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The Post of General Advice

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Kat Zhang

Kat ZhangIt’s a little crazy to think that the last book in the Hybrid Chronicles will be releasing in less than a month. Has it really been that long since I was sending out queries for What’s Left of Me (then Hybrid) and refreshing my email every three seconds?

Sometimes, it honestly doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. I can’t even remember how I got started learning about the industry—probably the internet! I do recall reading a ton of writing books, and getting the print version of the guide to literary agents or whatever it was called, and writing down names that represented YA.

Back when I was querying my very first novel (the one I wrote before What’s Left of Me), I only sent queries by snail mail. I think there was something concrete and business-like about typing, printing, and addressing a letter that appealed to me. After all, I’d been chasing this publication dream since I was twelve, but it had always been an nebulous thing. Putting stamps on envelopes…sending them off to NYC…it felt legitimate. I think I probably queried about ten or twelve agents, which felt like a lot at the time!

Unfortunately, none of those SASEs included came back with a positive answer ;) Fortunately, I had read enough advice online (I think my main resources back then were QueryShark and Miss Snark) to know I should bunker down and write another book while waiting for query replies. That book was What’s Left of Me, and it all went on from there!

Publishing is a big world, and a lot of it really can only be learned through experience. There’s a wealth of information, to be sure, but some is outdated, and much is a matter of opinion. It was easy for me to get lost in the minutia (1-inch margins!) rather than try to figure out the whole beast of a thing. However, there’s something to be said for good advice, too.

I get a lot of emails asking for advice for just-starting-out-hey-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-to-publish-a-book writers. Here’s a list of my tips. It will probably be too basic for a lot of you out there further along on the publishing road, but hey, we all started out in the same place! Hope it’s helpful for someone :)

Advice for Aspiring Writers

1. Finish the book. If you’ve already accomplished this, hooray! But if you haven’t, don’t underestimate the difference this makes. It’s one thing to write a lot of nice scenes. Another thing entirely to craft a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end.

2. Read in your genre.  I have to confess that while I was writing What’s Left of Me, I was too mired in high school reading to read for fun (sacrilege, I know), so I was really out of the YA-loop as well. But I’d lived YA books for all of middle school, so I suppose there was that :P

But seriously, in hindsight, I would tell myself to read more in the genre. Not only does it let you know if the “shiny, original” idea you have isn’t actually that shiny, it lets you know how other people have written stories similar to your own. I don’t believe that reading in a genre, knowing the “usual structure” (or, to be more blunt, “cliches/rules”) of a genre means you’re going to fall into the same. Know the rules so you can break them, right?

3. Set goals—but you-driven goals. That means, you don’t tell yourself “My goal is to get published in the next year.” Because honestly, that’s not something you can control. You might work really hard, and write a great book, but it doesn’t get in front of the right people, or does so at the wrong time. Rather, set goals that are under your own control: “I will finish my book this year” or “I will start querying in April.”

4. Know the industry…but try not to kill yourself stressing about it. I worked as an intern for a literary agent for about a year, and read a lot of both queries and manuscripts during that time. People give a lot of “rules” about queries, but honestly, as long as you’re sending a few paragraphs that make the reader want to read your story, you’ve accomplished the point of a query. There are guidelines, of course, to be more professional about it, and I recommend reading a lot of samples and then showing your query to people (both who have and haven’t read your story). But try not to freak out too much. (I know, easier said than done!)

I could go on, but I promised just the highlights!

How about you? Do you have any advice for just-starting-out writers? Things you wish you’d known?

Kat Zhang loves traveling to places both real and fictional–the former allows for better souvenirs, but the latter allows for dragons, so it’s a tough pick. Her novel WHAT’S LEFT OF ME is about a girl struggling to survive in an alternate universe where people are born with two souls, and one is doomed to disappear. It is the first book in a trilogy and was published by HarperCollins in September of 2012.  Book 2, ONCE WE WERE, released September 2013, and Book 3, ECHOES OF US, will come out September 16, 2014. You can learn all about Kat at her site, or listen to her ramblings on twitter.

 

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Guest Post: Writing books or working pub?

Industry Life

by

Kerrie Byrne McCreadie

Kerrie McCreadie“But what are you going to do?”

Majoring in English always seemed to be a very puzzling thing for those around me. It took me five and a half years to finish my undergraduate degree, and I probably couldn’t count the number of times this question came up. I also couldn’t count the number of ways I’ve responded. Writer. Editor. Book publicist. Agent. Designer. All noble causes, all professions inhabited by creative and brilliant people. But somewhere, in answering that penetrating question—with all its strength of will in making me feel like my degree would be ultimately useless—I got lost in the possible options and forgot to think about the most important thing: what did I want to do in the first place?

