Sunday, November 11, 2012

You've Finished Your Manuscript! Now What?

Whether you’ve finally finished that book you’ve been agonizing over for the past few months, years, or only weeks, whether Nano or not, here are some tips to help you with your next steps:

Stick your manuscript on the shelf now. Right now.
No, don’t glance back at it. Don’t flip through it. Don’t go and read those favorite scenes that you’re particularly proud of, or those scenes that have been bothering you since you wrote them. Close all your documents, shut your notebooks, and hide everything from sight. The waters in your brain are still all churned up, and you need to let all that sediment settle so you can see clearly again. This will help you be more objective.

“How long should I wait?”

I’ve waited anywhere between two weeks to nine months. I’d recommend at least four weeks before you touch a page or run your cursor lovingly over that “Chapter 1” document icon.

The reason why I waited nine months was because, when I typed the last word on the last page, I didn’t feel good about this particular manuscript. I didn’t feel it was my best. I knew I could do better. So I allowed it to sink into the furthest corner of my brain and I moved on to other projects.

If you’re itchy and antsy and having trouble holding back from stealing peeks, then give yourself a new project to distract you. A short story, or a whole new novel. Make a deal with yourself that, when you finish your new project(s), you can go back, but not until then.

The sediment has finally settled. Time for revision.
You’ve sat on your hands or busied yourself for 4+ weeks, so now you’re ready to begin revising. Make sure you’re ready. Clear your plate. Be objective, be harsh, and be prepared to make massive renovations if you find an issue.

In other words, be prepared to write your whole manuscript over again.

Your own revising process should be difficult, but this will help put you in the right mind for the next step. It’s exhausting and it may dampen your spirit—or, you might be the type of writer who loves revising more than writing. Either way, it’s important to toughen that hide and get ready.

A couple ways of revising that work for me go like this:
  1. Read through the whole thing and revise as you go. If major changes need to be made, make them and revise them after you finish your first read-through. Repeat read-throughs until satisfied. (I might make two read-throughs or more, depending on how many changes I’ve made.)
  2. With the case of my nine-monther (what is this, a pregnancy?), sometimes a lot more needs to be changed. In this case, a blank word document or a notebook is good for listing changes that need to be made as you read through. You might have to jot down issues and work them out in your brain before you truly begin revising. (In some cases, and in the case of my pregnancynine-monther, I had a specific word document like this open while I was writing so that I could jot down problems that needed to be fixed later.)
  3. In the case of one of my friends, she would finish her manuscript and then write up a synopsis of all the scenes and plot points, then dissect it and add changes, like creating a floor plan. Then she would begin revising accordingly.
Whichever way you prefer, it’ll take you a long time before you’re finished. Be prepared for the investment.

Revision done. Time for more revision.
Or, in other words, time for critique partners/beta readers. First of all, if you have no plans to get published (or you’re only writing for yourself), you don’t have to go any further than the last step. But, if you intend to be published in any shape or form, this is a crucial step. Don’t move onward without having fresh pairs of unbiased eyes read over your stuff.

Your critique partners shouldn’t be a close family member or a friend—unless the aforementioned are either good writers or avid readers. Some people might tell you that your critique partners shouldn’t ever be anyone close to you because disagreements will spark animosity, or your close somebodies will be less inclined to be honest with you, therefore providing you less effective and biased feedback. This is true, unless you have personal somebodies you can trust to be really, truly honest with you to provide helpful feedback. In equal exchange, you have to understand that critique isn’t supposed to be a comment on your writing ability, so you can’t allow yourself to see it that way. If you want your story to be the best it can be, then you have to be open to change. Critique only hurts if you let it.

Find three or more people to be your critique partners. I generally have three, occasionally a fourth, but never fewer than two. Here’s why:
  1. The first critique partner gives me a general overhaul of things that are both wrong and right (and a good critique partner knows how to supplement explaining issues with the manuscript along with positive feedback).
  2. The second critique partner provides the same, and then considers the feedback that the first critique partner offered, whether they agree or disagree. Putting minds together helps (and, oftentimes, when I’m critiquing and I have a problem that I can’t quite put my finger on, someone else might find the root cause of it so I can have a random and slightly inappropriate outburst of “OH YES.”)
  3. The third critique partner sees the near-finished product after I’ve applied the first two (or three) critique revisions.
There are other ways to go about this, of course. You might have your partners read separately and then send you their notes. You might have them read and then get together and discuss what they thought as you listen.

