Friday, September 19, 2014

Revision Tips: Revising for Plot

If you're reading this, you've probably known the incredible high that comes from finishing a writing project. Few things are more satisfying than typing "The End" on the last page of a first draft.

But for me, as exciting as that moment is, the real work of writing doesn't happen until the next draft. And the draft after that. And the draft after that.

I tell my students that first drafts are for them--but revisions are for readers.

Still, as important as revision is, it's easy to get overwhelmed by *all the things* that need attention: voice, characterization, setting, scene shifts, pacing, plot, formatting, and more.

"VanDusen Botanical Garden maze". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

For me, the only way I can deal with this overwhelming sense that everything needs to be fixed at once is to tackle issues one at a time as I move through drafts. Obviously, if I notice an unrelated but glaring issue on a revision pass, I'll address it. But it doesn't make a lot of sense for me to worry about voice or punctuation in a scene that might not make it past the second revision.

I've passed the last seven or eight months in varying degrees of revision exaltation/distress. Some days I'm excited for the obvious improvement to my MS--other days, I'm convinced I'm only writing aimlessly in circles. But I've settled into a revision pattern that seems to work for me:

1. Revise for plot.
2. Revise for character (sometimes parts of this have to happen along with revision #1--if I don't know my character motivation, it's hard to make the plot work).
3. Revise for scene and pacing.
4. Revise for voice.
5. Revise for polish: format, grammar, word choice, etc.

That's not to say these are the *only* revisions I do. Sometimes I have to repeat a step. Sometimes I do additional revisions based around beta feedback. I'm about to dive into my eighth time this MS--after some recent beta feedback, I decided I needed to tackle the plot again.

So I'm offering up some tips on revising for plot.

Tip #1: Goals. Make sure the character has a goal that drives the entire plot. The goal can change, but the character has to want something, and has to be willing to endure some kind of opposition to get it. If the character is just doing one thing after another with no forward progress, that's not plot.

Tip #2: Structure. Try reverse-plotting your story against a common plot structure. Make sure that your story hits all the important turning points. In my case, I realized that too much time elapsed between two critical turning points, which slowed down the story for readers.

Here are some I've found useful, both as I plan my stories and as I revise.
    • Dan Well's 7-point story arc
    • Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat sheet (though written for screen writers, there are lots of useful adaptations for writers. I love Jami Gold's downloadable form. Read her explanation too--it's terrific.
    • If the thought of multiple plot points is intimidating, Janice Hardy has a useful description of the three act story structure on her blog.
    • The Cockeyed Caravan also has some useful questions to ask about structure, as Part 3 of the Ultimate Story Checklist

Tip #3: Readers. Outside readers, both critique partners and beta readers, are critical for identifying parts of the plot that aren't working. Beta readers might have an edge here, because they see the story in its entirety, rather than in pieces. If you're like me, that initial advice that the plot doesn't work might sting--and after fuming for a day or two you'll realize that they're right.

These aren't the only  methods for revising for plot, but these have been the methods that have helped me the most as I muddle through my revisions.

What about you? What resources have been most helpful for you as you revise for plot?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Are You Really Stuck On Your Novel?

We are thrilled to welcome Jamie Raintree as a new monthly contributor!

For me, this year has been one of a lot of excitement, a lot of changes, and a lot of challenges. I landed my agent in February and it was a dream come true, but the excitement was quickly replaced by reality (read: revisions) and I've been editing ever since.

Yes, you read that right. I’ve been editing for nearly eight months...and I’m not done yet.

The last couple of months, especially, have been ones of desperation as I worried I’d never get my novel in shape for publication or that maybe I should just give up on it completely. No matter how many angles at which I tried to approach my story, how hard I pushed at my mental blocks, or how many breaks I took, I couldn’t reconnect with the confidence I once had in my story and myself.

The worst part was that I wasn’t sure where I was stuck. Troubleshooting is easy when there’s only one variable of change, but suddenly I was:

1) receiving feedback on my story that was far more intense than I’d ever received before

2) facing the reality that my book would actually--hopefully, but also frightfully--be read by people other than my critique partners one day soon

3) starting to think about my career and my business as a writer

4) being haunted by burn out on this story after five major revisions before my novel even reached my agent

My biggest fear was that I wasn’t ready to be a published author after all. If I can't complete edits when they're asked of me, how can I ever hope to be a professional writer?

