I, Too, Want to See You be Brave

Sara Bareilles’ radio hit, Brave, is more than just a fun song (and a great video) – it’s a helpful piece of advice.

Remember all of you (not just writers) that you have to be your own biggest fan and supporter throughout all of your work and life. You have to believe in yourself first or no one ever will.

How was I brave lately?

I went to a writers’ conference all alone, introduced myself to writers and industry pros, put my writing in front of three industry reps, and pitched my book to an agent. That’s a lot for one weekend, I think! I’m naturally a bit introverted, so it took a lot to really put myself out there.

There was a real possibility of failure! People could have hated my writing. Hated me. Hated my pitch. I could have made a mess of my name and ruined my chances at getting published forever.

Instead, I got great reactions to my personality, my writing, and my book pitch. I’m doing something right, it would seem! I met the lovely and thoughtful Patricia Nelson of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, who gave me great advice. I also met the incomparable Kristen Lamb, who told me she loved my writing and my pitch and has offered to help me find an agent.

I lucked out so hard! But then, luck is a bad word. I worked so hard. I worked for this and I put time and love and heartbreak into a manuscript and, after lots of work, finally started to see some payoff for it!

So tell me, readers: How have you been brave lately?

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Plotting Along: Outlining a New Project

I didn’t use to outline my novels. In fact, I was grumpy and opposed to the whole idea until I was required to create one for part of a writing group project. I dragged my feet. I whined. I’m amazed I didn’t blog about it before, whining.

I thought that it would somehow squash or restrict my creative process. That it would ruin the way that I wrote. That it would take something away from me.

I’ve changed my mind, though. After being “made” to create an outline for my urban fantasy manuscript, I was forced to ask myself plot and character questions and then address them before I had more than a few chapters written. It was like getting advanced notice on what to watch out for in the near future, giving me time to prepare for it.

So now I’m working on the outline and characters for the second book in the same series (while the first manuscript is in beta reading this month). There are some important questions that everyone needs to ask themselves while in the outlining/plot planning phase:

  1. Are character motivations consistent?
  2. Is the conflict set up early and clearly? Is it resolved?
  3. Does the setting contribute appropriately to the overall mood or tone of the scene/novel?
  4. Does the narrative voice reflect character, genre and tone effectively?
  5. Is there a theme (or themes) you can identify in the story?
  6. Is this an original idea/characters? Is it too much of a familiar trope?

The Trouble with Editing

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I’m almost finished with a quick, by-the-seat-of-my-pants edit of my 1st draft manuscript. It goes into beta with about 7 people in just 3 days!! I’m thrilled but also feeling vaguely menaced at the same time. That’s not a lot of time to edit. Welllllll…

To be honest, I had this whole month to edit the 65,000 word piece (which is really very good odds, overall – less than 2,100 words a day to review!) but spent the first week of February celebrating the completion of my manuscript and the next week and a half sewing like a panicked woman for a hard deadline. That left just 13 days to edit the whole piece (more like 5,000 words to deal with per day). Only, wait! I also do freelance web copy writing and suddenly I had TONS of work. So now I was spending 7 hours a day doing freelance work and almost no time at all working on the novel.

Editing, one friend has said, is like being trapped in a gilded cage of my own devising.

I can’t wait to get out.

The Trouble with “Strong Female Characters”

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I was inspired to talk about this topic thanks to a freelance job I have writing about gaming culture AND this great blog post from Chuck Wendig. Wendig addresses something very important to me in his post: the idea of agency. 

What is Agency and Why Does it Matter?

Agency and ego are tied together in a character, creating a fictional person who thinks, reacts, and – most importantly – acts to move the story forward. The character has motivation. She does more than reacts – she acts and, because of her actions, the story moves forward. In fact, without her actions, the plot would not and could not exist.

A “strong female character” who kicks ass but has no depth or human desires is no better than a damsel who exists solely to be rescued. It isn’t ass-kicking that defines a believable, human, interesting female character; it’s a metric we should rid ourselves of because, in the end, shooting and kicking and magicking aren’t what makes a character interesting. Ass-kicking does not inherently equal agency.

Identifying Agency and Evaluating Character

There are several simple “tests” suggested to identify if female characters are even remotely three-dimensional. The first and probably most well-known is The Bedchel Test which asks if two named female characters in a book (movie, comic, etc) talk about something other than a man. It’s a simple enough test, but a startling number of stories “fail” it.

Comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick offers the “Sexy Lamp Test” that goes like this: “if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft. ”

We are, I think, all of us looking for characters who are interesting, who think, who act, and who have drives and desires.

The Strong Female Character

So often, female protagonists are described as “strong” almost as a justification – a defense of the strange decision to choose to tell a story about a woman. Are we ashamed, in some quiet way, as a culture, to be telling women’s stories? Is it so bad and scary that we must defend our female characters with the traditionally male definition of “strong?” Next time you see one of these so-called “Strong Female Characters” remember to dig deeper and see what she’s really made of.

Query Letters 101: Your Query Letter

You may think you have an entire synopsis to impress an agent but really, you have one sentence. A great query letter is about so much more than a convincing synopsis of your manuscript. It’s about relating, conversing, understanding, and grabbing an agent’s attention.

