Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Editing, Feedback and Knowing Your Book

Editors are human beings.

I know, it's a huge shock to us all, but they really are. Something we have to keep in mind going into edit letters, feedback and all of the wonderful things that can come from those things is that editors are human beings. Highly skilled, technically knowledgeable, human beings ready to whip your book into shape.

And sometimes, they are wrong. Now, I don't mean for you to take away from this the idea that you should ignore your editors or that it's all right for you to ignore every piece of feedback that they give you. What I suggest that you do, is talk to them. If there's a piece of feedback that, after you've sit with it, marinated with it, wrestled and worried over (And yes, you do need to let it marinate for a while. Just because you don't initially agree, just because you may feel like you got punched in the gut, doesn't really mean they were wrong), does not make sense, then you need to open up dialogue with your editor.

Perchance you thought you were writing in omniscient third and your editor comes back with edits for close-alternating-third on your entire manuscript...Well, it's time to A, consider that you weren't as effective in your omniscient third as you thought and B, to TALK to your editor.

Feedback is not a one-way-street. It is a dialogue between you and the people you are working with. Moreover, you will find that different publishing houses have different "house styles", and they'll want you to fit in with that style. This can be as basic as how you spell the word grey, to as extensive as the percentage of the book your romantic subplot takes up.

You have to know, going in, what the expectations are and you have to know your book. There will always be elements of any story that shifted left or right will make it stand out far more than it did before. Elements that don't change the core of your story. But you have to know what that core is. You have to know what you're willing to change and what you aren't--and why.

And you really have to ask yourself why. If you're really attached to Greg's hair being green...well, why? Why does Xander die? Why does Lulu fall for Steve? These sorts of things can be malleable, while say, your gay main character being gay is not. While querying some years ago I did actually run into an agent who told me she wouldn't be able to sell my book because my MC was bisexual. More importantly, because he had a male love interest.

If an editor had told me to change that aspect of the book to make it saleable, I would have walked away.

It was my line in the sand.

Try to remember though, don't draw your line in the sand in front of something that isn't actually critical to the core of the story. Learning to see the difference between the core and the malleable elements will make you a better writer and learning to talk to your editor, mentor, critique partner will definitely make you a better writer.

Ask questions, make mistakes, get messy...)don't get in a yellow school bus with a woman who has a pet iguana that actually drives the school bus.)

You will get suggestions you don't use--and you better have an explanation (a good one) as to why you didn't think the change was necessary, warranted, etc. You cannot say, "Because I didn't want to." it will not fly.

Bottom line, talk to your editor. You'll be happy you did.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

On Major Revisions

To start, I'm going to talk about a novel I wrote in college. It was experimental and told from multiple first-person POVS, twelve, actually, if I'm remembering correctly.

Yes, I said twelve. What I was aiming for was a story told patchwork, the heart of which remained the same while the rotation of narration deepened the understanding the reader had for the events, the city and the continual refrain that everything and everyone was connected. It was also high fantasy, starred a central POV and the other players were all tangential to this singular focus, adding to the whole.

It was ambitious, slightly insane and completely unsalable. My lit. department professor who was overseeing the project (Independent Study because I'd taken every single other writing course our college offered. All of them.) compared me to Cormac McCarthy in tone. I furrowed my brow in confusion, having never read the man's work (and still haven't) and moved on. This book, and all of it's madness, sat in a drawer resigned to obscurity.

One day I was bored and feeling masochistic, so I pulled this story back out and started to look at it. I could still feel what I'd felt when I started working on it and I still wanted that overarching concept of everything is connected, to move you through the book. So, I put on my writer hat and I rewrote it completely into omniscient third. This entailed some straight up retyping of whole chapters (which helped revise them anyhow), some find/replace on the word "I" and an overhaul of the ending, lengthening of the first act and changes to character's fates.

