When I learned that my manuscript made a reader I’ve never met or spoken to laugh and cry multiple times — in GIFs

First I was like:

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Then I was like:

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and:

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and:

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and:

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I’d say “My work here is done,” but it isn’t. Cause revisions.

And that whole publication thing.

But still.

–Reposted from my tumblr.

Good Writing Advice: Start with the logline.

What is a logline? Well, if you’re an author, you may have had that classic moment where you tell someone you’re writing a book, they ask what it’s about, and then you ACTUALLY HAVE TO TELL THEM. A logline is that crisp, convenient, one-sentence-ish premise that falls effortlessly from your lips in answer, smoothly summing your story and sparing all parties embarrassment in a single breath. You know– that description you can give for like any book or movie ever, whether you liked or watched or even finished reading it or not. That you definitely don’t stumble over when describing your own work. Goodness, no.

Because chances are you are sensible: that at some point you’ve developed a brief oral pitch to use as a flotation device. Me? I know what it is to flounder. I floundered a lot with my first book. I still splash a bit, but I’m getting better with time and each subsequent novel.

One thing that really helped in defining my last book, both to myself and to others, was starting with the synopsis. Plotting roughly what was going to happen before I actually started writing not only gave me a road map for the novel ahead of me; it made it easier to talk about.

That’s why I can really get behind screenwriter Blake Snyder, who emphasizes the importance of starting with a good logline in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!:

“If you don’t have the logline, maybe you should rethink your whole movie.”

The same should hold true for books. If you can’t answer what your story’s about (in Snyder’s words: “What is it?”) succinctly and compellingly, there’s a chance that you don’t really have one.  Or that it needs work. And why waste time writing something that doesn’t sing to you and to others? Without a north? A logline is your novel at its barest: the bones upon which the story rests. It only makes sense to build from the foundation up.

That said, I am curious to hear your thoughts, fellow writers! I know there are pantsers as well as plotters out there, and some people feel stifled by any planning prior to writing.

What is your approach? What do you find works best?

Read what you love.

“It was as if some people believed there was a divide between the books that you were permitted to enjoy and the books that were good for you, and I was expected to choose sides. We were all expected to choose sides. And I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.

I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.”

—Neil Gaiman, in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book

Querying, you tricky minx, you.

I have been all over the map this last week about querying. Seriously, this is what the last nine days have looked like:

July 30: New partial request!

July 31: Pass on full manuscript from the first agent who requested material.

Defeat, self-loathing, and continuing to write my WIP anyway.

August 1-4: Certain something is fundamentally wrong with my book on submission. Not sure what to do query-wise. Supercharged resolve to begin mapping out next book since I’m almost done with first draft of WIP, as well as to make said next book THE MOST AMAZING BOOK EVER that CANNOT POSSIBLY FAIL to find representation.

Providence (i.e., the Internet) seems to be telling me to write something new.

Late August 4: Realize I am getting excited about newest book idea despite having only a smattering of plot points. Decide perhaps there is something in this looking ahead business; that I’d be okay if my book on submission didn’t make it. Either way I would just keep writing.

Mental/emotionally-prepared to shelve book on submission if open queries (several with requested material out) are ultimately rejected.

August 5: Blog about defeat, uncertainty, resolve and starting over. In response, receive delightful email of sympathy and encouragement from fellow writer and amazing human being Aubrey Cann as well as numerous encouraging comments* on the post and other social media. Die a little of overwhelming gratitude and warmness towards online writing community for strategic and emotional support.

* = with special thanks to Laura Read, Roy McCarthy, and Laekan Zea Kemp.

August 6-7: Think long and hard about query strategy for book on submission. With further encouragement and input from Aubrey, decide to keep querying and query more widely because there’s no point trying to revise without a specific idea of what needs to be improved, and shelving the book without exhausting options first would be tantamount to giving up. Agent taste can be subjective, and even if the MS needs work, perhaps someone will connect with it enough to take it on or give feedback that can help make it better.

Send two new queries.

August 8: New full request! And it came from one of the very queries sent last night.

Dance.

You see? Madness. There ought to be a theme park for writers just so they can call one of the rides The Query Coaster. Obviously these ups and downs will continue as long as I am making submissions. But one thing has changed in my query outlook in the last 24 hours: I’m not afraid of wasting opportunities anymore, of getting rejections because I sent out a manuscript I didn’t know how to improve.

The only opportunity wasted is the one not taken.

Hard Decisions, Patience, and Going Back to Square One

People who aren’t writers (and even many who are) tend not to know that often authors don’t get an agent with their first book. Sometimes it takes two or three “practice” books. And even writers who do get agents sometimes fail to sell the novel the agent first takes them on for. It’s a tough industry, and only the most tenacious break into it.

I have finished two novels. Almost the first draft of a third. Earlier this year I decided to shelve Book 1 to focus on Book 2, which I felt was stronger. After recent developments, I am now seriously questioning whether Book 2 is strong enough. I have yet to see how a few things play out, but I may soon have to make a hard decision: whether to rip Book 2 apart and rewrite it until it is strong enough, or to shelve it also and look forward.

Book 3, my WIP, is middle grade. I am passionate about the story, but even assuming *this* is the book I might find an agent with, I’d have mixed feelings about debuting as a MG author. I enjoyed writing the book and I may write more MG down the line, but I’d much rather debut in young adult– a group that naturally lends itself to greater age and content flexibility, and one I see myself writing more of.

The good news: the seeds of a new YA book are already germinating in my head and on paper. I am working on the idea a little every day even as I wrap up draft one of Book 3.

