Writing and Rewriting

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It never fails, I just can’t write in the fall. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because I’m going back to work (being a teacher pays the bills) and the idea of balancing writing and starting a new school year terrifies me. Maybe it’s because by summer’s end, I’m tired of writing. I don’t know. But come the end of December, beginning of January, I always hit the ground running–err, typing–and start working on something new. This is just how I roll and I really don’t know why.

2015 was a terrible, horrible, no good year for me filled with the sadness of separating from my agent, losing my mother-in-law unexpectedly to cancer, surgeries and hospital stays, car accidents on the interstate, and depression. But I’m determined to make 2016 better. The first way I’ve decided to do this is by WRITING.

When my Winter Break started, I decided to pull out feedback I’d received from editors who had read my YA LGBT Thriller (bisexual MC) and based on that information, I sat down and reworked the novel. It a matter of days, I’d rewritten major plot points that shaped the novel I loved so much (and had gotten my agent with) into something more…something better.

This was only the beginning. I became hooked on the idea of making what I’ve already written that much better.

I have two more novels that I love dearly, they are my babies, after all. One has never seem agents besides the one I had at the time, but the voice was too similar to my first novel and there were some characterization issues I needed to address. I’d shelved it because at the time I didn’t know how to fix it. Two days after Christmas, it hit me what I needed to do. I started outlining because I’m a plotter and for two weeks straight, I wrote every chance I got. The story quickly evolved into something so much better than what I started out with. When I finished, I couldn’t believe it. Sure, I’d salvaged some of the scenes I wrote orignially (even if they needed to be heavily edited for voice and tense purposes), but I managed to write 70K in two weeks.

THE END

Now, I needed a new title. I needed a new pitch. I needed a new query. I’m still working on the latter right now while I let the writing simmer before sending it to my CPs and beta readers. It wasn’t the same novel anymore (same is true for the LGBT Thriller I heavily revised) and I, for one, was glad. I felt accomplished, I’d done something, breathed life into something I thought could never be salvaged and resurrected it from the shelf of doom.

I can’t help but wonder, now. Am I a writer who has to write and then go back and rewrite it again? I hope not, but I’m the kind of writer who doesn’t want to give up on my older novels. If it means they need rewritten to become better and more marketable, I’m game. As a teacher, I know I have to evolve my teaching style to match the type of learners I have in my classroom. As a writer, I’m willing to do the same. But rewrite or not, I’m just happy to be writing again. I can’t wait to start my next novel, whether it’s a rewrite or something new, it doesn’t matter. As long as I’m writing.

Writing Diverse YA

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I know this post is titled ‘Writing Diverse YA,’ but it could easily be applied to NA and adult writing as well. Please keep in mind as you read that I’m no expert. I’m simply sharing what I do when I develop my diverse characters.

Diversity is in our DNA. Take a minute and allow that thought to sink in. Go ahead, it’s okay.

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Diversity is all around us. I see it in my classroom every day. Heck, I saw it in my own classes growing up, and I lived in a place so small we didn’t have a stop light. Cow pastures surrounded my high school. But we were diverse, representing the LGBTQIA community, POC, mental and physical disabilities, etc. One would think the same level of diversity would be present in the books we read. Except it’s not. Thankfully the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign hopes to change this and bring real world diversity to the bookshelf.

It’s always been important for me to make diversity an integral part of my writing. It’s my dream that everyone who reads my writing will be able to connect with it somehow. I try to cover more than one aspect of diversity. In the novel that landed me my fantabulous agent, I have characters that are LGBTQIA, POC, and wheelchair bound. Physical and mental illnesses are also addressed in that novel. The same is true in the novel I wrote this summer and the one I’m drafting now. I’m blessed to have had the experiences I’ve had because they’ve opened my eyes to see the world. And spoiler alert: It’s diverse!

Do Your Research

While I do pull from my own experiences when I write, one of the most important parts for me when I decide how diverse my characters will be, takes place before I start drafting. Nothing irritates me as a reader more than having my connection to a character stripped from me because the author didn’t take the time to get their facts straight. This drives me nuts when I watch movies and TV shows dealing with the military or education. Sometimes, the information is so wrong, I can’t buy into the reality the writer is trying to convey. Please don’t be that writer.

The Details Matter

Pay attention to the details. It makes your characters more rounded and will make the diversity you are writing about more believable. Since I write YA, school in some shape or form is always present in my novels. As an educator, I pay attention to the schedule of my characters as a way to increase their believability. I research the school district of the real area my novel is located in and use their course offerings when drafting my character’s schedules. In fact, I know the school schedule of each of my characters even though it may never be mentioned in the novel. But why do that? I do it because I don’t want a student in Atlanta (the location of the precious I’m currently writing) to read and be pulled out of the novel because they know that’s not a class someone could take as a junior. For adults reading YA, a detail like that may not matter. But to a teen, it can make a difference. Over the years, I’ve asked my students (I’ve taught middle and high school) and they’ve told me when authors don’t take the time to research details like that, it bothers them.

