One of the more difficult adjustments for newly published authors to make — and for established authors, too! — is the need to work on multiple projects at once.
There’s the book you’re promoting, the book you’re editing/proofreading, the book you’re drafting, the book you’re hoping to sell, and . . . sometimes more! (For me, there’s also the book I’m co-writing!) And if you’re published with multiple houses across multiple genres, it can get really tricky to switch gears.
I think a lot of us find some kind of rhythm eventually, or at least pretend there’s a rhythm to it. Looking at a to-do list with a million things, needing to switch mindsets to write about different characters and worlds — it’s a lot. So with that in mind, here are a few ways I keep it together when I’m moving between projects.
1. I keep really, really good notes.
When I have an idea for a book I’m not working on, I write it in my Scrivener file, or in a notebook dedicated to that book. Too many ideas have been lost because “Oh this is such a good idea I’ll remember it for sure!”
No, I won’t remember it. I need to write it down.
2. I try to focus on one project at a time.
That means, I don’t switch projects depending on the day. Some people can do this! I’m not one of them. When I work on the Lady Janies books with my co-writers, we block off a week at a time and focus on writing that book, and that book only. Focusing on one project at a time helps me make sure I’m in the mindset to write different characters or exist in different worlds.
Again, some people are totally able to write Story A in the morning and Story B in the afternoon and Story C on the weekends. But don’t kick yourself if you’re not one of those wizards.
3. If I can afford the time, I try to give myself at least a day between projects.
This one took me a while to figure out. At first, all I knew was that I was supremely unfocused and underproductive the first day of switching projects. Then I realized I was picking up a book to read, or finding a huge knotted yarn to untangle, or deep cleaning my house — or literally anything other than working on the next project.
It’s not always possible to take a slow day or two. Deadlines are beasts. But allowing my mind to acclimate to the next project — rather than trying to force it to switch gears — ended up helping a lot. So I do those household chores I’ve been putting off, or read, or take care of the email pile, and in the back of my mind, I start to let go of everything from Book A and think about what I want to do with Book B.
More time would obviously be better, but again, deadlines. They just don’t care.
4. Know that getting started is the hardest step.
This is another thing that probably isn’t true for everyone, or even every project. (I can think of a couple projects I’d dive into right now if I didn’t have other commitments!) But it’s often very true for me. It can be so difficult to just open the next project and start working on it. Everything seems so daunting!
But honestly, once I get going and build up some momentum, it becomes fun again. My mind gets back into the rhythm of that story and those characters, and then it’s weird to think about working on anything else!
I know I’ve complained about deadlines, and I stand by all that complaining. But honestly, deadlines can be hugely motivating and helpful. They help me to figure out what I need to focus on, and in what order, and how long I have. There’s something really comforting (and maddening) about knowing Book A will be due on this date, and then I will be able to work on something that seems shinier.
Deadlines don’t just come from publishers. When I write with the Lady Janies, we usually have a week together, which means if we want to reach our goal, we have a limited amount of time to do it. We’re all very motivated to keep to the schedule, because if we get behind, then we have to take time out of other places to catch up, or schedule another trip to work together (which is fun, but costs actual money in addition to time).
And that’s it for now! What are your tips for organizing and writing multiple projects?
Maybe you’ve heard people talk about how important it is that readers get emotionally invested in your book. I certainly talk about this all the time. But what does emotional investment mean? And while we’re at it: why is it important, and how the heck do you write it?
What Is Emotional Investment?
Simply put, when a reader is emotionally invested in a book it means that they care. It really is that simple. People can connect to a book in all kinds of ways. Books can invoke catharsis, and prompt us to feel things, or unearth something we’ve buried down deep. Books can help us feel seen, understood, recognized. Books can bring us hope, or make us cry, or make us laugh, or make us feel fluffy, adorable, I SHIP IT joy. Books can get to us where we live. And no matter what emotions a book uncovers, that act of feeling something when we read…that’s interactive. Reading becomes personal. We care.
Why Is Emotional Investment Important?
So many reasons! First and foremost, caring about what happens means a reader will keep turning the pages. One of the best ways to secure someone’s attention is to make them care. If a reader (or agent, or editor!) stops caring, they’ll get bored and stop reading. As an agent, I’ve read so many manuscripts with amazing concepts. I’m interested right away. But that interest soon fades if I can’t connect emotionally to the characters or the story. An interesting premise won’t carry a reader through a story; we need a reason to care.
