Critiquing, PitchWars, Querying, Revising, What I've Learned, Writing

What I’ve Learned in Seven Years of Querying

A few weeks ago one of my writing friends posted a wonderfully inspiring tweet:

And I replied:

Technically, this statement isn’t true. If you’ve seen my posts on tracking my queries, you’ll know that I do keep track of my rejections. However, I’ve never totaled them up for all the manuscripts, and as I thought about this post, I realized it might actually be helpful to share that information. I always figured I’d save these numbers for a dramatic How I Got My Agent post, but since that hasn’t happened yet, let’s do it! But also, as I’m still querying my latest manuscript, I’m not tying any of these numbers to specific manuscripts.

Manuscripts: 6
Queries: 594
Query Rejections: 500
Partial requests: 31
Full requests: 75
R&Rs: 4

So there it is. A nice even 500 rejections. But wait! That’s only query rejections. When you add in the fact that those submissions and R&Rs didn’t turn into offers, I’ve squeaked over 600 (some of those requests were from contests rather than queries). Now, I did include queries and submissions for the manuscript I’m currently querying in these numbers, and I’m still waiting to hear on a number of those. Plus, there are a few agents who haven’t responded on a couple of my older manuscripts. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find it in their inbox and still make an offer :). (I am an eternal optimist.) Which brings me to my first and always lesson:

PERSEVERANCE

Basically, I’m not giving up, no matter what. I will keep writing until one of these manuscripts sticks. I mean, this is my What I’ve Learned in Seven Years of Querying Post, and it’s a tradition. I’ve written one for each year, so if you’re new here, that’s already going to tell you something. If you want to go back and read the others, here they are: What I’ve Learned in One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six Years of Querying.

But on to the other things I’ve learned this past year.

Being in a major contest like Pitch Wars doesn’t put a magic spell on your manuscript. Now, I want to be clear that I did not assume being in Pitch Wars would result in an agent. It’s more that I thought this manuscript would be more ready than any of the others and I would feel super-confident in my materials. I’d had multiple writing friends participate in the contest before, which is much more than an agent showcase, by the way, and so I understood going in that the main benefit of Pitch Wars was the mentoring. I’d entered Pitch Wars with three other manuscripts in the past and not been selected, with feedback varying from “You should go ahead and query!” to the sort of responses you get from agents: “Not right for me.” So when I was selected by a mentoring team (Hi, Beth and Kristin!), it felt like I’d done something right with this manuscript. I knew it wasn’t ready to query yet, and that’s why the timing of Pitch Wars was so perfect. I would work with my mentors to shine up the manuscript and start querying after the agent showcase. I was thrilled with the final product and happy with the requests I received during the agent round (I never expected to be one of the entries with dozens of requests). Where my expectations have stumbled a bit was in the querying afterward. As with every other project, I’ve questioned pretty much every aspect–query, first pages, the overall manuscript. So being in Pitch Wars didn’t magically erase all those doubts. Oh well. Fingers crossed the right agent is still considering it!

Participating in a mentoring contest brings your revision skills to a whole new level. As I started drafting and am now revising another manuscript, I’ve seen the benefits of working in-depth with two mentors. I have amazing critique partners, and they’re very honest with me when they spot issues in my work, but the difference with mentors is that they go even deeper, suggesting cuts and additions that a CP may not. As I started writing my latest project, I felt like I had two extra voices in my head asking me if I was addressing those weaknesses I’d had in my last manuscript. I believe this latest first draft was stronger because I went through the Pitch Wars revision process.

Seeing your name on the Acknowledgements page of a critique partner’s book for the first time is an amazing high. Several years ago I noticed there was a group of writers whose work I love who always thank each other in the acknowledgements page, and I thought, “Someday I will have a group of friends like that!” My group of critique partners and beta readers isn’t so close-knit that they’re all trading with each other, but several of them do chat with each other and share excitement over releases.

