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Growing as a writer

I have to say, it is really, truly rewarding to see myself grow as a writer. And not always in the ways I'd expected.

Once upon a time, I thought revising meant using spell check and fixing punctuation. I slowly learned that's not the case, and eventually came to understand the basics. Through revising THE JETSETTER'S SOCIAL CLUB, that ill-fated novel that got me my first (and second) agent, I learned about audience, about conflicts, about dialogue tags, about how to say what you mean in six words instead of ten.

Through revising PRADA & PREJUDICE, I learned about story arcs and tension. While revising YOU WISH, I've learned about plotting, bringing each story arc together at the same moment.

At some point, I really thought all these things I was learning was going to make my first drafts better. I imagined myself penning a masterpiece, lightly revising, and consdering it fit for the world.

I've come to realize it's the opposite. The firmer my grasp becomes on this whole writing thing, the more aware of flaws I am. Instead of finishing the first draft and thinking I just have one or two things to do, I have a laundry list of things to fix. There was a time I could share a first draft and get valuable feedback. Now, I see *SO* many holes in my drafts that i know I must fix them before sending them off for feedback. I mean, would you slap paint on your house in various, random spots and then ask someone what they think of the paint job? Probably not.

I don't know I've I'll ever become a better writer. But I know I've become a better reviser. And you know what? I'd rather be a really crappy writer and a fantastic reviser than vice versa.

My point? Try not to get down about your first, second, or third draft. Know that writing is a process, not something that just happens. If you can just get to the finish line on that first draft, you'll have something to work with. Something to build and sculpt and perfect.

Resist the urge to write and then just delete everything you wrote becuase it's not good enough. First drafts don't have to be good. They just have to be *THERE*.

Writing and publishing a novel: Part Four

When last we left off, you had a killer idea, and you had your character(s) figured out, and then you finally went and wrote the book.  

But just because you typed "THE END" does not mean your job is done. No, far from it. It's time to revise.

And trust me when i say this: EVERY. SINGLE. PUBLISHED. AUTHOR. REVISES. Every single one of us. So if you're hoping to get published, then you'd best get used to this step in the process. It's the only way to succeed! 

Most people know I'm a reviser. I don't write shiny novels, I revise really crappy novels into shiny  novels. It has taken me quite some time to figure out a good way to approach revisions. I used to just sit down with my novel and start revising and fixing things as I went, but it was a kind of hodge-podge approach.

Here's why it didn't work. Let's say you're cleaning your house. You start out by grabbing the hairbrush you left on the coutner and you go to put it in the bathroom but then while in the bathroom decide to brush your teeth and then when you're done and looking in the mirror you realize that your shirt has toothpaste on it and so you go to change and while in your bedroomm you decide to fold the laundry sitting on the bed and watch TV at the same time but halfway through you get sucked into the TV and forget about the house.

Yeah, I used to revise like that. You start out reading and get distracted by chapter three, and you spend all kinds of time perfecting chapter three and then when you get to chapter 7 you realize that Chapter 3 doesn't work at all, and you have to go delete it.

There's a better way to approach revisions. I call it the "Make it look a lot worse before it can get better" approach. 

SKIP line editing. Completely. Instead, Read-thru your novel once, and DO NOT CHANGE A SINGLE THING. Instead, TYPE IN YOUR THOUGHTS as you go, either with big ****INSERT THIS HERE***** type, or highlight your comments in yellow, or something like that, so its easy to find. I prefer doing the *** thing, becuase then you can use the search function and find your comments, rather than scanning the whole draft.

The goal here is to just make note of what you're thinking as you read. It's very easy to get lost once you start changing stuff. But if you can NOT change anything but rather, just get your thoughts down in an easy to use manner, it'll be a huge difference.

It's sort of a forest for the trees kind of deal. While you are reading and just typing thoughts, it's easier to keep your ideas straight. But once you delve into line editing things and writing new lines, your mind is no longer on the overall picture but on the small details.