In addition to merely securing attention, emotional investment can be an unparalleled gift when it comes to promotion. Publishing is, after all, a business, and selling copies matters. Never, ever underestimate the power of Word Of Mouth Recommendations. When we find something we love, we tend to shout it from the rooftops. We want other people to love it, too! We want to share it with our friends, and tweet about it, and witness the thing we love get the recognition it deserves. Booksellers can and absolutely do go the extra mile for books they love, books that made them feel something.
And it’s not just about business–writing an emotionally engaging story is a demonstration of craft. It will definitely put you a level above a lot of projects in the slush pile. And if you can signal to agents that you can craft a story that elicits an emotional response, they’re going to have confidence that your writing will continue to grow and evolve in new, wonderful ways with each project.
So now we know what emotional investment in a story means, and why it matters. But….how do you DO it?!
How To Emotionally Engage Your Readers
This is all about making people care, and what people care about is…..people. In almost all cases, your characters are your opportunity to ignite an emotional response. No matter how interesting we may find the world, no matter how dire the plot, if we don’t care about the people in the story we’re not going to care about anything else.
Characters ground us. Through them, we explore the worlds they live in. Through them, we have a stake in events that take place. Characters help us assign meaning to the story we’re being told. We can about what happens because we care about who it happens to.
So often I see writers get hung up on the details of the world they’ve built–whether it’s the political or social machinations, or the magic or technology or theology. I read manuscripts where writers are so desperate to set the stage, to explain how everything works, as if that knowledge is essential to understanding and enjoying the story to it’s fullest. That is a fatal mistake. It doesn’t matter one bit how the world works if I don’t give a hoot about the protagonist, or worse, don’t even know who the protagonist is. Your characters are the portal that take us to another world. Your characters ground us, give us something to relate to, help us assign meaning to what’s happening. Characters are the essential key to emotional engagement. Without characters to connect to, the rest is just noise.
So how do you make someone care about your characters? This isn’t about a set list of qualities. There’s no Emotional Investment Character Trait Starter Pack. The best advice I can give you is to make your characters human. They should be flawed. They should have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They should have goals and wants and dreams and fears. They should be complex beings with a rich inner life. They should feel like people. The particulars of who they are and why they are that way–those will always be unique. What matters most is that we find something recognizable, something that feels real and true–however silly or somber–in these characters. What matters is that we see something reflected back at us, and we care.
If you’ve ever queried a manuscript or sold a book, then I think it’s safe to assume you’ve likely heard the word “pacing” in feedback for your project. Whether the pacing was too slow, too fast, or missing something, when I’m editing client projects or giving feedback on submissions, it’s one of the notes I give the most.
When a novel is well-paced, it carries the reader through the story easily to the end. They aren’t stopping to wonder what’s taking so long or wondering why something happened too quickly. Everything is timed well, and the story moves.
So what makes a novel well-paced? The biggest thing is story structure. A well-paced novel understands what an inciting incident is, what a turning point is, the Black Moment is, the climax, the denouement. A well-paced novel has obstacles your characters must overcome in a convincing way. It has an antagonist that creates some of those obstacles, and makes it difficult for your characters to move forward.
Sometimes the issue is as simple as, there is too much time in between the Beats of your story (or, the structure points noted above). In this case, pacing is easily fixed by trimming passages. In the same vein, perhaps it was too easy for a character to get from one Beat to another. In this case, go to that place in your book and flesh the conflict out.
Pacing, though, doesn’t always refer to making a book shorter or cutting passages (though that is often a helpful place to start, as many of us have a tendency to overwrite). It refers to how easily you can keep a reader engaged, and the tools you use to employ that. Adding complications for characters and upping the tension can help the pacing of your novel, even if you never cut a line.
In that vein, another thing that contributes to pacing issues: the dreaded And Then story structure. It can be easy to fall into this as a writer, and much harder to dig yourself out. Basically, if your book follows an And Then structure (This happens, And then this happens, And then this happens), you are likely lacking in much tension and conflict, and therefore, your pacing lags.
For example: The Knight sets out on his quest. Then he meets a damsel. Then he acquires a squire. Then he encounters a giant. Then he defeats the Giant. The end. Where is the conflict? What’s interesting about that progression? Where is the antagonist, the obstacles? But if your story follows a This Happens, Therefore This Happens, But then This happens, your pacing automatically becomes more interesting. The Knight sets out on his quest. But before he can leave the kingdom, he’s arrested for treason! Therefore, the damsel must save herself. But the Giant is too strong! She almost doesn’t accomplish it, but the squire arrives just in time to help her out! And so, both live and go save the knight.
