Query Tips: Pitch It, Pitch It Good

After a sluggish start to my query journey in 2018, I’ve finally gained some traction. During the past month, I’ve had three agents request my full manuscript.

The dramatic shift came after a fellow writer introduced me to various pitching events on Twitter (i.e. #Pitmad and #Pitdark). Basically, during these one-day events, you get to pitch your novel to literary agents in 280 characters or less. If they “favorite” it, you’re invited to query them directly. It’s nerve-racking, but exciting. More than anything, it’s a great learning opportunity.

During my first #Pitmad, I quickly found out how vital it is to have a pitch that stands out from the slush pile; not only during pitch events, but also for query letters, conferences, and any time someone asks, “What’s your story about?”

It’s scary to sum up our stories in just a few words, but we all have to start somewhere. I started working on my pitch last fall, after I signed up for a Writer’s Digest workshop about query letters. Even though I already understood the basic ins and outs of querying, I thought it’d be smart to brush up on the dos and don’ts (I mean, it’s been over five years since I sent my last query letter to agents). More importantly, the webinar included a personal critique from a literary agent. Who better to help with a pitch/synopsis than a real-life literary agent?

To be honest, the feedback I received from the webinar wasn’t as in-depth as I’d hoped for. Mostly just tweaks and fine-tuning. However, at the time, I assumed that meant my query (including its pitch) was solid. So, with the utmost confidence, I sent my first batch of query letters in January.

Chirp-chirp. Chirp-chirp.

Yep, nada. Not even a form rejection letter. Ouch! I shook off the sting and told myself it was okay. Nobody hits a home run their first time at bat. So, I sent a few more queries and waited.

And waited…

I gradually started to suspect something was wrong with my query letter. The pitch, the comparatives, the entire thing–something!

As I began revising the letter (and digging myself out of a creative depression), a friend introduced me to #Pitmad. Initially, I balked at the idea of publicly pitching my novel. What if an agent didn’t favorite my tweet? What if I made an idiot out of myself? What if everyone hated my idea? Yep, the evil doubts so many of us experience came at me swift and hard.

After a full day of hemming and hawing, I decided to throw caution to the wind and participate. The next day, I copied the pitch I used in my query letter and pasted it into Twitter:

Lily Damour, a young woman, is forced to confront her inner demons when she is stalked by an obsessive artist.

I stared and stared at the single sentence. It was okay, but it didn’t POP! Sure, it would work if I only had five seconds to tell someone what my story was about, but I could do better. So, I rolled up my sleeves and brainstormed some new pitches, and shared them on Twitter.

The response wasn’t what I’d hoped for. I only received one favorite, and it came from an editor of a small press (cool, but not my goal).

Participating in my first #PitMad made me realize just how competitive querying/pitching is. Thousands of writers are clamoring for the attention of so few literary agents. (Look at me! Look at me!) It was time to buckle down and revise my query and pitch again. I had to find a way to make both STAND OUT! 

The next pitch event, #PitDark, arrived in May. I posted my first pitch and waited to see if I’d get a better response.

Of the nine favorites I received, two were literary agents and one was a publisher. YES! (Side note, as much as we love supporting each other, writers shouldn’t favorite each other’s pitches during these events. We should only comment and/or retweet to show our support.) Of the two agents who favorited my pitch, both requested my query letter and sample chapter(s). And within 48-hours, both requested my full manuscript.

Suddenly, my confidence shot through the roof. At last, I’d found a way to sell my idea and hook an agent’s attention. So, with hope like I hadn’t felt since I sent my first queries in January, I contacted a few more agents and participated in another pitch event (2018 Hot Summer’s Pitchfest).

During the Pitchfest, an agent requested additional materials (and included the hashtag #ExcitedToRead in her response–ha!). As for the batch of queries I sent out, I received a request for my full manuscript after only two days of waiting (eeks!). Now I just have to wait and see if my full manuscript is good enough to receive an offer of representation. Or, at the very least, an offer to revise and resubmit.