Thankfully, a couple of weeks ago, I had an “aha” moment that changed the way I understood writer struggles. I couldn’t tell you what finally led me to my epiphany aside from being on the verge of giving up, but one evening it hit me that the culprit hindering my progress was that edits had taken me down a wrong turn at some point. As I continued to edit down the wrong path, my uncertainty grew worse. As soon as I realized the deviation I'd taken from my original vision and came up with a solution to get back on track, all my fears—about publication, about the quality of my story, about my career—melted away.

But before that, one hang up had shut down the entire operation.

The thing about writers is that our emotions about our stories, our writing, our careers, how our work will be perceived by others, and the myriad of things that crop up in our personal lives are so tied together that sometimes it's hard to tell what's holding us back. That's why writing is so damn hard. And this is what makes it almost impossible to disentangle those emotions and keep moving forward on the other aspects of our writing lives while we sort out the one wobbly leg. We have the tendency to chop all the legs off and bury ourselves in chocolate and wine instead.

But professional writers (and that's all of us who take our writing seriously and strive for publication) don't have the luxury of hanging up our pens and calling it a life. We wouldn't even if we could. Instead we have to fight through the times when we struggle by looking inside ourselves and asking, why am I really stuck?

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

- Am I trying to turn my story into something it's not? Am I writing what I think I "should" instead of what I want to write? What book do I most wish I'd written and what aspects of that book do I most love or most admire?

- Have I done enough prep work in understanding this story and these characters? Do I really understand their goals, motivations, conflicts, and stakes?

- Do I understand my own goals for my career, or am I simply following the path that has been laid before me because that's what writers are "supposed" to want? If there were no beaten paths, which one would I trudge for myself?

- Which aspect of my writing or career is scaring me the most? How can I make myself stronger and more knowledgeable in this?

- What is overwhelming me and how I can break that down into more manageable chunks? Where is the pressure coming from--myself or an outside source--and how can I relieve that pressure? Move back a deadline? Have a heart-to-heart?

- Am I going through any transitions in my life or my career? How do I feel about that? What scares me and what trills me about this change?

- Is the feedback I'm receiving helpful or harmful? Can I learn from it? Can I implement it? Can I be strong enough to say it doesn't apply and let it go?

- Is there something outside of my writing that's taking my attention and energy? Am I setting healthy boundaries between family, friends, work, and my writing? If I had complete control to create my ideal schedule, what would it look like? And how can I bring my current schedule closer to that?

- Am I taking care of myself? Am I allowing myself enough quiet time, enough reading, enough fun, enough time where I'm not thinking about my writing at all?

I'm a big advocate for journaling through the blocks (something someone should have reminded me when I was struggling through this one!) because the Flannery O'Connor quote is true: “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” Respond to these questions in your journal until you have your own "aha" moment, until the weight lifts off your shoulders, and the future looks bright again. Because sometimes what you think is making you stuck on your novel isn't the actual battle you're fighting. But every step you take toward self-knowledge makes it easier to identify your struggles in the future, and to overcome them.


Jamie Raintree writes Women's Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing--her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women's Fiction Writers Association.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Inspiration

A few days ago, I was perusing the Humans of New York Facebook page when I saw a post that highlighted a man from Ukraine, He made a statement about what it meant in his culture to be a man, and the little writing sparks in my brain started shooting off. I called my brother, who spent a couple years in Russia and is majoring in it now, and we had an hour long conversation about traditions and culture that will add a depth to a story I'm writing that I knew was missing but I didn't know how to work it in.

I teach a creative writing class and tell my students all the time that the most essential thing for a person to do, but especially a creative person, is to be aware. There are elements of life that want to inspire us, that are out there, waiting for us to notice.

This means we have a responsibility too. We need to get our lives to such a place where the quiet of inspiration, the coincidence of creativity, the nudge of revelation can drift in and be heard. We need to allow our process - whatever that is - the time to manifest itself, and then honor what it needs.

It will require sacrifice.

It will require trying and failing and trying again.

It will require some realigning of priorities.

It will require patience as you learn how to see things a little differently, and as you train your heart and mind and soul to work in collaboration to produce something that is true to yourself, your voice, your expression.

But the moments you will get like that I had on Friday are invigorating on a level that can't really be explained. And as those happen more and more, the transition to more frequent inspiration becomes a little less jarring.

What do you do when reaching for inspiration? What experiences have you had when ideas just "click"?

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Tastiest Inspiration

It is our pleasure to welcome today's guest blogger Jenilyn Collings. Jenilyn writes humorous middle-grade and YA novels. She has three above-average children, a PhD husband who sews detailed costumes (ask her about their steampunk Alice in Wonderland family costumes last Halloween), a black-belt in karate, and is currently preparing to move her family across the country.