The– not bad, but let’s say a bit staggering news: I drew up an estimate for how long it would take before I could be potentially submitting this new YA book to agents. The numbers run thus:

1-2 months to plan (bear in mind I am still finishing up my current WIP)

+      2-3 months to write the first draft

+      1 month to let first draft sit for perspective

+      1-2 months for primary revisions, the first round of beta readers, and secondary revisions

+      1 month for the second round of beta readers, query research, more revisions, and preparing submissions

=      6-9 months before I can start querying again. 6-9 months! Then tack on another 2-lord knows for submissions because response times can be so long…

I know I just used this one. BUT MICHAEL KNOWS MY FEELS.

The thought was just flattening. At first, anyway. I’ve been working so hard for so long to make this author thing happen…But then, on the flip side of that, I realized something else: I have been working long and hard for this. What’s a little longer?

So here is my declaration: I’m coming for ya, Book 4. And I am bringing everything I’ve learned to the rumble.

PREPARE TO WRITE.

Word Counts vs. Balance

I recently mentioned that with my WIP– my third novel, the shortest and most planned of them to date– I have had some difficulty hitting my previous daily word counts. While in top form (i.e., during Nanowrimo when I am pushing myself) I can write upwards of 1,700 words a day, with Rory I am rarely making it over 1,200, and usually call it good after 1,000. So lately I’ve been asking myself: What is this? Is there something wrong with me? Am I settling for less? Am I lowering the standard? Why aren’t I pushing myself to do more, and should I be?

The answer: Perhaps– but I also think word count isn’t everything, and that there is merit in dividing my time more evenly between Writing and Things That Are Not Writing, because the latter feeds the former.

To arrive at a more conclusive answer, let’s examine some of the other ways I’ve been spending  potential writing time during the first draft of this novel, and whether those ways add to or detract from the writing experience.

Non-writing ways I commonly spend potential writing time:

  1. Exercise. Physical health is hugely influential in mental and creative energy. Use of time: GOOD
  2. Social activities. Recreation is fun, different environments are stimulating, and the meeting of minds invites new ideas and innovation. Use of time: GOOD
  3. Netflix. Stories on the screen. It’s like visual reading? Use of time: SUSPICIOUS
  4. Reading. Writing is a language and a craft, and studying it is how you learn. Use of time: GOOD
  5. Tumblr. It’s, er, author social media. And I get to see what my favorite authors are doing! And book news! And agent advice! And clever GIF sets! GIFs = laughter = soul medicine OKAY OKAY OKAY, Use of time: MORTIFYING
  6. Art projects. The right brain wants its turn, too, and there is little more spiritually nourishing/creatively regenerative than music + colors/pens/magazine scraps to paper. Or, you know, Photoshop. Or, uh…learning to make GIF sets for Tumblr… Use of time: GENERALLY GOOD

In the end I feel it is a game of balance. If you push yourself too hard, you will burn out and close up and struggle to get any words on the page. Conversely, if you spend too much time on Netflix or in Tumblrland, you will never write anything.

CONCLUSION: I could probably be getting more writing done. Since timed sprints (particularly 45 minute ones) have been working for me lately, I am going to try to fit in at least one more of those each day. I think we should be mindful of our distractions, but at the same time not give so much of ourselves to our writing that it ends up being counterproductive. Balance is key.

Good Writing Advice: The 45 Minute Session

Yesterday I tried something different.

I wrote in blocks of 45 minutes at a time.

Let me back up a minute. I’m currently at work on my third novel, a middle grade wonderland project I mapped out earlier this year. Ideas for this book had been steeping for months before I ever put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard); as a MG novel I intended to keep it under 60k; and lastly, when I finally put Juniper on submission and shifted focus to this new book, I had an extensive 16 page outline to work from. Given all this and the fact that at peak form I had no problem writing 1,500+ words a day with my previous novels, I expected this book to practically fall out of me.

Ha.

I’m not sure what it is, but with this book I seem to be capping at about 1,000 words a day. Well, alright, I can think of a couple reasons: 1) My previous book is on submission, so of course I am constantly (stupidly) checking my email a jillion times a day for replies and 2) I’ve recently discovered tumblr. Bad Julie! And sometimes life simply gets in the way.

Ultimately, however, I’ve been feeling sluggish. Like I needed to try something different. So the last week or so I’ve spent more time in a hardcover notebook, typing up what I’ve written at the end of the day. Effective? In some ways, yes.

But I’ll tell you what I like better.

Heather Sellers recently contributed a list to the 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far column in Writer’s Digest. In her seventh point she borrows Billy Joel’s term “in harness” to describe the butt-in-the-chair, door-closed, no distractions discipline with which a writer does her best writing. Take a moment to visualize what “in harness” might mean for you. No internet? No company? Music, TV, cell phone off or left in another room? Blinds down on a beautiful day? Think of it as making a space for you and your manuscript. An intimate, secluded table for two.

Now– how does one realistically commit oneself to such an intense focus without burning out or wrecking one’s eyes? Sellers answers: One writes in manageable segments. Segments of 45 minutes, to be exact (with 15 minute breaks in between if they are consecutive).

Of course, that’s what works for her. Others might find 30 minute or 2 hour sessions more productive. I’ve even heard of 25 minute pomodoros doing wonders. The magic here I think is in tricking your brain to believe “Hey, 45 minutes! That isn’t long at all! I can commit to my writing and absolutely nothing else for that long.” In my own experiment yesterday I found it much easier to shut myself in a room and disconnect from everything in 45 minute intervals. How’d it turn out? Well, in only four sessions (3 hours total) I managed over 1,000 words. Not lightning speed by any means, but certainly not shabby for the edits-as-she-goes type. It’s the same result for considerably less time than I feel it has taken me to achieve lately.

Do you write in short sessions? For how long? Let us know below! And I really recommend reading Heather Sellers’ entire writing advice list. They’re all great points that go way beyond the hackneyed show, don’t tell. Check ‘em out!