In any case, this spring marked the first time my name was in a friend’s book, and I definitely walked around the house making sure my husband and kids saw my name in there. There are two more coming up in the next year that I will get to celebrate as well. I don’t know how long it will be before my name is on the cover of a book, but for now I will cheer on my friends and continue reading the amazing work of the writers around me. There’s so much more to this writing journey than my work. I feel like breaking into a chorus of “We’re all in this together … ”

Find creative outlets with more immediate returns. I actually do a few creative things, but one creative outlet I’d missed recently was playing the violin, so last fall I joined a community orchestra. It was hard work. I hadn’t played classical music in years (I’d been playing only at church), so I had to practice A LOT, but experiencing the payoff of performing challenging music was very rewarding. Now that I’ve found it, I’m not giving it up. I need that opportunity to express myself creatively and see the end result.

So that’s what I’ve learned this past year, and I’m hard at work revising the next manuscript I plan to query. Because of that lesson I already shared but it doesn’t hurt to mention again …

PERSEVERANCE!

To those of you who are persevering with me, keep at it! I’m cheering for you.

Revising, Writing

A Love Letter to My Work-In-Progress

As I sent my latest manuscript off to first-round readers today, it occurred to me it’s a lot like how you feel when you start dating someone and you’re so anxious for all of your friends to like that person as much as you do. You want their opinions, even though you secretly want them to tell you this person is perfect already. Of course, no one is perfect, just as no manuscript is perfect, particularly not an almost-first draft. Anyway, here’s the note I mentally–and now physically–drafted to my WIP :).

Dear Work-In-Progress,

I think you might be the best thing I’ve ever written! I am so in love with you right now–and so happy you’re finished!

I’ve told my writer friends about you, and they love the idea of you. Sure, they haven’t read you yet, but I’m positive when they do, they’ll love you as much as I do. They won’t rip you to shreds. They won’t nitpick about your character inconsistencies or point out where you’re completely unbelievable or zero in on your weaknesses–because in this moment you don’t have any of those. You are bright and shiny and beautiful.

Okay, I have to be honest. You probably aren’t perfect. I’m probably blinded by the glow of first love. But that’s all right. When the notes return and I must tear you apart and kill some of your most darling lines, I will return to this note so I can remember how much I loved you at the beginning. Because love is a commitment, and we are in this for the long haul.

Until we meet again, dear words …

Michelle

 

Revising, Writing

A Revision Plan of Attack Using Collections in Scrivener

I intended to write a celebratory post when I finished drafting this latest work-in-progress, but I never got around to it. I’m now nearly through my self-imposed month of letting the manuscript sit, but I certainly haven’t been idle. Even without reading through the manuscript again, I already have a ton of notes jotted in my Scrivener file. I spent several days brainstorming a title for the manuscript, but it took a morning sitting in the airport, the airline sending me constant updates about our flight, to make a light bulb go off in my brain.

“Your Flight Has Been Delayed,” the email said over and over. And while that would be pretty on the nose for my novel, it needed a slight change.

YOUR FLIGHT LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED

I guess this title would make more sense if I told you what the manuscript is about, huh? Here’s my working query, which I’ve also added to my Writing tab.

When seventeen-year-old Jenny Waters boards Flight 237 on Aug. 2, 1995, in New York, she has two main goals. First, convince her parents to let her apply to the journalism program at Columbia University. Second, woman up and kiss her boyfriend of three months.

But when Jenny and the other passengers disembark in St. Louis, the airport manager informs them their plane disappeared—25 years ago. Like the universe hit pause on their plane while the rest of the world kept moving. In 2020, newspaper reporter isn’t exactly a top career choice, and as for her boyfriend, well, all his kisses belong to Jenny’s best friend. His wife. And they’re both in their forties.

As if trying to adjust to a new century isn’t hard enough, a conspiracy group called the Time Protection League sets out to prove Flight 237 is a big hoax. When Jenny’s not dealing with rumors she’s a clone, she’s fighting her attraction to Dylan, who introduces her to everything that’s good about her new present, like Harry Potter and late-night texting.