It was painful, tedious, work. But I could not be more happy that I did it. A more recent novel, (which I talk about more extensively here) has gone through stages. My very first draft, at the tender age of sixteen, was in third person. The revision later was in third and the revision after that was multiple first. Oddly, the format stuck on this project. There's a single "strong" central POV and the others rotate around that one in a set pattern that focuses on deepening your understanding of the events, highlighting the differences between worlds and more importantly, giving a greater focus on the main character.

That was the goal, in any case. I had major revisions on that novel at least three times. I cut entire chapters this last time around (and it's still longer than it was when I started), changed a character's gender (oddly, this was the least difficult change to make) and literally had to print out the entire book, part it out by scenes and rearrange the entire timeline.

These kind of revisions can seem incredibly daunting. I know, I've been there. But the important thing to remember going in to major revisions is:

Have a plan.

This is usually called a "Revision Plan", easy enough to remember. Before I started chopping, changing and so forth and first had to know where the hell I was going. I mean, you don't start driving without knowing where you're going, do you? Well, you might, but not in this instance. Your revision plan is your road map. A guide to show you where to go. I could continue with this, but I think you get the drift. 

How do I know where I'm going? 

This is where CP's, beta readers and your helpful neighborhood Batman...writer friends, come in handy. It can be difficult to judge something you've gotten close to, and I had the good fortune of having let both of the books referenced sit for a few years before I took another look at them. This let me look at them with less bias. More of a reader/editor perspective. I was able to get a better picture of what was wrong because I was no longer so close. 

If you are still close, you're going to need an outside perspective. Take your notes/their notes, compile them and start making a list of the things that will need changed. I usually put my revision plan in my document at the end, and then reference it as I go, but it can be a separate document, a notebook, on a whiteboard over your desk, pinned to the wall--whatever and wherever best suited to you. 

This is not a sprint. 

Revisions aren't even a marathon, they're a decathlon. Revisions require you to utilize all of your skills in order to finish. Pace yourself, have your CP/reader/kidnapped friend read your chapters, scenes, etcetera along the way. It's important to check in, make sure you're still headed in the right direction. Think of your CP as the robotic GPS voice, gently and loudly reminding you to turn left. 

And then, when you forget, giving you an alternate route. 

It's scary sometimes. You might feel like you're in over your head. Like the book is going to consume your soul and sell you off to the elder gods, but that's why writers work best with community. Take a break from the book. Take whatever time you need to get through the process, and that end, celebrate the fact that you have a book that's so much stronger than it was before. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Come What May

It's coming. The day when dreams will be crushed under the weight of...Hold up. No. That's wrong. Forgive my flair for the dramatic.

Mentee announcements are just around the corner, the PitchWars Live Event is tomorrow night and the next morning...well, some of us will be heading into a whirlwind of work, work, work that is the PitchWars editing round. The greater portion of us won't be be in that group, but that's okay. We're going to be moving on down our personal writing journey with best wishes to those working toward the Agent Round.

What will I be doing? Well, if I get selected, come the 25th, I'll be working on my book in hopes of getting published under the tutelage of one of the mentor's I pitched to. If I don't, I'll be working on my book in hopes of getting published with the help of a few amazing CP's, with a much stronger query letter, pitch, and synopsis to show for my time spent.

The query process for said book will begin again, and I'll keep working on book two while I'm at it.

And of course, there's the yearly prep for Nanowrimo, Halloween, my day job and a giant TBR pile to keep me busy (plus, you know, art. I need to be painting). My life will not be over if I don't get in. Plus, I'll be allowed to compete in a few other pitch competitions I wouldn't be able to if I do get in. There are opportunities galore.

I know there are going to be disappointments coming out of this, but try to keep your disappointment where it belongs. Your friends and family, private messages, etc. Let's be gracious. Writers are artists, we can be prone to...colorful expressions of irritation. We also have long memories.

(I am literally watching a My Little Pony episode on sportsmanship as I am writing this so...take from that what you will.)

