Monday, October 25, 2010

Publishing and Writing Questions Answered (X post)

So in preparation for my talk at Arcadia I had readers of my blog over at Frankie Writes ask me questions about publishing and the writing process. They were pretty good questions that I thought might interest our FNC readers too. So here you go--enjoy!

 1. Patricia A. Timms asked: Would you recommend hiring a professional editor before starting to query? Why? Why not?

Good question, Patricia. I don't think there's anything wrong with hiring a professional editor--if you REALLY feel like you need it, AND you can afford it, but I don't think it's necessary, therefore I wouldn't say I particularly recommend it.

One thing to keep in mind if you do hire one is to make sure you check their credentials--know they have a good sample of work (hopefully they can share some with you) and make sure you fully understand what service you are getting and why. There is a difference between hiring someone who is going to tell you your manuscript is awesome (which is basically paying for a compliment and useless), and hiring someone  who will really get dirty and deep in your MS and help you with your flaws (worth paying for).

FYI: Hiring an editor to critique your work is not the same as having an editor at a publishing house wanting to buy your book--I know most people know this--we bloggers are savvy-- but there can be some confusion at the beginning of this process, so I thought I'd throw that in there in case anyone was wondering.

Anyway, I'm a big supporter of being as self-sufficient as possible! Study grammar books, take time away from your manuscript to see it with fresh eyes, dig deeper, read books on the revision/editing process.

The only people I really want to rely on for feedback and help are my CPs, agent and editor. I don't really think more is necessary. However, I can totally understand the appeal of a pro editor before you start to query, considering how competitive the industry is--so if you CAN afford a good one, then sure why not, but in lieu of a pro editor, I relied heavily on feedback from my CPs and I think this is what most people do and they are still successful. So it's really a personal choice, but keep in mind that you might feel like you need to pay them each time and wouldn't you rather learn to edit on your own?

2. Anonymous asked: How do you plot and do worldbuilding? Are there any excercises you use, particularly for a Fantasy novel.
Wheee! A big question and one I plan to spend the summer answering (fingers crossed) since I recently proposed a new course at Arcadia called Writing Fantasy for Children and it looks like I'll be offering the course this summer--possibly with an online component, but I shall keep you posted. And now I will try and answer the question succintly here.
Ok, so for me, the way I begin plotting is always with an idea for the story, and usually a vision of my main character at the start of the story and a vision of my character at the end. I also tend to have a few key scenes in my mind that I sort of can place in different parts of the story, like this scene will happen just before the climax, or this is a turning point kind of scene.
Then I basically plot to connect all of the scenes.
One thing I also do is write 2 plots or arcs overlapping each other. I plot the emotional arc of the character, because they have to change over the course of the novel and be someone different at the end, even if it's a series, AND I plot the action or physical arc. Sometimes these two will have overlapping scenes and sometimes you'll have an emotional climax followed by the story climax or vice versa.
I think I could actually write an entire book on plotting, but in the interest of keeping this post reasonably short (yeah right), I'll move onto the other questions.
For world building, the key is RULES! You can get as creative as you want, but you have to make sure any kind of fantasy world you create has firm rules that you as the author never break. For one thing, it helps the reader suspend belief and buy into your world, two it keeps you from throwing in some random way to save the day at the end (which no one appreciates) and three, it forces you to really use your world to guide your plot and create tension. 
Good exercises for fantasy writing would definitely include reading Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell is known for tracking down a basic pattern found in almost every myth, religious origin story, legend, folktale, fantasy and story today known as The Hero's Journey. I'm a huge fan of this journey and have used it as a guide, but the key here is make it your own, and get creative with it--don't use it like a paint by numbers kind of tool. If you're unsure of what the journey looks like, Star Wars and Harry Potter are both very clear examples. Christopher Vogel recently came out with The Writer's Journey with puts The Hero's Jounrey in more simplistic terms--it's a faster easier read, but I think studying the original is important too. There is also something called The Heroine's Journey which can be used for female characters, but tracks more of the emotional journey of a character. Layering the hero and heroine's journey is one way you can easily start plotting out the emotional and physical arc/plot of your own story.
Otherwise read a lot of fantasy, study how the authors set the rules of their world and how they introduce them through their writing.
3. Mariah Irvin asked: How do you get started writing with emphasis on WHY you should get into publishing. Also, recommend critique partners/groups!
The way I started writing was pretty simple...putting a pen to paper with a bunch of ideas. But how did I start writing to get into publishing? The short answer: By taking it seriously. Treat writing and treat the industry like its your job. Your boss would fire you if you didn't show up to work everyday, and the same goes for writing--although until you're published you might feel like you're on the longest job interview of your life--the thing is, you'll never get that "job" ie. the agent, the contract, the publishing deal, etc unless you keep at it everyday without fail and you stay on top of the trends and how-tos: know how to query an agent properly, know the most effective way to attend conferences, know what works and what doesn't and why.