You see how much more dynamic that second one is? You can tell, just from that little outline, that the pacing of the second book is much stronger than the first. You can thank the writers of South Park for that little lesson!
Shockingly, a lot of us fall into the And Then trap without even realizing it. We get excited about our characters or we have a great inciting incident, and we might not realize the pacing of our story has begun to meander, that the tension has begun to deflate, and the conflict is nowhere to be found.
If you find yourself in this position, I find it easiest to outline the work (even if it’s already finished) and identify each specific beat or turning point in the book. If I can’t easily find them, or it doesn’t seem like the character had to overcome any obstacles in order to reach that point in the book, then from here you can determine where conflict needs to be inserted (creating a But Then instead of And Then) and revise accordingly.
There are a lot of reasons you might get the “pacing” note, but these are among the most common I have found. What are your thoughts on pacing? Have you ever received this note either from agents, beta readers, or editors? I’m excited to hear what you have to say!
Patrice here: Today, I have my friend Akshaya Raman to talk about the one thing we’re told never to do: give up. I’m obsessed with this post–it rings so true with my own journey. hope you enjoy it!!
When Patrice asked if I’d be willing to write a post about not giving up, my first response was: oh, but I’m not the right person for this—I gave up so many times! But Patrice made a good point: writing isn’t about not wanting to give up, but about knowing when to keep going.
The first book I ever wrote seriously (by which I mean I wrote “The End” and actually let another human—aka not my cat—read it) was back in 2014 during NaNoWriMo. When I finished it, I knew I needed to revise it, but I really, really didn’t want to. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to put in the work, it was because I knew in my heart that the book was absolutely terrible.
It was the first time I ever understood that Ira Glass quote, that one about the time it takes to bridge the gap between what you want your work to be and what it actually is. I could see quite clearly that the book I had written was miles away from what it was in my head. And so I did the one thing everyone tells you not to do.
I gave up on it.
No one—not my friends, my CPs, my family—understood why I didn’t try to revise, try to query it. And, yeah, maybe I should have. But at that time, I made the decision to put it away.
My second book was the book that really taught me how to write. It was an ambitious mess. It had a million POVs and even more plot threads. But y’all. I loved this book so much. I was sure this was The One. And I spent over a year writing and rewriting and cutting and rewriting again—until I absolutely loathed the book.
Writing is so full of ups and downs, and we’re always told to push on. It’s sometimes hard to tell if hating the book is just a normal part of the process or if there’s an actual problem. It took months of literally crying about this book for me to accept that I was miserable.
So I gave up. Again.
Putting it away was incredibly hard—and in hindsight it was the best decision I could have made. It was just too ambitious. I wasn’t ready to tackle such a vast world with such a huge cast just yet. But a small voice took up residence in the back of my mind.
Maybe I would never finish anything. Maybe I would always give up the moment things got hard. Maybe I would just keep writing books and putting them away.
I wrote book three early in 2016 when conversations around #ownvoices were happening frequently. It was a strange experience working on it because I was giving a lot of thought to the kinds of stories I wanted to tell—and for the first time, consider the possibility that there might be space for those stories. I didn’t even get to the end of my first draft before I realized I wasn’t passionate about it the way I had been months earlier. So three-fourths of the way into my first draft, I abandoned that book too.
At this point that tiny voice in my head turned into a full blown spiral. I had given up on three books.
And that voice was telling me that I was a quitter. I was lazy. I wasn’t a Real Writer. I didn’t want it enough. I wasn’t brave enough to put anything out into the world.
I felt like such a failure. Half my CPs were finishing books and querying and signing with agents. Others were working on the same projects they’d been working on for years. And here I was tabling another book and starting all over again.
I wish I could say there was a spark of recognition that told me that book four was something special, something different. But there wasn’t. I didn’t even tell anyone I was working on this book until I was really close to finishing my first draft because I was so terrified that if I told people they would confirm my worst fears: that they wouldn’t care about what I was working on because they didn’t believe I could stick with a book. I was afraid they’d dismiss me because “oh it’s just Akshaya chasing a shiny new idea again that she’ll give up on in a few months.” (Though of course when I did finally tell my CPs they were nothing but wholeheartedly supportive and enthusiastic.)
But there was something different about book four. I didn’t give up on it.
And honestly, I have no idea why. Maybe it was that after writing and throwing away nearly 700k words, I had finally grown enough as a writer to lessen the gap between my vision and what I was putting on paper. Maybe it was being able to write about my own culture and people who looked like me. Or maybe it was something else.