Remember one thing, however: your reader is never wrong.

If you find yourself having to explain something, then you need to go back and find what your reader missed and fix it. Never tell your reader they were wrong and never defend your writing. If anything, ask your other partners what they think of what was said, listen to what they have to say, and then consider your options. If one reader had a problem, you can’t go into the homes of other readers who may have the same problem and explain yourself.

The critique process can also be repeated. I’ve made major revisions before and then allowed one of my first partners, or a completely new partner, reread and add additional feedback. Keep repeating this process until you’re satisfied and your butt is the sorest it’s ever been (that means it’s been kicked enough, and now your butt should be tough enough to handle the next steps).

In complete contrast, whereas I prefer to allow sediment to settle in step one, I prefer to edit while everything is still fresh. At this point, I know the book inside-out and my critique advice hasn’t seeped from my memory. I can fix a problem at one point in the story, and then realize the ripples will hit other points, which I can jump to right away.

When you’ve finally finished this process (which may, in fact, take just as long as it did to write the whole dang manuscript in the first place), then it’s time to move onto my favorite step.

Line editing.
And here you thought you were done revising.


Now it’s time to correct all your grammar, punctuation, and minor issues. Polish until the sparkle makes you writhe and you hiss and return to the darkness of your cave.

Queries and synopses are terrible, terrible things.
Some people are exceptional at summing their story up in no more than 300 words and making it enticing. The rest of us are only human. It’s a form of art, and like any art, you can only attain perfection by practicing and practicing and practicing. Typically, I’ll begin writing the query when I begin writing the manuscript, and I can tell you that the query I begin with is nothing like the query I end up.

When I began the querying process seven years ago, it was about 98% snail mail, and the only requirement in regards to length was no more than one page. Nowadays, the querying process is about 98% email, and the writer shouldn’t exceed 300 words. That’s enough to get out your title and the main character’s name. The Agent Query page on queries is your best starting point as to what a query should contain.

After you’ve gotten a perfect query, you need to take it to critique partners just like before. On top of that, I’d recommend taking it to a writing forum such as Absolute Write to get more eyes to judge it. But remember that you have to volunteer your time to critique other queries first (and absolutely make sure you read the rules). You’ll also find links there on how to write your synopsis, which is like a shortened retelling of your story—not quite a summary. Don’t write your synopsis like a summary. As I’ve heard before, write your synopsis like you’ve just seen an awesome movie and you’re trying to explain it to your friend to get them to go see it.

Except, speak more eloquently than you would your friend. Your synopsis should read like your story does, in the same voice and utilizing the same tones.

Also be sure to check out Query Shark and read the whole damn thing. (Or at least make sure you read plenty of queries that didn’t work, and plenty of queries that did.) Slushpile Hell is also a good place to learn what not to say.

Queries and synopses for us regular humans suck. But, this is the most direct way to reach an agent, and you might find that, by the end, writing a query has changed the way you write in general. It’s certainly taught me the power of brevity.

Agents, as far as I can take you.
This is where you give up the wheel to whoever your god may be. Research your agents, and I mean research. If you’re in school, great, think of it as a final project for class that you absolutely must get an A in order to pass. If you’re not in school or haven’t been in school for a while, think of it as a final project for a class that you absolutely must get an A in order to pass.

At the end of your query, if possible, you should feature a little snippet that says why you picked this particular agent—personalization is important. You don’t like getting spam in the mail, right? Sure, it’s got your name on it, but it’s clearly auto-delivered to you regardless of who you are. A query without personalization is like that.

Good places to begin researching agents:
This is where you can begin researching. Look up agent websites, blogs, and twitters. Make sure to google their names. Do everything you can to be sure that this is the person you want to have a business relationship with. You may also discover through their blogs events that agents may be attending, or contests to get you noticed.