Whatever happens Thursday, I am so happy to be a part of this community. I can't thank Brenda and the mentors, who have all donated their time and expertise to this even, enough. I have met so many amazing people and I cannot wait to see if they make to the next round.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Subjectivity and Criticism

I've seen this word floating around quite a bit on the PitchWars feed, and I thought I would talk a little bit about it.


  • : based on feelings or opinions rather than facts

When I was in college (art college mind you all), this word was bandied about with abandon. "Art is subjective" is probably the most commonly spoken phrase in any art curriculum. It was a vicious, competitive environment at times. There were occasions when students were bullied by other students ( and even by some professors). There were occasions when professors brushed off complaints of bullying with soft-mouthed reassurances that "things would be done", to no real effect.

Seeing the word has brought back memories of round table critiques with my work pinned up on a board with the rest of the class where we'd all pick a piece and start talking. You were supposed to follow a pattern. The critique sandwich, as it's called. Something positive, something that could be improved on, end with something positive.

Supposed to doesn't always happen. People left those critique sessions in tears. We were sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated teenagers--and some of us were mean, horrible little monsters away from home for the first time in a highly charged environment. You got thick-skinned or you didn't last. Pride was taken in our school's typical freshman class drop-out rate of 50%. (Yes, I said 50%.) Kids had nervous break downs. Kids dropped out. Kids swore off art and transferred to other schools to do something else (I very nearly did). This was the reality of a boiler pot of creative children vying for attention and praying to make it big.

And above it all you had some fantastic teachers and some...not fantastic teachers. And in both camps there were teachers who would use the word "subjective" when explaining why you got a B when Sally got an A and so forth. Imagine being graded every single day, not necessarily wholly on merit or skill but this elusive thing you couldn't describe. It was frustrating. Maddening. 

And over and over again, "Art is subjective."

I say all of this so that you'll understand where I'm coming from when I say, that while my art school experiences are the foundation that built my distaste for the word, this business we're in?

It's subjective.

It isn't personal. It isn't always based on facts and figures. There's no magic formula that will get you published. All you can do is do the work. Learn to take criticism (perhaps in a more healthy way than I did) and remember that above all, this is not personal. If you ask me to critique your work and I send back five pages of edits, it's not personal. I want to help you be a better writer. I want you to succeed. I want to cheer with you and for you. The CP's and Betas and Mentors of PitchWars? They want the same thing.

That being said, there are horrible, mean people out there who will tear your work apart just because they can. There are predators in the writing community and it's important that we talk about them. Shine a light on them and keep them away from the fresh-faced writers taking their first steps into our community. We keep track of those people, we make lists and databases (Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors and more) in an effort to keep our community safe and well-informed.

You will also meet amazing, wonderful, loyal friends in this business. You will read amazing books and learn from every encounter.

We may not be in the same exact boat, but we are all on the same ocean. We sink and rise together. There are aspects of this business we can't control. Waves and eddies, storms and bright days but we weather them together.

Just. Keep. Writing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What the Heck is a Series Bible?

Nothing like starting on book two of your freshly minted series only to end up in a hail of uncertainty as you dig through your previous book for information you swear was in there. Like, for instance, what color so and so's eyes were.

No one wants that. "What can I do to prevent that fate?"

Well, I'll tell you, you can start working on a series bible! IE, a document that contains all of your cannonical information in one place, organized and accessible.

Everyone has their own way of organizing information, obviously, but here are some pretty easy tips to follow. Obviously, you can use the word processor of your choice, and for those of you with a love of spreadsheets--have at. (I am not one of them).

I usually start mine with character information. I use bolded headings and easy searchable terms.

So, for example:

Jane Smith ALIASES:
BASIC DESCRIPTION (eye color, hair color, height, figure, etc): Broken down by appearances, age, etc.

Characters are listed under headings like MC, REGULAR CAST, MINOR CHARACTERS, FRIENDS, ANTAGONIST, PETS, etc.

I try to note relationships as they relate to my MC as well as interior relationships, secrets and the like.