Too bad Dylan happens to be the son of Jenny’s former boyfriend and BFF. Yeah, that’s not awkward.

ONCE UPON A KISS meets Lost in YOUR LIFE HAS BEEN DELAYED, a 75,000-word young adult contemporary novel with speculative elements.

Obviously the word count will change once I start revising, but it’s a start.

One of the Scrivener features I plan to use as I revise is to create Collections so I can analyze certain areas of the manuscript in smaller chunks. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with Scrivener, a Collection is a group of scenes/chapters that you tag to belong to a group–or Collection–and can then view separately. Any changes you make to the scenes while viewing in the Collection are updated in the main manuscript. It’s simply a way to view them differently. This screen shot shows how I used Collections to separate out the two viewpoints in my YA contemporary, AS SEEN ON EVIE. The Evie scenes are grouped together, and above there’s a separate collection for the Justin scenes.

For this manuscript, I only have one point of view, but there are several subplots I want to analyze for various reasons. I plan to create Collections so I can go through the plot points for each of those subplots and do several checks–character descriptions and dialogue, plot progression, consistency, and other details. Creating the Collections is pretty simple.

  1. Click on the scene you want to include in the Collection.
  2. Click on the little arrow next to the settings icon at the bottom of the Binder.
  3. Select Add to Collection, New Collection.
  4. Type in the name of the Collection.
  5. For any other scenes you want to include, right-click and the name of the Collection will pop up. You can then view all scenes in that Collection by clicking on its name in the Binder.

           

I anticipate separating out the love story, friend drama, conspiracy group, and interactions with other people who were on the plane with her will help ensure those plots all have their own mini plot arcs and then fit into the overarching story. I love that Scrivener makes this easy to do.

What tricks do you use to ensure your subplots hold their weight within the overall story?

Character, Writing

What I Learned Re-Reading the First Manuscript I Queried

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m not really referring to the first manuscript I ever queried. Because that one was ten years ago, and it was this crazy adult time-travel Christian romance that I didn’t even let anyone read before I queried it (I know! Rookie move!). I had no idea what I was doing, and so I don’t consider that for real. What I’m talking about here is one you can see here on my blog–THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES.

I wrote this book like seven (or eight?) years ago now, and I started querying it on July 11, 2011. So when you see those milestone posts on my blog about how many years I’ve been querying, it’s this manuscript that started it all. The reason I’m re-reading it is because I’ve decided to self-publish a copy as a Christmas gift for my nine-year-old. I mean, it’s officially shelved for any real publishing purposes, but my son will love it.

I thought it would be interesting to share what I learned about my growth as a writer while reading this old manuscript. Overall, I still thought the story was fun, and I got a lot of things right, but the issues I spotted are issues many new writers encounter, even with the help of critique partners and beta readers. For most writers, it just takes time to learn the craft and trust your gut enough do what’s right for your manuscript (you’ll understand what I mean by that second part when you get to point number four). And for the lucky few who get published on that first manuscript, I salute you!

1. I hardly used any interiority.

There are action beats and dialogue tags, but if I really wanted to whip this manuscript into shape, I’d add a lot more thought from my main character. There’s some interiority (and if you don’t understand what I mean by that, check out Mary Kole’s post here), but I wanted so much more emotion and explanation from him.

2. So many questions!

When my main character does have interiority, he’s constantly asking questions. It’s okay to use questions sometimes, but in general it’s better to rephrase them into statements. They’re stronger and more active.

3. The story is so plot-focused there’s not much depth to the characters.

This goes along with the first point but also applies to the supporting characters. I gave each of the characters one or two things. The main character has an anger management problem. His sister is brainy. His best friend is bubbly and supportive. But other than that? There’s not much. I could’ve done so much more with it.