The rejection process is natural. Some writers get rejected a few times, and some (er-hem) get rejected hundreds of times over a period of several books. If you’ve written a good book, then querying is like buying lottery tickets. You’ve got to have good luck and a good book. The market of the publishing industry is often dictated by what’s “at the right time”, also known as marketing trends. Good manuscripts will be turned down because a literary agent might not be sure he or she could sell them.

Non-traditional paths.
Before you consider non-traditional paths, ask yourself why you’re considering them. If you’re considering them because you’ve gotten a couple rejections, and those rejections sting, don’t come here yet. Stick it out. Maybe this manuscript doesn’t work, but the next one might. Each manuscript you write will be better than the last as long as you remain active and write and read more than you write.

If you’ve had several unsuccessful tries and agents have given you lots of positive feedback, but have rejected you for other various reasons, then you might be ready to come here.

The publishing industry is evolving at the speed of light. What’s called “vanity” publishing was frowned upon just five years ago, but authors like Colleen Houck and Amanda Hocking (who also went through the querying process several times to no avail) decided to go the route of self-pub. They achieved such popularity that they required an agent later on.

If you decide to go down this path, however, I’d advise you go to Amanda Hocking’s blog and read about how she got to where she is today. Self-pub is far, far from an easy alternative—in fact, it’s much more work than the traditional process, as you’re in charge of your own publicity (which includes being accessible via internet, creating an evocative cover, formatting your book, and so forth). You must also search for indie reviewers, manage your own copyright, etc. There’s a lot to do.

Some vanity publishers:
But be careful. Self-pub sites usually make their money by trying to sell you services (such as cover-creation, formatting e-books, or promotions). There are plenty of predators out there who will do the same. If you’re not so apt with Photoshop, sites like Deviant Art have plenty of artists you can commission to do commercial work (be aware that you could pay several hundred dollars for this). If you’re not so apt with formatting either, look for people who offer services at more competitive rates. Instead of dishing out a few hundred dollars to have Lulu convert your manuscript into .epub format, you might find someone who charges by the hour instead.

Don’t sell yourself short with the formatting, either. It’s key. If the e-book doesn’t translate well to your readers’ e-readers, then your readers won’t read it. Similarly, in order to sell in Barnes and Noble and Amazon online stores, you have to have proper formatting. This is likely where you’ll generate the most of your business.

Non self-pub
Self-pub is intimidating, and it doesn’t have to be the next step after. You can reach other readers through such sites as Absolute Write, FictionPress, and Figment. The key is to be active in whichever writing community you decide to participate, which means reading work similar to yours or within the same genre.

Build your platform.
In the beginning, it doesn’t matter if you generate revenue. What’s most important is getting your work in readers’ hands. As my professor says, it’s crucial to start selling your book even before it’s written. Nowadays, writing a book is only a small part of the work that an author has to do. Here are some ways you can build your name:
  • Create a personal author website.
  • Create a blog. Blogger and Livejournal are good places to begin.
  • A twitter and/or tumblr are also excellent (if I do say so myself).
  • Be easily accessible. Make your web layouts appealing and easy to navigate.
  • Join writing communities. Connect with other writers.
  • If you have a creative hand, create your characters or your world through art, fashion, photography, or whatever your knack might be.
  • If you’ve got the equipment, record yourself reading scenes of your manuscript.
  • If you write fanfiction, post your fanfiction. (This is how E. L. James created her readership.)
  • If you draw fanart, post your fanart. (This is how many online comic artists got started.)
The important thing is to get yourself out there through the various modes that are applicable to you. If you’re fairly shy, but awesome at drawing, there’s your niche. If you suck at art but have a great speaking voice, post snippets of you reading your stuff. Writing is one of your talents, now you’ve got to use your others.

It’s important to create a brand for yourself and be memorable, but in the end, no matter what, the most important deciding factor in whether or not you succeed is if you don’t give up. No one fails until they’ve given up.

Good luck!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Story of Exposition

Exposition is a trap that writers fall into all the time, even without intending to do so. I critiqued a story recently that started about where the story began, as it should—but then nosedived into a montage of flashbacks to explain things that didn’t need explaining yet. I suggested the writer rip it all out to sprinkle into the story later, but let’s start with this:

What is exposition?