So, what have I learned about pitching/querying? Here are my tips:

  1. Keep it short and sweet. Some writers try and cram as many details as they can into their pitch. My suggestion? Don’t. Get to the heart of the story and leave it at that. I recommend you focus on introducing two characters MAX (ex: protagonist/antagonist, lovers, best friends, etc.), the conflict, and/or what’s at stake. Remember, this is an elevator pitch. If you only had 30 seconds to sell your idea, what would you say? And how can you say it so the only question your audience has is, “When can I read your book?”
  2. Use comparatives. What books, movies, and/or authors can you compare your story and style to? This will give an agent a snapshot of your novel’s concept/voice. It’ll also show them you understand both the market and your audience. Just make sure your comparatives are relevant, honest, and enticing.
  3. Avoid spoilers. This is your hook, not your full synopsis. You want to dangle a carrot in front of an agent’s eyes, not feed them the entire salad with extra dressing.
  4. Be willing to revise. Nailing your pitch and/or query letter on the first try might not happen. That’s okay. If you don’t get any bites after 5-10 queries, consider changing things up: revise your pitch, rewrite your query letter, search for different comparatives, seek input from beta readers. I also suggest you look for advice from industry professionals. There are so many resources available nowadays with blogs, Twitter (#querytip, #amquerying, #pubtip, #askanagent, and other writing hashtags), Writer’s Digest, YouTube, and more.
  5. Participate in online pitch events. They’re scary, but they’re terrific avenues to practice your pitch and see if it captures an agent’s attention. If it doesn’t, then it’s time to consider revising both it and your query letter. If your story doesn’t stand out on Twitter, it probably won’t stand out in an agent’s slush pile.
  6. Don’t give up: If you believe in your story, and you know you’ve done everything you can to polish and prepare your manuscript for agents (i.e. fully developed, revised, beta’d, and edited it to oblivion), then don’t quit querying after a handful of rejections. Adapt, adjust, and keep fighting for your dreams. Remember, landing a deal is part talent, part luck, part perseverance. And a lot of hard work.

What are some of your tips for pitching your novel? Do you have any pitching events to share with the rest of us?

To all those who are currently querying or are planning to query in the future, good luck!

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Love Is A Battlefield – Overcoming Creative Depressions

For the past two years, I’ve put the majority of my creative energy into writing a novel. Yeah, yeah. I know. My attention has clearly been aimed elsewhere, far from my blog.

Rather than talk about my sporadic posting, let’s talk about something else today: creative depressions. Many of us experience miserable lulls with our writing every now and then. These lulls can last as little as a day, while others can last as long as a year–er, years. Personally, I’ve experienced two significant lulls in my writing career thus far: The first knocked me down–hard–after my YA option contract expired. For six whole months, I refused to pick up a pen. I even considered giving up writing all together. It was a dark, dark time.

The second lull struck more recently, in January. Right after I rang in the New Year, I sent out my first query letters for the psychological thriller I’d bled, sweat, and cried over for two years. I was so excited to embark on this part of the publishing journey, and I felt so confident with my material. My manuscript had been put through the beta reader ringer, and my query letter had been put through the Writer’s Digest gauntlet (which included an agent critique). I was ready! To add to my confidence, I knew the querying drill. I’d done it before (and semi-successfully). I just forgot one thing:

Querying is one of the most depressing things on the planet!

Despite telling myself there’d be lots of waiting and lots (and lots) of rejection, I forgot how hard the process is. I forgot how much tenacity and patience it takes. I forgot how it feels to hit the “send” button on a query email: like dropping your beloved baby into the gaping jaws of the industry.

Snap! Chomp! Gulp! Dreams get chewed up and spit back out (or, more often, swallowed for good).

On top of enduring the harsh querying process, I also received three rejections for short stories and failed to advance to the finals of a cinematic prose contest…all within the same week. To add insult to injury, my day job was insanely busy AND my dentist informed me I had to get my wisdom teeth yanked.

Put all of these unfortunate pieces together, and–kaboom! I toppled into a creative depression. For about three weeks, I wallowed in self-pity, ate lots of chocolate, punched a few pillows, and wallowed some more. I ignored my laptop, cursed everything I had ever written, and mentally abandoned my beloved novel, still out there fighting for its life in the wilds. Honestly, I couldn’t even pick up a book without having a flare of panic, followed by an existential crisis of some kind.

I finally had to–firmly–remind myself that love is a battlefield. And if you love writing enough, you’ll find a way to fight through a creative depression, however low it drops you.

