What I learned from NaNoWriMo

For some crazy reason, my first attempt to pub this blog failed; guess WordPress is having their issues…

Anyway, I wanted to share what I learned from my introductory nano experience==2016 is my first year at this. I hesitated in past years because I either missed the start of the month or had more pressing things to attend to (I conduct bible studies and sometimes I do it in sprints of 30 days). So since my crit partner was doing nano for a ‘real’ project (she has an agent) and I had a story idea, I decided to try it.

One thing about me, I hate to fail. I am also a trained and certified project manager so I hate disorganization, too. Those two things helped me get to 50K in 19 days. But that wasn’t the main impetus. Let me explain…

I had been reading two books before nano: 2k to 10k by Rachel Aaron and an article I found by Cheryl Klein. Rachel’s book helped me learn to do a lot of upfront work so that there was no question about where I was going in the story. Cheryl’s article showed me how to set up a matrix for each scene; an action/reaction approach.

Both of these were instrumental in easing my anxiety going into the challenge.

I also made sure I knew all my characters – names, background, motivation, role  – and wrote those down. I found my theme, story point, and even determined the ending. These also helped me create a manuscript ‘shell’ that I could fill in at will. I ‘d basically built the house and now I was ready to add the furniture and decorate.

I also used Scrivener for the first time. The scenes I created fit well into the tool and it helped me avoid frustration since I didn’t have to look at an entire ms at once. I could write each scene as a self-contained story and combined with Cheryl’s goal/obstacle>But>Therefore approach I was able to weave them all together.

The next thing I did was create a map of my world so that I knew where everyone would be and how they would get there (I am revising now to make sure I did that correctly and that I did not overwrite my descriptions of the scenery. I had fun with that part).

Last, I created a schedule I could maintain: I work full time so I had to write 30 min. in the morning, during my lunch, and after dinner. My goal was 2,000 a day but I ended up around 3200 because I knew my story and where it was going.

So there you have it. Now I’m off to work. Have a great one and keep on writing!

 

Why Keep Going?

I’m sure that some of you authors-in-training are out there asking yourself this question and it is a legitimate one; especially if you have been chiseling away at your craft, learning the business, reading in your genre, watching Twitter posts and participating in a myriad of workshops, pitch wars and all that is the writing life. And after saying all of this I say, yes, keep going. Why? Well for one I am and here are the reasons.

Because all that information you have been gathering is going to culminate into your ‘ah ha’ moment and then it will all come together. I say that because that is what is beginning to happen to me after plugging away for years. You begin to see a pattern forming. You start to make connections between things. You notice a trend and then you say ‘Oh, so that’s what they meant.’

Now I am going to tell you something that everyone has told you: accept rejection and keep moving. I wrote an earlier post Why I Love My Rejection Letter that may help you get over the sting. At this point I take them in stride and look forward to getting them so that I can take that agent off my Excel spreadsheet and add another one. If you get feedback which unfortunately is rare, cherish that. I save those and try to apply what little morsels they dole out. I always try to thank those agents/editors in particular for taking the time to do that since they are very busy people.

But a pubbed writer and critique partner gave me the best advice: READ, READ, READ. Since I have a full time job and other responsibilites reading is very hard to fit into my schedule so I go to the Overdrive app for my local library and am reading a lot more. Believe me when I say it makes a H-U-G-E difference because you start to notice trends in structure, language and content that you can use in your own work.

Make your book the best you can make it before you send. At first I had issues with that but have learned I really have to take it as far as I can even if I end up being asked to revise it several more times. Be willing to do that work for the sake of the work and the reader. If you value what you do you won’t have any issues with revisions. It’s a win for all involved so be grateful for the suggestions and apply them.

