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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2018 – The Year to Dream, Write, and Read

My number one goal in 2017 was to buckle down and finish my novel…and have it ready for literary agents by year’s end. Thanks to avoiding writing contests and cutting back on blogging (er, sorry guys!), I achieved my goal.

Now it’s time to create some new goals for 2018. Just like 2017, I plan to keep my goals simple. I’ve discovered the simpler the goals, the more likely I’ll succeed. So, without further ado, here we go:

#1 goal: Find a literary agent. YIKES! I’ve been on this journey before and it isn’t easy. There’s lots of work, waiting, and rejection. Oh, the rejection! No matter how great I feel about my novel, and no matter how confident I feel about its commercial appeal, rejection is inevitable. It’s just how the industry works. An agent might not be looking for the type of project I’m selling (even if they represent the genre). Or they might be having a rotten day and dislike everything set in front of them. Or they just might not like it (ouch).

I can only hope I’ll find an agent who loves my novel as much as I do. It might take all of 2018–or even longer–but I’m determined to find someone who’ll give me a chance to finally achieve my lofty dream of being a New York Times Best Seller.

#2 goal: Start a new novel. The last time I queried a novel, I refused to think of any other stories. I kept my focus on that novel for almost three years. Granted, I spent a lot of that time revising and editing for the agent/Hollywood producer who had optioned it. But, still. There would be months where I’d twiddle my thumbs and wait for news and/or requests for additional revisions. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock…

Waiting and waiting and waiting. Not once daring to think of starting a new book.

Talk about wasting both my time and creative juices! I also had no net to catch me for when my option contract expired and my entire world seemed to collapse. It took me six months to pick myself back up and start writing again. It took me another year to find an idea that inspired a new novel. It took me another two years to actually write it. GAH!

I refuse to repeat history. A new novel is a must. Right now! Before the waiting games begin, the ominous silence sets in, and the rejections pop into my email. I want my safety net. More importantly, I want to keep writing. I love writing, so why wouldn’t I start a new project? The one I’ve chosen is actually from an exercise my writing group does every month called “Don’t Think Just Write.” We get a prompt and have exactly one hour to write a 1K word story. I decided to participate in December and the story I came up with triggered an idea for a plot for an entire novel. As with my last novel, I won’t go into detail about it, but it’ll be in the same genre as the novel I’m currently shopping around.

(See what I did there?)

#3 goal: Read, read, read! For the past two years, I’ve struggled to read more than 20 books/year. To some this might sound like a lot. To others, pitifully low. For me, it’s on the pitiful side. I use to read between 60-80 books every year. But ever since I joined a writing group, entered more interactive writing contests, and started a freelance editing service, my reading habits have dramatically changed. I spend more time reading unpublished work than I do reading published work. I’ve also been working on my own novel, and that involves a lot–A LOT–of reading. I think I re-read my manuscript at least 15 times as I edited and revised (thrilling, I know).

However, I’d like to find a better balance between the unpublished and published stories I read. So, in 2018, my goal will be to read 30-40 books.

That’s it! Those are my top three goals for 2018. What are some of yours?

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NaNoWriMo Tips – It’s Over, So Now What

It’s December 1st. That means NaNoWriMo is officially over!

Victorious. Exhausted. Excited. Disappointed. If you participated in NaNo, you might be feeling one or all of these things. Maybe you excelled and blasted past the 50K word goal? Maybe you clawed your way to the finish line? Maybe you tripped and stumbled early on and never found your footing again? However you’re feeling, there’s one question you should be asking yourself today:

“Now what?”

For many, December 1st arrives and they shove their manuscript into a drawer and leave it there until next November–or until it collects so much dust, they trash it years down the road. Hey, that’s totally fine if your goal is to simply tackle a crazy writing challenge and then move on with life.