I few years ago I was working on a science fiction novel that had characters from a couple different cultures. One of the cultures was loosely based on one that I’d had some experience with—I’d lived there, studied the language, and had roommates from there. That one was fairly easy to write. The other culture? Not so much.

Even though it was a science fiction novel and I was imagining and making up how this culture would work, I still wanted it to have the right feel to it. And it didn’t. I’d checked out books from the library and I researched what I could on the internet, but all those facts weren’t adding up to dynamic and believable characters. I was becoming more and more frustrated with the story.

I related these problems to a writer friend, one who had lived in that area of the world, and she gave me a list of a few things that were important in that culture and helped shape the people and their interactions. One of those things was food. It seemed obvious once she pointed it out. I mean, we only eat multiple times every day and just think about how many of our important holidays and traditions revolve around food. Food is a Big Deal.

So I did more research on what types of food they ate and things like that. Unfortunately, reading that they use lots of this spice or that didn’t help me. I’m not a good enough cook to imagine how spices will taste together, especially when the combination seems odd to me.

At that point, I decided I had to do something different. I bought a cookbook, followed the instructions, and made an amazing meal. It was very different from anything I’d made before and full of unusual (to me) spice combinations. But I loved it.

Even better, the cookbook had a couple pages at the beginning of each chapter talking about different customs for dining, from casual meals with a family to how they treated honored guests. It was exactly what I’d been looking for, but unable to find.

I’m working on another novel now, a fantasy this time. Once again, the world-building is giving me a hard time, so once again, I went back to the cookbook section. Right now, my house smells divinely and I’ll soon be dining on chicken and prunes. If it tastes anything like it smells, it will be delicious.

I can’t wait to write about it.

What things do you do to inspire you when you write? What is the best thing you’ve ever done for research?

***Don't forget to enter our giveaway!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Self-editing resources for writers and book GIVEAWAY!

E is for Editing.
E can be for Exciting.
(E doesn't have to be for Evil.)

Ah, the dreaded editing process. No writer is exempt, and if you love to write, this is one of the most important steps for making your words shiny and beautiful. Some of you may publish with a smaller press, for which it's becoming more and more common for you to have to do your own editing/hire your own editor prior to submission. Or perhaps you are self-publishing (like me), in which case it's essential that you edit your work/hire an editor prior to hitting that exciting "submit" button. Others of you may publish through presses that employ their own editors, but you can minimize the types of editorial changes you have to make if you know how to edit your own work prior to submission. Or perhaps you're thinking of submitting your MS to agents, entering in a contest, or sending out ARCs for early reviews. A well-edited manuscript will receive a much better response than one that is...well, not.

Regardless of the route you take to publishing, editing is a necessary step in the writing process.

My Short List of Self-editing Resources

Books about editing: If you are like me, you prefer to read stories and not spend a lot of time reading about writing. :) However, there are a few books out there that I consider gems as reference material. Contrary to the image above, you DO NOT need a stack of these, but either one of the following is a GREAT resource for editing:

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Purchase links are provided so you may view more about each book
Keep scrolling to the bottom if you would like a chance to win one of my faves!

On-line resources: For when you're not sure about that grammar rule and need to look it up in a pinch. When in doubt, LOOK IT UP, better safe than sorry, and all of those things your mother probably told you. There are a few great on-line resources for grammar, and I've found the following two sites especially to be reliable and accurate:

For example:

When should I hyphenate two words? When should I leave them the heck alone? 
See what Grammarist has to say.

Is there a difference between "blond" and "blonde"? 
See what Grammar Girl has to say.

Is the phrase "in the process of" necessary? 
See what Grammarist has to say.

Do I use "lie," "lay," "laid," or "lain," and OMG, can I go back in time and throttle the people who came up with these things? 
See what Grammar Girl has to say (about the former question, anyhow).

Did I use that comma correctly? Do I have too many? 
See what Grammarist has to say.

Let's eat George.
Let's eat, George.

Psst! Punctuation saves lives.

What about you? Do you have any other favorite self-editing resources? Comment below if you do, and thank you for sharing!

Oh, and don't forget to enter the giveaway! 
(for U.S. addresses only due to shipping costs)

Monday, September 8, 2014

7 Ways to Stay Focused on Your WIP

A friend once told me that I have ADOS. Attention Deficit… Oh, shiny!

And she’s right. Especially when it comes to writing. I want it to be fun and exciting and…easy. I get distracted by new and shiny ideas all the time.

Another friend compared this to our dating lives.You know, like when you bump into a cute guy in the library (this is where us writer-types like to meet guys, right?). 

