Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What's In Your Diaper Genie? Revisions: How to Get the Crap Out of Your Book

by Mindy McGinnis

I recently finished a massive revision. When I say revision I mean that I took a deep breath, popped the top on the Diaper Genie and dug in to try to figure out what was making everything stink so bad.

It's not easy to be critical of your own babies. But there also comes a time when we have to be realistic and acknowledge that fact that, hey - babies can stink. And there's usually a very good reason why the nursery doesn't smell as awesome as it did the day you brought brand new baby home.

Here are some tips for getting the crap out of your baby:

  • Take a good hard look at your plotting. Are you introducing major points a little late? Sure, you thought it would help build suspense and give a nice one-two punch combined with Plot Point #2, but are you sure you aren't just asking your readers to slog through 100 pages of backstory before they get some kibble?
  • Be realistic about what you're asking your reader to bring to the table. Yes, you know that what Character #1 said has some serious underlying implications, but of course you know - you planted them there. Make sure you're not asking your readers to dissect every little sentence in order to create Ooh and Aah moments later on. Sure, in retrospect it might make you look like a plotting genius, but if it's too vague it'll just look like you can't write organic dialogue.
  • Be realistic about what your reader is bringing to the table. It might seem like a counterpoint to #2, but it's not. Don't try to control every aspect of the scene in order to force the reader to visualize your character or setting exactly the way you do. You provide the canvas, but let them do the painting. Over-explanation and detailed information dumps about appearances and / or settings is just going to make them wonder if somebody else's watercolor might be easier to digest.
  • Filler smells bad. No, really. Anybody who just made the jump to solid foods can attest to this. There are plenty of words you simply don't need. My biggest offenders are just and that. Do a Ctrl+F on these words in your ms and then read the sentence aloud to yourself without those words. Nine times out of ten, you won't need them.
  • Duh. If you're writing in first person, little phrases like I see, I think, I feel are extraneous. For example, "I see my mom picking her nose over by the window." If this book / scene / chapter is from 1st POV, it's implied that the reader can only see it if the narrator does. "My mom is picking her nose over by the window." Look at that! You cut down your word count!
These are just a few of the problems I encountered when I looked back at a manuscript I finished years ago. Although, it seems I haven't learned much because I used the word "just" in the sentence right before this one. Pssttt! Read it again, leaving "just" out - see! It still makes sense!

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 9, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13 and The Lucky 13s. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An Open Letter to Debut Authors: Five Things to Consider

Dear Debut Author,

 A year ago, when I launched my debut novel , I told myself that I would throw myself into the next twelve months and do all I could with the resources I had to bring my babe into the world. It’s been a wild and crazy ride (as Steve Martin might say).  These past twelve months, I’ve felt emotions in concentrated, hyper-potent doses. I’ve been wistful, happy, and everything in between; seasoned by all the events and people I’ve met, mistakes and victories I’ve experienced. I’m both sober and inebriated. I have a long way to go, and much to learn, but I hope you’ll consider these five things as you step into your debut year.

Thing #1 – Delight, enjoy and celebrate your launch.  You’re a debut author once. That’s it. Embrace your accomplishment.  Give yourself time to breathe in your feelings of pride and happiness—yes—happiness!  If you have to disappear into your bedroom closet to shout, do it! Hug your old clothes. Spill your pent up tears. If you start blubbering with gratitude because a bird landed on your front walk, ride the sensation—sob away. Be a sentimentalist. Be melodramatic with joy. You’ve worked hard to achieve this, harder than most people will ever understand. 

Thing #2 – Pace yourself. You will reach stations of utter exhaustion, moments when you are overwhelmed, and confused. You will tell yourself not to complain. You will tell yourself: This is my dream, how can I stop pushing, doing, trying every day?  Well, here’s a silly joke:  

“Knock. Knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Human who?”

“Human who needs sleep. Human who needs routines. Human who needs healthy foods to function at debut author speed.”