When people ask what you do, don't say you want to be a writer, say you ARE a writer, because the only way to make it through the crazy amount of queries and submissions is to be serious, knowledgable, and respectful of the process.
Why get into publishing? Well there are lots of reasons why to you might want to get into publishing as  a writer: because it's your lifelong dream, because you have a story you absolutely MUST tell, because you want to improve your craft and work with and receive feedback from the best, because you love the challenge, because you believe your story is worth sharing and might offer some joy, comfort, inspiration, or hope to a reader and a lot of other reasons. For me the number one reason to do this is because I LOVE writing to death. I want to write all the time and when I'm not writing I want to read and when I'm not writing or reading I want to talk about writing and reading and write about writing and reading and teach writing and reading get my drift.
More importantly here is why you should NOT get into publishing: For fame, for money, to tell your crabby high school teacher I told you so, to compete with your friend, just to see if you can. Getting published is hard and it's work and it takes an immense level of dedication, work, and love to do it. If this isn't what you absolutely love to do, (and I mean love everything, even loving the rejections sometimes and loving that you are about revise for the 100th time) then I really suggest you try something else, or keep writing as a hobby. Everyone who wants to do it should, but I know there are WAAAAY easier and faster ways of becoming famous and making money;) The question is: how much do you really want this, and if your heart and soul answer YES I want this, then go forth and do it!
And yes I totally recommend CPs and critique groups! I'm lucky to have the First Novels Club. Not only are they critiquing ninjas and I believe the BEST critique partners in the world--especially when our forces combine--we each have our specialties--but they've become 3 of my best friends in the world, and are amazing at offering support through all the ups and downs of this crazy journey. Beyond the amazing way a CP can help you transform a story into something greater, they can also be your best friends--and when you really get into this process, you will need them!
4A. Joanne Fritz asked: How many times did you revise your novel? How do you know when enough is enough?
Oh boy! Well, first of all, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote my novel over the course of 2 years, writing it as a middle grade, in 3rd person, in 1st person, back to 3rd person, as an upper MG, as a YA, and then as an upper YA 3rd person--1st person--3rd person--1st person. I moved the opening from PA to NY back to PA, but what really made everything click into place was adding the school story structure to it--my novel takes place at a private boarding school for mages and knights. 
The draft of my novel (which recently lost its title and is for the moment titleless) took 6 weeks to write (after 2 years of writing it) and then 8 months to revise before I signed with my agent. I then revised it 2 more times with her. Honestly I've lost count of how many times I've revised--this particular draft...I'd say at least 10 times all the way through, with countless little tweaks and changes here and there. It's really impossible to say for sure--but A LOT!
How do I know when I'm done? Well now my agent tells me! :-) Love her! But before then, I just kind of went on instinct. I have very high standards for myself and I would just write and revise and revise until I met those standards. You know how Sexy New Idea Syndrome or SNIS works? The new book idea is amazing because it lives in this pristine place in your head untouched and untampered with--your book is utterly perfect before you start writing it. I try to make my book go past that place, become something better and stronger than I ever dreamed it could be. Which....takes a hell of a lot of work! Also, I need the thumbs up from all of my FNC CPs--Janine, Donna and Sara--and they have high standards too!
Keep in're never really done until that book is sitting on the bookshelf. It's really making it the BEST book you can make it, and when you've reached that point, reaching out to CPs or your agent or editor to help you make it even better.

4B. And do you revise all the way through for one specific reason each time? Like one time, you go through looking for excess adverbs. One time you look at dialogue. That sort of thing? Or would you recommend re-reading the entire mess and then slogging through it a chapter at a time?

I have revised it all the way through with just one reason in my mind--like making sure characterization is tight, or revising for descriptions, or for adverbs. But what is really the best thing to do is to have an editorial letter. I used to think you only got these from your agent or editor, but you can write your own editorial letter.

Here's what you do: Read through your novel and take notes on a separate sheet of paper. Mark down prose that feel off, places where dialogue isn't tight, or characters are acting "out of character" or where you feel the pace slows or tension is off, write down ANYTHING that is bothering you or you feel could be better. Then organize all of those notes as best you can into similar groups. Now you have a checklist so you can approach your revision anyway you want, by section of editorial notes, chapter by chapter, or by tackling the small things you can easily tick off. Everytime you fix something, check it off your list--this also helps you to feel VERY accomplished!

The reason for the editorial letter is it allows you to see the big picture of your novel and revise more effectively in fewer drafts. Then when you're done, put it aside, and read through it again.