4. The early chapters are rushed.

I did some minor edits to the manuscript as I read through it–nothing major, just cleaning it up as I went. When I got to chapter six, I felt like the story had skipped way ahead. And I know why. I was new to working with readers for this manuscript, and the critique I received was to ruthlessly cut five chapters.

So, here’s the thing about that critique. I was new to critiques, and it sounded like good advice. In all actuality, the sentiment behind it–that I was starting in the wrong place and my pacing in the early chapters was too slow–was valid. However, in retrospect, just all-out cutting those chapters was not the right thing to do. As a more experienced writer, I’ve learned how to accept a critique, examine what the actual problem is, and find the right solution for my manuscript. Sometimes it’s exactly what the other writer has suggested, but often it’s an entirely different solution that I come up with–because I know my manuscript better than anyone. But as a new writer I didn’t understand that, and this manuscript suffered as a result. It wasn’t that other writer’s fault. She spotted the problem. I just didn’t apply the critique correctly.

My point with this is not to ignore critiques, just to incorporate them in a way that’s right for your manuscript. Because when it comes to pacing and story structure, you need to ensure your story makes sense and the reader feels grounded. As for my son? I’m sure he’ll just go with it :).

5. There’s too much summarizing.

There are a lot of passages where I summarize what happens instead of actively showing it, and that takes away from the experience. It still gets the point across, but I know it can be so much better. I think this is another area where as a more experienced writer I can tell the difference between when I should tell vs. when I should show.

6. Who’s talking??

This manuscript features three kids on an adventure, and in an effort to avoid too many saids, I apparently just deleted a bunch of dialogue tags. But as I was reading through, there were several times I wondered which character was supposed to be talking. If there are more than two characters, you need something, whether it’s a dialogue tag, an action beat, or an internal thought to signify who’s speaking. Even when I did have beats or tags, they were often after the dialogue when they should have been before. I did a lot of shifting for those. There’s not a set formula for this, but it does need to be clear who’s talking. I just try to find a good balance of tags, beats, and thoughts in a conversation.

Could I go back and fix these issues if I really wanted to? Sure. But as fun as it was to go back and read this manuscript, I don’t have any passion for it anymore, and that’s a necessary ingredient to whip a project into shape. So for now, I will just anticipate the joy on my son’s face when he opens his present.

Have you ever gone back and read your first project? If so, what did you learn about how your writing has improved?

Contests, PitchWars, Revising, Writing, Young Adult

Tackling a Major Revision, or How I’m Revising for Pitch Wars

In addition to promising to talk about my Pitch Wars mentors’ books (I’ll feature Kristin Smith’s books next week!), I said I’d share my revision process, so here goes.

A week after the Pitch Wars announcement, I received a thirteen-page edit letter from my mentors, as well as an invitation to view a Google Doc with line edits on the full manuscript I submitted for consideration. Neither of these documents were really as overwhelming as they might seem. I have two mentors, so the length of the edit letter had a lot to do with two writers making comments on it, I think. Both mentors wrote an introduction, followed by comments on chapters as they saw issues (some chapters didn’t have comments–yay!), and then there were character notes and miscellaneous thoughts at the end. As for the line edits, they’re super helpful as I’m revising because many of them point out places my mentors love and I should definitely keep, not just areas I need to fix.

So how have I approached this?

1. A huge sigh of relief. My mentors are amazing! I knew this manuscript wasn’t there yet. It’s why I entered Pitch Wars. Kristin and Beth’s recommendations for enhancing my manuscript and taking it to the next level were fantastic. We emailed back and forth on a couple of suggestions where I had reservations and brainstormed alternate solutions. But the thing was, I wouldn’t have come up with alternate solutions if they hadn’t pointed out they had an issue with the way things currently stood.

2. Create an outline listing how I proposed implementing the suggested changes in the manuscript. The nice thing here is that I already had all of the outline information in my Scrivener file. I set it up before I drafted the novel, so all I had to do was export my outline and update it according to the changes I planned to make.