Overall, it took me about three months to battle through my creative depression. To overcome my doubts and insecurities, anger and bitterness, and utter lack of motivation to put pen to paper, I enlisted various war tactics. Some of these included:

  • Getting support from my writing group: The first time I went through a creative depression, I only had one writing friend (and he wasn’t the supportive type; at least, not in the way I needed him to be). The second time, I had a strong, tight-knit writing group that caught me as I plummeted into a deep, black pit. Their rock solid support raised me back up and set me on firm ground again. Well, the ground continued to tremble and shake for a while, but every time I threatened to fall over, they steadied me. (If you don’t have a supportive network of writers, find one! It will change your life.)
  • Listening to new music: Music is a big inspiration for me. While I can’t listen to it during my writing sessions, I like to listen to it as I drive, work, exercise, read, clean the house, etc. Basically, all the time. Around the middle of March, it hit me I’d been listening to the same playlist since January (about 100 songs on repeat, over and over). I realized the repetitive music likely contributed to my lull, almost like I was stuck on replay. So, I clicked on a random music video on YouTube, and then let fate choose which songs popped up next. Ta-da! A spark. An idea! With a low groan and a rusty creak, my imagination started running again.
  • Reading: As I mentioned before, reading can be such a turnoff when you’re stuck in a creative depression. It reminds you that you’re not writing, you’re not published, and you might never achieve your lifelong dreams of being a New York Times bestseller (or whatever your ultimate writing goal might be). But, whether you like it or not, reading is a key ingredient for writers. It’s like fertilizer for our imaginations. A couple of weeks ago, I finally admitted this fact to myself and began reading a highly recommended book many agents mention in their bios (“Luckiest Girl Alive” by Jessica Knoll). Surprise, surprise, it’s helped. A lot!
  • Participating in writing contests: Around Easter, I found out that I took first place (in the first round) of a writing contest. Receiving that news gave me a much needed jolt of confidence. It also literally forced me to sit down and write for the second round of the contest. To be honest, it was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. However, the story I churned out was…decent. Not great, but decent. Better yet, it spurred me to participate in two more contests, one of which led to an idea for a new novel. Yay! Suddenly, I was excited to write again.

Writing is hard. No doubt about it. It’s even harder when you’re hungry to succeed, but can’t seem to get your foot in the door. It’s harder yet when you get knocked down–again and again–and eventually lose the strength to stand back up. But, remember: you can stand back up. It might take days, it might take years, but we all have it in us to overcome a creative depression. We all have the power to shake off a knockout punch, crack our knuckles, and charge back into battle!

What are some of your strategies to snap out of a creative depression?

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3 Tips on How To Improve Your Writing

When I first started writing years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. Like, NO idea. I just sat down in front of my laptop and started writing a story. In theory, that’s what writers should do. Sit down and write. Period! However, in order to become the best writers we can be, we need to broaden our practices beyond the obvious.

Many of us have read or heard the Stephen King quote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Yes, King is right. To become a better writer, we need to read–a lot. But, what are some other ways to improve our writing? Well here are three of my favorite practices to consider:

1. Writing Contests/Challenges 

Writing contests and challenges are terrific for many reasons:

  • They push us out of our comfort zones. Are you a novelist who’s never written anything under 80K words? Have you only ever written romance? Or only horror? Contests push you to explore, experiment, and challenge yourself in new (sometimes terrifying) ways.
  • They introduce us to new genres and categories we’ve never considered. For example, I always thought I’d be a YA author (I even optioned a YA novel to a Hollywood producer). After a few writing contests, I realized I’d missed my calling. I have a stronger knack for adult fiction, namely suspense, thriller, and/or horror.
  • They teach us to tell tighter, fuller stories. When we only have 1K words at our disposal (maybe even less), we learn the art of brevity. We also learn the importance of developing every aspect of a story (plot, characters, descriptions, etc.). If we miss one, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
  • They lead to new stories. One of the biggest benefits of participating in writing contests and challenges is walking away with a new story that can be developed into something bigger. For example, the novel I’m about to query is the byproduct of a short story I wrote in 2015 during a contest; and I have about ten more I could develop if I wanted to (and probably will at some point).

