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:

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?