Location, Location, Location

Some authors consider their setting to be a character. The setting’s diversity is just as important as whether or not the character is a POC, LGBTQIA, or physically or mentally disabled. For me, every detail is important in building a world in which my characters live. My novels take place in fictitious towns or neighborhoods to allow me some creative freedoms. I put as much energy into the picture I paint of this setting as I do my characters. Once I’ve settled on an area to use as my setting, I look up the demographics for that area. I might use the real name of the bus pass found in the real setting or have a major landmark, highway, etc mentioned. Pay attention to your settings seasons and weather. Putting your MC in a tank top and having them walk around outside wouldn’t exactly make sense if the real area usually has 6″ of snow on the ground during that time of year.

What Not To Do

When writing diverse characters, try to avoid turning them into caricatures. All too often, diverse characters are stereotyped when they are represented. Also, their diversity is seen as a hurdle and a major focus (usually in a negative light) instead of simply another aspect of who the character is. Don’t have a token gay character or POC friend who serves no purpose other than to make you feel like you’re writing something diverse. Your readers will see right through it.

So you’ve decided to write a character that is a POC. Fantastic. How do you portray that to the reader? When I write POC characters, I show them to the reader the same way I would show a white character. I don’t come out and say ‘a white guy with blond hair’ so why would I do that to represent a POC character? I also wouldn’t compare a white character’s skin tone to the color of milk, so why would I do that (use a food reference) if I were writing about a POC?

When writing diversity a writer should try to be real, accurate, all the while being creative. If you don’t know how to portray something, find someone to ask. Use the internet to your advantage. Show the reader you can write. If you know your characters well enough, their diversity will come through the pages and speak to the reader. Now, go write your heart out!

How To Successfully Write A Query

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NOTE: I wrote this last year, but wanted to repost it to share with those doing #PitchWars

The lovely interwebs if filled with article upon article telling eager unpublished authors how to format their queries for agents and editors. The hard part is figuring out which article to pay attention to. Query Shark is probably one of the best places you could start. Realize that all agents and editors are subjective (ugh, I know. I throw up a little bit in my mouth every time someone in the publishing world says that word). But it ‘s true. One person might love your query and another hate it. One author might break all the rules with their query, and get an agent, but when you try it, you fail. In the end, what you come up with and send off to agents/editors is up to you, but what I’ve discovered is that writing a query is somewhat formulaic. As someone rooted in science, that puts my brain at ease.  Here are some suggestions on how to make the perfect query, based on what I’ve read. 

In general you need to be able to summarize your novel in two maybe three paragraphs, give a paragraph explaining all the novel details, followed by personal info (if you choose to use it), and closing.

Whatever you do, DO NOT write a query and then submit it right away to someone for consideration. You’re likely going to be rejected. Pull out your favorite novels and read the blurbs. Read them again. Flip open the inside covers of other novels. Read them. Get eyes that don’t know anything about your novel and let them offer suggestions. Go to QueryTracker Forums, Scribophile, etc. Go to twitter and find others in the querying process. See if they want to swap and you help each other out. Most importantly, don’t get upset at their feedback. They are doing what you need them to do: help you make your query the BEST IT CAN BE.

The days of requiring queries be mailed have passed with the digital age, but there are a few agents that still ONLY take snail mail queries. I once had to submit a paper query and mail in my partial. It completely threw me for a loop. Either way, most agents/editors look for your query to be between 200 and 300 words. Many blog contests thrown by published authors, agents, and editors will put word limits on your query, making sure you can explain your book within that word count. Take advantage of these opportunities. 

PARAGRAPH 1: HOOK. You must hook your audience right away. They receive hundreds of these a day and have a million things to do on top of reading queries. If you can keep their attention long enough to read to paragraph 2, you’ve accomplished something. Include an introduction to the world, the main character (who they are and what they want), and inciting incident. Convey the voice of your main character so we aren’t left guessing.

PARAGRAPH 2: MAJOR PLOT. This is the meat of the book. After the inciting incident, what are the major plot points? Introduce your secondary character. Be sure you don’t introduce too many characters in your query.

PARAGRAPH 3: HIGH STAKES. Here is where the character must make a decision. What are the stakes of that decision? High stakes are a must otherwise the power delivered in P1 & P2 will fizzle with P3. If the stakes aren’t high enough, the agent/editor might think the ending is weak. Why would they want to publish something with a weak ending? When necessary, paragraphs two and 3 can be combined.