If you’re looking for some excellent writing challenges to participate in, here are some I recommend:

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenges (Check out his blog every Friday to see if a new challenge has been posted).

NYC Midnight (Let me emphasize, I recommend this as a challenge, and I highly recommend you participate on their forum. The contest aspect is a bit laughable.)

Fiction War (A newer contest that’s still working out its kinks, but I’ve heard decent things. Definitely worth the challenge, if nothing more.)

#WritingContest on Twitter. (You’re bound to find the perfect challenge for you!)

2. Beta Reading

Whether we’re a self-taught writer, or we’ve received an MFA from a prestigious institution, we can benefit from critiquing other people’s stories. When we beta read, we:

  • Learn through others’ mistakes. Slow pace? Cliche characters? Too much exposition? As we point out these flaws in other people’s work, we notice them in our own.
  • Become more analytical. It’s difficult to be objective with our own work, but the more we evaluate other people’s stories, the more we evaluate our own. Naturally. Yes, our stories remain our precious babies, but we learn how to “parent” properly. We no longer turn a blind eye to problem areas. We face them head on and address accordingly.
  • Grow thicker skins. Sharing our work with readers can be a scary experience. We’re basically displaying our souls to the world and opening ourselves up to criticism. Well, the more we participate in beta reading (both as betas and as those being beta’d for), we overcome a lot of our fears. We gain confidence by seeing other writers struggle too, and we learn how to accept positive and negative comments.

3. TV Shows, Movies, and Live Theater

Okay, this may seem like a weird one, but there are a lot of benefits to critiquing the TV shows, movies, and live theater we watch:

  • Be an active audience member. Who are the characters? What are their motives? What subtle clues are being dropped that will come into the story later? Do all the dots connect? Was the pacing well done? When we breakdown a production as we’re watching it, we learn how to rapidly evaluate our own stories. We ask more questions and critique every sentence to decide if it’s contributing to the story as a whole.
  • Cinematography lessons. Whether we’re writing a character-driven, literary piece, or a sweeping commercial blockbuster, films and stage productions teach us how to bring our stories to life. They spark our imaginations so there’s more color, more movement, and more oomph! They teach us how to show rather than tell.
  • Reactions, actions, and more. Let’s face it, we don’t always have firsthand experience with the types of theatrical events depicted on screen or stage (thankfully for some things): violent riots, spectacular romantic gestures, devastating betrayals, flying into space, etc. As we watch TV shows and movies, our brains naturally archive various facial expressions actors make; or dramatic action sequences we’d never see in real life (ex: bombs dropping on Dunkirk); or chilling atmospheres that leave us cold to the bone. Film and stage productions are emotional, heart-pounding, beautiful buffets for writers. We may not even realize we’ve memorized little details (like an actors subtle grin or sultry voice; or hazy sunlight glinting off a decrepit skyscraper in the far future)–but our imaginations do!

How about you? What are some of your off-the-wall methods that have improved your writing?

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NaNoWriMo – Find Your Reason

In a couple of weeks, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) kicks off. Thousands of writers from around the globe will attempt to write 50,000 words in one month.

Perhaps you’ve been among the thousands who’ve attempted to complete this insane challenge? Perhaps you’ve never considered it until this year? Perhaps you’re reading this blog and thinking, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll give it a try?” Whether you’re a seasoned vet, or new to the game, you should ask yourself an important question before NaNo starts on November 1st:

“Why am I doing this?”

The obvious answer is, “Because I want to, duh!” But, let’s take a step back and think beyond the obvious. We each need a specific reason for taking on such a massive task. Without one, we’re far more likely to fail. At some point during the process, we’ll smack into a wall and think, “Ugh, why am I doing this?”

Here are just a few reasons for participating in NaNoWriMo:

Start a Novel

Probably the most popular reason people decide to participate in NaNoWriMo is to start a new novel. And, why not? There’s no better way to dive into a first draft than word vomiting 50,000 words.

Write, write, write, write, write…

That’s what we’re supposed to do with a first draft: WRITE! Open the creative floodgates and go for it. But, often times, we act like perfectionists during a first draft. Many of us refuse to move on from chapter one because “It’s just not right.” Or we’ll find the strength to push on, and we’ll make it to chapter twenty before we suddenly realize we made a mistake in chapter one. Then we’ll go allllll the way back to fix it–which, inevitably, leads to starting over. Ahhhh!