Some things I have been known to write in my manuscripts:

**INSERT WITTY DIALOG HERE. H/h have not been in the same scene for three chapters now...put them together.*
** Too much whinienss for the last dozen pages. Give her something to do.**
**What happened to the best friend? Haven't seen her in five chapters. Give her some face time.**
**Would she really do that? Maybe think of a way to have her react that fits her character better.**
**Tension just took a seroius downturn. Redo this scene to bring it back up.... I could walk away right now and not even care.***
**BLAH. This dialog sucks.***
***Expand this scene... no detail, not enough meat.***

So, you see, once you have written yourelf a bunch of lovely comments, you can go back through and actually do that.

You're no longer revising the whole novel, but you're approaching the changes one comment at a time. Like a to-do list is buried right there in your novel, and you just have to follow it.

Start over again at the beginning, and start reading. When you get to your lovely *** marks, tackle that scene with gusto, focusing on how to really make it better.

By the time you get to the end of the manuscript, you'll have a ton of great changes. Then you can start the line-editing stuff.

Part three in "Writing and Publishing  Novel" is all about how to actually write your book. 

When last we left off, you had a killer idea, and you had your character(s) figured out. Now you just have to write it. Easy peasy, right?

I am SO amazed at how many people ask "how" to write a novel. They find out I'm a writer and they look right at me and they say, "How did you write a book?"

I mean, I sat down at the computer and started writing words and they became a story. But that's apparently too obvious. I think they'd be more impressed if I explained a complext system of spreadsheets and color-coded index cards.

I think what they are really asking is this: How do you get started and stay motivated when you know you have 200+ more pages to write?

I'm not gonna lie. It helps that I write quickly. If it took me a year+ to write a novel, maybe my tips would be different. Instead it takes me 8-12 weeks for a rough draft.

In the beginning, I'm in love, toatlly enamored by this fabulous idea, and the first 10,000-15,000 words pour out. But then it turns into a grind, and I push myself through to the middle.

But then I get to the middle and the enthusiasm wanes, and I can spend a few days opening the word document but not writing. Instead i play on twitter and refresh my email.

Maybe this is what writer's block is. I don't really understand writer's block. Is it supposed ot mean that you're just totally stuck and can't move forward?

When I feel myself losing interest, I just force through it. Basically, I just choose any scene that sounds interesting-- even if its the climax or the ending--and I start writin git. I can write five or six of those. But watching the word count grow gets the momentum back. Then I start filling in the blanks, teh stuff I skipped.

Usually, in the end, I delete most of those scenes I skipped ahead for. They generally don't fit anymore, sincne i"m not a big plotter and the story changes as I go. But the fact that I got moving again and the story began to flow makes it worth it.

The thing about rough drafts is they are meant to be rough. I can't stress this enough, but You can not fix a blank page. If you have words on it, then you have something to work with. Just write the freakin first draft and stop worrying about how much it sucks. Do you think when someone is making a scuplture-- let's say a bust-- that they start out perfecting the nose before they even have the rest of the head carved out? There is on reason for you to dawdle on one chapter or another.

Just sit down and type. Move your fingers on the keyboard. Fill the white space with words. If you have no idea where you are going, just type nonsense. Bad dialogue, long scenery descriptions, and mechanical day to day motions. Eventually you'll find your story.

So what does BICHOK mean?

BUTT IN CHAIR, HANDS ON KEYBOARD. It's the only way to get the thing written!



( If you haven’t already,  read Part I: The Idea)


There are people out there who come up with characters first and then have to come up with a hook or story for those characters. I am not one of those people. And if you already have a character in mind, you probably don’t need this entry.


My process goes like this: Think up a big hook (IE, send a girl back in time) create a character (15 year old clumsy geek girl) and then think up the plot based on that character (gets stuck in 1815, meets a slew of new people, must solve their problems to get back to the 21st century).


So let’s pretend you’re like me. You have your BIG*AMAZING*IDEA, and you’re ready to write it, but you don’t know who you’re writing about.


The best thing you can do is look at your hook/concept, and then ask yourself: What kind of a person could I throw into this story that would create the most conflict?