Many other writers, however, go into NaNo with the intention to write and finish a novel. Unfortunately, by November 30th, many are:

  1. Burned out: You just wrote for an entire month. You need a break. Just a small one! But, a few days turn into a few weeks. Then a few months. Then, before you know it, it’s November 1st again and you haven’t touched last year’s NaNo project.
  2. Disappointed: You didn’t reach 50K words. You’re mad, you’re frustrated, you’re defeated. Why bother continuing?
  3. Overwhelmed: November 1st hits and you have a clear purpose in mind: NaNo! You write, write, write with only one goal in mind: reach 50K words by November 30th. Now NaNo is over and you have a lot of words and no idea what to do with them. You try to maintain your NaNo routine, but it’s exhausting and you aren’t sure if you’re even going in the right direction. What is this thing you’ve created? Is it even a story? Or just word vomit? Ugh, it’s too much. Can’t think. Must run away!
  4. Distracted: You’ve been working on the same project for a month, and although you like what you’ve come up with, you decide to shift your focus to a smaller project, like a short story. You fully intend to return to your manuscript within a week or two, but then it’s the holidays and you’re consumed by festivities. You make a New Year’s resolution to finish your novel, but you keep procrastinating by tackling smaller projects. Let’s face it, they’re easier than diving back into a messy NaNo novel.
  5. Impatient: You feel GREAT! You exceeded 50K words and love–LOVE–your story! In fact, you think it’s good enough to publish. All you need to do is make a few tweaks here and there, and boom! Off to agents it goes. By January, you’ll have a publishing deal and be on your way.

This is the truth about NaNoWriMo: It’s only the beginning of a long journey. But, listen. If you have the passion and right mindset, you can conquer that journey. So, before you throw in the towel and give up (or jump the gun and declare your half-finished, slapdash novel worthy of an agent’s eye) consider these options:

  1. Keep writing: Maybe you reached 50K, maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter. If you like the story you’ve started, then keep writing. No, you don’t need to write at the breakneck pace you did during November, but you should do everything in your power to maintain a writing routine. Get that puppy finished! And once you’ve finished your first draft, keep going. Rewrite, revise, edit. Send it to a couple of beta readers for feedback. Revise some more. Write, write, write until you’re 100% happy with the finished product. It might take you three months of hard work. It might take you three years. If you keep at it, you’ll reach the real finish line: a complete, polished story.
  2. Start over: You reached 50K words and you like your story, but you don’t love the direction it’s going–at all! In fact, you worry that if you keep going, you’ll lose all motivation and quit. Well, you know what? It’s okay to start over. Really! Although I’m a strong believer in plowing through the murky, fuzzy, I-have-no-idea-how-I’m-going-to-get-from-A-to-Z section of a story, I also believe sometimes the best thing to do is to stop the bleeding and go back to chapter one. Start fresh and set yourself on the right track. That way when you approach those pesky roadblocks that halted you before, you’re able to smash through them. Or, you know, chisel through them. Whatever works best for you. The point is to keep writing until you have a complete novel.
  3. Ditch it: Okay, so you don’t love the story you chose for NaNo. In fact, you don’t even like it, not even a little. The plot is stagnant, the characters are stale, and the very thought of continuing is headache worthy. Stop wasting your time! Seriously. One of the reasons NaNo is so great is because it lets you experiment. You get to choose an idea and see if it has any legs to stand on. Sometimes–er, many times–our stories don’t make it past the crawling stage. It’s okay. At least you know the story’s a dud. Now you can hop straight into a new idea in December.