NaNoWriMo prevents perfectionism. It forces us to suck it up and push through the horridness of a first draft. Because, yes, first drafts are horrible. They’re suppose to be! They should be heaping, steaming piles of plots, characters, typos, and loopholes that reek of general awfulness. Trying to make them perfect is…pointless. It’s like trying to mop the floors while your children or pets stomp around with muddy feet. Just let the mess happen and then clean it up.

If anything, think about this quote by Shannon Hale said:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Finish a Novel

Perhaps you started writing a novel last NaNo, but stopped the moment you hit 50K words. Perhaps you started writing a few months ago, but you’ve gotten stuck in the Perfectionist Zone and can’t bring yourself to move past the first 30K words. Or, perhaps, you’ve picked up your novel and written a few pages, put it down, worked on another project, picked it up again and wrote another few pages, set it down, walked off and neglected it for a month, picked it up and tried again…

Whatever the case, NaNo is a great way to finish a novel already in progress. Is this cheating? Um, no. Remember, NaNo is about writing 50K words in one month. That doesn’t mean those words have to be for a brand new novel. They can be for the second half of a novel, which is just as important as the first half.

Many writers don’t even make it to the second half of their story. They reach the middle and slam into a brick wall; and rather than kicking the wall down and trudging forward, they limp off to write another story instead. It’s just easier that way. Don’t take the easy way out. Try using NaNoWriMo to charge through the muck and mire of a story’s middle to reach the end. You might not love what you write, and you’ll likely change it in the next draft, but at least you’ll have a complete first draft. Which means you’ll have a story you can mold and shape into something fit for readers.

Get Motivated

Let’s say you’ve been out of the writing game for a while. Or maybe you’ve been battling writer’s block and just can’t find your footing. If you’ve lost your mojo, then it’s time to NaNo.

NaNoWriMo is one of the best kicks in the butt a writer can get. It’s our very own Loretta Castorini, who slaps us in the face and shouts, “Snap out of it!” (Yes, that was a “Moonstruck” reference.) When we NaNo, we don’t have time to think or question what we’re writing. We just write. Write, write, write, as fast as we can. Again, it’s all about word vomiting. We could start out writing a YA fantasy, and 10K words in realize we’re actually writing a contemporary drama. Great! Who cares? Run with it! And if the genre, plot, and/or characters change again, so be it. There are no boundaries with NaNo. We write what we want, however we want.

All that matters is we find inspiration to write and keep writing past November 30th.

Prove You Can

Have you ever been told you can’t do something? Or maybe you’re super competitive and want to win just to win?

Many people take on ridiculous challenges just to prove they can. I know I do. For example, this past summer I ran my second half marathon after I swore I’d never, EVER run one again. I was convinced my body could not handle the miles and miles and miles of asphalt, dirt paths, hills, and mountains. So, what did I do? I signed up for a race just to prove I could do it. I wanted to silence the negative voice within me that said I was too weak, too busy, too out of shape, too whatever. And silence it I did. Not only did I complete the half marathon, but I had a blast doing it (much more fun than my first half marathon ten years ago).

Writing can be like running a race. It’s hard work, it’s emotionally draining, and it can be overwhelming. We often question ourselves and everything we put on paper. We doubt our talent, our imagination, and our goals. NaNoWriMo helps silence these doubts and prove we can write. It might not be pretty, and it might be exhausting, but we can do it. And once we gain confidence, we can tackle even bigger challenges (yes, even bigger than NaNo).

Create a New Routine

Life gets busy. Chores, family, school, work, bills, meetings, special events, exercising, etc. Sometimes life gets so busy, writing plummets to the bottom of the totem pole. It’s sort of like the gym. We miss going one day and tell ourselves we’ll make it up the next. But then the next day arrives and we just can’t find the time for it, so we delay another day. Then another and another until suddenly working out is no longer part of our regular routine. It’s only something we do when the mood strikes–and it probably doesn’t strike often because we’re out of shape and–ugh! It’s gonna hurt.

Writing is the same way.

