Monday, December 16, 2013

Twitter's Writing Conundrums, vol. 1

I asked Twitter if they had any burning writing questions. Here are the first five. Got another one? Ask in the comments, and I'll do another post later.


Because I'm on Prednisone and Codeine cough syrup, which means I'm full of energy and love for the world. And I also have a major case of the munchies, so don't grab for my Peppermint Patties unless you wish to draw back a nub. :)

The usual caveats: Answers come from my personal experience. Your mileage may vary. My way is not the only way. If you follow my links to Chuck Wendig's blog, prepare for NSFW vocabulary.

1. How do you know if a book is MG, YA, or Adult?

Here's a great post on this topic from Claire Legrand and WriteOnCon.

And here's my quickie version: Who will read and enjoy the book, and how old is the protagonist?

Middle Grade, or MG, is typically for ages 9-12 but might be read by kids as young as 7, considering kids usually read up. MG will have a character in the 10-13 range and have a plot that isn't too scary, doesn't have swearing, and doesn't focus on romance, although there might be some romantic thoughts. We're talking G to PG.

YA, on the other hand, is written for ages 13 and up but might be read by kids as young as 9. The protagonist is a teen, usually 16 or over, and it's often in first person and has an immediate and emotional point of view. There might be swearing, romance, and even sex, if you're getting into the higher teens. PG, PG-13.

On the fence between MG and YA? That's called Upper MG, and lots of kids want it.

NA, or New Adult, is a new sort of age range dealing on ages 18 and over and the concept of changing from a teen to an adult. It often includes a sexual awakening, intense feelings, and adult problems. R. Maybe even NC-17, if you get into Beautiful Bastard-type stuff.

Adult is… for adults. The protagonist can be any age, but the topics are mature.

The thing is, you write the book you write, and then an agent or editor can help you figure out the best way to sell the book and where it goes in the bookstore. I believe in writing the book you want to write first, then looking at where it would fit and tweaking it to fit there beautifully.

Note: There are always exceptions, and some of the best books speak to readers of many different age groups. Neil Gaiman writes books like that. If you're worried about stating the age range during querying, just take a guess. Your query and submitted pages will give the agent the best idea of how to sell it.

2. How do you deal with pacing?

Here's a great post from Janice Hardy on plot and pacing. Her entire blog is gold.

Personally, here's how I deal with pacing.

First of all, I read a ton of books, which means my brain understands the basic layout of a story. Introduction > instigating factor > disequilibrium > go after goal > climax > denouement. So when I'm thinking about my story seed and planning out my plot, I know the basic signposts. When I write a first draft, I write it straight through, letting it happen organically. When I edit that draft, I keep a page of longhand notes on what's missing, what needs to be connected, questions I might still have. When I do the third draft, I try to incorporate all the notes. And that's my fourth draft, which is the first one I feel I can look at critically to consider pacing.

I make an Excel spreadsheet on a chapter by chapter basis, noting how many pages the chapter has, what happens in it, and how exciting it is on a scale of 1 to 10. I don't want a bunch of 2s in a row, but I don't want a bunch of 9s either. I want to make sure that the reader will be excited and compelled to read on, but also that there are small periods of rest to help them catch their bearings. And when I'm reading, if I get bored, I make a note to fix it later. If the writer is bored, the reader will be, too.

To be quite honest, my pacing has gotten better with each book. Sometimes, it just takes lots of practice and absorbing other people's awesome stories. When you read the books that make you feel like you want your book to make others feel, you can replicate how that author achieves the tension that makes you keep reading.

Other tips:
* End each chapter with something that doesn't allow the reader to put down the book. A question, something scary, a footstep in the silent hall.
* Make sure your characters have secrets that will be revealed. Avoid info dumps and let their backstories and secrets come out naturally, like gumdrops along a path.
* Draw out the sexual tension. Draw out blackmail. People rarely say exactly what they mean, and your reader will dwell on every word for the payoff they want.
* When the payoff comes, give the reader proper time to enjoy it. Just a few beats. Not too long. Then on to the next question.

And your genre will also speak to pacing. Literary fiction will be slower than military scifi adventure. Teen contemporary will be slower than teen dystopian. The pacing should fit the subject matter.

3. How do you deal with writer's block?

For a long answer, read Chuck Wendig's post on 25 Ways to Defeat Writer's Block.

Personally, I haven't had writer's block since I started writing books. Once I became open to possibility, the problem became having too many ideas jockeying for attention. I think writer's block happened to me, when it did, because instead of hunting around for something fun to play with, I had this idea that there was a PERFECT IDEA that would yield THE PERFECT STORY that would appeal to EVERYONE ON EARTH and make A BAJILLION DOLLARS. And no idea was ever THE ONE. So I would find fault with every little weird idea instead of properly studying it and discovering what it might become.

I really saw this idea in action at my writers group, where we're given a story prompt and equal time to write before presenting to the group. From a broad prompt like "it's midnight" to a very narrow prompt like using the same first line, it's amazing how vastly different our resulting short stories were. What makes a story or book special isn't the beginning idea; it's your unique take on it, the story that sprung from you instead of any other person in the world. So when you see something that sparks you--a pic on tumblr or a snatch of conversation in a coffeehouse-- give it time, energy, and open-minded space to bloom. It doesn't need to be perfect; it needs to be interesting.

