Tuesday, December 3, 2013

NaNoWriMo Retrospective: Flexing Wordcount Muscles

Wow, NaNo was such a positive experience for me!

Confession: I was in a little bit of a writing rut before November.  After having a baby in July, I had a hard time getting back into the swing of things.  It was starting to get to me, and that was why I decided to do NaNo.

Previously, the most I have ever written in a month was maybe 25K words, so I wasn't sure I could actually reach 50K.  But why not try?

I'm so glad I did! Since I ended up not writing at all for 9 days while traveling, I had to make up for it by writing 3500+ words on some days.

Increasing your word counts is like exercise: you have to build up to it.  The first day, I was exhausted after only writing 19K.  I had no idea how I would keep it up!  But once I started flexing those muscles, I got better at it.  I learned how to really let go and not over-think each scene.  Instead, it was very much free writing for me, a way to let my creativity flow.

Since I'm a discovery writer or pantser or whatever you want to call it, this was really a great exercise to discover my story.  By the end of the manuscript, I had dropped several things from the beginning that were red herrings.  I still haven't quite figured out how the ending should go, but I have some good ideas.

So what's next?

I think I'm going to let this manuscript breathe during December.  Then in January I will start a complete rewrite, with the NaNo ms serving as a sketch or zero draft.  Yay! (No, really I'm looking forward to it)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Day 26: Does It Work For You?

So, we all know that the concept of "winning" NaNo is a bit arbitrary.  50K is an arbitrary goal and the real prize is finishing a manuscript.  That said, it's a great motivator.

Except when it isn't.

We love seeing the little chart our word-count going up, up, up.

Except when life gets in the way.

I went out of town last week, and told myself I would at least write a little bit while I was there.  But I didn't end up getting in front of the keyboard at all.

I took 10 days off but on the writing days I've been writing well past the 1667 words.  So I think I can still make it.  Also, I can be a bit pig-headed about reaching certain goals.

My story is of course total nonsense.  And not chronological in any way.  For some people, that would be horrible.  But I don't mind the concept of a zero draft, which is totally what this is.

I've seen writers get frustrated when they get too far behind.  There are also the lovely contrarians who find the entire idea of word-count goals to be counter-productive.

NaNo isn't going to be good for every person or every project.

For me, this year, this project, it has worked out nicely.  At least I'm having fun.  To everyone else: if you're not having fun, if the word counts are too much for you, just remember the purpose is to get writing.  Don't stress! Do what you can, do what you love, do what inspires you.

And try not to ignore the fam on Thanksgiving! :)

Are you past the hump?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Day 10: Rapid-Fire Writing, Quality, and the 20K Slump

Hey Nanoers,

While writing like crazy, here are a few things I noticed:

1. Writing Quickly Can Lead to Spit-Fire Dialogue & Great Action Scenes.  I like writing in sprints.  On Friday, I challenged myself to write all 1667 words in one hour.  And I succeeded.  You might think that it was all crap, but I don't think it was.  Writing lightning-fast actually works really well for action scenes and rapid-fire dialogue.  I didn't have time to stop and describe things, or write a bunch of dialogue tags.  Result?  Some really fun, sharp dialogue that has a great rhythm to it.  Also, a fast-paced action scene that reads boom, boom, boom.  So who says writing quickly is all bad?

2. Skipping to the Good Part Means You Keep Things Moving: When things get boring, I think it's best to skip to the next scene you're excited about writing.  You can go back and fill in the build up later, and besides I found that I didn't need as much build up as I thought I did.  In fact, I ended up revealing something that I thought would be the midpoint in the novel at 15K.  But that's okay, that just means my story gets bigger earlier.  

3. If You Get Stuck, Do Something Unexpected: We're approaching the infamous 20K slump, when your initial burst of enthusiasm wears off.  My solution: write something that wasn't planned.  If you thought A was going to happen, instead have B happen.  Shake things up, and all of a sudden things will feel fresh again.

No Time to Monkey Around

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

NaNoWriMo Diaries, Day 5: Finding the Character, Finding the Story

It's my first attempt at NaNoWriMo.  Previously, I've always been convinced that I wrote far too slowly to ever manage to 50K words in a month.  A month where I'm usually traveling, no less.

But this year I decided to go for it.  I just have a hunch that it might be the best way to attack my next novel.

Honestly, NaNo is great for pantsing since it forces you to write at a pretty break-neck speed. You can truly write and write until you discover your character and your story.  It isn't about getting the plot or pacing right.  It's about finding out who your character really is. What is making your character tick? Who is she and what is her heart's deepest desire?  And why does it conflict with the world around her?

And once you've figured all that out, you'll quickly find the heart of the novel.

So you just start writing.  Stuff happens.  It might be boring, it might be filled with info-dumps and dreadful dialogue.  But it's going somewhere.  It's your subconscious digging its way out of your dirt-filled brain and into the sunlight.  It might be harsh to look at, but what first draft isn't?

At some point, you find your voice.  Yee-haw! Keep writing to find the story.  And while you're doing it, throw in every cool idea you've got.  Some might fall flat, but that's okay too.

I've found that I get on a roll and am able to complete the word count, and then some.  But I also have moments (daily) where I wonder: wtf am I writing?  This is terrible! This is a boring, overdone, insipid idea! No one will want to read this!

When this happens, I read a few of the gazillion NaNoWriMo peptalks.  I love all the support from other writers.  Generally it boils down to the same thing: this isn't the time to be critical.  This isn't the time to judge. Your draft doesn't have to be elegant or even sensical.  (Well, maybe those outlining folks write something sensical.  I dunno.).

All you gotta do is have fun and write what inspires you.  That's the magic of NaNoWriMo.

The elephant in the room: how many words did you write today?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bring Back That Lovin' Feeling

Remember when you wrote because you loved books and had stories of your own that you wanted to tell? Bookmark that feeling of excitement in your mind, grasp it in your heart, and go back to it whenever you get stuck -- whether it's because of rejections or your own inner critic.  Remember the magic and you will be able to write something you love and are proud of.  Go forth and conquer!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Three Craft Books that Turned My Writing Around

I've read a lot of books on writing.  Sometimes I just read them to procrastinate doing actual writing! :) But there are three books that have really influenced how I write and my process.  So here are a few of my favorite writing books:

Story by Robert McKee is by far the most intense and most rigorous book I've read on how to understand the art of storytelling.  It is not for the faint of heart! The first time I tried to get through it, I gave up.  Seriously, I read the part about writing a scene in beats, felt my creativity shrivel up, and put the book down.

The next time I read Story, I had a completed manuscript in hand.  It was good, I thought, but it could stand to pack more punch.  Story helped me take flat scenes and an almost-there ending and really make it something I could be proud of.  Thanks Robert McKee!

But one thing I don't agree with Mr. McKee on: outlining.  Outlining can be a great way to make sure your WIP is going somewhere.  But sometimes, it can also just take the joy and creativity out of it.  At least, that's what we pantsers/discovery writers think.  Still, a lot of other writers will give you flak for following this path.  That's why I'm so glad I read On Writing by Stephen King.  Uncle Steve says its okay to be a pantser.  It's okay to meander your way through a manuscript, and sometimes it's even okay to throw out thousands of words because they didn't quite work out.  Thanks Stephen King!
As someone without a formal degree in writing, I didn't initially get what all the fuss was about with dialogue tags and adverbs.  After all, they're descriptive.  My grade school teachers didn't have a problem with them, and I've certainly seen them used in plenty of published novels. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers illustrates so beautifully why they're crutches in writing, and why getting rid of them can take your writing from amateur to the major leagues.  Essential stuff for getting your work taken seriously, I think.  Thanks Renni Browne and Dave King!

