Sunday, 27 January 2013

On Completing a First Draft

This will be me for the next few weeks as I whip out my editorial lightsaber and set to work on my MS, hacking and slicing and hopefully not severing any vital limbs. Because of course I have an editorial lightsaber. (I do not have an editorial lightsaber.)

But that's right - this means that the first draft of my new MS is complete.

This MS has been so far out of my comfort zone that it's taken me a lot longer to complete this draft than any other manuscript to date. It's been...*counts fingers* about 6 months. In that time I've changed the POV, completely reworked my characters, fixed lots of significant plot details, and changed the title about 4 times (this happened early on because I hate not having an 'official' WIP title.) Next time, I'm going easier on myself. (Yeah, right.)

What a first draft looks like for me

  • Full of plot holes the size of moon craters. If a new plot thread occurs to me several chapters after the point where I should have introduced it, I won't necessarily go back and write that in when I'm trudging through a first draft - I'll make a handwritten note to 'go back to ch14 and add in the bit where Miss Schwarz says something creepy about Sky knowing where her missing son might be', and then continue writing as though that's already been added in. The joining and smoothing out of the new thread will happen in the next draft.
  • One hot mess of cliches. The reason things like the waking up intro or the awkward girl moves to new town plot device or the hot new boy walks into class scene have become cliche is because they have been proven to work. That intro puts you right into the MC's head. That plot device lets you throw in the conflict right away. That hot new boy scene lets you see him through the MC's eyes. BUT, they're cliches. I don't want my writing to be riddled with the same things other writers have used over and over and over again. So these will also be given some stern treatment during editing.
  • The black hole of adverbs, clunk, and other no-nos for slick writing. Some I'll catch when I'm editing, some my CPs will school me on, and some will inevitably make it through the editing gauntlet to be face-palmed over later.

Next comes the part most writers groan about: the dreaded revisions. But for me, editing is a relief. This MS is a complete thing now, no matter what I do to it, so there's a certain freedom in that. I'm allowed to step back, squint at it critically, and push it around like a mean Jedi.

Then I'll run back to it with bandages and lollipops and promise never to be mean again if it will just play nicely and be good.

So between now and my beta deadline in a couple of weeks, that's what I'll be doing. Wish me luck!

What do your first drafts look like? Got any wicked techniques that might help me with my editing? PLEASE TO SHARE.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Breaking up with a CP

"It's not you, it's me..."

I made a comment about this on a recent (and brilliant) post over at Dahlia's blog, and I've kind of been meaning to write some more about it ever since then. There's a lot of advice out there about how to find critique partners. There are some fantastic forums, including CP Seek, and Authoress Anon hosted a CP match-up not so long ago (info here).

These are extraordinarily helpful things.

But there's not so much written about what you should do if you have a CP who just. doesn't. help.

I've got an amazing bunch of CPs. They get me, my sense of humour, and tell me to STFU and work when I'm faffing around on twitter during Writing Time. And when they're critiquing my work, they know exactly what type of feedback I'm looking for, and spot the things I'd miss in my own editing. They are BRILLIANT that way. They enjoy my stories, too, which kind of helps.

But they don't stroke my hair and tell me everything I write is pretty and perfect. In fact, what they tell me sometimes stings like a mofo. This is what I need so that I can improve as a writer.

However, you don't always find this with every writer you swap critiques with. Sometimes, you don't gel. Maybe they pick at things that you actually know you're doing right. Maybe they hate the MC you love, and it's just because. Or maybe you've read their work and realised, actually, our styles are so different, I just don't see this working out.

Maybe this CP makes you feel like you just watched someone smack your child, and then expected you to thank them for it. (Yes, I have felt like that. No, I do not have children, so it's probably not a valid comparison.)

Then comes the awkward part: The Break-Up.

There are a couple of ways you can deal with this. My preference is the first one, because I'm not that big on confrontation.

  1. Avoidance. Politely swerve the next time you're due to exchange MSs. This is the chicken's way out, but is minutely less awkward than #2.
  2. The Dear John email. This really only works immediately after you've received their critique (by which I mean within a week, not minutes, or it'll look like knee-jerk peevishness). Leave it too long, and you look like a brooding psycho. So, time it right, and nicely explain why their critique wasn't working for you (less is more here - think "we're not on the same page with where I want to take my MS" rather than "your ideas SUCK") and be sure to thank them for taking the time to critique for you.
Both these avenues are pretty squirmy, but if you find yourself with a CP who leaves you feeling like you want to kick something - repeatedly - then you really need to cut the ties. But there is a way you can avoid getting into this situation in the first place.