A few additional things to consider to help you succeed with your novel:

  1. Create new goals: Whether you decide to keep writing, start over with the same story, or ditch your idea completely, it’s prudent to create goals. Specific goals. In November, your goal was to write 50K words in one month. In December, maybe your goal will be to write 25K words in one month? Or write one chapter per week? Or write one hour per day? Your goal can be anything you want it to be. Just make sure it’s specific. If you say, “I just want to finish my novel,” you’re probably not going to finish it (at least, not in a timely manner).
  2. Incorporate writing into your daily life: Like anything in life (eating healthy, working out, reading before bed, etc.), if you make writing a habit, you’re more likely to stick with it. Instead of worrying about your novel once a year, you’ll worry about it every day.
  3. Be realistic: If you start a brand new novel on November 1st (or if you decide to finish one you’ve already started) that doesn’t mean it’s ready for literary agents on December 1st. Even if you’re a writing machine and an editing wizard, you won’t be ready. At minimum, you need to spend the month of December revising and editing. It’d also be a good idea to take a step back for a couple of weeks and clear your head. Gain some distance and come back with fresh eyes. You may think your book is PERFECT right now, but I assure you, it’s not. Give it the treatment it deserves. You’ve already worked so hard on it. Don’t ruin it by rushing it.

Personally, this is the quote I cling to every time I start a novel. Maybe it’ll help those of you who are thinking of quitting at the 50K mark?

Congratulations to all those who “won” NaNoWriMo. And good luck to all those (“winners” or not) who are determined to continue writing!

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Bottoms Up – 1st Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Lat weekend I competed in my 5th Flash Fiction Challenge. Yep, I keep coming back year after year to punish myself with sleep deprivation, lots of hair pulling and crying, and heart palpitations…Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. Well, it used to be when I was still figuring out how to handle this mad-dash writing contest. But after 17-rounds, I think I’ve finally figured out my process. (If you care to, you may read about my full experience here).

As a reminder, I had 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story based on these prompts:

Genre: Comedy

Location: A bartending school

Object: Sandpaper

Thanks in advance for reading, and thanks for any feedback you might have!

“Bottoms Up”

 By Jenna Willett

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).


 

A flashing advertisement caught Jax’s eye as he skimmed through his Facebook feed:

CALLING ALL WANNABE BARTENDERS!

Intrigued, he clicked on the ad:

Looking for a career in bartending? Bottoms Up has an EXCELLENT opportunity!

Learn the tricks of the trade, gain real-life experience, and walk away with a job.

No experience necessary. Paid training. Good work ethic a MUST.

Where: Bottoms Up, 1932 Blake St., Denver, CO

When: Every Sunday until filled

Time: 9 a.m. – Noon

Belly up to the bar and chug down this opportunity. Chug, chug, chug!

Jax snickered at the cheesy ad, but bookmarked it anyway. In less than a week he’d be a college graduate with zero job prospects. His parents had offered to let him move home, but he wanted to make it on his own. He only needed help with his phone, car, groceries, rent, and utilities. He could handle the real necessities like yoga classes, Netflix, and Starbucks. He couldn’t go a day without a green tea frappuccino with hazelnut (grande, extra whipped cream).

Inspired to bartend, Jax pulled up his Twitter app.

Found a job! Go me! #workingman #showmethemoney

The next morning, Jax arrived at Bottoms Up at nine o’clock on the dot. Well, close enough to the dot. Juggling his frap, he stepped into a dim interior and smelled stale beer, perfume, and a trace of weed. Lipstick-smeared shot glasses and empty beer bottles lined a mahogany bar; and peanut shells, glitter, and other debris littered a checkered floor.

“You’re late.”

Jax swiveled around. An older woman with ice-blonde hair, Khaleesi red lipstick, and a tight-fitting tank top emerged from the gloom. Behind her trailed a thirty-something man with bubbly green eyes. Another trainee?

“Uh, yeah. Hey.” Jax sighed. “I’m here for the bartending school—job thingy.”

The woman crossed her arms. “The ad said nine.”

He blinked.

“It’s almost ten, pup.”

“Hmm.” Jax sipped his frap.

The woman rolled her eyes. “That’s strike one. When you hit three, you’re outta here.” She marched over to the bar.

The thirty-something man grinned at Jax, then pranced after her. A perky poodle happy to obey its master.

Jax, however, remained rooted to the spot, shocked by the woman’s biting disapproval. He’d only been an hour late. Big deal.