In addition, I included extensive revision notes. For the few new chapters, the revision notes were pretty much a step-by-step guide through the chapter. This outline took me about four or five days to complete. Here’s an example from an early chapter, since I don’t want to give too much away :).

3. Send the outline to my mentors for approval. Even though my outline addressed all of my mentors’ suggestions, either incorporating them or explaining why I felt another solution worked better, sending in the outline had me biting my nails. Was I suggesting enough? Would I need to go back to the drawing board and come up with different solutions? But it turned out I had nothing to worry about. My super-supportive mentors loved my outline, and while they had a few tweaks and additional suggestions, they gave me the go-ahead to start revising.

4. Input the outline changes and revision notes into Scrivener. It may seem like extra work to output the outline and then put it back into Scrivener, but it took maybe an hour of cutting and pasting, and I like to have everything in my Scrivener file as I’m working. So as I’m revising, that same chapter you saw above looks like this in Scrivener. (When I’m tackling a revision on my own, I skip straight to this step and put all my revision notes into Scrivener, except with this particular manuscript I did go through this outline-with-revision-notes process on an earlier draft with two of my critique partners. That’s how I knew it was such an easy way to approach explaining what I planned to change.)

5. Start revising! Once I had my Scrivener file all ready to go, I started revising chapter by chapter. My system is:

a. Tackle chapter revision notes.

b. Incorporate line edits from my mentors.

c. Complete a repeated word search for the chapter. Yes, this slows down my revisions a bit. However, everyone who’s read this manuscript has commented on pacing as a strength, and I think one factor is that I weeded out repeated words chapter-by-chapter early in the revision process. Since I’ve done it before, I’m not doing it as detailed during this revision, particularly on the chapters that don’t have a ton of changes. But for the brand-new chapters (I’ve already written two), you bet! Because I still tend to use the same words over and over, and searching for those repeated words ensures each character sounds unique and that I’m using the best word in each instance. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now, but you can refer to my post on why you might want to change a word, even if you only use it twice in a chapter.

So where am I now?

Making great progress and excited about how the changes I’ve already made are positively impacting the manuscript. This process is fantastic, and no matter how the agent round pans out, I’m confident YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME will be a much stronger manuscript. I’m so thankful for Kristin and Beth’s insight and support, as well as all of my CPs who got me here in the first place.

While I’m applying this process to Pitch Wars revisions, it could be used to tackle any major revision. As I mentioned above, I used it with my CPs when working through some issues on an earlier draft. Also, if you have a revise & resubmit with an agent or editor and they’re open to seeing what you plan to do with the revisions before you start on them, you could use this sort of system. It just depends on how much detail they want.

Now I’d better get back to revising!!

Contests, PitchWars, Revising, Writing

I’m a 2017 Pitch Wars Mentee!!

Based on this title, some of you are probably wondering whether I’ve been drafted into an a cappella group (I was tempted to break into song) or some sort of strange cult. Don’t worry–well, the a cappella group wouldn’t be cause for concern–it’s an amazing, wonderful, exciting opportunity! (I could continue adding on adjectives, but I’ll stop.)

Basically, Pitch Wars is an annual contest to which writers submit a not-quite-there manuscript to mentors for consideration. These mentors are industry professionals (usually agented and/or published authors or editors) who provide detailed feedback on the manuscript and work with you to get it ready for querying. But not only that, there’s an agent showcase at the end of two months, and because of the mentoring aspect of the contest, it holds a lot of weight with agents.

Friends, I am so thrilled to be selected this year with YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME. I’ve tried before, with three of my previous manuscripts, and I’ve gotten close. I know because I received emails afterward from mentors telling me I was among their top choices. I even had a potential mentor tell me I should probably go ahead and query, and that project ended up getting really close with agents too, but as any of you who follow my blog know, I haven’t yet found the right fit. So I’m absolutely ecstatic to have this opportunity.