Start small. 

Maybe you don't exchange MSs right away. Maybe you only exchange query letters or the first chapter, and make it clear beforehand that if either of you doesn't feel it's a good match, you (virtually) shake hands and walk away with no hard feelings. Much, much easier at this point than after you've laid out your darling before them and watched them tear it apart. 

Even if you're in the situation where you've been CPs for a long time, if either of you consistently feels like they've been beaten up after receiving a critique, after a little while you won't be friends any more. It's tough, but it happens. 

So isn't it better to be a supportive friend than a harsh critic?

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Writer, Name Thyself

Most people are given a name when they're born, and that's the one they live with forever. Maybe some will change it once - for instance, if they get married - but that's pretty much it. The only choices they'll have, in terms of names, will be what to name their kids and pets.

Writers, on the other hand, get the chance to name things all the time - themselves included. But do writers always make the best choices when naming themselves?

Think about your twitter handle. If your name is something like James Smith or *cough* Kat Ellis, that's going to make choosing a handle close to your name pretty difficult (trust me, I tried really hard*).

Maybe you have the bright idea, "I'll use my book title as my handle!" You're now known as @BrowniesTasteBad on twitter. The thing is, if you're at the query stage with this novel, what are you going to do if this is not The One, and you have to move on to something else?

Or even if you've published Brownies Taste Bad, what will you do when you write your next novel, Jodie's Toyshop? Jodie features no brownies at all, so people who are reading that and not Brownies Taste Bad aren't going to have a clue what your handle means. If they're searching for you by your name on twitter, you're not likely to stand out to the Jodie-fan among the reams of James Smiths if you have a randomly weird handle. What will you do, keep changing your handle every time you write a new book?

If you want to be found on twitter (and that's kind of the point, right?) that will happen more easily if people can tell who you are.

Your blog. Calling it 'The Writer's Right to Write' might seem cute at the time you set it up, but guess what? When I get your posts sent to my phone, I haven't got a clue who wrote it. And more often than not, I'm going to unsubscribe.

Have you ever googled yourself? Is your blog the first thing that pops up? If not, chances are other people who are looking for you online won't find your blog either, unless they go via your twitter account...but wait, if you're called @BrowniesTasteBad on twitter, and your blog doesn't have your name on it either...oh.

The genre switch. Written a YA thriller? Cool. But now you want to write a completely different genre - let's say it's an adult historical romance. Should you use the same name to publish both books?

Well, of course it's down to personal choice. The thing you might want to consider is: who's picking up your new book? If it's a fan of your earlier YA thriller, and they're expecting more of the same because your books have been shelved together and have the same author's name on the cover, they're going to be kind of WTF? about it. When someone begins your book with an expectation that a boy wizard is going to show up because that's what you've written about before, then your new book - no matter its standalone merits - is going to be disappointing. Because basically, you haven't let it be a standalone.

And of course I'm going to go there - if you switch from writing pretty much any category or genre to writing erotica, do you want someone to read it without knowing the type of content to expect?

I'm not getting into the argument of whether YA novels should contain graphic sex (that would be another long, ranty post), but if you're a YA writer who decides to publish books with very graphic sexual or violent content, FCOL pick another name to publish it under. Or even just add a middle initial. Something that will let people know that it's not another YA novel, to be shelved as such. As much as readers - teens included - have a choice about whether to read 'adult' content, they also have a right to fair warning before they do.

So, how did you choose your writerly names? Any regrets? 

*When choosing my own twitter handle, I had a choice between @KatEllisWrites (which in retrospect wouldn't have been that bad), @KatEllis4 (who really wants to be number 4?) or @KatREllis (which just looks weird). So I stuck with @El_Kat, which I think sounds vaguely like hellcat, and it's short. SO.

Friday, 11 January 2013

5 Tips for Avoiding Query PTSD

While querying is massively exciting, it is equally (or more, depending on who you ask) stressful. Lots of writers leave the query trenches feeling wrung out, and to some extent, there's no avoiding that. But there are a few practical things you can do to make your time in the trenches a leeeetle less likely to scar.

#1 - First things first: before you send out a single query, get yourself a brand spanking new email account JUST for querying. The reason for this is that as soon as you hit send, you're going to become obsessed with checking this email account, and you don't want emails from your Aunt Stacey or the latest offers from your local supermarket making that Inbox (1) indicator give you unnecessary heart palpitations.