If we’ve fallen off the wagon, one of the best ways to get back on track is NaNoWriMo. Think of it like bootcamp. The first week is going to be painful, and we might not even meet our daily word count. But, as we stick to it, we’ll start to get our rhythm and flow back. Not only that, we’ll start to make time for it again. We’ll squeeze in a writing sprint while we’re waiting to pick up our kids from school. Or we’ll wake up a half hour earlier–or stay up a half hour later. Or we’ll choose to skip Netflix after dinner and escape somewhere quiet to write instead.

NaNoWriMo forces us to adjust our schedules, reset our priorities, and make time to write. Better yet, we’ll be able to carry our new routines past November 30th.

There are many reasons to participate in NaNoWriMo (far more than I’ve listed). Whatever your reason is, make sure you have one. And don’t just say, “I want to start a novel.” Be specific. “I’m going to start a novel, and I’m not going to revise as I go.” Or “I want to finish my novel, and then revise it starting December 1st so it’s ready for literary agents by May 1st.”

Find your purpose with NaNoWriMo, and you’re sure to win it. Good luck!

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5 Steps to Take Before Writing a Novel

There are so many tips about how to write a novel. And there are even more tips on what to do with that novel once you’ve finished it. But, what about the things you should do before you start writing a novel?

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Okay, I can already hear some of you out there saying, “Sometimes you can’t think about what you’re doing. You just need to jump in and go. Write, write, write!” Yes, I agree. However, if you’re serious about doing something with your novel after you finish it, then there are some important steps to take before you go full throttle.

5 Steps to Take Before Writing A Novel

1: Fall in love

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It’s not always easy to know if you’re in love with a story until you begin developing it. However, you should be in love with the idea. Novels are no picnic. They take months (or, more often, years) to write, invite criticism, and get rejected–again and again. If you don’t love yours from the very beginning, then you’re probably not going to make it past the first obstacle (which could come as early as the first draft; heck, maybe even the first chapter).

So, before you begin writing a story, ask yourself, “Do I love this idea?” If the answer’s, “No, not really,” then you might want to consider another idea.

2: Sell it!

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You came up with an idea that you love. Excellent! But, wait. Don’t start writing yet. Just because you love an idea doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. To others, it might sound dull, or confusing, or similar to a story they’ve read before. So, swallow your nerves (and pride) and go talk to your most trusted–and honest–friends/family/writing pals. See what they think of the idea. Note their facial expressions, read their body language, and listen to their words. It’s hard for many of us to accept criticism, but if someone finds a flaw with our work, even in its earliest stages, we need to consider it.

Now, if your idea gets a lackluster reaction, don’t automatically throw it in the trash (if you do, you probably didn’t love it as much as you thought you did). Talk to your critics first. Ask them why they don’t like it. Is it because it sounds like another story they’ve read? Is it because they’re not a fan of horror (or whatever genre your story is)? Is it because they started daydreaming in the middle of your pitch? Remember, your friends and family are human. Therefore, they’re subjective.

My best advice: pitch your idea to at least three people (preferably those who will, without a doubt, give you their most honest opinion). Then gauge their reaction before you fully commit yourself to a project that could consume years of your life.

3: Research the market

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Say you have a dream about a world where love is outlawed. You wake up and think, “Hmm, that was weird, but it could be a cool book.” So, you mull it over and decide you love the idea. But, instead of outlawing love, you decide to make love a disease that needs to be cured, and your main character needs to prove to the world it isn’t. It’s a gift!

Ooh, that’s good. Really good.

So, you roll up your sleeves and begin writing your story. You mention the concept to a friend, but they’re not a big reader, so they think it’s great, too. Encouraged by their positive reaction, you write and write and write. Finally, you have a presentable draft to send to your beta readers. Three of the four tell you, “I’d be careful. This story is really similar to Lauren Oliver’s, ‘Delirium.'” You frown and Google “Delirium.” Your jaw drops. The plot is nearly identical to yours.

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Don’t let this scenario happen to you! Before you dive into an idea you love, find out if it’s been done before. Ask Google, talk to your bookworm friends, get input from your trustworthy writing pals, chat with a librarian, etc. If your idea is popular enough, someone is bound to give you a head’s up. And then you can decide to either alter it, drop it, or continue to write it knowing it’s already been done before.