  • No less than 250 words, no more than 700. Aim for about 400.
  • Don’t try to be cute and use weird paper or fonts. Stick with Arial, Cambria, or Times in 10 or 12 point font.
  • Use paragraphs! Don’t stick everything in one huge chunk of text. You’ll scare agents.
  • Personalize your letter! This sets good letters apart from great letters. While each one of your query letters is going to be 97% the exact same as the last, 3% of that should be personalized for each new agent you send it to. Show agents that you’ve put in the time and effort to get to know their tastes before querying them.
    • Always address each letter to the agent by name
    • Use one or two sentences to tell them why they are the right match for you.
      • “I noticed that you represent Gregg Olsen’s YA series ENVY. Because of this, I really think you’ll also enjoy my dark, psychological, YA thriller.”
      • “I had to query a fellow journalism woman!”
      • “I love that your nieces and nephews play such a huge role in your literary career. I hope one day, they’ll get a chance to read my novel.”
      • “I read your blog post titled ‘Be the Evel Knievel of Writing’ and it inspired me to finish my manuscript with a non-linear story structure.”
      • “I read your interview on Day-By-Day Writer and felt compelled to send you my query for _____.”
  • Use your letter to embody everything about your writing. Keep your voice and tone consistent but remain professional.
    Focus on the project you are currently pitching, even if you have been previously published. There is a place to talk about previous publications! Don’t worry. PITCH ONLY ONE MANUSCRIPT PER LETTER.
  • Be specific about plot details but don’t give everything away. You want to leave the agent wanting more so he will request your full manuscript!
  • Optional: Include the first five pages of your manuscript copied and pasted into the e-mail after the closing signoff. NO ATTACHMENTS. Some agents say not to include these pages, some do not specify. But there is always the chance that she will find herself just reading the pages anyway.
  • No e-mail blasts. It is unprofessional, lazy, and not personalized.
  • If another agent or publisher has referred you to an agent, mention it in your letter.
  • Query Letter Must Haves:
    • Personalized salutation, Personalized tidbit about agent, Title, Genre, Word count, Protagonist name, Description of protagonist, Setting, Inciting incident, Villain, Protagonist’s quest/purpose, Protagonist’s goal, Your Bio, Author’s credits (optional), Your name, Where you can be found online
  • Know your genre, type of project, and age group.

Much of this information came from an excellent class I took on LitReactor.com taught by the brilliant and lovely Bree Ogden. If you want more, sign up for some classes there!! There’s another Art of the Query Letter class coming up in February.

Check out the previous parts of the Query Letters 101 series:

Research and Glossary

Letters and Agents

New Year, Old Novel

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My main project at the moment is completing the manuscript for “Dark of the Wood,” an urban fantasy story inspired by Little Red Riding Hood. It sounds weird, but I promise you it works. Anyway, I have a mental timeline for getting this project done and then setting it free into the world of agents and publishers.

January 31: I will have the first draft of the novel completed.

March 31: I will have the second draft of the novel completed (possibly after some beta reading).

May 31: I will have the third and final draft of the novel completed.

June 1: I will begin querying agents (I have my query letter written and polished already).

Forever(?): I will keep querying agents and annoying people and working my butt off to sell this book.

Why? Because I believe in it. I like it. I think it’s funny and dark and well-written and highly marketable. But, more importantly, I have to believe in my work because if I don’t – who else will?

Believe in yourself. Believe in what you’re doing. Work and rewrite and drive yourself crazy and talk to friends and other writers and edit and polish and BELIEVE. The hardest part about writing is just doing the darn work. So if you’re writing – you’re already succeeding.

The Ugly Duckling

or, “The Shitty First Drafts” Post.

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You’ve probably heard of the idea of Shitty First Drafts. If you’re anything like me, dear reader, you’ve probably written one. Or four. Or a lot. I dare say most writers know what it’s like to create these because they’re an inevitable part of the writing process.

The charming name for these first forays comes from Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. The selection about first drafts is fairly famous among writers of all kinds and is widely read by creative writing students the world over. If you’re interested in reading the short excerpt yourself, here it is hosted as a pdf: https://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf

My favorite bit from the piece is the phrase, “writing is not rapturous.” It is work and it is not always going to feel right or food or easy.

A friend of mine is having trouble with her first novel. Her initial passion for the project began to wane at around 30,000 words as difficulties piled up. Her plot became convoluted as she tried to fix character and story problems while she worked; rather than just finish the draft and then go back to change plot issues later, she kept trying to change things as she worked on the incomplete first draft, creating a more tangled mess as she went. Now she feels like she’s drowning in the project and is considering abandoning the manuscript altogether.

Anne Lamott tells us that in order to have a great book, we need to work through that Shitty First Draft. It’s just one step along the way. I wish I could convince my friend to see her manuscript through. I believe in her work even if she doesn’t right now.

So finish those first drafts! The sooner you finish them, the sooner they’ll be out of the way and then you’re one big step closer to the finished project you’ve been dreaming of.