4C. How many agents did you query? And what did your successful query include?

I queried 16 agents. Out of those 16 agents, 8 requested my full, and then 3 offered representation. My successful query included a succint introduction to my book, including a QUICK overview of the plot and journey of the main character--this was done in only a few sentences, and there was a short piece of info about me--my blogs and contact info. Perhaps I'll do a post on just my query letter soon? Let me get back to you on that one...

4D. How many conferences did you attend before you found your agent?

Hmmmm, I think I may have attended around 20 conferences at this point. However my agent, Laura Rennert was not someone I ever met at a conference. With Laura, I was purely slush pile--I didn't have anything recommending me to her except my query--which worked out because I worked my butt off on that (with help from C.J. Redwine's query class). But two of my other offers and about half of the agents who requested my full were agents I met at conferences, so that can work too.

Some conference advice...
Don't try and pitch your novel to an agent at a conference unless you are in a specific situation like they ask you about your novel first, or you're getting a critique, or in an actual "pitching" session. Just be friendly and try and meet as many agents as you can and then when it comes time to query, remind them of when you met. It won't guarantee an offer or even a request, but it will help you stand out and either get a tiny bit more consideration, OR a faster response. If you really connected with an agent, they may even be inclined to offer you a critique on why they are passing. So conferences are super helpful and I can't recommend them enough because they definitely played a huge role in my querying process, BUT you can also get pulled from the slush pile as well.

The key to remember here is never to rely on anything as a crutch--don't rely on conferences, your huge blog following, your connection to a NYT bestselling author or the fact that you were born on a lucky date. At the end of the day it will ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS be your writing that speaks the loudest.

5A. Melissa asked: At what point do you hand over your novel to your critique partner? Do you give them the whole thing or send a chapter at a time?

When I first started out, I used to send them everything as I was going along--chapter by chapter. Now I'm more likely to send over a huge chunk with specific questions and issues to address. We're definitely evolving in our critique style. I think it's a matter of what feels most comfortable for you and what you feel will be the most beneficial. Previously I needed much more scrutiny over little things because I was trying to find my voice. This is sometimes still the case with some of my new projects, but mostly I have them look at big picture types of things. And we often send emails just discussing points in our novels.

5B. Also, how did you find your CP?

I was SUPER lucky to find 3 amazing CPs in my very first graduate school class, who have not only been amazing at critiques, but consistent (we've been meeting every 3 weeks for almost 3 years now), passionate, supportive, and some of my best friends. BUT I have swapped work and critiqued or beta read with other CPs that I've met at conferences like Joanne Fritz and Kelly Lyman and I've met a few beta readers online. The best thing to do is set your intention to find people and look for them online in critique forums, through a public call on your blog, in a writing class, at a conference or seminar or through your local SCBWI chapter. Of course you'll want to go through a trial run, not every CP is a good match, but if you want to find one, you will!

6. The Red Angel asked: How do you balance between writing and rest of life as well as how do  you avoid procrastination. :D
LOL, um....I don't know I'm the best person to answer this question. It's a learning process to find balance. But you HAVE to get out of your house at some point because you will go crazy, or gain too many pounds from just sitting there, or forget how to interact with humans, which if you write about people, you kind of need to have down. I think creating small goals is helpful, like I will edit 2 chapters and then I can go out/watch tv/read a book/grab coffee with a friend/sleep....etc...
And how do you avoid procrastination? By eliminating distraction. Turn off the tv, turn off the internet, your cell phone etc...create an environment where the only thing you can possibly do is be productive--and don't worry if being productive looks like you're staring into space, if you're thinking about your novel, you're being productive.
OK guys! This post ended up becoming a LOT bigger than I imagined. But hopefully you enjoyed reading or found some useful piece of advice in here. I'd love to know what you think or if you'd answer any of these questions differently.
What would your answers be? And do you have any more questions?


  1. This is very helpful. It puts a lot into perspective. I've found some great critique partners via SCBWI (Kelly Lyman) as well as online. Would SCBWI help with local CPs? I'm looking to find a couple of folks to meet up with every so often. I still meet up with Kelly, but we are looking for other people to join forces with.
    I'm also trying to figure out the whole schedule thing. I have kids so trying to juggle it all is difficult and if anyone has advice I would love to know. I want to write constantly, but I'm usually distracted by life. I get very grumpy when I don't get to write. :)

  2. What a wonderful interview! Pack full of useful information. So glad I found your blog.

    I especially liked the part about writing your own editorial letter. What a creative way to remove yourself from your writing for a truly objective review. I might try this on my critique partners' work as well. :-)

    Thanks for posting!


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