Seriously. You will push harder than you thought you could. But, you will hit that wall of fatigue. You won’t know you’ve bumped into it until your head hurts and your mind is whizzing around Venus—hot and fiery. That’s when I’d like to suggest you take a break, a few days off to parent yourself.  Don’t worry. You’ll be back at it. You’ll book another reading; you’ll write another blog post, you’ll answer more q&a’s, but you must pause or you will burn up.  Your psyche will disintegrate. Respect the demands of your particular lifestyle, family and financial constraints. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good, who want the best for you.  You are the boss of your life.

Thing #3 – Beware of Goodreads Reviews. (Okay. Laugh.)  Every author I talked to forewarned me: “Goodreads is particularly nasty,” they said. “Not everyone will love your book.”  You will listen and nod and be grateful for the cautionary advice, but privately you will want to be that one exception.  You won’t be.  No one is. Not Dickens. Not Jane Austen. Not YOU.  You will get that cranky, stupid review, the one where a reader can’t or won’t understand your character, will refuse to understand why your book has swears or sex. My cheap advice?  Don’t engage. Let those nasty reviewers fade away. Most will. (You can always vent with fellow authors. They will happily vent with you.)

Thing #4 – Let surprises…surprise you.  A reader you’ve never met will fall in love with your book, rave about it, pass it on to his or her friends, blog about it, cheer you on Twitter and Facebook.  It’s not a fluke.  It’s what you hoped for but it will still come out of the blue, unexpected and thrilling. It’s one of the most wondrous events, a gift from heaven designed especially for authors.  Soak it in. 

Thing #5 – Do everything in your power not to compare yourself with other writers and their books.  Comparing is an animal that seeks out sink holes, swamps and depression.  You’ll follow it anyway. But keep a tight leash on it. Life is fickle. Readers and reviewers are inconsistent. But you can remain constant about yourself.  Don’t compare. Just don’t.

Now, return to Thing #1 - Delight, enjoy and celebrate your debut year.  Congratulations! 

Warm wishes and good luck!

Jessica Keener   
Author of Night Swim

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Ghost of Novels Past

by Barbara Claypole White 

Remember when Bill Murray’s character in Scrooged dropped to his knees and sang, “I’m alive”? Well, that’s how I feel. My second novel, Dancing At Dusk, landed on my editor’s desk twenty-four hours ago, and finally, I’m ready to enjoy my decorations and crack open the festive mood. I know, I know—it’s the second week of January, and we’re the only house in the neighborhood with a Christmas tree, but the writing life follows its own calendar.

My mind is still stuck on all things Christmas, and I’ve been wondering: If the ghost of my first novel were to turn up and take me back through the year, what would I learn?

You can write another book:
When I landed a two-book deal, I freaked. The idea that I had to produce a second novel in one year was terrifying to me, and eclipsed all joy. (The Unfinished Garden evolved over ten years.) While everyone else celebrated my publishing contract, I hyperventilated. I had one novel in the closet—a really bad one—and a ghost story in first draft that was not even close to being a sibling for my women’s fiction debut.

But with input from my agent and editor, I took the seed of that ghost story—dumped the ghost and my heroine—and started researching what would become Dancing at Dusk. And here I am, sniveling into my Kleenex because my new baby is all grown up and leaving home, and I miss my characters. (I love you, Will!)

Which is why you should…

Love what you write, write what you love:
Only one thing pulled me through the trauma of birthing my first novel: falling in love with my second.  Writing is hard work, and finding time to write while you’re promoting a novel is hell. Find the time. Even one hour locked away with your characters can help you breathe again.

You’ve got to have friends:
At the risk of sounding like a Randy Newman film score, you’ve got to have friends. Their excitement can pull you through the terror and the sleep deprivation. Three girlfriends threw a launch party for me—with a sleepover—and that was the only part of the launch that I enjoyed. Don’t assume you’re too busy for your friends. Get drunk with them or meet them for lunch on the weekends. It’ll make you feel like a normal person—with a life.