You learn early that being a writer isn’t considered a “realistic” career. Going into editing, that can work. But writing, being an author, not so much. I’m still fairly certain that the Grade 11 Careers class I was forced to take (a Canadian rite of passage) existed just to tell me that my dream jobs (at the time: writer, musical theatre performer, etc.) were impractical, and that I was unreasonable.

I can still see my teacher rolling her eyes.

What they don’t tell you in Careers class is that it’s probably not that much more impossible to become a writer than it is to become an editor in this economic climate. Becoming a writer who creates a six-figure novel? Not so likely. But becoming a writer at all? It’s hard, it takes passion and dedication—but it does happen. And it isn’t really less possible than being an editor. But we’re told it is. We’re told as young writers that the publishing industry is the smarter, easier choice. Not only is that not necessarily true, but it also belittles the work done by the incredible, driven people in the industry. There are publishers who spend their entire lives making sure other peoples’ books do well. People who work in the industry are often ambitious and passionate and…well. Practically superhuman, in some cases.

But still, I really wanted to be an editor; and, admittedly, it wasn’t just because of Careers. I love editing, I love being the person who gets to polish something beautiful into something perfect. At this point I have a little more than year of experience in the Toronto publishing world. Not a lot. I’m a baby, and I know it—but it’s enough to get a peek. I worked as an intern at a small publisher, sorting through submissions and slush. At the same small publisher, I worked as a typesetter and graphic designer. This past summer I have been working as an assistant for the president of a literary agency. These have all been really rewarding experiences and I’ve learned a lot. Publishing is hard. There’s a lot on the line for everyone emotionally, mentally, and financially. Doing design on a fast-paced publishing schedule is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had so far, and seeing how agents function while they work is awe-inspiring. So many people in this industry work 17-18 hour days with hardly any weekends, just because they love it so much.

As I’m starting to grow into a publishing toddler, this experience has given me a pretty startling realization. I knew going into these internships that I wanted to write, that I always have wanted to write. But somewhere along the way I started letting my Careers teacher’s voice whisper in my ear. I am dedicated to continuing to educate myself on how to edit more thoroughly and how to design more beautifully. I’m just starting to get good enough to freelance reliably. But what I really want to focus on  at the moment is my writing.

It’s not to say that some people can’t balance both. I know some wonderful ladies and gents who pull off doing both with style. There is definitely value in being both a writer and involved in the industry, whether it gives you a greater understanding of what’s required of you to get yourself published or whether it lends you empathy towards your clients. But that life is only suited to some very specific people. I’ve met some ex-agents-turned-writers who realized that they loved their own work more than working on other peoples’, even if they ultimately loved doing both. And I know plenty of once-writers who seem to be leaning towards becoming editors.

Me? Somehow, coming out of all of this has ended a five-year novel writing block, and I’m happily typing away at a new project every spare moment I have. My industry experience helped me make some major life decisions, like moving on to grad school instead of going on to a publishing certificate without a single doubt. Doing this work now means I got the experience while I had as many doors open as possible. I’m able to acknowledge that just because I’m interested in industry work doesn’t mean I have to commit to it 100% now when I’m only 23. Even if my career advisor told me I should.

Besides, there are so many other things I can do with my English degree.

(Like getting a PhD!)

Kerrie Byrne McCreadie has dipped her toes/feet/shins/waist into the publishing world in various ways over the past few years, and thinks the whole industry is pretty fascinating. You can follow her on twitter, or find her on her brand new blog. She is currently writing a rather depressing fairy tale contemporary, and will thank anyone for holding her hand as she starts her PhD applications this fall.

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Revealing Backstory while Avoiding the Info-dump

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

JulieInfo-dump. Just the name of this writing misstep telegraphs that it’s something to be avoided. For purposes of this post, “info-dump” refers to a section of narration inserted into a story that explains important backstory essential to understanding the current action. Here’s an example:

“Marie!” Peter held her at arm’s length so he could look into the face he had feared he would never see again. “I can’t believe it’s you! Where have you been?”

Marie told Peter how she had been captured by the Slugs, a society of subterranean warriors. She had stumbled upon their home while spelunking in the abandoned mines north of town. The Slugs had come closer to the surface than they usually dared in search of a missing key that they believed a renegade Slug had carried to the surface. The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories. In the end they’d let her go, but only after she’d agreed to search out the Slug with the stolen key and return it to its rightful place underground. Before they let her go, though, they’d implanted a tracking device in her brain.

“See the scar?” Marie asked, pulling the hair back from behind her left ear.

An info-dump dropped right in the middle of things can hurt your story in many ways:

It stops the forward momentum. When I’m caught up in the midst of a great story, I want to be carried along toward the climax. An info-dump can interrupt that progress and slow things to a crawl.

It removes the reader from the world of the story. In the example above, the reader is pulled from the reunion scene between Marie and Peter, which, without the interruption, has the potential to be an emotionally strong scene.