So maybe this isn’t the conventional wisdom—this isn’t a story about never, ever giving up and why you should always push on.
Writing is hard. We put our heart and soul and sweat and tears into whatever we’re working on in that moment and it sometimes feels like that WIP has to be everything—that we’ve somehow failed if we fall out of love with it or if that WIP doesn’t “go anywhere” or that every WIP even has to go somewhere.
But I wish I’d known all those years ago to trust my gut, even if my gut was telling me to give up. I wish I’d known it was okay to write for myself and doing so didn’t mean that I wasn’t a Real Writer or that I wasn’t serious about my goals. And I wish I’d known that I was more than any one book, and that giving up on a book didn’t mean I’d failed as a writer—or that I was giving up on myself.
It just meant that it wasn’t the project for now and it was time to write the next thing.
Akshaya Raman fell in love with writing when she wrote her first story at the age of ten. She’s a YA writer represented by Hillary Jacobson at ICM Partners, and she contributes to Writer’s Block Party, a group blog about writing and publishing. You can find her on Twitter @akshraman.
P.S. Akshaya just signed with an agent! YAY. Congrats, Akshaya. So proud of you and all your hard work. The giving up was totally worth it <3
Get it, trash? Cause trash talk. Whatever. (via Pexels)
Look, there are endless blog posts and articles out there that talk about query letter mistakes. If you’ve ever Googled for tips, you’re aware of all the heavy hitting highlights.
Do your research when querying agents.
Don’t get too wordy when describing your book.
Write a solid hook that gets the reader psyched.
Don’t BCC a hundred agents with DEAR AGENT because no literary agent has the name AGENT, and if that is their name, I guess they were born to be a literary agent.
Apologies to Agent McBooks.
You know them. So we’re not gonna recap.
But one trend I’ve been noticing lately is one I haven’t seen many people dish about, and I feel like it’s worth digging into. And it has to do with talking smack. Sometimes it’s about an author, or sometimes it gets a little broader… like talking down about an entire genre.
This… is not a good look.
There is a difference between well-written criticism and just saying “this book is bad and I’m better” in a query. A difference between wanting to do something new in a genre and saying “I hate modern fantasy novels they are all awful” in your pitch.
Talking Down on Your Genre or Category: It’s strange. I get a lot of query letters that talk trash about the genre or category the writer is hoping to publish in. “Sci-fi novels these days are bad because…” or “Young Adult books being published today aren’t good due to…” whatever the following insult is. Stress on the insult, because it is never legit criticism. Usually it’s about those books not being up to the standards of the querying writer, or they’re making claims that the books aren’t doing what that writer thinks they should be doing.
Don’t do this.
Not only does this make you seem bitter and salty (and not in a delicious sea salt dark chocolate sort of way), but it makes you seem out of touch with what’s being published. Telling me there hasn’t been a great fantasy novel published in the past few years, tells me you don’t read fantasy. Proclaiming that YA doesn’t take risks anymore, tells me you haven’t gone to your local bookstore in a long time.
Don’t talk down. Show us you are excited to write in this genre or category. Not that you’re here to belittle the work of people who came before you. You can explain how your work is unique and does something different without tearing your genre down.
Talking Down Other Books or Authors: I love comparative titles (I wrote a whole post about it here!), and discussing why readers of other books or consumers of other media (if you’re using video games, comics, movies as comps) will like your book. It shows you’re well read and know your audience.
Explaining why your book is better than another book, or why you’re superior to another author… not so much.
Believe it or not, I see a lot of query letters where the writer takes swings at other books and authors. “I’ve written a fantasy novel that’s so much better than TITLE by AUTHOR, because that book…” or “My writing could be compared to AUTHOR but it’s better and AUTHOR is bad and should feel bad.”
Remember, the book world is a community. I want to work with an author who is excited to be a part of it, not someone who is going to launch into their career talking smack about their peers before anything has even happened. And if a book has been widely considered to be bad, why compare your work to it anyway?
Also, what if that agent likes that author? That book? Don’t risk it.
Doing That Self-Deprecating Thing: And one more thing I see all too often, are writers who do this self-deprecating thing in their query letters.
Basically, talking down about themselves.
To be a writer and a creative is to be insecure. I get it. I write too, and I wrestle with that constantly. Your query letter though, isn’t the place to share it. You wouldn’t put “I really don’t think I’m that great” in a cover letter for a new job, right? Well, it shouldn’t go in your query.