Ignore nasty reviews:
Believe everyone who tells you to ignore bad reviews. Yes, it’s totally shit that someone who got your novel for free and hated it couldn’t take the moral high road and think, “Thank God I didn’t pay for the damn thing.” Engaging with reviewers who don’t like your novel just empowers them to come after you in other venues. I can only repeat myself: You’ve got to have friends. Because they will listen to your angst, have a glass of wine with you, and help you cast voodoo spells.

Keep your writing partners:
Don’t walk away from your critique group. I could not have wrestled novel two into shape without brainstorming sessions with my writing partners. I’m also incredibly grateful to my five readers who provided excellent feedback on the second draft. Don’t assume your agent or editor is going to do everything, because…

Everything comes down to you:
I saw a direct correlation between my promotional activity and sales. For example, since my beloved hero in The Unfinished Garden is obsessive-compulsive, and my son has battled OCD for most of his life, I wrote a blog post during OCD Awareness Week. Twenty-four hours later, I hit the highest point ever in my rankings on Amazon.

You cannot, however, promote your novel 24 /7. Well, I guess you could, but you might end up in restraints. Figure out what you can do realistically—factoring in time and budget—and make it happen.

I had great coverage in the local press, but I worked hard for it. I will definitely do so again. I also hired TLC for a blog tour, which I plan to repeat, and I’ve earmarked promotional dollars for Author Buzz. My one big regret is that I didn’t have postcards printed for TUG. This is top of my to-do list for DAD. (I’ve watched my wiser Book Pregnant buddies use postcards with great results.)

Keep eyes wide-open at every stage, because…

Editing is in the details:
Double, triple, quadruple check. There was a glaring error on the back cover copy for The Unfinished Garden, and it had been up on Amazon for a least a month before I noticed. It took months to get fixed, and I lost way too much sleep fretting over one mistake. When the back cover copy came for Dancing At Dusk, I pored over it. Actually, I rewrote it with my editor’s help.

Before every stage of editing on DAD, I plan to reread the manuscript twice. Once isn’t enough. There are going to be mistakes, but you can limit them if you’re hyper-vigilant.

A while back, I read what would have been a wonderful novel, but I couldn’t enjoy it because every character ‘chuckled’ constantly. After a few chapters, all I could think was, “How come no one caught this?” Don’t let your novel be a chuckler.

If you have problems with the cover, say so:
It’s a fine dance figuring out how much control you have over the cover, but if something bothers you, speak up. No one will think badly of you for voicing an opinion. MIRA produced a wonderful cover for The Unfinished Garden, but there were a few tweaks along the way. And yes, some of those came from my input.

You need blurbs:
Don’t pussyfoot around saying, “Should I; shouldn’t I?” If you want a blurb from someone, ask. Worst-case scenario, he or she says no. Blurbs are super useful for promotion, and the bottom line is that every novel has them. Without a blurb or two your book baby looks unloved.

Rehearse what to tell friends and family who expect signed copies:
Newsflash, people: We have to buy our books, too! Develop a relationship with a local Indie so you can arrange signed copies through them.

Learn when to let go:
You can’t spend your life beating the promotional drum or worrying about sales figures for your debut novel. Like waving your real baby off to college, you have to let go and trust that your firstborn book will make its own way in the big wide world.

And then, maybe, when you meet the Ghost of Novels Future, you’ll have loads of titles on The New York Times Best Seller List. That’s what I love most about Christmas: It’s the season of hope.

Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden (Harlequin MIRA, 2012), a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt. Dancing At Dusk will be published in November 2013. You can find her on Facebook.