I'm always on the hunt for more books on writing, though.  Which craft books have deeply influenced your writing?

Monday, September 30, 2013

In Search of the Great Premise

How did you come up with the premise for your WIP? If you're anything like me, coming up with an idea is not a problem -- you probably come up with them all the time.  But how do you choose the one that will stick? It takes a lot of time and commitment to complete a novel, so you have to pick the project that will drive you to finish, the one that's you're so passionate about that you can't NOT finish.

And then there's that whole thing about whether anyone else will want to read it.  Not that you should care about that.  Supposedly.  Until you have to care.

Premise envy can sneak up on you.  That's when you hear about a new novel coming out and think, why didn't I come up with that? Usually it's a simple idea, but powerful and full of possibilities.

It can be paralyzing trying to grasp for that great next premise, even if you've completed a novel or ten.  Because the further we get into this writing gig, the more we want to succeed.

To start with, I usually find something I'm excited about: a character, a setting, maybe even an open-ended social or political issue.  Or maybe there's a conflict that's driving me -- two things that oppose each other so forcefully I have to see how it will all play out.

The key thing is being able to imagine writing enough words to complete a whole novel.  Then I start researching/outlining and generally preparing to start a manuscript.  If I'm still interested a week later, that's a good sign.  I write chapter one, and I wonder if a reader would be able to stop reading that book.  What if it had been written by someone else and I had randomly come across it?  Would I be compelled to continue reading?

I've started enough manuscripts to know that not all ideas are good enough to stick it through.  But when you find the right one, it's pure magic.

Monday, September 23, 2013

How to Write with a Newborn

So, I've acquired quite a few new talents during my social media hiatus.  I've learned things like how to carry 9+ pounds of squirming mass around like it aint no thing and how to change a diaper on a fallen log.

But now I'm trying to get back into writing, and I've got a few ideas on how to do it.  I thought I'd share with the rest of the world, in case I'm deluding myself missing anything. Let me know what you think!

  1. Write in Sprints: You don't have time to spellcheck! You don't have time to revise! Oh, she's making that choking noise while she sleeps again; you'd better go check on her now.
  2. Learn to Type While Feeding: Your knee can support her head, right?
  3. Okay, Okay, Plot in Your Head While Feeding: You'll totally have time to bond after your first book tour.
  4. Use Your Dialogue as a Lullaby: What's better than reading your prose aloud? Singing it, obviously.
  5. Use Baby's Cuteness to Snag Cool Research Interviews: Airforce pilots and drug dealers can't resist babies either.  Just make sure they've had their TDAP shot.
  6. Outlining is Your Best Friend: It's kinda like writing. You can tackle the prose as soon as that snotty daycare gets back to you.
  7. Use Dreams as Inspiration: They're a lot easier to remember when constantly interrupted!
  8. Get Help from the Grandparents: Your newborn isn't really going to pick up their insane political views or weird superstitions.  Once you're a bestselling author, you can take over raising your own child again.
  9. Get Help from Spouse: Only one of you can have time for creative aspirations.  So, really, which one of you has more talent?
  10. De-prioritize Social Media: Your novel comes first.  Do not open Twitter! Do not open Facebook! Stop reading this blog now!  Oh, eff it.  Writers need community.
PS: Wrote this whole blog post during one nap! Now to celebrate with some coffee...ah, crap she's crying. :)

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Taking a hiatus from social media due to some very tiny feet that require my attention!

Also...happy Indian Independence Day!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Success Story: Peggy Eddleman and her MG Novel SKY JUMPERS

Hello everyone!  This week I'm interviewing Peggy Eddleman, whose MG debut Sky Jumpers will be released on Sept 24 by Random House Books for Younger Readers!  I first encountered Peggy's success story when she appeared as a guest in Brandon Sanderson's 2012 lecture series (yes, I've raved about those often).  Peggy's savvy querying advice really helped me a lot in my own search for an agent, so I definitely owe her one! Here's the dish on her fabulous sounding novel and her writing journey.

Hi Peggy! Congrats on the upcoming release of SKY JUMPERS! What's the genre and one-sentence pitch?

Thanks so much, Maya! It’s a middle grade adventure about a girl living in a post-apocalyptic town where she can’t do the most important thing— invent, but when bandits invade, inventing won’t save them, but the daring and risk-taking that usually gets her into trouble just might.

What inspired the premise?

The setting. My family and I were flying home from Disney World on a cloudy day, and I kept staring out the window at the wrong side of the clouds, imagining how fun it would be to jump into them and have them slow my fall, like jumping into water. Then the Bomb’s Breath was born— a deadly band of air 15 feet thick (a side effect from the green bombs) that covers their crater-valley.

Was this the first novel you wrote, or did you drawer a few projects first?

I have a drawer full of four awesome-but-bad-in-their-own-special-way manuscripts. They got me where I am, so I’ll always love them in all their stinky glory. (In case you’re wondering— no, I didn’t query any of them.)

How did you initially pitch to your agent, Sara Crowe (contest, conference, query)?

I pitched to her at a writer’s conference (LDStorymakers). It was my first live pitch, and it was SO SCARY! My voice shook, my hands sweated, and a third of the words fell out of my head before they made it to my mouth. Luckily, agents understand where we are coming from when we pitch, and don’t hold those kinds of things against us. :) My manuscript was finished and heavily revised at that point, but it wasn’t 100%. I pitched to her in May, but didn’t send it to her until I started querying in September. Agents are incredibly patient when it comes to waiting for an ms after a conference pitch.

I completely agree.  Can you tell us a little bit about your querying strategy?

I didn’t start querying until I had a ton of critique partners read my ms and it was in the very best shape I could possibly make it. Then I spent 5 months writing my query. No joke. I worried that if it wasn’t as close to perfect as possible, I might lose a chance with the agent who would be perfect for me. I know lots of people like to “test the waters” to see if their query is working, but honestly, I knew I couldn’t make my query any better, so testing the waters was irrelevant. So I just went straight to the top. I signed up for Publisher’s Marketplace (which I think still might have a 5 day free membership), and had it show me the top dealmakers for middle grade. Not every uberly-incredible agent will be listed as a top dealmaker, but it’s a good place to start. Then I researched each one on Literary Rambles (LOVE that site!) until I had a list of my dream agents and was able to personalize each query. Then I took a deep breath and clicked send.

How did you feel when Ms. Crowe offered representation?

Peaceful. Ha! Not the answer you expected, huh? I had another offer of representation from an agent I had cold-queried. Both were in the top 3 on PM for my genre, and both had some major skills. It was a very difficult decision. Then my husband pointed out that when ever I talked to/about the other agent, I was stressed, felt inadequate, and was full of worry. Whenever I talked to/about Sara, I was happy, excited for the future, confident, and calm. So when I said yes to Sara, I felt peaceful. Like it was the most right decision ever.

How did the submission process for SKY JUMPERS go?

Fast. I had hunkered down for the long haul and pushed it out of my mind, because I already knew that those things take months. So I was completely caught by surprise when I got a call after six days.

What has surprised you the most with the publication process?

That the Insider Information doors aren’t opened, and all the info you ever needed to know doesn’t just flow to you. It takes a lot of figuring things out as you go. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of the Lucky 13s, because when you take the little bit of info we each know and add it all together, it makes for a much clearer picture of everything. (Plus, it’s a great support to be around people who are going through the same things!) I highly suggest becoming part of a group of other newbie authors when you get a book deal. It makes it feel like you’re not fumbling around in the dark.