NOVEL DETAILS: Include the full title IN ALL CAPS, followed by the word count (rounded to the nearest thousand) and genre/category. If you aren’t sure what category you fall into, try to sum it up briefly. For example: paranormal mystery with romantic elements (I’ve seen that several times on posted queries). Give a comparison for the agent/editor, but don’t use worlds like I BELIEVE. Use a recently published book and if you can’t, refer to something on TV or XZY meets ABC. There is a lot of debate about making comparisons. When I queried before I did it and then I stopped when I read agents didn’t like it. Now, I’m gathering it’s back on the side of TEAM QUERY, so give one, but watch the wording. Acceptable queries I’ve seen online with a comparison look like this: Fans of Author TITLE will like YOUR NOVEL TITLE.  Some agents/editors want this to be the introduction. Check each site for their preference and then DO WHAT THEY SAY. If they tell you to give the details of the novel first and you don’t do it, don’t be surprised to receive a rejection letter. If I were an agent or editor, I’m not sure I’d want a client that can’t follow my directions.

PERSONAL INFO: This is also something that’s up for discussion. Some agents/editors say include it, others only say include it if it’s relative to your novel. I am not published, so I don’t have information to include about earlier works, but if you are, this is where you would put it. If you’ve self-published and you have decent profits, you should include it. If you’ve self-published and never seen a penny, don’t. If you have a large social media presence, mention this, but if you don’t, leave it out. Authors can build one easily after they are signed, so mentioning you are all over the interwebs isn’t necessary. Instead, put it in your closing. Right now, I have a one liner I use for my personal information that I hope conveys my ability to write in the YA genre (former middle school & high school teacher). If an agent/editor has a requirement that you submit materials with your query, mention it after your blurb about yourself. It shows them you researched them and know a bit about their guidelines and didn’t throw darts at the Agent/Editor Phone Book. Something as easy as: Below (or attached) is XYZ per your submission guidelines.

CLOSING: It’s really simple and there is no need for you to skew from this as Query Shark pointed out. All you need to say is:

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Name

Address

Phone number (with area code)
Website — IF you don’t have one – GET ONE. They are free. Get a head start and build a platform.
Twitter

 

Boom. Done.

My Outlining Process Using Disney’s Frozen

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Apparently what I do when I start a novel–or plan to start one–is very different from many of my peers in the writing community. Many of them use beat sheets or are big picture outline/summarizer’s, or full blown pantsers. I go all out and I make myself pour the story out of my head and into an outline before I am comfortable with what I’m writing. Sometimes, I veer from my outline, but I quickly make sure it goes with my endgame and if it doesn’t it gets cut.

As a science person AND a teacher, I am a very analytical thinker. This makes me do two things naturally: “begin with the end in mind” and think in bullets. All teachers are taught to prepare their lessons by beginning with the end in mind. That means you pick your objectives that you want to teach and then you design your assessment. Then fill in all the teaching bits. I applied that approach to my writing.

I tried to figure out where the book I wanted to plot would end. Sometimes the outline would work out and my original end, would stay the end. Other times, I have to make adjustments. Outlining to me is fun and gets me excited about what I’m about to write. Being ever so slightly ADD (read: VERY ADD — it’s taken me all day to type this because I’ve lost focus eleventy billion times), I like to get everything squared away before I get too deep in my writing.

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If you aren’t used to outlining, try small scale first. Pick a scene from your novel that you know you could sit down and write this instant if you had to. I tend to outline by chapter and then fill in the deets later. For my last novel, I pictured the chapters based on locations. I knew what I wanted to start with and I knew where I wanted to end. From there, I bulleted the different locations my character would go through the course of the novel.

To give you an idea of what this looks like for me, I’m going to demonstrate how I would outline the opening sequence for the Disney movie, Frozen.

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First, identify the locations. Just so you know, the entire chapter doesn’t have to take place in that one location. You can also identify chapters by some event that happens, but for the last three outline’s I’ve written, I’ve used location as my jumping off point.

outline 1

Once I figured out the locations for the scenes, I went back and I added the main plot points.  You will have more main plot points than this (usually). I have many within a chapter (usually 3 or 4, but sometimes more). Please keep in mind, this is a very simplistic example on my thought process.

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Now that I know what I want my character to do in each of the chapters, I can break apart each of those scenes. Sometimes as my outline grows, I find I have to split what I thought would be one chapter, into more two and sometimes even three.

outline 3

You can take it to another level and add more detail if you need to. It works for me, so maybe — if you want to give outlining a chance, you can try this method. It might work for you. Maybe give it some thought and get a good night’s sleep before trying it my way.

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I work in this fashion until I reach the end. As I work, what I want each chapter to contain comes faster until I realize I’m finished. I’ve outlined three thrillers this way and from start to finish, the whole process only took a day.

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Now all that’s left is to write it!

 

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