He pulled out his phone and tweeted:

Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed. #bitchboss #newjobsucks

“What’s your name, pup?”

“Jax.” He shuffled across the room, one eye on the messy floor, the other on his Twitter notifications. So many likes and retweets!

“I’m Bobby and your boss if you make it through training.”

Jax’s face fell. “The job’s not mine?” How could that be? He’d driven here. He’d walked through the door. He’d shown up! By tonight, he planned to be a bartender. By tomorrow, promoted to manager. By month’s end, part-owner. No, owner!

“As I’ve already explained to Rififi, you’ll need—”

“Rif-what?” Jax snorted.

C’est moi!” Poodle Man beamed. “Ri-fee-fee. C’est français. It means . . . er, how you say, trooblah?”

“Trouble?”

Oui!” He winked at Jax. The same coy wink Jax usually reserved for girls, though he refused to identify as a cisgendered straight male. He hated labels.

He smirked at his phone and tweeted:

Good news, co-worker LOVES me! #hottyalert #solit #singlelife

“Strike two.” Bobby grabbed a broom and thrust it at Jax. “Put that dang thing away, and start cleaning.”

“Cleaning?” Jax gaped at her. “I thought this was a bartending school?”

“It is. But if you wanna work here, pup, you’ve gotta start in the trenches.”

“The what?” He’d never—Why would he even—He was about to graduate college! Sure, it had taken him six years to complete a degree in University Studies, but so what? He deserved everything he wanted.

Jax’s phone dinged. A text from his mom:

How’s the new job? You’re a superstar!

He relaxed and took another sip of his frap.

“If you wanna stay, get to work.” Bobby vanished through a swinging door behind the bar.

Jax glared at his phone and tweeted.

New boss is such a hard-ass! #feelingannoyed #fuckher

Alors.” Rififi clapped. “Zee faster we clean, poop—”

“Pup?

“—zen zee faster we drink!”

Jax frowned. “You mean, the faster we get to learn how to make drinks?”

Oui, oui!” The Frenchman scooped up beer bottles. “We make zee drinks, zen we drink zee drinks. Many drinks. Oui, oui?” Another salacious wink.

“Uh, sure. Wee-wee.

The Frenchman giggled and began sweeping random objects off the floor: a high heel, a strip of sandpaper, a pair of swimming goggles, and a feather duster.

Tres intéressant!” Rififi flicked the feather duster at Jax’s nose. “Nudey, nudey.”

“Naughty, naughty?”

“Ah, oui, oui.”

Jax shook his head and reluctantly dragged the broom across the floor a few times. Too bored for words, he gave up and snapped a selfie holding a beer bottle.

Need a drink? I do! #workshardforthemoney #thestruggleisreal

He took a seat and admired all the likes. Five, ten, twenty . . .

“That’s strike three, pup.”

“Hmm?” Jax hardly glanced up.

“That means it’s time to go.”

“Why?” Twenty more likes. Awesome!

“Look,” Bobby sighed, “I don’t need another lazy, entitled, self-centered millen—”

“Lazy?” He looked up, dumbfounded. Hadn’t she seen him sweep? He should get a raise!

Rififi flounced past with the feather duster and a knotted trash bag.

“What about him?” Jax pointed at the buoyant Frenchman.

“He’s enjoying himself while he works. And he’s proving he wants to be a bartender. You, on the other hand…” Her eyes drifted to the front door.

Heat rushed to Jax’s cheeks. “This is bull! I can’t even—ugh! I don’t deserve this. It’s not fair!”

Bobby tilted her head.

“Screw it. I don’t need this.” He grabbed his green tea frappuccino with hazelnut and stomped to the door.

Au revoir, poop!” Rififi waved.

Jax slammed the door shut, and tweeted:

Fuck it! #iquit #whatevs

 

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Jen’s Editing Tips – Why, Why, Why

The past few months, I’ve critiqued around 90 stories. During that time, I’ve noticed a common issue that has left me scratching my head all too often. It’s an issue every writer deals with, but not every writer knows to address until someone (a beta, an editor, a reader, etc.) points it out to them.