Let’s use one of the television shows I mentioned last week: Veronica Mars. In this show, VM is the daughter of a private-eye, and she herself makes a little cash by solving her classmate’s problems. She figures out who is cheating on tests, who is stealing people’s stuff, and who is cheating on their boyfriends. It makes sense that she would be a character driven for the need for answers, and she doesn’t stop until she has them. So what did the writers do? They gave her a murdered BFF. The entire season, she is haunted by the one question with no answer: Who Dunnit?


Let’s use a second example from last week, one I made up: A fancy, elite boarding school somehow erroneously let’s in a whole slew of underachievers who wouldn’t know a Prada from a payless.


So what kind of character would you throw in there? Who do you want to focus on? Decide first who has most at stake: Is it the rich girl who has reined supreme for the last 3 years—and whose entire existence is being turned into a joke—or is it the classic low-income slacker who just wound up at a fancy prep academy?


 Either one would work, but let’s say you go with the slacker. Now you’ve got to decide on the background and details of this person. Is she happy being a slacker, or does she aspire to greater things? Let’s say she loves coasting along, taking the easiest classes, barely getting by. But would she still be happy if Miss Queen bee snubs her nose at her—or does she hate everything QB stands for—enough that she’d change her ways?


You can quickly see how putting the right character into your story becomes the driving force for the plot line. Sometimes going to one extreme or another will give you plenty of fodder to fill 200+ pages.


Its your character’s story arc which is going to cause the plot to climax, so put some thought into what kind of a person will give you enough to work with.


Next week we’ll go over my tips for getting the first draft down. You’ve got what you need in your idea and your characters, so how do you get it written? And what does BICHOC mean?

Stay tuned!

How to Write and Publish a Novel: Part One

I've decided for the next few weeks that it might be fun to bring everyone through the process of writing and publishing- from getting the idea, writing the first draft, revising, querying, going on submissions via your agent, what to expect from your editor, etc.

So, first up: Part One-- The Idea.

Some people have tons and tons of ideas. I have something like 35 of them on a list on my computer. Most of them will never see thel ight of day. Sometimes ideas come from nowhere, but mostly, it comes from actively brainstorming.

So let's say you are looking for the next great idea. There are a few techniques you can use to find a good hook. Trust me, you want a good hook, as that's what will, well, hook an agent.

A few prompts:

*Read some newspapers, find a crazy story, and fictionalize it. 

*Come up with a character who has dreamt of something forever-- and then give it to her

*Go to wikipedia and type in fairy tales, monsters, myths, tragedies.... and keep clicking from one page to the next.

*Read a book on historical scandals. SO much opportunity there.

*Take a classic book (*COUGH*Pride and Prejudice*COUGH) and modernize it. Try to steer clear of the overdone ones like Cinderella-- unless you've got a super modern twist. Shakespeare works too.

*Think about yoru favorite TV shows-- Ally Carter came up with her NYT bestselling Gallagher Girls series about teens at a boarding school for spies because she was watching Alias. What about the other big shows- LOST could inspire a book about a group of teens lost on an island or in the wilderness. THE OC could inspire you to write about a guy from the wrong side of teh tracks woh gets a scholarship to a fancy boarding school.... Veronica Mars could inspire you to write about a teen who works as  PI. The list is endless.

*Take a common truth and twist it. Take, for instance, HANCOCK. They reinvented the superhero flick becuase in this one, Hancock is a jerk and no one wants his help, because he causes too much damage when he rescues people. What else is popular in fiction right now? Vampires? Great. Make them pimply faced losers instead of gods. Zombies? Awesome. How about the brain eating thing is an unfortunate myth and they're actually vegetarians, and they eat so much lettuce it's turned them green? How about the elite boarding school cliche? What if there was a glitch in admissions and they let in a whole pack of people who don't belong there-- but there are so many of they turn the social ladder upside down?

So, there ya go. A few ways to develop an idea. Up next: Characters.