What was the biggest challenge you faced after closing the deal?

Book 2. Book twos are beasts. Beasts that are hard to get just right, and that frequently have to be rewritten. It has taken a lot to tame that beast.

Did you have a web presence before signing with Random House?

Yes. I had a blog that I had invested a lot of time in before querying.

How did you build your web presence?

By writing consistent content with the blog reader in mind, and by visiting a LOT of other blogs. Not only did it help to build my web presence, but it made me feel a part of the writing world, and introduced me to some amazing writing friends, many of whom I’ve been able to meet in real life. I don’t think that blogging made a huge difference to my publisher, but it made a huge difference to me.

What are you most looking forward to post-release?

Oddly: school visits.

What's your current favorite MG book and why do you love it?

Gregor the Overlander. ‘cause it’s amazing... like my son Cory. (Haha! My son typed that while I wasn’t looking, and now I can’t bring myself to delete it.) I love Gregor because it was full of incredible conflict and interesting characters and a very unique setting. And because it completely captivated my kids. We tore through the entire series in record time. It’s one of the few series that my kids have asked me to re-read to them.

What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

I truly believe that there is a perfect publishing path for everyone, whether it’s Big 5, a medium-sized publisher, a small press, self-publishing, or if it’s strictly for hobby and will forever stay hidden in the quiet corners of your hard drive. Each one has its own set of pros and cons. Figure out what your perfect path is, and then plow forward with that goal in mind. Don’t let anything stop you. Not fear of your own inadequateness, or jealousy over someone else’s path, or obstacles that stand in your way, or naysayers, or even the sheer difficultness of the task. Just remind yourself that THIS is the perfect path for you regardless of what’s perfect for anyone else, and that YOU CAN DO IT.

Fantastic answers, Peggy! Thanks so much for your time! And I can't wait to read SKY JUMPERS!

And thank you so much for having me, and for coming up with such great questions! I have loved being here.

To learn more about Peggy Eddleman, you can find her online at the links below:

Monday, July 15, 2013

Success Story: Krista Van Dolzer and THE REGENERATED MAN

Hello everyone! I'm delighted to continue our success story interviews with Krista Van Dolzer, MG author.  Her amazing blog is a must for aspiring writers: full of agent interviews, pitch opportunities, and more.  When I heard that Krista's novel THE REGENERATED MAN sold, I was so thrilled because she's done so much for the writing community, and also because it sounds awesome. Here's the scoop on her novel, her blog, and her writing journey!

Congrats on your recent sale of THE REGENERATED MAN to G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers! What's the genre and one-sentence pitch?

THE REGENERATED MAN is an MG historical with a dash of science fiction. As for a one-sentence pitch ... I never wrote one of those:) So I'll just refer you to the summary on my blog if you want to know more.

How did you get the idea to write about a regenerated Japanese WWII veteran?

The first line came to me as I was falling asleep one night: "Mama said it was plum foolishness to leave the dried blood on my cousin's dog tags." (It actually used to be worded a little less simply than that, but you get the idea.) I wondered what sort of book would start with that sort of first line, and THE REGENERATED MAN was born (though I usually just call him Steve).

I think the idea of making the regenerated man Japanese probably stemmed from two places: First, I wanted to make sure he looked different from all the other characters in the book, and second, I wanted to pay homage to my maternal grandparents. My grandfather was Filipino and served in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he married my grandmother, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Utahn. I've always admired them for loving each other at a time when most people frowned on interracial marriages.

I've been a fan of your blog, http://motherwrite.blogspot.com for quite some time now. The agent interviews are incredibly useful, and the Agent Inbox is a unique and fun way to gain insight into how agents think. Did you always envision that it would concentrate on uniting agents and authors?

Not really. After I'd been blogging for a few months, I decided I wanted to do something to boost readership. I contacted a few agents about doing interviews, and lo and behold, a few of those few said yes:) Over the years, I've just tried to keep the blog's content fresh and useful. I imagine it will continue to evolve over time.

How quickly did your blog take off, after you began interviewing agents?

I distinctly remember I had twelve followers on the day I posted my first interview. (Thanks for saying yes, Joanna Volpe!) That was back in February of 2010, if I'm not mistaken. For the first year or so, I worked really hard to post a new interview every week, and it only took a few months for people to catch on. By the end of that year, I'd say I had somewhere around 200 followers, but that's a total guess.

Do you think your social media presence helped with attracting an agent, and eventually a publisher?

I don't think my social media presence in and of itself made my writing more attractive to agents, but the relationships I built definitely helped. By the time Kate offered, she and I had been e-mailing back and forth for years on interviews, blog contests, and requested manuscripts. I already felt like I knew her and what it would be like to work with her, which is one of the main reasons I accepted her offer.

How did you initially pitch to your agent, Kate Schafer Testerman (contest, conference, query)?

Cold query. As I said, we'd corresponded quite a bit in the past, but I still sent my query and first three pages to her query inbox, just like her submission guidelines specified.

How did you feel when Ms. Testerman offered representation?

Thrilled. Shocked. Mostly shocked. A few days before she offered, she started following me on Twitter, then sent me a tweet that made it clear she was reading. (Hint: If Kate starts following you on Twitter, that's a REALLY good sign.) I spent the rest of the week trying to convince myself to stay calm and not get my hopes up, and by the end of the week, I'd actually decided she was going to pass. When her e-mail popped up in my inbox, I literally burst into tears. But the news was much better than I'd anticipated:)

Did you have any previous projects that you either queried or went through the submission process before THE REGENERATED MAN that didn't sell? If so, what did you learn from the experience?

As I implied above, I queried three manuscripts that never snagged agents. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing, so the rejections didn't faze me. I sent around 50 queries and ended up with exactly one full request. The second time, I was much better informed and had much better results. I sent around 75 queries and ended up with around 15 requests, a mixture of partials and fulls, but still no offers.

I got serious with my third manuscript--found some critique partners and learned how to revise--and when I sent my first batch of queries, I genuinely felt that this would be the One. Early results only reinforced that idea. My first three queries garnered three partials requests, one of which morphed into a full request literally overnight. I figured I'd have an agent within another week or two, but that wasn't what happened. (And thank goodness it didn't!) After many months and five (count 'em, five!) requested revisions, I moved on to my next project, a little MG historical I'd taken to calling Steve.

Through all of this, I learned to just keep writing, just keep writing. If it wasn't going to be this manuscript, then it had to be the next one (or the next), and the only way I was going to get there was if I stuck my butt in that chair and churned out those words. That is the one thing all published authors have in common: They wrote their way through rejection.

What are you most looking forward to as you prepare for the release of THE REGENERATED MAN in 2015?

Holding the book in my hands and seeing my name on the cover. The truth is, that's all the payoff I'd ever need. (But don't tell anyone! The money's still nice:) )

What do you think will be the biggest challenge?

Promoting it, no question. A lot of a book's publicity rests on the author's shoulders these days, and I definitely want to do my part. I want to show my publisher I'm a smart, savvy author who knows how to create her own buzz.

What's your current favorite YA book and why do you love it?