Jen's Editing Tips

“What’s the point of this story?”

“Your plot feels aimless.”

“Why is this happening?”

“Why is that happening?”

“Why? Why? WHY?”

As obvious as it is, stories need a purpose. Whether it’s something as grand as saving the world, or something subtler like self-discovery, every story needs something that drives it forward. A key motive that is the backbone of everything else. I like to call this the “Big Why.”

“Why am I writing this story?”

“Why does my protagonist exist?”

“Why will readers care?”

You should be asking yourself these vital questions while you write. No, you shouldn’t let them consume you to the point you can’t write anything at all. In fact, I’d recommend during your first draft (or two) you simply write and not worry about the Big Why. Let it develop as you go along. However, by the time you’re approaching your final draft(s), you should have a solid answer. If you can’t verbalize the main purpose of your story to a stranger (yes, I know we all hate the dreaded, “What’s your story about?” question) then you need to step back and think about it.

Once you’ve nailed down your Big Why, it’s time to support it. For example, you can say, “My story is about a girl with special powers who saves the world from an evil madman.” But, why? Why does this particular girl have to be the one who saves the world? Can’t someone else do it? And why does this evil madman want to take over the world? And why is he evil? And a madman?

As storytellers, we need to dig deeper with our motives. Saying, “I don’t know” or “Just because” won’t satisfy readers. Everything needs to have a reason, and those reasons need to be unique. Don’t say the girl has to save the world because she’s gifted (or, worse, because she’s “the chosen one”). Give her depth, obstacles, tragedy, hope–something that triggers her desire to rescue mankind. And don’t say the madman wants to conquer the world because he’s power hungry. Why does he want power? Why is he so hellbent on world domination? Again,  “I don’t know” and “Just because” won’t cut it. Give readers more. Help them understand so they’re able to connect to your story.

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Digging into the Big Why means digging into every aspect of your story. If you don’t have a viable explanation for each component, then you need to consider the reason for its existence.

Characters

Do you ever notice when a book gets adapted into a film, the film version sometimes (ahem, all the time) chops out secondary characters (and subplots)? Yeah, it annoys me too. But let’s think about why Hollywood does this: They have to condense a 400-page book into a two-hour film. That means they have to be picky and only use what matters. And what matters are the things that support the Big Why.

Although I hate seeing my favorite books butchered, I have to admit I like Hollywood’s general strategy from an editor’s standpoint. It’s brutal, but necessary. All of us (myself included) have to be willing to whittle our stories down to the essentials. Which means we have to examine all aspects, including our characters. As much as we want all of our imaginary friends and foes to stick around, sometimes–er, many times–it’s not in our story’s best interest. We have to put on our “Hollywood Caps” and start asking, “Why?”

“Why does this character exist?”

“Why do I need three sidekicks? Isn’t two plenty?”

“Why do I have two women with different names, but similar roles?”

Why, why, WHY? Just like The Big Why, we have to evaluate each character and figure out what the point of their existence is. If they’re not driving the plot forward, then give them a hug and part ways. Or take what you love about them and combine it with another (more valuable) character.

Plots

Just like with characters, not every plot line needs to stay in a story. In fact, the more plots you have, the foggier the Big Why can become. This isn’t to say multiple plots lines are bad. Not at all! Just look at “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Fall of Giants,” and “The Lunar Chronicles.” Each has multiple plots, but each of those plots matter. And, one way or another, they all contribute to the Big Why.

Unfortunately, many writers fall into the deep, dark Plot Pit. They keep inessential story lines that take readers away from the main focus and into a maze of, “Huh?” These include random tangents, excessive info dumps, and sentimental scenes nobody but the author understands. So, once again, as you’re editing, sit back and ask yourself why:

“Why does this plot exist?”

“Why is this scene relevant?”

“Why will this plot matter in the long run?”