Liesa Abrams on HIGH CONCEPT

 Liesa Abrams, of Aladdin Mix / Simon & Schuster, had a lot of great ideas and examples of ways to come up with high concept ideas. She spent several years at Alloy, who comes up with very high-concept books, so she had a lot of insight into how THEY come up with ideas to package, and she shared that. People are always asking me about the same topic, since all my books tend to have hooks. 

So, here goes:

1) News stories. At Alloy, they  had to take clippings of papers whenver something interesting would happen, and then they'd all come in with these stories and talk about how they could become a fictional story.  BREATHE MY NAME, by RA Nelson, (not an ALLOY book) was born this way. Nelson saw a story about a woman who drown all her kids. So he thought....what if you were a survivor of that? But that's not the story. That's the backstory. To get the hook and the story, he added to that-- in BREATHE MY NAME, the survivor-girl receives a note from her mother that just says, "We're not finished yet". That's it. So she launches a cross-country road trip to find her mom and find out what the note means. 

So, start watching for interesting news stories, and then think outside the box about how that could become your backstory for something really amazing. 

2) Something from your childhood. The editor who came up with SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, once had a pair of jeans that fit her and her two freinds, and they shared it. They weren't magical or anything, but it was a tiny grain of an idea that could be expanded upon. The pants became "magical" in that they fit four VERY different girls. You'll still need the story line and the adventure, but you have the hook-- and that's where it can become high-concept. 

So brainstorm what seems like random things, and develop it into something bigger than life. 

3) TITLES. Liesa mentioned that one day, very tired and out of it, she was staring at her hands and thinking about fingerprints and how unusual they were. And then she thought....FINGERPRINTS. That would be a cool title. But what kind of book would it be? They ended  up developing it into a story in which a girl could touch fingerprints left behind and use that for pyschic powers about the person who left it. I've done something similar-- come up with a title first. GETTING CAUGHT came to me while listening to a Sara Mclaughlin song, FALLEN, and a line said, "I got caught up in all there was to offer...." And I thought, wow, what YA book ISN"T about getting caught up in something?

And then I thoguht...wow, Getting Caught, that would be a great title. But Getting Caught isn't really about getting caught up in something, it sounds more like, red-handed, getting caught. like Pranks. And then GETTING CAUGHT was born, about two high-schoolers in a prank war that won't end until one of them gets caught. 

While writing this, I was also thinking of song titles and lines, how they can become story ideas. For some reason Kelly Clarkson's song MISS INDEPENDANT came to mind, and I thought, how would that become a story? What if the girl is independant because her mom ran away or something and left her to fend for herself? What if she's secretly paying the rent with her part-time job, and no one knows she's living all alone in some ramshackle place, hoping she turns 18 before anyone catches on? And what if someone DOES catch on?  

[ETA] I forgot two more tips!!: 

4) Taking anything successsful in the adult world, whether it be a movie, a television show, etc, and turning it into a YA fic. She gave the example of Sweet Valley High, which was developed based on the TV series DALLAS. I've never seen the show so I have no idea how that relates to the books, but there you have it. Also, I'd TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I HAVE TO KILL YOU, I know, was developed after Ally Carter was watching ALIAS and was thinking to herself, "where did this girl learn to kick butt? Did she go to spy school? And if she did go to spy school, what was that like?" and so her book, Love you Kill you, (on the NYT bestseller list!!) was born. 

5) Make someone's dream come true. Think of your audience and the type of thing they would fantasize about. Harry Potter who felt lonely and unworthy, wanted to be special. So JK Rowling made his biggest dreams come true: not only did he have a great adventure, he found out he was special. THE BEST. in PRINCESS DIARIES, Meg Cabot takes one of the biggest dreams of YA's (being a princess) and makes it happen. Take someone's wish and make it your hook!

So, Do you see how a simple phrase or title or idea can quickly become a high-concept idea? They don't write themselves, and they don't come to you fully developed as an idea or hook.... but if you're open to them, they're EVERYWHERE. You jsut have to find the one you want to write.
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