Simply put—exposition is the act of explaining things. This can be done piecemeal, or in massive doses, or anything in between. Exposition can be used to explain a character’s history, the background of a particular setting, why the cat has a shaved stripe down its spine—anything.

All summed up, the dictionary says that exposition is “designed to convey information or explain what is difficult to understand.”

But let’s take a look at that word “explain”. I like to think that “explaining” is best used in a technical essay. For those familiar with the mantra of “showing versus telling”, exposition falls into the category of telling the story instead of showing.

Yes, a reader will have to know an event that occurred in a character’s history if it impacts the plot. Yes, the reader will have to know about the history of a fantasy setting if it impacts the plot (or sets up the plot, of course). However, there are ways to do it without directly telling the readers “Main character shaved a stripe down the cat’s back because the cat was his nemesis.”

(Why did I choose cat harassment as an example? Cats and I are like the same people.)

A different example:

Erin gave the spider a wide girth. She hated spiders ever since she’d been threatened by one in the mall when she was six. It had lured her into a quiet hallway and pulled out a knife on her.

This is telling and follows the same formula of a technical essay: bringing up a topic sentence and unloading the information.

Erin gave the spider a wide girth. Marcus erupted with laughs and turned to watch. “Afraid of spiders? How unlike you.”

She shot him a glare. “Have you ever seen a spider pull out a knife? I have, and I was only six.”

Dialogue is an awesome tool for showing history and spiders with knives, and because it involves character interaction, the writer also has a chance to propel the character arc or allude to different character traits, what with how Marcus says “How unlike you.”

Be careful, though. “Reader feeder” is another trap that a writer can fall into. Reader feeder is when characters unload information to each other that the characters themselves would already know, only for the sake of the reader. Here’s a fancy example:

“Hey, Erin, remember in our math class a half hour ago when you saw the spider?”

“Yeah. I freaked out and told you a spider pulled a knife on me.”

“When you were six, at the mall, right?”

“That’s right, Marcus.”

Avoid this. It’s poison. It’ll make the spider take out an AK-47 next time.

(W-W-Why did I choose spiders instead anyway? That’s a terrible visual to have.)

Now, exposition doesn’t have to be labeled as a bad thing, but like dialogue tags, a story can be written better with as few uses of it as possible. As I mentioned in the beginning, the story I critiqued unloaded a mantra of flashback scenes to explain why the character’s setting was the character’s setting and why her relationship with her mother was the way it was. In this case, the exposition cheats the reader out of wondering WHY. If you’re aiming for a fast-paced story, abstain from exposition wherever you can and leave the question of “Why is this the way it is?” for the reader.

Why is Erin so afraid of spiders?

Why is it unlike Erin to be afraid of spiders?

Why did the spider pull a knife on her?

(Why am I still using this as an example?)

A reader will read on to answer questions. If done correctly, exposition can tease a reader with the answer, or even ask more questions that’ll have to do with the plot. Bits and pieces of exposition can create riddles, in a sense, which was why I suggested the writer sprinkle these bits of history throughout the narrative.

Flashback scenes in general also serve as exposition to explain things—HOWEVER, flashback scenes can pull its weight to be a strong proponent of the plot if not used as a gimmick.

What’s a gimmick?

I like to refer to a plot gimmick as something that’s included as a theatrical act to enforce drama. Michael Bay uses a grotesque amount of explosions to enforce drama. Prologues often do this, and flashbacks can as well. Again, if you intend to have a fast-paced story, setting your reader back in time is the exact antithesis of what you want to do, generally. A fast-paced story must always be moving your reader closer and closer toward the climax of the story. Throwing your reader into a time rift instantly slows down the propulsion.

However, flashbacks don’t need to be exiled. I’ve written a story that essentially utilizes flashbacks to set a separate story arc concurrently with the present story arc, and by the end, the two collide for a greater climax. The two arcs intertwine and feed off each other throughout the story, so it’s not like reading two different stories in one book, but two different halves of one story. Both halves constantly move the reader toward the same big question, so both halves generate a quick pace. In a sense, it follows the same formula as having two separate narrators.