I also suggest you not allow yourself to get discouraged until you have sent out at least 80 queries (and yes there are 80 agents/editors out there for your genre). It’s almost like job hunting – its a numbers game. I use the CWIM and also make sure I check the agency/publisher website in case something has changed. In the latest version Chuck has included some examples of first pages that several different agents critiqued and they all had differing reactions to the books. That was a big eye opener as to how subjective it is; all agents won’t view your book the same way and that is a good thing. It gives you hope that maybe there is one out there that will love it.

I try to research the agent to find out something about them personally and what they tweet, blog about so that I can get to know them before I submit. If I don’t find much I just approach them with the same respect and courtesy I would any new person I meet in business.

If you participate in online pitch wars make sure you work on the pitch in advance and use the most descriptive words you can; don’t be vague – you only get one shot at it (well maybe two in the 8 hr period but you know what I mean). It’s nice to get agent likes and that feels good so consider that a win as well even if you don’t get repped.

Well, I’ve got a conference to attend shortly so hope this advice helped and happy writing!

Querytopia: Are you there yet?

Now that I’ve finished my first MG book and sent out my first query, I await the forthcoming rejection. However, I am not afraid and look forward to placing it as the first in my inevitable stack that will prove that I’ve arrived.

Honestly, that’s a lie. No one wants to be rejected, but we have to accept the reality. So in order to reach what I call Querytopia, I have been making a detailed list of things that I want in an agent. It’s an exercise that is making me feel as if I am the one doing the inspecting (and it strokes the old ego too.).

First I got a copy of the 2014 Guide to Literary Agents. Next I read all the stuff in there I needed to know as prerequisites, then I began sifting through the list. I narrowed mine down to those that are:

1) Open to new / unpublished authors

2) Represent novels at least 50% (even better if they rep kids exclusively)

3) Are seeking ethnic or multicultural fiction

4) Rep authors I love (or know personally, because I do know a few)

5) Placed lots of books (or at least list what they’ve placed and with whom)

If this criteria is met, I visit the website to see if I like it. (Since I build websites the look of the site is important to me). I read the submission guidelines and make note of things I need to remember. I also note things that are missing, such as specifics for querying, not just telling me to send the query to an email address with no other information.

If the agency has an agent I follow on Twitter, that is a plus because I can troll the posts to see what they are discussing and if I like their personality. I also note if they do #tenqueries to see how they might ‘handle’ my submission (or manhandle it) 😦

If Twitter and FB icons are on the site I like that too. It makes it easy for me to find their agents.

I don’t care about what conferences they attend because the ones I attend tell me who is coming. I do care about things like additional fees for making copies for me ( uh… I think I can make my own copies if you send me a .pdf or zip file).

Once I have narrowed my list, I document everything in a spreadsheet and determine who will be the next lucky agent to get my manuscript! LOL. Flipping the script in this whole querying thing makes me feel so empowered, no wonder people become agents!

Postscript: Forgot the mention that I also check my choices against sites like Predators & Editors, QueryTracker, and AbsoluteWrite to get the inside scoop before I put an agent on the ‘legit’ list. Happy querying?

Characters v. Stories

Everyone who reads has certain pleasure points when it comes to a good book. Some like to curl up with a romance novel while in their stocking feet holding a big box of tissues. Others like to sit out on the screened-in porch with a tall glass of ice tea and a good mystery novel. But what is it about that book that the person loves? Is it the story or the characters? Maybe it’s both. But for me, it matters not the genre I choose but whether i can visualize the characters. I don’t mean see them as in what they look like or what they wear. I don’t need those details because I am going to fill them in with my own image. What I want is for them to be a near to real as possible so I can like them, laugh at them, and even scold them! I LOVE characters.

So that is a big goal of mine as I write for kids and teens. I want to build characters that people just want to follow and get to know, regardless of the storyline. Of course that has to be good, but when I think of shows, movies and books that I’ve liked, it always comes down to the character. When I was a child and watched Bette Davis on our black and white TV, it didn’t matter what the story was about. I was there for HER. Same today. I love the Madagascar movies (which are not for kids in my opinion) not for the plot but for the characters — especially how they interact with each other. I’d watch those animated animals no matter what they did or where they did it. They have great personalities and that is what makes me watch. As many know, Bette Davis was larger than life on the screen — the way she walked and talked. Her attitude about things. I have to admit as an adult I’ve purchased all her DVDs on TCM and anywhere else I could find them.