It’s boring. The narrator takes over and resorts to “telling,” so instead of experiencing what happened to Marie, the reader learns it in a mini history lesson.

What can be done in a situation like this? Sometimes it’s not possible to “show” all the backstory. In this example, Peter may be the POV character, so the reader wouldn’t be able to know what was happening to Marie while she was suffering through her underground captivity. Still, this information is necessary to the story. The writer needs to find a way to share it without an info-dump.

Here are some techniques to consider:

Find ways to show some of the information, either at this point in the story or later. “The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories.” This is the kind of information that could be shown in a multitude of dynamic ways. It could be shown right here through her interactions with Peter, or it could be woven in a bit at a time, until the characters and readers come to understand what has happened to Marie. This would also work with the tracking device in Marie’s brain. A headache could introduce this information, integrating it into the current action.

Dialogue can be used to convey backstory. All the information in the info-dump paragraph above could be shared by Marie through dialogue, while the story continues. Imagine that, just as Peter encountered Marie at the start of this scene, he was hurrying to get to a meeting with a reclusive scientist, who, before his abrupt retirement a year ago, was the country’s foremost expert on subterranean societies. Peter’s need to hear Marie’s story while simultaneously needing to hurry to his meeting would add action to the scene, as he drags her to his car, blurts out a quick explanation of where they’re going, and tries to concentrate on Marie’s harrowing story while speeding through yellow stoplights and weaving through traffic to meet the professor in time.

Tell the backstory in one big chunk, but weave it into the narrative in a way that interests the characters and the reader. In this example, Marie could tell Peter and the other characters her story as they sit around a campfire at night, or as they hike through the woods toward the very same mines where she was captured. With this treatment, the backstory becomes a story-within-the-story, allowing the writer to build suspense and tension so that the backstory maintains the same level of complexity and interest as the current events that surround it. A story-within-a-story can also help with world-building, if the culture of your story has traditions in place for passing down history or sharing myths and legends, such as through sonnets or songs.