Here's part of Liadan's Series Bible (with plot relevant details redacted)

After character information, I include a timeline. Timelines are essential. I find myself constantly asking "When did that take place again? What year was it? What month? What time of year?" It's so much easier to be able to scroll through a timeline.

Mine are set up generally like this:



I generally keep all of my plotting details in the timeline, as it keeps those details organized. So, for instance, if I'm planning to reveal someone's parentage in book six, I can drop that in the timeline. I can also then go back in and determine where foreshadowing elements need to go. Book titles, as I come up with tentative ones, also go in here.

This basic timeline is of course separate from a more intensive timeline I sometimes work up for individual manuscripts. I generally only need one when I have a lot of traveling going on and am working over a long period of time. 

I also keep my synopses, query letters, pitches and the like in this document (organized by title), or at the very least, in the same folder with this document. Character reference images and the like could also be placed in a separate folder within the folder (I like keeping things sorted to the nth).

The important thing to remember is to continue to update this document when editing your manuscripts. A series bible won't help you at all if it's two drafts out of date. No one person is going to need the same information in their bible, but this should at least give you a good place to start. Just remember, compile now, save yourself heartache later.

Trust me on that.

Monday, August 15, 2016

On Atmosphere II

I realized I actually wanted to expand on my post about atmosphere goes. Part two!

So, I showed you some examples of building atmosphere in my first post, but let's break that down a bit further. I'm going to show you the same kind of setting with different atmospheres. Given the time of year, let's go with "School" as a springboard, shall we?


For every click of my heel against the cracked linoleum, I could feel what was left of my summer spirit slipping away. The buzzing of the soul-sucking fluorescents set a low level headache beating away behind my eyeballs. It was the same old hallway, in spite of my upgrade to Sophomore, and it would be the same old, dirty, hallway until the school burned down or I managed to graduate in three years.

I could feel flame itching at my fingertips just at the thought.


The pounding, torrential drumbeat on the classroom roof should have made me drowsy, but it was hard to fall asleep in Mr. Brooke's class. Every gesture, every excited scramble of chalk to board was full of frenetic energy. His vibrant blue shirt struck out from the green blackboard, chalk smeared on the rolled up cuffs. If anything, the rain added to the urgency of the lesson. Driving it forward with it's steady patter. I'd been worried at first that taking Advanced Maths would be a mistake, but Mr. Brooke's always made me feel on the cusp of discovery. He made me feel smart.


It was with some small embarrassment that I plucked my teacup from the air where I'd left it. I'd not considered the levitation would last quite so long. In spite of this error, Professor Rawley seemed suitably impressed with my progress. I had not, at least, lost my touch over the summer break. I had been quite worried that I might. It was one thing, after all, to practice my skills in the safe harbor that was Last Star Academy and entirely another to practice where mortals might see me. Really, I would have to attend summer camp next year. It was far too long to go between practice.

I captured a bit of sunbeam to read by later (far better than a candle for under the covers) and finished packing up my things just as the bell tolled for tea.


Okay. So, obviously there are more differences between these pieces than simply atmosphere. It's pretty clear that they're genres and voice are different as well. I tried to stay within the same YA range, however, to make it easier to show you the differences.

Our first one uses phrases like, cracked, soul-sucking, dirty, etc. Which tells you right off that the character is moody, dislikes school and also sets up this very clear picture of a dingy, older school building that hasn't quite been cared for properly. In a brief set up, you know what this place looks like, what it feels like. You know what it sounds like. I find that adding in one or two senses in the initial set up really helps sell your atmosphere.

I used sound in the second one as well, but in a different fashion. This one is more upbeat, with bright color and words like vibrant and frenetic, highlighting the character's feelings. While there aren't many details about the room itself, you at least get the feeling of the room. The character feels happy, safe.

The last example is pretty obviously some kind of magic school. It's also a bit more upbeat, and again, while there is little description of the room itself, it's not entirely required to set the mood. This comes off as a more lighthearted character, and a brighter outlook and mood overall.