Be confident. You’ve worked on this novel. You’ve poured months and maybe years into it, and now you are ready to see it go to the next level. Show that you are sure of your work. Your agent is going to have to be your champion. How are they supposed to champion something that you yourself have flat out told us you don’t believe in?
Show that you believe in your work. Don’t talk down about yourself or what you’ve written.
You got this.
You can do this without talking smack about others.
I finished my very first full-length manuscript in college, and it took me years to complete, writing five hundred words at a stretch in between classes, coursework, and hanging out with friends. It started as a short story, but I sensed more lurking beyond the point I’d originally envisioned as The End; and so I kept going…and going and going, until what I had on my hands was a YA horror epic of 160,000 words.
To be clear: that’s a hell of a word count. And the whole thing was riddled with amateur errors, because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing while I was doing it; and I had even less of a clue how to approach the next phase—the revising, polishing, and packaging you need to do to get agented and published. I spent a few more years rearranging sentences, but I never cut a word. Each one felt too precious, too important, and I couldn’t see the forest for the 160,00 trees. To put it bluntly, I’m lucky no agents ever read it.
Flash forward nearly ten years, and I was working on another novel—an adult fiction title—with a far more analytical approach. I had finally done enough research to know that most agents balk at a debut exceeding 100k words, and I was ready to take more care this go around. I worked from an outline for the first time, and the story blueprint kept me honest; there was no more rambling character backstory inserted wherever it occurred to me, and I stopped writing myself into corners by figuring out the plot as I went along. When I finished, the new manuscript was a trim (and acceptable) 90,000 words.
I landed an agent with that project, and during the submission process, she asked me to consider creating an alternate version of my novel. At that time, a lot of imprints in my genre had word count limits that topped out at about 60k—meaning that, to be considered, I’d have to cut an entire third of my manuscript. I resisted at first, but when it became clear that my original version wasn’t going to sell…well, dear reader, I rolled up my sleeves and cut my darlings down with the efficiency of Freddy Krueger. I eliminated characters and subplots, simplified motivations, and distilled the story to its bare essence.
Unfortunately, that version didn’t sell either. (And that version wasn’t even my last attempt at refashioning that story—I have, no exaggeration, eight different imprint-specific variations on file of my original manuscript.) But the experience was incredibly instructive; through eight successive slash-and-burn rewrites of my novel, I learned to tell the difference between indispensable and incidental. I learned how to tell what belonged to the story and what belonged to me.
I’ve been much better at revising my work since then, cutting anywhere from 5k to 20k words from a finished Draft Zero before finally feeling it was ready, and accepting edit notes with only the occasional flash of disappointment over cuts and rewrites. My forthcoming novel, DEATH PREFERS BLONDES, landed at a staggering 152,000 words when I completed the initial draft—but I cut it down to 123k before I submitted, because I’ve finally figured out that the only thing that’s precious about a story is the plot.
So here are my main tips on killing your darlings:
NOT ALL TEXT IS CREATED EQUAL. Every story needs atmosphere; but if you step back, you might be surprised to realize how few words are necessary to convey it to a reader. “We crossed to the porch and sat down, a warm breeze sweeping in from the west and making music with the chimes dangling from the eaves, while we revisited memories from our shared history together,” and, “We sat on the porch, a warm breeze stirring the chimes, and spoke about the past,” give the reader the same essential information, but one is sixteen words and one is thirty-five.
TRANSITIONS ARE NOT YOUR FRIEND. My early manuscripts were glutted with descriptions of how characters got from point A to point B—what they saw, what they heard, what they were thinking—but a lot of it was just me marking time, because I didn’t know how to artfully cut between different scenes. If your characters leave a party, and the next important scene takes place in the parking lot of a drug store, the biggest favor you can do for yourself (and the reader!) is to get to the drug store in as few words as possible.
DIALOGUE/TAGS. In the interests of realism, I clutter my Draft Zero dialogue a lot. “I, uh, well, I guess what I’m really trying to say is that…you know…” It’s the kind of rambling that real people do in real life, but it adds words that clutter the narrative and aren’t necessary. “I guess what I’m trying to say is,” gets the same point across. And then there’s all the “he said,” “she said,” stuff, which sometimes includes long adverbial clauses, or descriptive bits that don’t actually clarify anything. Really think about what’s important in a paragraph, a sentence, an image, and cut accordingly. Sometimes less is more.
These guidelines, of course, are my own—tailored to my personal weaknesses—and may not work for everyone; but I hope they lend possible ideas of where to start. What methods do you have for editing your own writing? What works for you?