How about three? I went back to see which YA books I've recommended recently, and they're all fantastic. THE COMEBACK SEASON by Jennifer E. Smith is poignant without being melodramatic and a great contemporary read. (I've read two of her other books, THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT and THIS IS WHAT HAPPY LOOKS LIKE, and they're also fun.) SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman is a beautifully crafted high fantasy and a stunning debut. Finally, THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater remains my favorite YA read from the last year or so. It's the perfect combination of myth and reality, and I loved watching Puck and Sean's relationship develop. (Puck is a girl, by the way.)

What authors have inspired you?

I don't know how Shannon Hale juggles a husband, four kids, and a prolific writing career, but she does. When I grow up, I want to be just like her. And I really appreciate Lauren Oliver's repertoire. Someday, I'd love to be able to move back and forth between MG and YA, the real and the imaginary, as seamlessly as she does.

What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

Do whatever makes you happy. If armadillo-herding makes you happy, then herd armadillos. If writing makes you happy, then write. And if writing ever stops making you happy, then stop. There will always be tough days, of course, but you don't have to die for it. It's not quitting if you find something else that makes you happier. People change, goals change, and that's okay.

What an inspiring journey! Thanks so much, Krista, and good luck with the release of THE REGENERATED MAN.

If you'd like to learn more about Krista, check out her blog http://motherwrite.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @KristaVanDolzer

Monday, July 8, 2013

Interview: Literary Agent Katelyn Detweiler

Hi everyone! I've got a special treat for you: an interview with a fabulous agent, Katelyn Detweiler at Jill Grinberg Literary!  Find out what she's looking for, which authors excite her, and how best to catch her attention!

Hello, Katelyn! Thanks so much for taking time out from agenting for this interview! What was your background prior to joining Jill Grinberg Literary Management?

I was an English major in college, emphasis in creative writing, and had the vague notion from the end of freshmen year or so on that I wanted (needed, really, since no other career seemed fathomable to me) to be in publishing – though “publishing” to me at that time meant being an editor, because it was hard to really have a sense of the opportunities and roles much beyond that. 

I worked as an intern at Penn State University Press for two years, and then moved to New York City a few weeks after graduation for the Columbia Publishing Course, a fairly intensive 6 week program that throws you into the ins and outs of the book biz and leaves you, hopefully, with a real job at the end – or at the very least, a whole lot of acquaintances in the field. 

I threw my resume at all sorts of openings, and was lucky enough to get my first job shortly after the course ended, a marketing assistant position at Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, where I stayed for almost two years before moving on to Jill Grinberg Literary Management. Marketing was a really fabulous way to start out—there’s a lot of coordinating with publicity, editorial, sales, etc. that has given invaluable perspective to work here at the agency.

What drew you into becoming an agent?

I craved the close, personal relationship with the author, and the close, personal relationship with the writing. I wanted to work on projects that I felt strongly drawn to—projects that really spoke to me on an intimate level.

I was also attracted by the many hats an agent wears, especially at a small agency. Agents have so many roles on any given day, from working with an author on early edits to selling projects to foreign publishers to putting out little fires as they break out—a bad cover design, a late payment, an editorial letter with one too many requests. No day is predictable, no challenge is the same. There’s a real sense of reward that comes with even the smallest of accomplishments.

Since you've joined the Grinberg Agency, what is the most important thing you've learned?

Reading is so subjective—so completely, maddeningly, bafflingly subjective. I may love something—really, passionately love something—but that doesn’t mean that all of the editors we submit to will agree, let alone one or two of them. But no matter how many rejections come in, you have to keep believing—for yourself, and for the author—that the right editor will come along as long as you keep on trying to find them. The right editor will appreciate the work just as much as you do. You can’t give up on something you love, and something that you know deep down deserves to be out in the world.

What do you think is unique about the Grinberg Agency?

We’re small—boutique and hands on—but still quite diverse. Our authors are novelists, historians, scientists, memoirists, journalists, illustrators, musicians, cultural critics—the list goes on. But despite these differences, at the core our authors are all passionate about what they write, and they have strong, authentic voices, whether they are writing fiction or writing nonfiction.

Are you actively seeking new clients at this time?

Yes, definitely! I am actively looking to build my list at the moment, though I’m doing so gradually and carefully. I am much more concerned with quality than quantity, and above all else I want to make sure I can fully dedicate myself to new authors and new manuscripts. I have my hand in a lot of different projects around the agency, so I am focused on not spreading myself too thin—that’s simply not fair to the author or to their work. If I’m representing you, I am ready and prepared to be behind you 100%.

What genres/sub-genres do you represent?

I’m especially focused on finding YA and MG at the moment, but I would be open to considering anything that strikes a personal chord with me. It’s hard to know exactly what you’re looking for sometimes until it jumps at you straight off the page. But a strong voice and a strong sense of setting are a must. Whether it’s contemporary or fantasy, I want to really connect with the world the writer is creating—no matter how different it may be from our real world, the story needs to be grounded in its characters and emotional arc.

What are some of the typical mistakes you see writers make?

Sending a manuscript too soon in the process—before they’ve had time to really step back and take some time away to get a fresh perspective. There’s no rush. If it’s a good, solid story, it’ll be even better after some dedicated, focused revising.

Do you have any querying advice for aspiring writers?

Show an agent that you’ve researched them and their agency. While it’s perfectly acceptable (and advisable) to send multiple submissions, it’s still important to show that you’ve done your homework, and that there’s a reason you’re targeting this specific agent or agency. (And whatever you do, please don’t send a mass email with all of the agents you’ve selected cc’ed. And maybe also try not to misspell the agent’s name in the greeting—it happens more times than you’d believe.)

What general advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write because you love your story, and because you feel deep down it needs to be told. Write because you enjoy the act of it, and because you can’t imagine not writing it. Don’t write with the intention of being a bestseller, or making lots of money, or being famous. Write because you want other people beyond yourself—whether it’s one reader or one million readers—to feel changed or inspired or better somehow because of what you wrote. Because of your words.

What client books do you have coming out in the near future, and what excites you about these projects?

The first project I sold directly—SPIN, by Jenn Marie Thorne—will be published by Dial / Penguin in Fall 2014, and I am incredibly (incredibly!) excited for that to be out in the world. SPIN is a fantastic contemporary by a fantastic new YA voice, and the whole process—from that first magic moment of finding Jenn’s voice in the slush, to submitting, to negotiating—was a thrill from start to finish.

Who are some of your favorite authors who are not clients?

Oh, the list is ridiculously long and winding and never-ending. There’s never enough space on my night stand or hours in the day for everything I want / need to be reading. But to name a few of the big ones: John Green, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Perkins, Lauren Oliver, Gayle Foreman, David Levithan, Kate Morton (I do read adult books occasionally!), R.J. Palacio.

Many of my favorites too! Thanks again, Katelyn!

To learn more about Katelyn, follow her on Twitter @katedetweiler.  For submission guidelines and to learn more about the agency, check out their page on Publishers Marketplace.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Success Story: Jenn Marie Thorne and her Novel SPIN

Today I'm interviewing Jenn Marie Thorne, whose debut novel SPIN will be published by Dial/Penguin in fall 2014.

(Update: SPIN has been renamed to THE WRONG SIDE OF RIGHT)

Hi Jenn! Thanks so much for the interview. I'd love to hear more about your debut novel, SPIN! What's the genre and one-sentence pitch?

Thank you, Maya! SPIN is a YA Contemporary novel that deals with the fallout after a sixteen year old girl learns along with the rest of the country that the Republican nominee for President is her father.

What inspired the premise?