#2 - Got your email account set up and hooked up to your phone? Great. Now you can stop frantically hitting refresh on your laptop. BUT, make sure you give your query email account its own ringtone. Again, you don't want to start plotting Aunt Stacey's demise simply because her emails SOUND exactly like Amazing Agent X's emails. Also, probably best not to pick something freaky as your query email ringtone (a good friend had the Jaws theme tune as hers) because it's only going to add to your freak-outedness. You might want to avoid choosing one of your favourite songs, too - let's face it, you're going to end up associating it with abject terror.

#3 - Use a system like Query Tracker or your own spreadsheet-type thing to keep track of whom you query, when, and what their expected response time will be. Also make a note of whether 'no response means no' or when you are supposed to politely nudge if you haven't had a response to your query by a certain date. Bring order to chaos, my friend. Order to chaos.

#4 - Make friends/become CPs with writers in other time zones. The reason this is useful is that a) they can let you know if Amazing Agent X tweeted about reading a FABULOUS submission which sounded JUST LIKE YOURS while you were sleeping, and b) if you decide to enter query contests with submission windows at certain times when you're sleeping/working, they can often enter for you! (Yes, I'd advise checking the rules about this for individual contests, but I've seen this done a lot.) You might actually get a little more sleep this way. 

BTW, if you're looking for CPs, CP Seek is a great place to find them.

#5 - DON'T send out shotgun queries until/unless you've had positive responses from AGENTS. Your CPs and online critique forums are massively helpful in terms of getting your query and sample chapters ready, but if you send it out to 50 agents right away and THEN realise it's not quite there yet, you've pretty much blown your chances with 50 agents. 

I'd suggest sending out 5 or 6 at a time, waiting a couple of weeks, sending out a few more. This way, you'll stagger the response times, and by the time the first 6-week window is up (lots of agents give 6 weeks as a guideline for response times) you'll have some idea of whether the query is working or not. By 'working' I mean either getting a request (of course, and YAY!) or getting a positive rejection - where the agent might praise your writing, but offer the immortal words "it's just not for me". Then you can either send out more queries, or revise your query/MS if you need to. 

Happy querying!

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Gotta Love a Bad Boy

I do love 'em, it's true. Whether I'm watching Ian Smoulder - uh, I mean Somerhalder - as Damon on TVD, or reading about one of the many lovable rogues in YA novels, bad boys will always be my favourite characters.

The 'bad boy' classification is thrown around for quite different character types. You have the troublemaker, the broody control freak, the hardass, the wiseguy - but under it all, there has to be something redeeming. Right? Otherwise they're basically just a douche, and nobody wants to cross that line from dark, sexy bad boy to... well, douche.

And that doesn't mean they can't have done truly terrible, awful things. Look at Damon or Klaus from TVD, for example - got a soft spot for either of them? Hmm? They've both brutally murdered shiz-tons of people, including characters the MC (and the reader/viewer, depending on your medium of choice) cares about. They're both waaaay older than most people's grandparents. I mean, the fact that they look young and hot is kind of irrelevant. They're still old men who prey - literally - on schoolgirls. Yet we love them, and other graduates of the School of Bad Boyism.

How about Cole from Maggie Stiefvater's FOREVER? He's a gifted musician who chooses to live as a wolf after becoming overwhelmed by the sleazier aspects of fame and drug addiction. Dark, charismatic, deeply teenage self just swooned.

Then there's the likes of Christophe from Lili St Crow's STRANGE ANGELS series. Another older-guy-in-hot-young-body situation here, not to mention the slight abuse of power as he becomes involved in a love triangle with his mentee and her wolfboy sorta-kinda-boyfriend. Same goes for Dmitri in Richelle Mead's VAMPIRE ACADEMY series - and why the heck did Dmitri become so much hotter when he turned strigoi??

As much as a bad boy needs some redeeming quality (even if it's just that he's got a wicked sense of humour), these are still the boys we wouldn't want to date IRL. At least we wouldn't introduce one to our parents. So why do they appeal so much in YA novels? And yes, I'm only talking about YA, although there are so many I could mention in adult novels. Raphael from Nalini Singh's GUILD HUNTER novels, anyone?? Mmhmm.

The reason I'm focusing on YA is because I get to look at the YA bad boys from both angles. No, not like that. I love to write from a male POV, and my male MCs tend to be - you guessed it - bad boys.

So why do I love bad boys? Why do others love them?

Now here's an out-there theory for you: there are only 2 fundamental character arcs a reader will sympathise with. Either the weak becomes strong, or the bad becomes good. And a well-written bad boy can be either of these.

So, got any thoughts on what makes a great bad boy? Favourites you'd like to share? Want to tear my theory of sympathetic character arcs apart?? Please do!