The other thing you should notice is sentence length. Pacing. The speed of your story is going to change the mood too. Overall, when it comes to the mood, the atmosphere of your story, this is really where all of your different skills come together. You have to understand how each story element works in order to properly set the mood. Word choice, tone, pacing, voice, all feeds back into the atmosphere. Every word you write will feed back into atmosphere.

But getting it right? Definitely worth it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

On Atmopshere I

I noticed these past couple days the question had arisen amongst the PitchWars hopefuls about atmosphere. More the point, resources on writing atmosphere. I did some looking about my bookshelf, I googled and I tried to remember what my favorite writing teacher had said on the subject.

And now, I'm going to talk about it.

Firstly, with atmosphere, I believe that much writing is a "monkey see" "monkey do" endeavor. One must read it in order to write it. Dissecting why something works, is much more effective a teacher than anything someone can be told. So I'm going to show you some examples of different atmospheres with similarities and talk a bit about them. 

Example 1:

"The library was dark, dusty. Oil lamps gave a bare light from their glass-encased globes. The shelves groaned with the weight of their charges. Little of the battered floral wallpaper was visible under the dozens of devotional images and framed portraits of ecclesiastical men. The floor was just as cramped as the walls, dusty desks piled high with leather bound books and disintegrating scrolls. At one desk, a girl sat in front of a tome.

The yellowed and cracked pages of the manuscript spoke in sharp tones as she turned the pages. The smell of must and leather, of age itself, met the nostrils of the girl in front of the tome. She sat straight and still in her chair. Her crisp black dress and the starched veil over her hair made a sharp contrast to her freckled cheeks and luminous eyes. The green of them was the only bright color besides the worn velvet armchair that Father Price slept in. His snores blew his mustache to and fro in front of his long face." 

All right. So, atmosphere! Notice the word choices. Things like tome and ecclesiastical. The specific descriptions: Yellowed and cracked pages and spoke in sharp tones, luminous eyes, of age itself. 

The manner of phrase, the words I chose and the descriptions I used are all focused on the same goal. Telling you how this place feels, when this takes place and where it takes place. At no point are you told the year, the time of year, or the time of day or even the place. You know it's a library but any other details are going to be inferred. 

You can infer that it's either evening, or that there are no windows in the library, but Father Price is asleep, so perhaps it is evening after all. The library could just be in a school, but the addition of how her clothes are described and the word ecclesiastical, devotional, sets you up for something else. 

Most importantly, all of these choices build together to set the mood of the story.

Example 2:

"Loose leaves made trails through the air in the crisp October wind. For those with the nose for such things, the cold wind was tinged with a scent that did not belong amongst the leaves and sweet apples of autumn. It was a thick, hot smell that brought to mind the taste of blood. It was death. Not the soft sunshine of a gentle passing, but the fire and pain of violence.
In the middle of a half-constructed suburb, shells of houses lined with clean white sidewalks that led to nowhere, on a fresh stretch of asphalt yet to be painted with yellow dividing lines, barricades had been set up, tape stretched between them and uniformed officers stationed to keep out the growing crowd of curious and morbid onlookers. The Angel of Death had struck again." 

Here we have something completed different atmospherically, though the tone is similar. This is obviously a more modern setting and right away you are told that it's Autumn, and given specific details that tell you what kind of story this is right off the bat. We can infer that this is a mystery, we know a killer stalks the streets. It's very clear what kind of story is being told here. 

Both this example and example 1 are for mysteries, but the first one, while setting a mood that's older, is somehow friendlier. Example 2 is more modern and my word choices, sentence patterns and voice are all keyed toward a specific effect.