Well, we had a whole lot of political sex scandals in a row for a while there, didn't we? John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner. But when the Schwarzenegger story broke, it seemed different. He had a child, old enough to really be impacted by the media attention and the scandal surrounding him. That got my "What If"s whirring: what if it were a girl, and what if she wanted the chance to get to know him, to be a real part of his family despite everything? And that became SPIN.

When did you first begin writing with a goal toward publication?

I'd been playing around with writing for years. In LA, I'd written a play, a full-length screenplay, several short stories and a web series. But it was about four years ago when I moved to Florida that I really decided to focus on novels as a career goal.

How many novels did you end up putting aside before SPIN?

There were a couple of false starts, then I wrote a middle grade fantasy that I'm still really fond of, though I now have enough perspective to see how derivative it was. I wrote a Western set in the future that first got my agent's attention, and while I was querying that one, I was also working on SPIN.

How did you initially pitch to your agent, Katelyn Detweiler (contest, conference, query)?

I sent my Western to her agency, not knowing that she was looking to take on clients. Thank goodness she was!

How did you feel when she offered representation, and how did you know that she was the right agent for you?

I was absolutely thrilled. First of all, Katelyn and I live in the same literary universe - the books I gravitate to are the ones she does as well. That's huge. I could also tell right away how passionate she was about publishing and working with writers to make their books as great as possible and to reach as many people as possible. On top of all that, she's a really fun, kind, lovely person - so I am a very lucky client!

How was your experience in the submission process for SPIN?

Submission was much less painless than I'd expected, to be honest. I'd scoured the internet for information on "submission hell," preparing myself for months upon months of dead ends and no-responses before finding the right house. But it was only a few weeks before we started getting traction and I began to have conversations with potential editors. Which was terrifying!

How thrilled were you when the deal closed?

I was beyond delirious. Just dizzy for days. I'd had one of those nail-biting, trying-to-sound-confident-while-trembling phone conversations with Jessica Garrison at Dial, and I'd kind of fallen in love. It was a bit like when I met my husband, that "Oh, there you are" feeling of compatibility. She completely got the book, and had such brilliant ideas off the bat for how to improve it. So when she came back with an offer, it was nice to see that the feeling was mutual! It was a dream.

I understand you recently had a baby. What are the challenges associated with writing between naps?

Oh man. It's tough. Honestly, I've enlisted childcare help, because my five-month-old's twenty minutes naps are not cutting it! What I find most helpful is to set really concrete, small goals for what you want to accomplish in a day. Like today's goals are to do a pacing edit for Chapter Fifteen of my current WIP and to start a world bible for a fantasy series I'm mulling.

What are you most looking forward to as you prepare for the release of SPIN?

So many things! The next big thrill will be seeing cover art. I think it'll really sink in at that point that this little speck of an idea I had has become an actual physical thing that exists separately from me. And then, of course, for better or worse, I cannot wait to find out what people think of it. I know I should remain aloof and avoid reviews, etc., and I probably will, but I really hope people like the book!

What do you think will be the biggest challenge?

Probably what I just mentioned. I understand rationally that you can't please every reader and that every author is going to get more than their fair share of nasty Goodreads reviews. But I know myself, and I'm probably going to sneak peeks at Goodreads and then regret it. And then do it again.

What's your current favorite YA book and why do you love it?

This is a tough question. There are so many amazing books out there. In terms of contemporaries, I really loved Ask the Passengers and, of course, The Fault in Our Stars. Right now, I'm really obsessed with Leigh Bardugo's Grisha series. Like, I get confused that it's not real. And The Scorpio Races and Graceling are two of my favorite books of all time.

What authors have inspired you?

I love the diversity and zap of Margaret Atwood's work. Ditto for Libba Bray - and I love her candor in how she talks about her own process. I'm inspired every time I read a great book, actually. It's what brings me back to the writing chair again and again.

What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

Write another book! Craft your book as finely as you know how, and hone that query to a fine sheen, but while you're doing that, write the next book. If you're Harper Lee, that's one thing. But if you want to write books (plural) as a profession, treat it as a profession right now. Eventually, the universe will agree with you.

Thanks so much, Jenn, and I can't wait to read SPIN!

If you'd like to learn more about Jenn Marie Thorne, you can follow her on Twitter @juniperjenny or on facebook.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Discovery Writing and the Alpha Reader

In a previous post, I discussed why the “Go! Go! Go!” approach for writers may not make the most sense for discovery writers. Discovery writers are discovering their story as they write, and I concluded that finishing a draft without revising could lead to a lot of wasted time and energy. Revising my opening chapters has definitely helped me make sure I'm heading forward on solid ground, hopefully saving me from writing a draft that I will end up throwing away.

Another important part of my process is the alpha reader, someone who reads my chapters before I complete the entire draft. Alpha readers either reassure me that my beginning is solid, or they advise me that I'm taking a wrong turn. I had two alpha readers for SKY MAHAL and they both provided me with valuable guidance that made a huge difference in how the book turned out.

If you're worried about showing people your first draft, you're not alone. I actually never show my alpha readers my first draft of anything. I tend to revise the things that most egregiously need work before asking my alpha readers to step in and give me direction. With my last novel, I can't remember how many times I revised my opening chapter. But eventually I reached an impasse, where I had no idea if what I've just written is complete garbage or not. That's when my alpha readers stepped in.

Requirements of an alpha reader:
  1. Must be able to read your work in progress and truly recognize that it is a work in progress and therefore ignore your rough prose
  2. Must have a strong understanding of story and be able to articulate why you're headed in the wrong direction (e.g. you're revealing too much too fast, or not enough)
  3. Is generally just plain fabulous :)

In other words, your alphas have to be more sophisticated readers than your average beta. A beta reads a mostly polished draft and only needs to be able to tell you whether they were engaged or not, and at which parts. An alpha is much more of a partner in your story creation process, someone who can give you ideas on how to get unstuck, how to climb out of a giant plot hole, how to make your love interest more compelling, etc. At the very least, an alpha should recognize these problems and voice them before you proceed. Your alphas might be just one or two close friends, or it might be an entire critique group. The important part is that they can intervene at an early stage (hopefully without breaking your will to live!).

With SKY MAHAL, my first draft was pretty much useless. With the second(ish) draft, I gave my alphas 3-5 chapters at a time. I revised those chunks myself before handing them over, so there weren't serious flaws that I knew I had to change. I found that my two alpha readers pointed out vastly different things. One was very concerned about character interactions and making my main character likeable. The other pointed out when I was losing suspense or giving away too many of my villain's motives. Both were completely awesome and saved me from wasting time.

The best case scenario is that your alpha readers tell you you're basically on the right track. Fantastic! You can go forward with some confidence. Otherwise, you revise. And that can be frustrating if you're sick of a chapter that isn't working. Occasionally, my alphas would have so many issues with a chapter, I would have to rewrite it, show it to them, and then rewrite it again. It was slow in the first 1/3 of my manuscript, but I ended up being able to write the remaining 2/3 much faster as a result. I had large sections that hardly needed any revising at all. Thank you alphas!

So tell me, do you use alphas? Or do you guard your early drafts tightly?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Success Story: Rachel Solomon and Her Path to Landing An Agent

I'm so excited to announce that my friend and writing buddy Rachel Lynn Solomon has recently signed with literary agent Molly Jaffa at Folio Lit!

Rachel and I met at a writing critique group a little over a year ago. Since then, we've met regularly to support and encourage each other as we stare at the dreaded blank page. Rachel is just so smart and dedicated to the craft that I knew it was only a matter of time before she found success as a writer. Here's the scoop on her novel TWITCH and how she landed her agent.