My YA, Servants of the Storm, (out next August) was entirely born of a photo set of Six Flags NOLA after the hurricane. I tag things that whisper about story ideas on tumblr with YOINK so I can find them later. There are ideas everywhere--you just have to settle on one and let it obsess you.

And then you have to pick one thread and write a story without thinking about all the stories you aren't writing or worrying if you're telling the wrong story, because there is no wrong story. Set a timer for 15 minutes and sit in front of your document. You're either writing, or you're thinking about your story. Don't do anything but write or think in that time. With enough time on task, you'll have a book. Sometimes, it doesn't feel magical, and the words don't come, and that's okay. Because sometimes, it will be pure magic. You just have to push through the times that writing feels like work.

4. How do you find beta readers?

When I was first starting out, I used the Blueboard (for picture books, MG, YA) and Absolute Write forums to find critique partners. Now, I have a stable of trusted friends who don't mind reading. You can also ask around on Twitter, Facebook, or on the Critique Partner Dating Service. What's important is that you're specific in what you're asking for and what you expect from them. And what you're willing to give back.

"Agented author seeking critique partner for a YA dystopian, full ms swap" is vastly different from "Need quick beta reader for MG, first book". A critique partner should be at the same writing level as you and willing to provide knowledgable criticism of plot, pacing, characters, timeline issues, grammar, and you must be willing to do the same for them. A beta reader, for me, is someone willing to read for free and out of the goodness of their heart, and I ask for any feedback they're willing to give. Which means sometimes I get an "It's good!" and sometimes I get a Word doc smothered in red, comments, and changes. And you never, ever complain to your beta readers. You thank them for whatever they give and use only what will level up your writing and your story.

So: find someone at your same level or a little bit above where you are, ask for specifics regarding what information you need from them, and be sure to be grateful and to return the favor.

5. How do you find the right opening line?

This one's tough! Sometimes, I know the opening line from the very start and it never changes. Sometimes I realize what it needs to be halfway through the first draft, or while editing another draft, or after my agent and I have talked over revisions. Sometimes it comes to me in the middle of writing, and sometimes I pop awake in the middle of the night. I know it's the right one when the urge to change it leaves. I know it when I see it.

Which means that when I don't see it, I know. But I don't let that stop me. I just start the story where it needs to be started and keep writing. You can always go back and change the first line, and it might come to you more naturally after you've gotten deeper in the story. What you utterly, absolutely cannot do is stare at a blank page and wait for the perfect first line to be whispered into your ear by the spirit owl of Anne Lamott as if the book can't happen until you unlock it with just the right words. The story is more important than the first line. It'll come when it's good and ready.


Hope that helps! Any other questions? Need further clarification or links? Ask in the comments.


Ellie Di said...

Thanks for writing all of this out for us! Great links and grounded advice. (Plus, it's nice to see that my own approach to pacing isn't totally off base!)

Elizabeth Poole said...

I'm going to preface this question with a bit of info: I've written and edited about five or six novels depending on how you count it. I just finished editing my rough draft to a slightly less rough draft, but need some breathing room, so I wanted to write something else in the mean time.

I have several ideas waiting to be written, but they alternate between seeming really cool and really boring.

Normally the next book I write is the thing burning to get out, but that's not consistent anymore.

It's been really bothering me that the clear vision of "this is the greatest book idea I have ever had and must write it NOW" seems to be on hiatus. I don't know if it's just a)the funky weird/stressful place my life is in right now, or b) the realization as I write more and more than there's no ONE PERFECT idea, and every book is a lot of damn work, or c) some combination of the above mixed with lots of other stuff I am not consciously aware of.

I know there's no magic wand, and it's just going to have to be me picking one and going with it. I'm just not used to the sucky feeling so soon. Normally it takes me about half way into a draft to feel like it sucks (and then I just keep writing, because screw you, Inner Editor).

I guess I was wondering how you pick which ideas to work on, what you do if three pages in the idea seems really stupid in favor of another idea, etc.

I hope you feel better soon. I had the one-two punch of codeine and steroids for a respiratory infection a couple of months ago and it wasn't pretty, despite how high the codeine made me. :D

delilah s. dawson said...

Elizabeth, I know this feel! I also experience it, now that I have several books under my belt. And the way I deal with it is to send a list of ideas to my agent and ask her what she thinks would have the highest probability of selling. Because let's face it: once you decide you want to make a living at writing, it's helpful to skew naturally in the direction of what will feed your family.

Sometimes, the idea is very pushy, and that's how I know it's the one. Sometimes, my agent or editor will give me a nudge, and her suggestions will energize me and help that book idea grow because she's artificially added an extra ray of hope, an extra layer of "Yes, this book could do well."

That's how Delinquent came to sell this year. I gave my agent a list of books I'd started, stopped on, finished and forgotten, or thought about, and that's the idea that caught her eye. Her interest reinvigorated my feelings for the story I set down a year before, and I dove into it with renewed vigor. And then it sold in a two-book deal.

If you don't have an agent to help this process along and no book idea has fought to the forefront, the best I could suggest would be to ask the highest publishing professional you consider a friend. A paid editor, a slush reader, an author-- someone who would hug you in public and take 5 minutes out of their day to read your list of ideas and tell you what piques their interest the most.

It might not work. Or it might. If you hear their answer and think, NO, I DON'T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT VAMPIRE FOOTBALL; I WANT TO WRITE ABOUT WEREOSTRICHES, then you know that the were ostrich story is fighting for prominence. A little outside influence can be helpful, when you're all tangled up inside.

Hope that helps!