"The Unfinished Garden is a powerful story of friendship and courage in the midst of frightening circumstances… I highly recommend this wonderful love story.” Bergers’ Book Reviews

“White…conveys the condition of OCD, and how it creates havoc in one’s life and the lives of loved ones, with style and grace, never underplaying the seriousness of the disorder.” Romantic Times 4* review

Friday, January 4, 2013

Nine New Year’s Not-Resolutions for Writers

by Melanie Thorne

I don’t like to make New Year’s resolutions. It’s too formal—a pledge, a declaration of something you’ll do more of or stop doing altogether, and I always fail. While there are no real consequences for failing this personal oath, I still feel guilty for not living up to the impossible standard I’ve set myself on this sort of arbitrary “new start” each year. Writers already have enough tools to beat ourselves up; we don’t need New Year’s resolutions as an extra dose of feel-bad-about-yourself.

So screw it. This year I’ve decided to make not-resolutions. Not decrees or vows, but rather, goals and hopes for the new year ahead, gentle guidelines that I will do my best to meet but not beat myself up over when I don’t. Who actually keeps 100% of their New Year’s resolutions anyway? Oh? You do? Shut up, I hate you. I mean, good for you. For the rest of us, let’s make 2013 about doing the things we can do, not the things we think we should—in life, and in our writing careers—and also about easing up on ripping out our own throats every time we feel we’ve fallen short.

1. Stop Comparing Yourself to Other Writers  

I had a conversation with a writer friend recently about nemesis books. You know, the book that is like yours, but maybe, you think or have been told, isn’t quite as good, or at least isn’t that much better than yours, and yet that other book has sold more copies, or been on more lists, or received more critical acclaim, more praise from big-name authors, more media attention, more reviews from important publications, or more of whatever it is you had hoped for your own novel that this other book got and you didn’t. I could write a whole post on this topic but my point here is that I think all of us have our own go-to comparison book that makes that evil parasite of jealousy squirm in our brains.

But here’s the thing: almost every single author out there wishes their book had gotten more ________, and no two books get the same amount of ________ because no two books are exactly the same. Isn’t that part of why we love to read? We can’t compare our books to others tit-for-tat because we will drive ourselves crazy. How do you measure subjectivity? In reality, the act of comparison is much less about the success of the “nemesis” book(s) and more about our own insecurities setting traps to make us feel worse about the success of our own book.

So this is my number one goal for 2013: stop comparing my book and my career as an author to other books and their authors. My book is mine and no matter how much more attention or praise or sales another book got, it does not in any way diminish the praise and attention and sales my book—and yours—received.

And really, the truth is, every single one of us has something someone else is jealous of. Why not enjoy what we have?

Which brings me to #2:

2. Enjoy Your Successes

My book was published last year. MY BOOK was PUBLISHED last year. I got money for it. From a NY publishing house. My book is in bookstores. Thousands of people have read it. Holy f---ing crap! Isn’t that the dream?

All year people kept saying, “You must be so excited!” And I was. I was, and yet...I was so worried about everything that it was hard to enjoy it as much as I’d wanted. Waiting for the trade reviews before the release was agony, and then when Hand Me Down was out in the public each new review that appeared online made my heart stop for a second. I stewed over the bad reviews for longer than I’ll admit here and I didn’t let all the praise sink in as deeply. I felt like there was so much to be done and so much to stress over that I didn’t stop to savor each glowing review, each heartfelt email from readers, each time I saw my book in a bookstore as much as I now wish I had.

This year, I want to slow down and enjoy each little hilltop of success, appreciate the view from each new peak before moving forward, and you should, too. Celebrate your accomplishments! I’m not sure why this is so hard for so many of us writers, but if you’re like me and find this difficult, I hope this year we can make progress.

3. Write More

I’m leaving this vague because this will mean different things for each writer. Maybe you need to set a word count goal each day. Maybe it means sitting down for five hours while your kids are at school. Maybe you want to revise a shitty first draft you have sitting on your hard drive. Figure out what it means for you, what specific goal you want to reach or specific habit you want to nurture, and make it happen.

For me, it means parking my butt in a chair and forcing myself to sit in front of the computer for at least three eight-hour days each week until I have a finished draft of my second novel. I need to set a schedule, block out that time, and stick to it. Write crap, write lots and lots of crap at first, yes, that’s fine, but write more.

