way, Just Keep Querying. And good luck!