Words, Words, Words

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I know we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, but we must if we want our stories (and their Big Whys) to stand out. We can create the best plots and the best characters, but readers won’t be able to appreciate them if they get lost in translation. So, everyone grab their beloved red pen and start asking:

“Why do I need this paragraph? This sentence? This word?”

“Why did I use dialogue here?”

“Why not break up this paragraph and add more white space?”

Obviously this isn’t a step to take during your first couple of drafts (if you do, you won’t get anything done). But, when you begin to edit and polish your manuscript, go at it. Attack every page with your red pen. Slash the fat, rearrange words, and tighten things up until every aspect of your story reads loud and clear.

The more you ask, “Why?” about your story, the clearer its purpose will become. Just remember there’s a time and place for everything, and that includes asking this important question. Don’t let it bog you down every step of the way. Ask it when the time is right…Just make sure to ask it at some point.

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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10 Tips For NaNoWriMo

Every year, I debate whether or not I’m going to participate in NaNoWriMo. It always depends on what project I’m currently working on and what stage of that project I’m in.

This year, I’m not participating.

I really am sad, because I love NaNo! But I’m knee deep in the sixth (er, seventh?) draft of my novel at the moment, so it’s just not the right time to sit down at my computer and word vomit all over the place. However, if you’re looking to word vomit (er, whip out a draft of a new or old project), then NaNo’s perfect for you!

50,000 words in one month…Are you up for it?

Yes? Great! As difficult as it is, NaNoWriMo is an awesome experience. In fact, I think every writer should give it a shot at least once in their career.

To help those brave souls who’ve decided to take on the daunting task of writing a novel (well, a big chunk of a novel) in a month,  check out my top ten tips for surviving NaNoWriMo.

Jen’s Top 10 NaNoWriMo Tips

1. Decide Why You’re Participating

 “I dunno, I signed up just because.”

No, no, no! Don’t say this when people ask you why you’re doing NaNoWriMo. Give a valid, reliable, motivating reason to participate:

“I’ve been slacking lately and need a kick in the butt.”

“I have a great idea for a novel.”

“People say NaNo’s impossible. I’m gonna prove them wrong!”

Whatever your personal motive, make sure you have one. Don’t sign up for NaNoWriMo “just because.” If you do, you’ll likely fail. You’ll inevitably hit a rough patch and think, “Ugh, why am I even doing this? Forget it. I’m done.”

2. Just Write! 

 NaNoWriMo is a great way to start or finish the first draft of a novel, or to completely rewrite an old one. It’s not a great way to revise or edit a novel. And it’s definitely not a great way to write a masterpiece that’s ready to be published on December 1st. Nope, sorry!

So, stop stressing about making things perfect, resist the temptation to edit or revise along the way, and don’t get upset about a watered down plot or 2D characters.

JUST WRITE!

Close your eyes, open your mind, and tap, tap, tap your fingers against your keyboard. And, remember, this is a rough draft. You won’t be showing it off to many (if any) people. So, let the words flow and don’t stop to question them. If you do, you’ll never make it to 50K by November 30th.

3. Don’t Skip Days

The first time I participated in NaNo, I missed the first three days because I was in a writing contest. And after that, I missed a few more days because, well, I missed them. Life happened. I didn’t feel like writing. I was tired. I had better things to do. Etc., etc.

Bad idea.

Missing one day is okay. Not good, but not horrible. But after one day, the word count deficit starts to pile up–fast! Within one week of my first NaNo, I was behind schedule by 10,000 words, and the only way I was going to catch back up was to increase my daily word count–ack!

Do yourself a favor and spit out those words every day, even if you don’t feel like it.

4. Be Proactive

Don’t live on the edge if you don’t have to. Give yourself a word count cushion.

After I climbed out of the deep, dark word count abyss I’d fallen into, I decided to take the bull by the horns and get ahead of schedule. On days I had extra time, energy, and motivation, I blasted past my daily goal and kept writing. Why not? Who knew how I’d feel the next day, or if my life would blow up and I wouldn’t be able to sit down and write?