Your eyes meet and your stomach does a backflip. You give Cute Library Guy a shy smile. He smiles back. Pretty soon you are seeing him every day. And your time together is absolutely magical. You think about him all the time. You talk about him all the time. You want to be with him all the time. And it’s fun and exciting and…easy.

Then, one day, you learn Cute Library Guy only eats foods that are brown. What? Ok. I mean…that’s kinda weird. But, still… he’s fun and cute and he makes you smile. You can work past this.

Then you discover Cute Library Guy sees bathing as optional. And, he exercises. A lot.

But the last straw is when he starts speaking in his own language. I mean, really? Suddenly Cute Library Guy is boring, stinky and doesn’t even make sense.

And then you’re at the library again. You see another cute boy. He turns and smiles at you. Your stomach contemplates joining the gymnastic club as it does a somersault followed by a handstand.Before you say fickle pickle you’ve dumped Cute Library Boy and you’re with a new guy.

Until you discover Cute Library Boy #2 kisses like a vacuum set on Suck Her Face Off.

And that, my friends, is how my writing is going these days. I love writing the beginning of stories. I love dreaming up new worlds. I love the thrill of creating new magic systems or thinking up character quirks. I love designing cliffhanger chapter endings. But then… when I have to get down to the nitty gritty and figure out where the story is going, when I see there are problems with my idea that I’m going to have to work out or when I discover massive flaws in my world building, that’s when fun, exciting and easy-looking ideas begin to look incredibly attractive to me.

Anyone else struggle with staying focused?

After some research, I found some strategies for staying true to your (and my!) current project. 

#1: Get rid of the temptationIf a shiny idea comes along get it out of your head by writing the details down in a writing ideas document, folder or notebook.

#2: Remember all the reasons you love your current work-in-progress. I find this is a good use for Pinterest boards. Pin pictures to do with your project. Find lovely photos of spooky swamps, Victorian homes and guys in long jackets wearing goggles. Like I did.  And then when you want to be inspired or to get excited about your project, take a moment to scroll through your board.

#3: Keep in mind it won’t be easy. You’re going to hit road blocks. And you’re going to have to find a way around them. Decide now to stick with it, even when it's hard. 

#4: BUT don’t focus on the difficult parts. Focus on the good stuff!  Think about what you love about your story. What makes your story different? Keep yourself motivated and excited by focusing on what makes your story fun and unique. 

      #5: Work on a different scene in your book. If you’re bored or distracted by where you’re currently at in your WIP (which might be a sign you need to change something about the scene) work on a different part of your story. Write the cool action-chase scene with exploding radish monsters and glow-in-the-dark radioactive octopuses (What? Your book doesn't have one of those scenes? Mine either. But I think I better change that...)

#  #6: Make writing goals. Decide to write a page a day, a chapter a week or complete the book by a certain date. And then tell everyone about your goal. Tell your coworkers, your friends and family, the guy who stocks the bread in the grocery store. Heck, post it on Facebook and tell the world. This is called positive public pressure. If everyone knows your goal then they’ll ask about it, especially if you report how you’re doing periodically.

    #7: Be consistent. Keep your excitement and motivation high by making time to write every day. 


Time for me to get real, people.

I am going to finish a decent draft of my work-in-progress, WW, by the end of February. (Now we'll see how this positive public pressure works.)

And when things get tricky and I want to give up, I'm going to remember this...

Do you have ADOS? How do you stay motivated and focused on your work-in-progress? 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Online Writing Contests--and Why You Should Enter

In the past five weeks, I've entered five different online writing contests. Some have gone well; others resulted in virtual crickets. Writing is, after all, a subjective business.


But I'm a fan of online writing contests, and here's why:

1. Contests are a great way to see if your manuscript is working. If your CPs and your family and friends love your MS--that's great! But it's also helpful to know what a complete stranger sees when they read your pages.

2. Contests--particularly contests with a heavy twitter presence like #PitchWars, #PitchMadness, #PitMas, #PitMad, are a great way to connect with other aspiring authors--and with the more advanced mentors who help run the contests.

3. Contests are also helpful to get a sense for the current market. You can see what genres agents are interested in and which are oversaturated. I've also found contests extremely helpful for getting a sense of what level of writing I need to be competitive. My first contest totally shocked me by how *good* some of the stuff was and made me set my own bar much, much higher.

4. Contests force you to come up with a good pitch/hook for your work. I participated in the most recent PitchWars contest and had to write a synopsis for the mentors--which came in extremely handy when several agents later asked for one as well! If not for that initial (lower-stakes) nudge, I would not have had a synopsis ready.