4. Leave the House More, Too 

This may seem contradictory to the last goal, but it isn’t. I find that when I go out in the world—lunch with friends, grocery shopping, a walk in my neighborhood—I notice things that later make it into my writing. The color of the sky, an overheard conversation, the muffled sound of a bad band practicing in their garage=material stored for later. Writers are observers. We take the world into our heads and reproduce pieces of it on the page. If you’re not out in the world, how can you possibly write about it?

5. Limit Your Social Media Time 

An author friend of mine spends a half hour on Twitter in the morning and another half hour in the evening and that’s it. She has more self-discipline that I do, but I’m going to try this year, even during the paperback release of Hand Me Down, to limit my social media time.

But what about promoting? What about interactions with other writers? What if I miss something?!

Promoting via social media is an important part of being an author, but how long does it take to write a post, respond to Tweets, catch up on your feeds? For me, a hell of lot less time than I actually spend online. Do I really need to click through fifty vacation photos of someone I hardly know? Do I really need to read every single article about the business or craft of writing that shows up on Twitter?

No. No, I don’t.

So my goal is to set a limit for how long I can be online. Writing can be lonely, and interacting with my writer friends scattered across the country is an important part of my day, but I can do this in intervals. I might miss something, sure, but is it even possible to not miss things on Twitter? We can’t feasibly soak in all available information.

So I think the key will be only reading the articles that speak to me; engage in the conversations that are fun or beneficial. I’m not going to force myself to read an article that bores me or doesn’t resonate. Maybe it will later, and when I read it at the right time, it will have a much greater impact. Don’t feel obligated and don’t let the clickable distractions suck you in and hold you hostage. Time limits and increased self-discipline. I will beat you, social media!

6. Find a Community

If you don’t yet have a network of writing friends—find one. If you can’t find one you like, create one. The important part is to have a group of writer friends to commiserate with, complain to, celebrate with. You need to be able to share the good and bad news that “civilians” just don’t get with people who will. Plus, talking shop with people who live for stories and words that way we do is food for our solitary writer souls.

Since I’m lucky enough to belong to this great group of debut authors here on Book Pregnant, my hope for the year is to find a real-life, in-person community as well.

7. Separate Yourself and Self-Worth from Your Book 

You are not your book. I know it often feels like you are, but say it with me: I am not my book. I’ve noticed a lot of authors—myself included—refer to our books as ourselves. As in, “I got reviewed,” when, really, it was the book that got reviewed. You’ve poured your heart and soul and blood and sweat and tears and time and energy into this project, and it feels like an actual piece of you is out in the world, but it is still not the entirety of you.

You have life goals and you have career goals and your book is probably a place those desires overlap, but that doesn’t mean that the success or failure of your whole life is equal to the level of success that this, your first (of many) book, achieves. There is no failure here—if your book is being published, you’ve already sailed past the exit for failure, and regardless of how far this book takes you, you have a family and friends and hobbies, a life, outside your writing. Your book is only one part of you; one aspect of your life. Don’t let it become your definition.

8. Remember Why You Do This

Why did you start writing? Did you have story burning inside of you that just had to be told? Did you fall in love with language? Were stories your escape, your friends, your window into lives beyond yourself? All of those are true for me, and I bet you have several reasons you started writing, too. Rediscover those. Remind yourself why writing is important; why you push through the never-ending obstacles. Know what you’re fighting for, and you can win.

And, finally:

9. Give Yourself a Break

Writing is hard.

Melanie Thorne is the author of Hand Me Down, a debut novel in the tradition of Dorothy Allison and Janet Fitch that tells the unforgettable story of a girl who has never been loved best of all and her fight to protect her sister, and was recently named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2012. Melanie earned her MA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, where she was awarded the Alva Englund Fellowship and the Maurice Prize in fiction. She lives in Northern California. Connect with her at www.melaniethorne.com, on Facebook and Twitter.