Another character that I would read no matter what is Lamar in Crystal Allen’s MG book. “How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba Sized Trophy.” From the very first page that kid is hilarious. And he thinks he’s so cool. I could not put the book down. He had a unique voice that carried the story and would have whether he was a bowler (and he was believe it or not) or a brigadier general.

I truly believe that with well-developed characters, books can be so much better. I am still learning how to make mine sing so that when anyone reads about them, they want to know them too.

Manuscripts: Focus, focus, focus

One thing I have learned, and continue to learn, about putting together a manuscript is that it is not like writing a letter about something that happened to you or someone else. It is structured — whether you intend to do so or not. It has a beginning, middle and end of course, but there is so much more to it.

I’ve read lots of writing books (i.e., Writer’s Digest Great Fiction series, which I highly recommend, and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) and from what I have ascertained, once the structure is in place, I can relax and just enjoy the writing part.

I was listening to an interview on Twitter with author Jill Santopolo and was happy to hear her co-sign the same approach I have added to my arsenal after reading the aforementioned references: to create the shell, and then fill it in. What does that mean? Well she didn’t say it that way exactly, but in a nutshell, you create an outline of each chapter so you know where you are going. It does not have to explain every little detail, just a basic sentence or two about what needs to happen. Then you can craft the direction you need to take so that you do not forget. Granted, I am a project manager so I am especially fond of clarity, direction and getting there properly — so sue me.

Anyway, here is an example: in James Scott Bell’s book Plot & Structure, he explains the ‘doors of no return.’ These doors are major events that thrust the protagonist forward in the story. Events that cause them to act — whether they want to or not. It’s fascinating reading and it really works! So putting this into practice I can ensure the story has direction, as well as conflict and excitement in all the right places. It’s not easy and I am still a novice at it, but the more I do it, the better my writing becomes.

You must admit, keeping kids’ attention these days is tough, so if you are going to write a kidlit book, it is crucial to use a methodology (uh oh, my PM hat again) that will keep them focusing on your book, not the XBox. 🙂

Multicultural Fiction: What is it?

Ok I’m asking this question to myself as well as you. Why? Because for all intents and purposes I am multicultural but I don’t feel any different than when I was just black, African-American or just a light-skinned sister.

The combo of being multicultural and a writer seems to be all the rage these days in the publishing world. For me that’s a good thing. The confusion is what does that really mean? Sure I have a multicultural background but my experiences are not unlike most other people. I grew up with both black and white kids from elementary through high school. I even met others like me with varying ethnic combinations in their ancestry. But when it comes to my writing there is little I can say that sets me apart, aside from my heritage.

So when I write I do not necessarily bring a ‘multicultural’ perspective to the page. If I do, it’s based on my experiences not necessarily a unique take on life. I know some who have lived with dual cultures in the home and are able to share that dichotomy, but for me my life seemed pretty normal. We leaned more toward the black side than the white one, so in that sense I have a black perspective but growing up in the 70s, it was pretty much the same perspective as any other person. We all hung out together, listened to the same music, etc.

Which begs the question: how do I bring my multiculturalism into my writing —  or should I?

My MG novel-in-progress touches on the issue of color as a deeper discussion on illegal immigration, but it is not the focus of the story. And most stories that do address color have already been told.

Therefore, I think multicultural is just a state of being and one that can help to enhance understanding of diverse cultures, but in my case, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference when I write for kids. My characters are multi-ethnic because that is my truth, but beyond that their experiences are more ‘normal kid’ than ‘mc kid.’

Maybe after I attend the multicultural lit conference this year, I can get clarity —  and closure.