5. Contests are also a terrific way to find agents who might not otherwise have considered your work. I have had contest requests from agents who had previously rejected my query. I've also had requests from agents who weren't on my query list.

NB: a lot of contests require that your manuscript be finished and polished so check the rules carefully before submitting. There's nothing enjoyable about entering "just to see" and winning--and then staying up late the entire night to frantically finish one more revision. (Trust me on this).

If you currently have a finished MS, the awesome twitter pitch party, #Pitmad, is next week: September 9th.

 Here are just a few of the online contests I think are worth considering if you're hunting for an agent:

Monthly Contests

  • Operation Awesome's Mystery Agent Contests: the first of each month, Operation Awesome hosts a contest where a mystery agent (identity revealed when the contest is over) picks their favorite pitch from that month's entries. The entry requirements vary by agent.
  • Mother.Write.Repeat hosts a regular contest, called "The Agents Inbox," where writers submit queries and the first pages of their novel and the agent critiques each one before choosing a winner. A great opportunity to get agent feedback. The dates for these contests vary, so I suggest following Krista's very helpful blog. (She also posts regular agent interviews).
  • Miss Snark's First Victim also hosts a monthly secret agent contest. MSFV invites all those who enter to comment on other people's entries--I know Tasha, Elaine and I have all participated and had some good feedback this way. MSFV was one of the first contests I actually won--even though that partial request turned into a "no" it was a good confidence boost for me. And my most recent stint netted me *two* full requests (one was from a lurking agent).
  • First Five Pages, sponsored by Adventures in YA Publishing, accepts the first five pages of a MG or YA novel the first Saturday of every month. Martina Boone, Lisa Gail Green, and/or a guest mentor will offer feedback on how the beginning is working. (This isn't necessarily a contest, but a great way to get feedback).

Annual or Semi-Annual Contests

  • The Baker's Dozen. Miss Snark's First Victim also hosts an awesome contest each December. Authoress and her minions go through all the entries and select those that they think will have the most agent appeal, so just entering isn't always a guarantee that you'll get in. It does also cost money to enter, but I entered without getting in and still felt like it was worth it for the chance. My favorite part about this particular contest is the chance to watch the agents try to outbid each other--not only does it give you a great sense of what particular agents are looking for, but some of the trash talk is hilarious. Authoress starts accepting entries late October/early  November, so check out her blog for more details.
  • The Writer's Voice, hosted by Mother.Write.Repeat, along with LoveYA, Cupid's Literary Connection and Brenda Drake each May. For this contest, each of the sponsoring blogs chooses a "team" of strong writing entries and compete for agent attention. One of the cool things about this contest was that even those who weren't chosen had an opportunity to have their submission posted on a blog and get feedback from other entrants.
  • Pitch Wars, another massive contest hosted by the indefatigable Brenda Drake (if you're not already following her on twitter @brendadrake, you should! She knows tons and she hosts awesome contests) where applicants submit a query and first chapter to four mentors, and each mentor chooses a mentee and alternate to help polish their manuscript before the agent war. This year, over 1200 applicants competed for 75 mentee and alternate spots.
  • Pitch Madness is also hosted by Brenda Drake (along with her minions and slush zombies). Here again writers submit a pitch and their first 250, then the contest coordinators chose 64 to vie for agent attention. The last time I participated, I lucked out with a full request and some partials. This usually alternates with Pitch Wars (a fall contest) and is held in the Spring.The contest schedule for both Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness can be found here.
  • #Pitchplus5 contests are hosted twice-yearly by Adventures in YA. Fifty applicants submit their first five pages, which are then posted for comments from the community. Bloggers pick the top 25, which are revised and posted again with a short pitch. Published authors pick the top ten, which are again polished and posted for the agent round. This is currently in process, so the next iteration won't be until Spring, but go check out the entries! (I'm #21).
  • Pitch Slam, a new contest (as far as I can tell) that involves 35 word pitches and the first 250 words of a manuscript, which you revise for the agent round. This starts October 4, so get ready!
  • PitchMas, hosted by @JessaRusso and @FeakySnucker, is a twice-yearly contest (in July and December), where writers submit pitches, which agents then comb through and make requests.

Twitter Pitch Parties

  • Both PitchMadness and PitchMas have been followed up by a twitter pitch party (#PitMad and #PitchMas) where you post your 140 twitter pitch for your novel and interested agents are invited to check out the hash tag. Gina Denny has an awesome post on twitter pitches that you  need to read if you're thinking of pitching.

What other online contests have you participated in? What good ones am I missing here?