The word “journey” is used a lot when it comes to writing and publishing. It can describe the process of turning an idea into a completed manuscript or a Word document into a hardcover book, or even the metamorphosis of a writer, after years of being rejected, into a fully-fledged published author.
But “journey” can also describe something that’s much more personal: the business of getting to know yourself better through your writing.
I’ve been scribbling for as long as I can remember. I have a box filled to the brim with diaries and journals of all shapes and sizes, in which I documented my dreams and my everyday life for more than 20 years. Rereading them has been incredibly cringeworthy (there is always groaning and eye-covering involved!), yet rewarding because I can so clearly see the person I was at each stage of my life.
I know that girl intimately because, well, I *am* her . . . but the diaries give me a snapshot of whatever I cared about at the time, whatever I felt was important, and how I reacted to different events in my life (because let’s face it, 90% of my journals involved venting about two-faced friends, an unfair teacher, or my parents forcing me to do math workbooks all summer long because of my B+ in calculus).
I think of the manuscripts I write in much the same way.
Rereading my old stories gives me a snapshot of who I was and what was important to me at the time I wrote those books. What I find really interesting is that certain elements linger on and appear in some way, shape, or form in literally every single manuscript. And this happens without me planning it!
Here are a few examples of things that constantly appear in my work:
Girls and women struggling for agency. There is always a character who is fighting to be independent and have control over her own life. I didn’t plan for this to happen, but I am not surprised one bit, since I was almost pushed into medical school against my will.
Controlling, emotionally distant or verbally abusive parents. My stories are most definitely an outlet for venting the experiences of my childhood. Even when I try to avoid this trope, it still pops up in the form of a domineering teacher or bossy relative.
Girls and women with astronomical ambitions. I say I’m a Hufflepuff, and so do literally all of the quizzes I’ve taken, yet three of the last four characters I’ve written are cunning, determined, and desperate to be the best at what they do. *thinking face emoji*
The feeling of not being loved or important enough. This was a common theme in my journals, and it was interesting to recognize it in all of my books, too. There is always a character who shares my sadness and fear of never being anyone’s favorite, of always being the backup and the least loved.
A voice only the main character can hear. This doesn’t show up in every book, but it has appeared enough that I’m wondering if my wish for an invisible friend never really went away. This trope appears in FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, two other early manuscripts, and the Phantom book I wrote in 2012.
Fairy tales or a fairy tale feel. I have certain aesthetics I am attracted to when creating a new world. I love the Gothic look and feel of Victorian London, I’m drawn to deep dark forests full of secrets, and I adore the feel of Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tales. It’s no surprise to me that many of my books have a whimsical, melancholy, and fantastical theme.
Prickly female main characters. KINGDOM OF THE BLAZING PHOENIX was the first time I ever wrote a main character who was more like me: quick to love, naive, and loyal. Most of the other ladies I write are sharp, sassy, and what some like to call “unlikable,” and I have always wanted to be more like them!
Writing, to me, is such a healing and therapeutic outlet because even as I’m weaving stories, my subconscious is unpacking past experiences and my changing viewpoint of the world as I get older and grow as a writer.
Think back to some of your own stories. What are common tropes, elements, and themes that seem to appear over and over, even if you don’t plan for them to?
Feel free to share in the comments if you’re comfortable!
One of the most common questions authors get is how to deal with writer’s block, and one of the most common answers we give is “go back and see if you made a wrong turn somewhere.” Which is absolutely great advice. Sometimes our subconscious knows when something is off, even if we don’t yet understand what’s going on.
But how do you go back and figure it out?
Sometimes, the answer’s already there. Last month, I’d just reached 80,000 words in Fallen Isles 3, and I knew several things that I needed to go back and fix, but I’d let them be in favor of keeping up my momentum. But when that momentum began to waver and I knew I’d done something that made the story jump off tracks, I went back to revise from the beginning.
I trimmed excess scenes and paragraphs in the opening chapters (useful for a first draft, to get me grounded, but unnecessary for the actual story), established and clarified motivations, and added a plot item I knew I’d been missing but hadn’t been able to identify until I’d gotten farther in the story.
It was that missing plot item that got me back on track, but I wasn’t able to identify what I needed until I’d already moved past the problem and fixed some of the others. Then, after a brainstorming session with my agent, I was able to add the missing piece, and rewrite the last couple of chapters that no longer worked.
And here I am again, about to write the climax of the book (at last!!!), when I realize . . . something is wrong. The last chapter I wrote felt off, and I couldn’t figure out why. After chatting with a friend, I have an idea why it isn’t working, but I haven’t figured out the fix yet. But I will.