Example 3:

"I shook the icy rain off of me with a shrug and shudder. Bloody weather. Absolutely horrendous. As if I don't have enough to deal with. The gravediggers were nearly finished now, burying empty boxes in front of a large grey headstone. The mourners were long gone now. Off to the train station, no doubt, to head back into Verreden. Why the Blacks had wished to be buried in Briar’s Gate was no matter to me.
Here lies Reginald and Sara Black, loving parents. Loving parents indeed. They had proven they would do anything to protect her. The heavy stone that marked their grave was carved with ravens. An uncommon family crest, but I’d seen little Harriet and by her dark curls and pale skin it was rather obvious that somewhere in the family line was Raven. Interesting that they’d chosen to commemorate it on the stone. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs?
I fluffed up my feathers and toed closer to the end of the branch to watch as the last shovelful of dirt crashed down onto the ground, a bit of dark burlap was rolled over the mound.
Time to be going.
I shook off the rain again, spreading wings to take to the air. I found the little girl at the train station with her barrister. I watched her board the train, watched the boy slip on after her. Hmm. I recognized the sort, though not the boy himself. One of the Guard’s strays. Off to slay a Heartless? He looked a bit young for such endeavors. He wouldn’t succeed. Even a more seasoned Guard would have trouble dispatching the little Orphan Black."

This one is in first person, which immediately changes the tone. But this is obviously similar to some degree to the atmosphere of the first. You have some solid world building details here, but you also have atmosphere. It's raining and cold. The narrator is annoyed, curious and--odd. Building the mood here is as dependent on the voice of the character as it is on everything else.

Each of these examples utilizes word choice, description and voice to build the atmosphere. I find that immersion helps. Read books about your setting. Watch movies and TV shows with a similar feeling, listen to music. When you feel immersed, it's a lot easier to write within that setting. 

Really look at your word choices. Look at how you described various things and people. Every choice you make will either add to the atmosphere you're building or put holes in it. Language choices are everything. 

I'll leave you with some recommended reading.

Writer's Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Michael Knost (I don't know how readily available this is, I believe it was a Kickstarter and I received it as a gift)

Anthology collections in your genre. This is actually super important because it will A: Show you a variety of handlings in a small space and B: Give you something to dissect. 

On Writing by Stephen King

Anything by Neil Gaiman, he is a master at atmosphere.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Pitchwars and New Directions

It's kind of funny, since starting the PitchWars prep, I've been doing a lot of peripheral creation. Mostly with imagery. Which has been fun. I've gotten a much firmer handle on GIF usage, image curation and the like. I've created traditional art for Liadan in the past, utilizing illustration skills and testing out some different styles, but I'd never really toyed with cultivating a mixed media presentation of sorts. It's sort of fascinating actually, this mesh of words and images and tiny video clips that helps sell the story you're trying to explain.

 I've done a couple portraits of Liadan. One in a more illustrative style and one with more realism. The one on the left is a version of her that's older (around 14) while the one on the right I conceived closer to her age in A Matter of Mummies. I like both of them for different reasons and more importantly they helped me sort out her appearance and personality.

 Novel aesthetics are this sort of phenomenon that's emerged from the digital age of stock photos, screenshots and the millions of images available via search engines combined with free, easy to use image editing software. I've used one of them, but I prefer using Gimp. It's also free but it has a more Photoshop like feel.
 It's actually been really helpful for me, much in the way the portraits were. It made me focus on the atmosphere of my book and I even ended up adding in some descriptions I'd glossed over because I had a more definite idea of certain buildings.

I even learned about a new painter, which always makes me happy, and started working on Liadan's aesthetic for potential future books. In historical fiction, clothes can be everything. Liadan's disdain for hats I knew, but getting to look at extant garments for the era gave me ideas about what Liadan would look like a little older. What she'd wear, how she'd walk and sit and exist in space.

Images can be incredibly powerful and when you can combine art and words together it can spark new ideas and new creative venues. It certainly helped breathe new life into my creative process. So if I get nothing else out of PitchWars (and I've already made some new friends!) it's definitely been worth it.

Good luck to the mentee hopefuls and happy reading to the mentors!