What are your thoughts on these techniques? Do you have any other methods for sharing important backstory? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

 ~~~

Julie Eshbaugh writes fiction for young adults. She is represented by Adams Literary. You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

 

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“Stealing” Careers

by

Alex Bracken

Alexandra Bracken

A few weeks ago, while bumming around on Tumblr, I came across a GIF set of Natalie Dormer (she of Tudors and Game of Thrones fame) answering the question: If you could steal someone else’s career, who would it be and why? I immediately searched on Youtube until I found the original video. Her answer is at the 0:15 second mark.

I’m including the video because I love her/she’s brilliant/she reminds me of a cat that lovingly leaves you murder presents, but for those of you who can’t watch, her answer is: “Never steal anyone else’s career. Want your own. Everything for a reason.” Her answer, though simple, has really stuck with me and has gone a long way in adjusting my thinking about my own writing career.

The most obvious application: I would like to step into this author’s shoes because they make a lot of money/win awards/can publish whatever they feel like. But we all know that appearances are deceiving and there’s generally a lot happening–both bad and good–behind the curtain we never get to see.

Another obvious application: career comparison. Thanks to social media, it’s now easier than ever to see how other books and authors are being marketed, what kind of “treatment” that they’re getting from their publisher, and how readers are responding to their book(s)–and, of course, since we’re human, it takes an iron will not to try to line up what your career and see how it stacks up. I’ve known from a young age that I have a competitive streak in me (for everything but sports, apparently–I quickly accepted I would Rather Not when it came to athletic activity), and it’s something I’ve worked on over the years to find a more zen center. And by that I mean seeing firsthand how a rising tide lifts all boats and redefining the “competition” to be a competition to push myself, to continually write better books, find that balance on social media, and so on.

But I boiled the question down in another context, too. Recently, one of my critique partners and I were having lunch and got around to discussing an author whose books we both love; the conversation turned to analyzing that author’s career–how many books s/he puts out a year, the content, the storytelling “formula” they seemed to love, and the seemingly rabid reader response. It was the first time in years that I felt a queasy sense of “Am I doing this wrong?” Am I writing the wrong kind of books? Should I adjust my writing style? Do I need to include more romance/more grit/more of xyz? Do I need to be cranking out more books each year? Should I be self-publishing some stories? Do I need to experiment with writing for a new age level?

Basically: is the way to achieve that author’s level of success to try to mimic their career?

On one hand, it sounds sort of terrible, right? Like you’re trying to Single White Female them a bit. I’m not talking general feelings of admiration and generally aspiring to be like an author whose work you love. I’m talkin’ stone cold analysis that involves actual research. As I was walking home, I realized one of the reasons why my brain got started on that loop was because of my marketing background. When a marketing department is given a new title to brainstorm and market, one of the very first things they do is “position” it within the marketplace. This is where all of those “It’s Downton Abbey meets Star Wars!” type statements come from. They’re zeroing in on a target audience to try to streamline outreach and identifying “comp titles” that are already out in the world. And, yes, they research and study the successes and failures of their competition’s marketing plans to see what works, what doesn’t, and how they can adapt it to suit their needs.

There’s certainly an element of being business savvy in studying other author’s careers, but to Natalie Dormer’s point, I think there’s always going to be something inherently poisonous in doing it. It’s one thing to hear about something they do for their readers and replicate it because you love it and think your readers will, too. (For instance, one of my favorite stories I’ve heard about a Big Time Author is that s/he keeps all fan mail, organizes it by city, and before going out on tour/doing an event, will re-read the mail from that city in case one of those readers come so they can talk on a more personal level.) When it comes to storytelling itself, though, it’s tempting to feel like you could recreate a formula and find that same success–but the truth of the matter is, for the truly successful authors, there always seems to be a bit of a “lightning” element. A little bit of luck. The right timing. Something in their writing voice/plotting/characters that’s just impossible for anyone else to reproduce. And, even if you could put your own small spin on it, are you depriving readers of something that’s uniquely you?

I feel like I’m talking in circles now, so I’ll turn it over to you guys–what do you think? Would you “steal” someone else’s career if you could?

Alex lives in New York City where she writes like a fiend and lives in a charming apartment overflowing with books. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The Darkest Minds and Never Fade. You can visit her online at her website, Tumblr, or Twitter.

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Dealing With Multiple Drafts During Revisions

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By

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy small RGB 72Sometimes a story goes through several drafts before you figure out the best way to tell it. Problem is, you often end up with multiple drafts, and there’s good writing in every one. Finding a way to piece together all the best parts and still make the story feel cohesive can be a challenge.

Here are some common trouble spots when dealing with multiple revisions, and some tips on how to handle them:

Your Darlings: Those Scenes You Love, but no Longer Work

In multiple drafts, it’s easy to have favorite moments you want to include, and you’ll probably work hard to get them to fit. But just because it’s a great scene doesn’t mean it’s great for the final draft. When I’m trying to fit a favorite bit into something I’m writing, the difficulty fitting it is a big red flag that it might not be the right scene for the book. Forcing a scene almost always ends with a big stumbling block for the reader as soon as they hit it. It doesn’t flow, it doesn’t quite make sense, it doesn’t really advance the story.

This doesn’t hold true for every tough bit to fit, and once in a while, I come up with a seriously cool way to make it work that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. But I’ll be honest and say this is rare. If you find yourself beating your head against a scene, it might be time to file it away and save it for another story.

  • Does it advance the core conflict or character arc in some way?
  • Does it offer new and relevant information?

That Looks Right, But: Leftover Information That’s no Longer Relevant

Another common snag in piecing together drafts is what I like to call revision smudge. Those bits that get left behind that reference something no longer in the novel. For example, you changed which character was in the scene with your protagonist, you changed the location, the goal shifted slightly or the stakes altered. Reading these scenes feel “right,” but when you look closely, you realize that part of the story is no longer there. That reference was cut, or changed, or was even moved to a new location.

  • Are there any leftover names or details that don’t belong?
  • Is anything referenced that is no longer there, or has changed?
  • Does the protagonist still want the same thing?
  • Are the stakes the same?
  • Does the antagonist still want the same things? Has their plan changed?
  • Are there extra characters that aren’t anywhere else now?
  • Is the information revealed new, or has it been added elsewhere?

Didn’t They Say That?: Information States in Multiple Scenes

Description and backstory are two more spots that can cause trouble. A scene that introduced a character in chapter one might now be in chapter five, and readers already know who they are. Do a search for each character’s name (or a key detail of backstory) and see what information you reveal first, then every other time that name/detail is mentioned. This can be time consuming, but you’ll know exactly where you say what about a character, and I’ve caught many a repetition this way.

  • Does anything sound familiar as your read? Has it been said elsewhere?
  • When is background information revealed?
  • Do readers have what they need when a character is first introduced?
  • Will readers understand early scenes based on the details revealed in those scenes?

Dress Rehearsal: Revise Chronologically to Ensure Everything Tracks

Revising chronologically also helps see the story as it unfolds, since you can easily flip back and double check details. And just having read it, the actual text will be fresh in your mind. This can also be helpful to find places where too much is happening on a single day, or what starts out at night ends up finishing in the early afternoon. Make an easy-to-check list of things you changed that need to be edited overall.

  • When is the first time critical information is revealed or stated?
  • When do important plot events happen?
  • How much time do scenes and actions take?
  • Is the timetable working and plausible?

Piecing together multiple drafts can be tricky, but a little pre-planning can save you a lot of time and effort.

Have you ever pieced together several drafts? Or tried to combine two story ideas into one? What pitfalls did you stumble into?

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

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