Here’s how I’ve been going about identifying and fixing what isn’t working:
1. Talk out the story with another writer or person who knows the story.
As I mentioned before, I talked to my agent (who know this book as well as I do), and a writing friend. And even though my friend has only read the first book in this series, just explaining the events that built up to the climax led her to give me a solid piece of advice that changed the way I saw the ending of the book.
2. Talking out the story to anyone who will listen often helps.
My husband is usually on the receiving end of this. He doesn’t always know what’s going on, and he rarely even asks questions. He’s just there while I talk out my problem. Sometimes, just hearing myself explain the plot shines a light on things that need work.
3. Going back to every choice the character makes.
I ask myself if my character’s choices are driving the story, and if they’re choices the character would honestly make. I make sure all the motivation for out-of-character choices is on the page. If the choices are my choices — to help me get to the next plot point — not the character’s choices, that’s the first place I look at adjusting.
4. Are all my characters on the board?
It can be easy to forget about characters who aren’t there actively being a love interest or best friend or an antagonist. I like to go back and make sure I know what my cast is doing — and make sure they’re all doing something! That alone can solve a lot of problems. (All the characters outside my viewpoint character/s are still off living their own lives, trying to achieve their own goals.)
5. Are all my plots in motion?
Same thing as the character question. Is everything moving along together, or have I left a plot behind somewhere? That was definitely the case with my first pause on this book!
6. Reread from a few chapters before things started to go wrong.
This is what I’m doing now, actually. I went back a few chapters, to where I knew things were okay, and started rereading (and revising because I can’t help myself). I’m looking for the moment where things start to feel weak, or illogical, and from there I’ll dig in a little more to see what exactly I need to work on.
It’s also not a bad idea to take a step back and just let things simmer for a day or two. Sometimes, I need a break to let things sort themselves out. (Sometimes, this leads to laziness. I have to be honest with myself!) One thing I have to remember: figuring out where I took a wrong turn takes active work. Taking a step back can help let the subconscious do its thing, but I also have to take a careful look at what I have before I can go take a nap and let my backbrain do its thing.
Do you have anything to add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to go back and identify the wrong turns.
I divide my email into folders and sub folders to stay organized. I’ve got a folder for Request and within that: Offer, Pass, and…The Ones That Got Away.
Agents deal with rejection, too, and in those moments I have to remind myself of the same thing I tell writers: It’s not personal. Authors have a lot to consider when deciding whether or not to accept an offer of representation, and ultimately they need to go with the person they feel will best represent them and their work. That person is not always me, no matter how much I might believe or want it to be.
And most of the time, that’s ok. Rejection is a part of publishing, from top to bottom. And so when I get word from a writer that they have made the difficult decision (and in some cases I’m sure the decision isn’t a difficult one at all, but writers have been very kind to me and all of them have let me down gently!) to accept another offer, I usually send a quick note back, thanking them for letting me know, and for letting me consider their work, and I offer them my heartfelt congratulations. I move the email chain immediately into my The Ones That Got Away folder.
And then I go into my rejection ritual.
I step away from work for a little while. Anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. I text my husband and let him know I lost the project. He’s been hearing me talking about it non-stop for a couple weeks at this point, so I lean on him and the other folks at my agency for comfort because discussing my disappointment publicly would be a terrrrrrrible idea. During my little grieving break sometimes I take a walk around the block, sometimes I watch an episode of tv or listen to a podcast or do some dishes (it seems like there are ALWAYS dishes that need doing in my house). I do something, anything else to take my mind off the one that got away. Then I take a deep breath, and get back to work. And as the days, weeks, and months pass, I cheer on the writer as they announce their new representation, and as their deal is announced, and as their book is published. And every time, I get that little pang in my heart. It only lasts a second, and it is quickly eclipsed by genuine joy. After all, I love these books, these writers. I believe that these books deserve to be out in the world–if I didn’t believe that I never would have offered in the first place. And as much as I wish I could have been the person to help get these books to bookshelves, in the end I’m just glad they got there.
Most of the time that’s how this kind of rejection goes for me. I’m wistful. I’m disappointed. But I’m also ready to fall in love again.