What's your genre and one-sentence pitch?

TWITCH is YA contemporary. It’s about a sixteen-year-old girl with Tourette’s syndrome who gets wrapped up in a small-town political scandal, while trying to balance her politically obsessed family and a romance with a boy with OCD.

What inspired you to write about a character with Tourette's?

One day last year, I got sucked into a YouTube black hole watching videos of teens with Tourette’s talking about their tics. It was so fascinating! Some of the girls were very nonchalant and open about it—“this is me, and if you have a problem with it, I don’t care”—and one burst into tears while explaining how it affected her life. I think my main character, Elliott, is somewhere in the middle. Image is so huge in high school, and growing up with a disorder that affects the way you look and sound is going to complicate things.

There are also a lot of misconceptions about Tourette’s. I think the biggest is that it’s often viewed as a disorder that causes people to involuntarily yell out swear words. This is called coprolalia, and it actually only affects about 10 percent of people with Tourette’s. (My character doesn’t have this.) I talked about Tourette’s a lot with a friend of mine who has it because I wanted to portray it accurately. It was also important to me that, while the book features a protagonist with Tourette’s, it’s not a book about Tourette’s.

How did you initially pitch to Molly (contest, conference, old-fashioned querying)?

I sent my first (and only) batch of 10 queries at the end of February, and Molly was the first to request. She read over a weekend and offered an R&R, along with some amazing, amazing notes. The revisions were major, and we talked on the phone about how to implement them. I reworked the manuscript for a few months and sent it back in April. Last week, she emailed asking if we could talk on the phone again!

How did you feel when you got “the call” from Molly?

Thrilled doesn’t even begin to describe it! Afterward, I was chatting with my boyfriend, who was at work, and I was so excited I couldn’t spell anything correctly. Molly and I have the same vision for the book, and I’m just ecstatic to be working with her!

What is your favorite YA contemporary book and why do you love it?

One of the books that affected me the most was SPEECHLESS by Hannah Harrington. I read it in one sitting, and in it, the main character Chelsea takes a vow of silence after blabbing a secret that caused someone to get seriously injured. After I put down the book and started to talk to some friends, my voice was hoarse and I could barely speak because I’d been inside Chelsea’s head for so long. For a book to make you feel exactly what the character is feeling—that’s incredible.

Which authors have influenced you the most?

As far as contemporary YA writers, I admire Courtney Summers, Hannah Harrington, Huntley Fitzpatrick, Colleen Clayton, Stephanie Perkins, Miranda Kenneally. They all write characters and situations that are so real and flawed and beautiful. And Meg Cabot—I lived for Meg Cabot books when I was in junior high and high school.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

Sitting across from you in a coffee shop while we each stare at our computer screens? ☺

In addition to our weekly writing dates, I try to set goals for myself every time I sit down to write. I’ve also recently fallen in love with outlining and writing synopses before I start a new project. I generally draft very quickly, then spend months revising and polishing. I also really love editing on hard copies.

What advice do you have for querying writers?

“Don’t give up” is really cliché, isn’t it? I queried two manuscripts before this one, sending out more than 100 queries total. That translates to a lot of rejection. But the reason I kept at it was because I knew I was improving as a writer. Read absolutely everything you can in your genre, enter contests, meet beta readers and CPs—basically immerse yourself in the writing world as much as possible!

Great advice from Rachel!

If you're interested in learning more about her, you can follow her on twitter @rlynn_solomon
and check out her blog here: http://rlynnsolomon.blogspot.com/

Monday, June 3, 2013

The 20K Roadblock and Discovery Writing

There appears to be a consensus among writers that 20K is the magic word count where they hit a roadblock. This just happened to me. I was sailing along, content with hitting my word count goals, not worrying too much if everything I was writing was terrible. Hey, it's a first draft, right?

And then I couldn't go on anymore. I mean, I could, but I wasn't sure that I should.

I had gone far enough to realize that too many things weren't working. I didn't like the tone of the novel—it was getting too dark. I hadn't introduced enough complexity and subplots so it seemed like it was going to end too quickly. And quite frankly, it was boring. I write YA science fiction, and it definitely needed more cool world building.

I could have continued with the daily word count and pushed forward with my rocky first draft anyway, but I decided to hedge my bets and revise. With my previous novel, the second half of the my first draft ended up in the garbage. I had forced myself to finish the draft, but nothing about the ending worked. And I think that was because I didn't have a solid enough beginning to go forward with.

That's how I know I'm what Brandon Sanderson calls a discovery writer. I think his term is a lot more accurate than the traditional “pantser” v. “plotter” designation. A discovery writer discovers the story as they write. And they tend to revise a lot, especially the first three chapters. That's because they're molding the these chapters, trying to get a sense of their characters, world, and what the plot really is.

Don't think this applies to you? Sanderson says that most people are actually somewhere in between a discovery writer and an architect/outliner. In fact, I wrote an outline for this WIP, but I always give myself room to stray and to discover. Very few people outline to the extent that nothing needs to be decided at go time.

(By the way, Sanderson has an awesome lecture series posted here, which I highly recommend.)

The conventional advice to writers is to keep moving forward at all times. But personally I don't see a lot of sense in moving forward if I haven't figured out my tone, my characters, my subplots, and my world. All of those things must come together in order to create a truly resonant ending, an ending that is, as Robert McKee advises in Story, both unexpected and inevitable.

That's my goal. I don't want to spend a lot of time heading into a false ending which I will have to scrap completely. Therefore, I'm returning to my first chapter. Has this happened to you? How did you deal with it?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Query Tips: End With the Heart of the Conflict

What is the heart of the conflict in your book? What's truly at stake? It's bigger than just defeating the bad guy—there's the battle that your MC is facing within herself, the battle to become the heroine she is meant to be.

In my previous post, we discussed the MC's internal goal versus the external goal. I think the heart of the conflict, the true conflict, is usually found in the relationship between those two goals. The internal goal might be in direct conflict with the external goal, or perhaps the external goal simply doesn't help with the internal goal. Sometimes, they do go hand in hand, but not in the way the MC expects. Exploring this relationship is a strong way to end a query because it's often the very thing that motivates readers to keep reading the manuscript.

Let's return to our Harry Potter example from the previous query tips posts. Harry's internal goal is to find family. He actually has two external goals: a long term goal of defeating Voldemort, but a short term goal of discovering the mystery behind the three-headed dog. He suspects that the two external goals might be related when his lightning-shaped scar burns at various points.

But how do his external goals relate to his internal goal of finding family? For one thing, Harry has quickly realized that Hogwarts is a sort of family. Part of his motivation behind unraveling the mystery is simply to protect this school he's found a sense of belonging at. And as Harry works with Ron and Hermione to stop the villain, his two good friends become closer to him than any of his true family ever were.

Let's try to end with a statement of conflict that reflects these ideas:

When his lightning-shaped scar begins to burn, Harry wonders if he should heed the warning to keep his friends out of danger. But perhaps true friendship means they must risk everything together—including their lives—to keep their newfound home at Hogwarts safe.

Here I've tried to show the inherent conflict between his internal and external goals. To solve the mystery (external goal), Harry must risk his friends (internal goal). But if he backs off to keep his friends safe, he might end up losing Hogwarts and his new family anyway.  The only way he can actually keep Hogwarts safe is to work with his friends, which makes them even more tightly knit.