Because of this “get ahead” strategy, I was able to finish almost a week early.

5. Find an Idea You Love

When you hit those “ugh” moments, or you’re just flat out tired, it’ll be your passion and excitement for a story that gets you through. So, make sure choose one you love. Find a plot you want to explore and a cast of characters you want to know better. They should have the power to enthrall and entice you, and keep you motivated on a daily basis.

I promise, if you feel “meh” about your story before you start it, you’ll feel “meh” about it the whole time. And, sooner or later, you’ll throw in the towel.

6. Evolve With Your Idea

There is a very good chance the story you set out to write won’t be the story you end up writing. This is especially true for those of us who are “pantsters” rather than “plotters.” We assume we’re going to take a left at the fork, but end up taking a right instead. That’s okay.

Remember: JUST WRITE!

Don’t add constraints or limit yourself because the story “was supposed to go this way.” Go with the flow and see where things take you. After all, this isn’t a final draft. It’s an exploration of the story you will–hopefully–continue pursuing long after the November 30th deadline.

7. Embrace a Love-Hate Relationship

 Even if you’re infatuated with your story, you’ll probably become infuriated with it at some point. You’ll have moments when you question your concept, or realize you despise a certain character, or fear you chose the wrong path back in chapter five.

It’s okay! First drafts aren’t meant to be perfect or 100% lovable. They’re ugly, troublesome, and, more often than not, a total nightmare.

So, accept the inevitable love-hate relationship you’ll have with your story, remind yourself you’ll be able to revise those despicable spots in the future, and keep chugging along.

8. Lean On Other Writers for Support

I often tell people, “Writers have their own language.” And, it’s true. We do. We naturally understand each other and are able to relate to each other’s woes. So, why not befriend a few? Trust me, you’ll need their cheers, pep talks, and internet hugs to survive the NaNoWriMo roller coaster.

If you aren’t sure where to find potential writing pals, here are a few suggestions:

  1. NaNoWriMo’s website. It allows you to network and make solid connections. If you’d like to add me as a buddy, my username is jenspenden.
  2. Twitter. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve met there and have created genuine, supportive friendships with. Be sure to check out hashtags like #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoWriMo2016, #NaNoPrep. And, of course, feel free to follow me (@jenspenden). I’ll happily follow you in return!
  3. Writing Blogs. Follow them, read them, and leave genuine comments on posts. If you do, you’ll naturally connect with other writers.
  4. Writing Contests. This one might sound strange, but some of my best writing friends have come from participating in writing contests, especially those that allow you to interact with other competitors (ex: NYC Midnight).

Whatever your method, I highly recommend you befriend other writers. Life becomes so much better once you do.

9. Have Fun! 


I mean it. Enjoy the experience. Yes, NaNo is stressful, insane, and a lot–a lot–of work. But nobody is forcing you to do it (well, I hope not). So, why not have fun with it?

Whenever I hit a low point during NaNo, I like to sit back in my chair and laugh at the absurdity of writing 50K words in one month. Who does that? Seriously? Or I like to take a deep breath and embrace my accomplishments. I figure every word I write deserves a round of applause, even if it wasn’t the best word in the world.

10. Worst Case Scenario

The worst thing that can happen? You don’t reach the 50K goal by November 30th.

Big. Deal.

Okay, maybe it is a big deal and you want to focus on that goal to keep you motivated. Great! However, in my opinion, the point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to barf out 50,000 words for the sake of barfing out 50,000 words. It’s to help writers focus and kick-start a steady writing routine that carries them past the November 30th deadline.

So, if you’re approaching the deadline, and you’re nowhere near the 50K word finish line, who cares? Keep going. Keep writing! The only true failure in NaNoWriMo is giving up completely.

Well, there you go! I hope you found at least one of my tips for NaNoWriMo useful. Good luck, everyone! And remember:

JUST WRITE!

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