4: Pinpoint your target audience

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You have a cute idea for a romance that you really like, so you pitch it to your friends. They think it’s cute too (yay!). You sit down and begin writing. You don’t really think about what type of romance you’re creating (you don’t really know there are different types of romances out there, each for a specific audience). So, you write in happy bliss until you finish and send the novel off to a handful of beta readers. Their feedback trickles in. Most are positive and think it just needs some tweaking. One, however, is confused. They can’t figure out if your novel fits in rom-com, erotica, or women’s fiction. It has a little of everything. But, you decide to ignore them because they’re the only one who complained, and polish the manuscript up. You send it off to agents, nervous and excited, confident you’ll have a request for your full manuscript within weeks.

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Crickets! Why? Because you had no defined audience. Instead of narrowing your focus, you tried to appeal to three different markets: Women who wanted a lighthearted, funny story. Women who wanted hot, steamy sex. And women who wanted an emotional, soul-searching journey. As tempting as it is to reach far and wide with your story, you have to zero in on a specific group. Not only will that help an agent sell it (or yourself if you’re self-publishing), but it’ll help you put together a stronger, more cohesive story.

Now, I understand figuring out your target audience might be difficult before you start writing a novel. However, you should have a decent idea of who you’re writing for before you type the first word. Children? Young adults? Women? Men? Both men and women? As you write subsequent drafts, narrow your focus to a specific group.

5: Set goals

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“I guess I’ll write today.”

“I’m not really sure what I want to do with this book.”

“I’ll just go with the flow and see where things lead.” 

If you enter a project feeling aimless, then chances are you’ll never finish it. Or you’ll stop and go, stop and go, and it’ll take years to reach the final chapter. Trust me, I’d know. That’s why I strongly urge you to create goals. They become the backbone of our success. Personally, I like to set three before I begin a novel.

  1. An ultimate goal. AKA, what to do with a story once it’s finished. Get published by one of the Big Five? Self-publish? Or write purely to write? There is no wrong answer.
  2. A deadline goal to help reach the finish line in a timely manner. Circle a date on your calendar and aim to finish your first draft by it. Or present a copy to your beta readers. Or send your first batch of query letters. Or hire an editor to evaluate the story. Whatever! The type of deadline is up to you. Just try and be as specific about it as possible.
  3. A daily goal to keep you on track to meet your deadline. This should be a quantifiable objective, like word count, timed hours, or completed chapters.

Sometimes when we sit down to write, all we want to do is write. No plan, no concept, no long-term commitment. Just write! And that’s great. However, once we make the decision to commit to a novel, finish it, and do something with it, we need to consider each of these steps. You might not come up with an exact answer for each, but you should at least consider each before embarking on your writing journey.

Good luck with your project!

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Then, and then, and then

There’s a word out there many writers love to use, including myself. We like to insert it into a sentence and then sit back and smile. Then, without realizing it, we like to use it again three sentences later. Then again, then again, then again.

Jen's Editing Tips

And then, after we’ve put the finishing touches on our work, we send it off to our beta readers to critique. Then, after waiting on pins and needles, we get their feedback and discover we’ve used and abused this most beloved word. So, we then grab a red pen and start crossing it out.

Cross, cross, cross!

With each deletion, our adoration for this word cools, colder then colder. Then, before we know it, we realize the word is nothing more than a crutch. A filler. A fluff word that acts like a catalyst for action and movement, but then turns out to be a hinderance in disguise. So, we then decide to avoid the word unless it’s absolutely necessary.

But then, and only then.

And Then

Like the word “as,” many writers tend to overuse the word “then.” Who can blame them? It’s a great word! Unfortunately, when we repeat it again and again, we risk a handful of problems:

Fluff, fluff, fluff

In a way, “then” is like “that.” At least 50% of the time, we don’t need it. It’s a fluff word we insert on instinct, not necessity. We also tend to add words around “then” to help us transition into the rest of a scene; fluff words that lead to over-explained actions, cluttered sentences, and stilted tones.

To show you what I mean, here’s an example from my action-adventure, “La Jolla.”

With “then”:

Cole pried himself free and then struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

But then, before he could reach his brother, the bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole cried out and then his knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him, but then missed.

Right then, Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails. “Cole!”