Now let's take a look at how the three sections from this HP example work together:

Eleven-year-old Harry Potter has been sleeping in a cupboard ever since he arrived on his relatives' doorstep as a baby with a scar on his tiny forehead. Although his aunt and uncle spoil their own son Dudley with thirty-seven presents on his birthday, Harry receives something far more special for his. A letter from a school called Hogwarts, claiming that Harry is a wizard.

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry introduces Harry to a world of potions, magic wands, and quidditch, a sport played on flying broomsticks. But when Harry discovers a three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor in an area forbidden to students, he realizes that his teachers aren't telling him everything. Now Harry and his friends are determined to find out what might be valuable enough for such drastic security measures—and what it might have to do with a break-in at the wizard bank, a professor's mangled leg, and a troll set loose in the school.

When his lightning-shaped scar begins to burn, Harry wonders if he should heed the warning to keep his friends out of danger. But perhaps true friendship means they must risk everything together—including their lives—to keep their newfound home at Hogwarts safe.

This clocks in at 200 words. We've covered the major themes and conflict in Sorcerer's Stone, but left quite a bit of mystery. Notice we haven't mentioned Voldemort directly, but by including the scar in the first and third paragraph, we've brought everything full circle and indicated that there might be a connection between the three-headed guard dog's mystery and Harry's past. Again, we're teasing the reader.

There's no one formula to write a query—in fact some of the best ones break all of the rules. For HP, I think you could have written a query that focuses solely on the inciting incident, when Harry receives the letter.  Still, I hope these examples give you some ideas on how to break down the most compelling aspects of your book and have the agent or editor begging for more.

If you missed the previous examples, start with Step 1: Introduce Your Character With Subtext.

Or continue to Step 4: Polish With a Goal Toward Readability.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Query Critique Winners Announced!

Thanks so much to everyone who entered my query critique giveaway! The three winners are...

Marlene M.! Zoë M.! And Heather D.!

Winners should have received an email from me.  If not, feel free to contact me via my contact form or tweet me @mayaprasadwrite.

To all of the other participants, I do hope that my query tip posts are helpful to you.  Go forth and query boldly.  Thanks again, everyone!



Wednesday, May 15, 2013

25 Ideas to Freshen Up That Query

Today, I'm guest posting over at kick-butt urban fantasy writer Tina Moss's blog.  I've got 25 ideas to help you freshen up your query and look at it from a whole new light.  Check it out!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Query Tips: Be A Tease Without Being Vague

So, you have a great plot twist in your novel.  How can you best utilize it to capture the agent's attention?  How can you frame the big secret so that she just has to read your book?

Let's continue with last week's Harry Potter example. What if our query read:

At Hogwarts, Harry enters a world of magic and mystery. When he and his friends discover a three-headed dog in a forbidden area of the castle, they realize that something strange is going on. It's up to the three of them to stop it.

While this might accurately describe the plot, it's also pretty vague and boring, right? We might as well have written “Harry discovers a shocking secret.”  Unfortunately, readers aren't going to take your word for it that your secret is shocking—you'll have to be a lot more specific than that to grab their attention.

But we don't want to give everything away either (um, spoiler alert in case anyone hasn't read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone!):

At Hogwarts, Harry and his new friends discover a three-headed dog in a forbidden area of the castle. They soon realize the dog is really guarding the Sorcerer's Stone, which gives its bearer powers of immortality. When Professor Snape appears in class with mangled limbs, Harry suspects that the teacher was trying to steal the coveted stone. The kids decide to stop the scheming professor by going after it themselves, only to come face to face with Voldemort, the very wizard who murdered Harry's parents.

That reads a lot more like a synopsis than a query, don't you think? You don't have to reveal the ending to give away too much. By bringing in Voldemort and revealing that Snape wasn't the true threat, we've given away the major plot twists in the book. Instead, we just want to intrigue the agent or editor.

So how do you do be a tease without being completely vague in your query? Well, as you would in the novel itself, you should drop clues and use subtext to create suspense. Let's try it again, this time with specific clues but without giving away the twists.

The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry introduces Harry to a world of potions, magic wands, and quidditch, a sport played on flying broomsticks. But when Harry discovers a three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor in an area forbidden to students, he realizes that his teachers aren't telling him everything. Now Harry and his friends are determined to find out what might be valuable enough for such drastic security measures—and what it might have to do with a break-in at the wizard bank, a professor's mangled leg, and a troll set loose in the school.

Here I didn't even mention the Sorcerer's Stone.  Instead, I pointed out that a three-headed dog is a pretty drastic security measure, and left the object being protected to the reader's imagination.  I also included three clues that might be related to the mystery, but again without going into detail about how.  The connections are in the subtext -- our mind can put together that a dog might result in a mangled leg, for example. When you include clues like this, take care that the reader can make some mental connection between the clues and the mystery.  I added the first line about Hogwarts for setting purposes, because one of the things that makes HP so special is the backdrop of whimsical magic.

Hope those examples will help you balance the suspense and level of detail in your query!

If you missed the previous post, return to Step 1: Introduce Your Character With Subtext.

Or continue to Step 3: End With the Heart of the Conflict.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Query Tips: Introducing Your Character With Subtext

Why is your character the main character of your story? Why is he/she the person that can kill the bad guy, love this man, or overcome whatever your main obstacle is?

Very often, I see writers begin their queries with a statement about how ordinary their character is. I understand they want to make their character relatable and an “everyman.” However, your space is better utilized if you skip to the good stuff.

After all, your character is not truly an everyman. There is a reason why she is the protagonist of the story, why she is uniquely situated to overcome the conflict.  When you introduce your character in your query, try to hint at this. Also consider her internal goal. Regardless of whether your character even realizes what her internal goal is, there are probably things you can establish that will help the reader guess at it.

For example, we know that Harry Potter's internal goal is to find family, as evidenced by the Mirror of Erised. His external goal is to stop Voldemort, and he is uniquely situated to do it because a) he's a wizard and b) he's stopped Voldemort once before, as a baby.

Therefore, we might introduce him in our query like this:

Eleven-year-old Harry Potter has been sleeping in a cupboard ever since he arrived on his relatives' doorstep as a baby with a scar on his tiny forehead. Although his aunt and uncle spoil their own son Dudley with thirty-seven presents on his birthday, Harry receives something far more special for his. A letter from a school called Hogwarts, claiming that Harry is a wizard.

A lot of what we've included is subtext, something that tells the query reader that there is more afoot than what's on the surface. While we don't specifically call out that he longs for family, it's something you might guess at because he is an orphan and his aunt and uncle have him sleep in a cupboard while they spoil their own child. And although we don't yet state that he's stumped Voldemort before, we've established that baby Harry survived something that gave him his scar. Finally, when we mentioned the inciting incident, that Harry received the letter, we also introduced what makes him so special: he's a wizard.

With subtext, you can provide a sense of depth to your character that will hook the agent/editor you're querying.

What's special about your character?

Continue the example with Step 2: Being a Tease Without Being Vague.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Query Critique Giveaway!

Enter now to win a free query critique from me!  I promise to nitpick with encouragement.

When I was working on my own query, I showed it to anyone who would look: my critique group, my husband, my family, random strangers who seemed interested, the postman, etc.  (Okay, so maybe not the postman, but yes to anyone who seemed interested.)  I was also fortunate enough to win a blog contest and receive a critique by Natalie Whipple, author of Transparent.