So a couple of months ago when I fell deeply, wholly in love with a manuscript, and had an amazing, extended call with the writer, and felt truly that the stars had aligned, and then….the writer accepted an offer from someone else….for the first time my rejection ritual failed me. No matter how much I told myself otherwise, I took it personally. I cried–a couple of times, actually. My husband brought me ice cream. I scrolled through my queries and I read a lot of manuscripts, things that were good, things that were great, but nothing that made me feel like that. I joked with industry friends that it was like a break up. “What if I never fall in love again?!” Except, deep down, I wasn’t joking. I really felt like I’d never love another book the way I loved that manuscript. That I’d never click with another writer in that way. That the stars would never align again.
I’ve been working in this industry for a long time. Long enough to not only know, but to truly believe, that despite all of the passion and emotion and care that I bring to my work–the highs and lows of publishing are part of the business. If I take each disappointment personally, I’ll drown.
Writers face so much rejection, a constant onslaught. And it doesn’t stop once you get out of the query trenches. There is rejection at every tier of this industry. As gatekeepers, we agents are responsible for a LOT of the rejections that writers get, and that’s not something we take joy in. It’s not personal, it’s business.
But please don’t ever think that we don’t intimately understand that heartbreak. We do. We know how painful it can be. We know how difficult it can be to pick yourself up and keep going. We also know that it’s all part of job. We will fall in love again, even after the ones the got away. I know; I did.
Hey there PubCrawlers! Today I’m sharing a craft post about writing a strong beginning. As with any and all craft-oriented posts shared here by me or any of the other PubCrawl writers, keep in mind that this advice is meant to be general and certainly will not apply to all stories.
First, an apology. I’m sharing with you a three-point list I use to help me craft my story beginnings, but I no longer remember where it came from originally. I would love to credit the source, but I just can’t find it! It’s possible this came from a blog post I once read that is no longer available, or maybe I saw this in one of the numerous books I’ve read on writing, or it may even be a list I cobbled together myself. The point is, I’ve been using this for a long time—at least since I started drafting Ivory and Bone in 2013. For a long time, I’ve let the fact I can’t credit the source stop me from sharing this info in a post, but I feel like it’s too good not to share. So pleeeaaase: If anyone reading this recognizes it as a list shared somewhere else, (or if it’s your own!) please let me know so I can give proper credit!
When I start a new book, one of the first things I do is open up my folder “Novel-writing Tools” and copy my file titled “What the opening should have.” I save a copy of that file in the new folder, which often has little else in it but maybe a one-paragraph blurb of the story idea. Here’s what’s in my “What the opening should have” file:
A clear need in the main character that the reader will relate to
A pivotal event in the character’s life with high stakes
A mystery surrounding what’s about to happen that makes the reader curious and anxious to know what’s coming
That’s the entire document. Now, as I said in my initial disclaimer, there are probably lots of great openings that don’t contain these three things. This is a guide. It helps me craft those crucial opening scenes in a way that feels grounded and less like guesswork.
So let’s look at each item on the list.
A clear need in the MC that the reader will relate to. In the context of creating your story opening, a character’s need doesn’t have to be the need that’s going to drive the whole story, but it should be the need that drives this first scene. Secondly, the idea of that need being relatable is important, since, unless this is a sequel, we won’t relate to this character at all yet. Without story context, I only have the context I bring within myself. So opening with a clear need that makes sense to the reader will give the reader something to latch onto as they step into your story.
A pivotal event in the character’s life with high stakes. Lots of writing advice talks about the normal world, the world as it is before the story begins, and the story world, which the main character inhabits once the inciting incident occurs. Many good story openings manage to ground us in the normal world so that we feel the strength of the inciting incident and what it means to the MC. Examples would be the opening of Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, where we feel Luke’s boredom before he joins Obi-Wan, and the first Harry Potter, where we experience his life with the Dursleys before he goes to Hogwarts for the very first time.
A mystery surrounding what’s about to happen that makes the reader curious and anxious to know what’s coming. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much a sense of mystery matters to a good story. The opening is one place where that is particularly true. It’s not easy to sell a reader on your amazing character or your amazing world in a scene or two, but you can make them curious and desperate to know what’s coming. In the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games, Katniss tells us that Prim must’ve gotten in bed with her mother during the night because of bad dreams, since today is the day of the Reaping. The author doesn’t tell you what the Reaping is, because she wants you to keep reading. But we know it gave Katniss’s sister nightmares, and we know it’s today. Who wouldn’t keep reading to see what’s coming?
That’s it! That’s my entire guide to writing a strong beginning. Once more I need to share my wholehearted apology for not being able to credit the source of this! Please let me know if you’ve seen this before, and where.
How do you handle beginnings? Do you introduce your story or characters in a specific way? Please share your thoughts in the comments!