Then the tracks collapsed.

Then the train plummeted.

Without “then”: 

Cole pried himself free and struggled on. He had to get to Finn.

The bridge heaved, like a briny belch had blown out of the waters below. Cole’s knees buckled. Cal Poly made a mad grab for him and missed.

“Cole!” Finn’s shrill voice cut through the metallic booms and wails.

The tracks collapsed.

The train plummeted.

Laundry List 

The more we use “then,” the more our stories resemble a laundry list of actions. Mr. Character did this, then this, then this, then this

After a while, our stories start to sound like a broken record. And we all know what happens when a reader gets bored or annoyed by a story’s repetitive rhythm…Yep! They stop reading.

Here’s another example to illustrate what I’m talking about.

With “then”:

And then gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and then smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and then even backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole then looked down.

Finn raised his arm and then strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—and then Finn lunged and grabbed Cole’s wrist. Right then, as he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and then catapulted him into the rear window face first.

And then, for a breathless moment, he stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Without “then”: 

Gravity’s force lifted Cole off the ground and smashed him into the ceiling. Purses, cameras, and backpacks whipped past him.

“Grab my hand!”

Cole looked down.

Finn strained to reach him. Their fingers brushed once, twice—Finn lunged and grabbed his wrist. As he yanked Cole down, the train plunged into the water. The impact tore Cole out of Finn’s white-knuckled grip and catapulted him into the rear window face first. He stared through the spider-webbed cracks spreading across the glass, down into a deep, black chasm.

Spoon-Feed 

Then this happened, Ms. Reader. Then this. And then this–Are you following along, Ms. Reader? Am I being clear enough? Because then this happened. And then this…

Readers are smart. They do not need to be taken by the hand and guided from point A, to point B, to point C, etc. So, be brave and trust your audience’s intelligence by transitioning scenes in simpler, more creative ways than “then.”

Here’s one more example from “La Jolla” to show you what I’m talking about:

With “then”: 

Then Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. Then he sat up and blinked. All around him, a symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. Then he took a deep breath and struggled to his feet. Then he reached up and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down and then set him on the ground.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” Then he kneeled down and struck the damaged window with his elbow. Then again and again.

Nothing.

Then, out of nowhere, Cal Poly appeared. “Watch out!” She peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. Then Cole blinked. He thought about asking her how she’d found it, but then decided it didn’t matter. People packed the weirdest stuff. Then he took hold of Finn’s arm and shoved him back, out of the way.

And then Cal Poly dropped it.

Without “then”: 

Cole rolled over. With the train vertical, everybody, including Finn, hung above him. A symphony of sobbing pleas, splintering glass, and grinding metal deafened his ears. He struggled to his feet and unbuckled Finn. “You okay, buddy?” He lifted him down.

Finn nodded.

“Good, cause we gotta go.” He struck the damaged window with his elbow.

Nothing.

“Watch out!” Cal Poly peered over the top of her seat with a five-pound dumbbell. He didn’t ask her where or how she’d found it. People packed the weirdest stuff. He shoved Finn back.

She dropped it.

So, how do we prevent ourselves from overusing “then”? Well, here are a few strategies I have found helpful:

  1. Read your story out loud. You’ll be amazed how many repetitive words and phrases you hear when you do this.
  2. Ask someone to read your story to you. That way you can close your eyes and listen to it without being distracted by how it looks on screen/paper.
  3. Use the “Find” option and search for “then.” Remove as many as you can.
  4. Replace “then” with a ridiculous word like “hiccup.” See if you need to keep it. Chances are, you don’t.

So, there you go! I hope you’re able to take this editing tip and apply it to your work. Heaven knows I have to every time I sit down to write.

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

For more tips, visit my Jen’s Editing Tips page!

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…

See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less). So, keep it simple.

2. The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”

“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.

Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”

“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy!”

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, and why they’re important to the plot.

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

This tends to be a hot debate amongst writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.

Let’s look at an example. Below are two synopses based on my flash fiction horror, “Why?”.

Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.

With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations. From start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.

With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.

4. Single POV

When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.

Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.

5. Think Outside the Box

Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction). So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming.

My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then someone else did, too.

Well, there you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work. And I hope they work for you, too!

How about you? What are some of your tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

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