Ultimately, all of it helped me land my agent, Katelyn Detweiler at Jill Grinberg Literary

I'd love to pass on the pearls I learned to you.  I also have some general query writing advice posted here.  Good luck and happy querying!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Strong Heroines: Proactive, Not Reactive

For me, Katniss Everdeen is a hit-and-miss character. I loved her in The Hunger Games, but I liked her less and less as the series progressed. Why? It's simple: she went from a proactive character to a reactive character. Let's explore the difference.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is established as a proactive character from the beginning. When her father dies, Katniss's mom is so overcome with grief that she can not provide for the family. So Katniss takes it upon herself to do so. She learns to hunt, she learns how to make a living for the family, and she even takes over as a mother-figure to her younger sister.

You might argue that she is only reacting to her father's death, but the difference between Katniss and her mom is clear. The mother only reacts, but for Katniss the tragic event is a stepping stone to becoming an expert huntsman and survivor.

Similarly, when her younger sister Primrose is picked for the Hunger Games, Katniss takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to go in Prim's place. She won't let bad luck define their fates; instead, she decides to face the challenge. As she heads into the Games, she has a strong incentive to survive at any cost because she wants to return home and continue to care for her family. But even in the Games, she never lets her goal overcome her humanity. The scene with the berries at the end is Katniss's ultimate moment of not accepting her fate.

Such a great heroine! And yet, let's look at Katniss from Mockingjay. In my view, our strong heroine turns into a reactive fatalist. Not only does she spend most of the book moping about what happened to Peeta, she never really takes action in the rebellion that she started.

Of course, she is slowly realizing that the new regime might be just as corrupt as the previous one. But what does she do about it? For the most part, she continues to follow their directions, going on the missions they assign to her, giving into the photo shoots, and hiding in closets. It's not until the very end that she reacts to the regime with a single act of violence against a leader. For me, that one moment did not have enough impact because Katniss was never driving the story, never fighting for change even as opportunities came her way. Why didn't she start her own rebellion if she felt the current one was misled? She had turned into a fatalist, convinced there was nothing she could do to improve the world.

Her fatalism is best symbolized by her choice between Peeta and Gale: she never really chooses. When one of the guys does something she can't forgive, she ends up with the other one because...well, essentially because he is still around.

It seemed that Collins was more interested in portraying a boot to your face, 1984 type world than she was in creating a strong heroine. As the author, obviously she is the one to define the meaning of the story, not me. But, personally, I had expected a proactive character, a strong heroine to take center stage. Mockingjay left me thinking What happened to the kick-butt survivor Katniss?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Strong Heroines: A Romantic Side

A strong heroine doesn't have to be tough-as-nails down to the core. She can have a romantic side. One of my favorite kick-butt female protagonists is Rose Hathaway of Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series. Rose is very urban-fantasy tough; she knows how to take down evil paranormal creatures.

Yet, her romance with Dimitri is so compelling and heart-wrenching. Typically, a girl who follows her boyfriend across continents and is still hung up on him after he tells her doesn't love her might seem kind of lame. But with Rose, you totally get her reasons and you know that she's right. She ends up saving Dimitri from a fate worse than death and she does a lot of crazy stuff to accomplish it. Even when the rational advice would be Get over him, chica.

Not that Dimitri is some boring guy. He's a strong, silent type, the kind of lone wolf you know you don't want to cross—which brings me to another point. Do strong heroines need an alpha male to keep things interesting? Or does a male romantic interest who takes the sidelines so that the heroine can really shine also work? I know the idea of a guy on the sidelines doesn't exactly seem drool-worthy, but does he have to be?

My friend and fellow author Janine Southard and I were recently discussing Nancy Drew's sidelined boyfriend Ned. As a teen, I thought he was beyond boring and I wondered why Nancy didn't get a bf who would go on adventures and solve mysteries with her. But Janine pointed out that there is something nice about a guy who lets the girl take the spotlight. And when you think about it, literature is absolutely overflowing with male heroes with rather forgettable female romantic interests. Those stories aren't about the romance per se, even if getting the girl is part of the goal. They're about the hero's journey. So why not do the same thing with female protagonists?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Strong Heroines: Room to Grow

Another one of my favorite strong heroines is Tally Youngblood of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series. Some might not consider her a candidate for a strong heroine because she starts off so very normal and clueless. She desperately wants to be “Pretty” and she doesn't really question the system.

In fact, her best friend Shay drives a lot of the change in Tally. It is Shay who shows Tally how to sneak out of the city, who first questions the ethics of the operation that makes everyone look perfect. Shay starts off as a very strong and self-aware character, while Tally is still caught up in petty concerns.

I can see why Tally is the main character, however. She has room to grow. She transforms from normal teenager to crazy bad-ass by the end of the series. On the other hand, Shay starts off so strong that the only interesting thing to do is have her succumb to her flaws, which she does beautifully.

Tally's shallowness at the beginning might lead some to never finish the series or even the first book. That's the danger in writing a character that might come across as overly shallow or whiny or weak. Sure, as the author you know it's because you've planned a dramatic growth arc for your character. The trick of course is still to make the initial character likeable enough for the readers to engage with.

Personally, I thought Tally and the world itself was intriguing enough to keep reading, even as she was on the verge of betraying her friends.  On the other hand, I've also read books where I could tell the author wanted to show growth in the character, but the MC started out so weak or TSTL (too stupid to live) that I could never get into it. 

So which character did you like better? Tally or Shay? And which would you have written as your MC?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Strong Heroines: Girls Can Do Anything Boys Can Do

Feminism is a tough thing these days. Feminists are pretty harsh about each other's decisions regarding working, child rearing, taking their husband's last name, etc. We disagree on whether high-powered execs such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg can be considered role models when they have access to so many more financial resources than the average woman.

In YA lit, there's also plenty of disagreement. One person's heroine might seem like a wimp to another. So what makes a character a strong female? What makes them weak? How much butt does a girl have to kick to be strong, if any? What is over the line in a romantic relationship? And can we please discuss without the Twilight comparisons?

For me, a feminist is simply someone who believes that girls can do anything that boys can do, and often better. Not necessarily on average, but as individuals certainly. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. A female bodybuilder can easily beat up a skinny nerd who happens to be male. But what if the same bodybuilder tends to be passive in a relationship because she's inexperienced? Does that make her weak, or simply flawed?

My favorite strong female protagonist is Alanna of Trebond, from Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet. (Mild spoilers ahead)

I love her because:
  • She'll do anything to become a knight, including pretending to be a man
  • She gets beat up multiple times but she's determined to learn how to fight
  • Obviously, she eventually kicks butt. Especially with a sword.
  • We follow her through her most tender, awkward moments, including when she first gets her period
  • When her ruse is exposed, she's really exposed – down to her private parts. And she manages to fight on.
  • She turns down a prince's marriage proposal
  • She has a temper, she sometimes gets down, and whines to her cat/Goddess friend about her problems
  • She has multiple lovers over the course of the series, and she's not worried about what people think about them
  • She learns from her lovers – how to fight and how to have a relationship
  • When she finds the right guy, she does eventually settle down to happy marriage. She's capable of being traditional when she wants to. But obviously not before the kingdom is saved!

Alanna is the character that made me want to write. She's such a fighter, but she's flawed. I think it's so cool that Tamora Pierce included the day she got her period. It was so very real. I also haven't seen too many other YA series where the main character hops into bed with different guys, and there are no terrible consequences (gasp!). Of course, she has a magic necklace to keep her from getting preggo, but you know what? It could have easily been more realistic birth control instead, and the story wouldn't have changed.

Who's your favorite strong heroine? And why?