Even better, I get to work with TWO fabulous mentors–Kristin Smith (CATALYST and FORGOTTEN) and Beth Ellyn Summer (AT FIRST BLUSH). I can’t wait to see what plans they have for my manuscript, but I know I’m in good hands because I read their books (technically still reading Kristin’s sequel :)), and you should too! Don’t worry, I plan to tell you more about their books later because, of course, that’s what I do :).

I’m sure I’ll end up blogging about the revision process too, because that’s also what I do. For now, I’ll leave you with a picture of my new puppy, Rey, playing with bubbles. Because why not?

Revising, Uncategorized, Writing

Why You Might Want to Change That Repeated Word

I just finished a chapter-by-chapter repeated word search of my manuscript, and it was brutal. I started at the end of March and have been working on it diligently since then. That’s right–for six weeks! You may think that’s dedication, but I would never have had the patience for it if I hadn’t been participating in a weekly chapter swap with another writer.

I’m not sure how you would do this if you’re working in Word, but I described how I went about the actual process for Scrivener in an initial post titled Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter. As I mentioned in that post, previously I searched the overall manuscript and spent about two weeks weeding out my crutch words. This process was so much more in-depth. It took me about three hours per chapter because I searched almost every word that appeared even twice in a chapter to ensure that it actually needed to be there twice. Often it did. I’m not by any means suggesting that you should only use a word once per chapter–heck, sometimes you need to use a word fifteen times in a chapter!–just that it’s worth the effort to examine every word and make sure you’re using the best word. Because as writers we all have a tendency to fall back on familiar words, and they may not be the words that are most appropriate for our characters or the particular scene.

Here are some reasons you might want to change a word, even if it only appears twice.

It shows up within two paragraphs, and it’s not for emphasis. This happened quite often in my chapters. A word I’d never have noticed otherwise (like “interrupt”) would appear in one paragraph and then again in the next. Particularly if it’s not that common of a word, it really stands out if you repeat it too close together, even if you aren’t using it the same way.

Two different characters use the same term, and it fits one voice better than the other. Think about the voice. Maybe it’s an innocuous enough word that both characters would say it, but perhaps there’s a stronger choice for one of them.

Characters are shrugging, sighing, laughing, nodding, etc., more than once. I check for beat words in an overall manuscript search, but they were thrown into sharper relief in a chapter search. It forced me to carefully observe each character’s movements within the chapter to ensure I wasn’t doubling up on them–or if I was, that it was purposeful.

It highlights a vague word/phrase that you could make more specific. I’m not sure how to best describe what I mean here, but I found that highlighting these commonly used words made me really think so that I’d dig deeper and improve on vague phrases. Often it was when a character used words/phrases like “something,” “what we’d done,” “thing,” “everything,” etc., in thoughts or dialogue. Sometimes those catch-all words were appropriate, but in other cases I needed to replace them with a more specific description. For my current manuscript, it was often a lot funnier for my characters to say something more specific. For example:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you what had happened.”

Became:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you we ran away because we’d lost our dead babysitter.”

You’ve used the exact same phrase more than once in the same chapter. Maybe I would have caught this in a broader manuscript search for common words, or maybe a CP/reader would have noticed it, but it definitely stood out when I was searching within a single chapter. Since I fast-draft, I generally write a scene and/or chapter within a day, so it’s not surprising an exact phrase would pop up more than once. And when you’re just reading through, it’s easy to skim over it if it’s a common phrase. By completing this concentrated chapter-by-chapter search, I’ve eliminated these types of brain blips :).

A WORD OF CAUTION: I always include this caution because it’s very important. When searching for and replacing commonly used words, it’s easy to get happy with the thesaurus and write out voice. So my next step after completing this process is to read through the whole manuscript again. I expect that I’ll change some of these words back to the original words I’d used, even if it results in some repeated words. Sometimes that’s necessary for voice. I recommend reading the manuscript aloud for a voice check, either reading it yourself or having the computer read it. I do both at some point while revising.

How detailed do you get checking for repeated words?