Exposition and flashbacks can harm your story, but they can also be made into a great and unusual feature to your story if you don’t treat them as gimmicks. And if you’re doing something atypical with exposition or flashbacks, make sure you have the right critique partners to objectively tell you whether it’s working or not working. Whatever you do, learn the rules, rehearse the rules from memory, then break all of the rules.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Back from the dead with Word Smashing #6!

It's November, and I'm sure all of you know what that means! It's the month of writing, writing writing. I hope you guys have met your word counts before reading this.

Writer: Sara Finnly

Editor: Victoria

The elevator was moving unusually slow that morning. A boy stood in a grey suit, his blonde hair astray, glancing at his watch every couple seconds. When the elevator came to a slow halt at floor three Jason Falcon let out a heavy sigh. He slumped his shoulders forward and crossed his arms in front of his chest.  The doors opened to reveal a middle aged woman that not even he could deny was beautiful, Jason moved closer to the left wall to make room for her. She smiled up at him and gracefully muttered hello. Jason however hardly acknowledged the fact that she was there.

Pulling out a small mirror the woman purposefully ran her arm against his slowly. Jason only looked forward. As the woman grew annoyed with his lack of interest she moved to the far end of the elevator, imitating Jason’s tense stature she too crossed her arms across her chest.

When he finally emerged from the building his fathers black car was already waiting at the curb. “Jason, not a good first impression.” Mr. Falcon was dressed in a crisp back suit. His black hair was starting to show signs of age however his hairdresser did an excellent job of covering it.

“You’ve lived with me and raised me for twenty years and you’re calling this a first impression?” Jason slid into the back seat without taking a second look at his father. The entire way to the office his father hissed on his phone, Jason lost count after the fourth call.

 Strong Points--

You did a pretty good job at starting the story in the middle of action, instead of with a ton of heavy, boring exposition. Instead, you've woven in the background information that we need as the story happens. That's good, it doesn't bog down your story from the very beginning, and it gets us going right away.

The initial interaction with the woman and then with dad really give us a good look at Jason's character. I'd call him a bit of a prat, really, but the kind of prat who says what everyone else is thinking. You've got some good body language going on too, and that says just as much as any dialogue could have, plus the fact that Jason notices how attractive she is and then fails to respond is actually quite intriguing. His interaction (or lack thereof) with his dad also shows a whole lot about their relationship (or lackthereof).

No dialogue tags! I'm so proud of you! It's so easy to fall into the trap of abusing dialogue tags, and you didn't!

And you have some pretty interesting description in here, such as dad's hairdresser doing an excellent job of covering it.

Some Tips--

That being said, you could afford a little more description, especially since you're writing from third person. In first person it gets tricky, because we have to write exactly what our character sees, but in third person you have some leeway and some distance to give a little more.

The woman is beautiful. What does that mean to Jason? His idea of beauty and mine may not be the same--in fact, what we find attractive may speak volumes about what kind of person we are, so you should describe exactly what about her is beautiful, what exactly he sees in her.

And with dad, you use the word black three times in one paragraph, that's why I highlighted them. Try to avoid word repetition like that. Surely you've got some better ammo in there than just black black black.

Also, adverbs. They're a tough problem, I know, it's another easy pitfall. Things like slowly, gracefully, hardly, those all become overbearing after a while. It's a way to really control exactly what your reader is seeing, but this is where you start to learn how to trust your reader to get the main idea themselves. If they have a slightly different image than what you did, that's what makes books interesting and exciting. But too many adverbs overpower that.

Would I keep reading?

I think so. I'm a little bit on the fence, but I think I would give you the benefit of the doubt, because even if I haven't gotten much of Jason, I think he's already endeared to me. Just because he's a prat. I know I've mentioned my weakness for characters that are assholes, and his smart ass personality has sort of gotten me. But to definitely get me, you may want to emphasize your hook more.

Thank you so much, Sara! As always, I highly encourage resubmitting it once you've edited. We love to see progress!