Blogging, Giveaways

Celebrating Three Years of Blogging! (and giving away books, of course)

I’ll pretty much take any excuse to celebrate, but this blog merits celebration for me anyway. I started it on May 2, 2012, to participate in The Writer’s Voice contest, and it’s been a fantastic outlet for me to talk about books I love and share my writing journey.

I’ve been storing up a few of my finds from the Scholastic Warehouse Sale to give away all at once, so there’ll be a giveaway at the end of this post. But first, I love statistics, so I’m going to take a look at what was most popular on the blog both in the past year and over the past three years, as well as the top searches that led people here.

Top 10 Posts/Pages in the Past Year

10. Why It’s So Hard to Get Your First Novel Published – One of my earliest posts and I completely understand why people are still landing on it.

9. About – It’s nice people want to read about me :).

8. MMGM: WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME Trailer Reveal, Interview and Giveaway! – Hey, Kimberley, check it out!

7. A BOY COULD #BLOGPITCH Logline and First 250 Words – Thanks for the signal boost, Authoress! (And in case you’re newer here, A BOY COULD is the old title for CATCH HIM BY DISGUISE.)

6. MMGM: SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF – Kids must be reading this in school because it was in the top ten last year, too.

5. What I’ve Learned in Three Years of Querying – These annual posts on my querying experiences are always popular.

4. Series Recommendation: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth – Movie connection, anyone?

3. A Glimpse at My Agent Spreadsheet: Middle Grade Books I’ve Read – A post from 2013 that is still getting hits!

2. Before the Draft: Outlining in Scrivener – Someone linked to this post on a Scrivener site, so thanks!

1. MG/YA Agents & Their Books – BY FAR the most popular feature on my blog, and I do keep this page updated, so check it out!

Top 10 Posts/Pages of All Time

I’m betting a lot of these are the same since so many of my top posts in the past year weren’t from the past year. Let’s see, shall we?

10. My Thoughts on SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (Spoilers!) – Oh, I forgot this was so popular.

9. Series Recommendation: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth

8. YA Review and Giveaway: PERFECT SCOUNDRELS by Ally CarterAnd everyone wanted to win this one.

7. MMGM: WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME Trailer Reveal, Interview and Giveaway!

6. Why It’s So Hard to Get Your First Novel Published

5. MMGM: THE UNWANTEDS: ISLAND OF SILENCE – And there must have been assignments on this book, too.

4. MMGM: SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF

3. Before the Draft: Outlining in Scrivener

2. A Glimpse at My Agent Spreadsheet: Middle Grade Books I’ve Read

1. MG/YA Agents & Their Books

Top 5 Searches of the Past Year

Although there are 1,190 “Unknown search terms,” I lumped the rest into categories to see what searches most often direct people here. Even with those missing statistics, I bet these are representative of the whole.

5. Searches for me! Although I barely eked past searches for the Scholastic Warehouse Sale and questions about what happened to the huntsman’s wife in “Snow White and the Huntsman.” I don’t know, either, guys. That’s why you ended up at my blog–because I asked that question, too! Oh, and for the person who searched for “michelle human bean” … well, I’m not sure what you were trying to find there, but it made me giggle, so thanks.

4. Writing – Yay! I’m so glad people have found my blog through craft-related searches.

3. Querying – I grouped all querying-related questions into this category. My favorite was “is it really that hard to get published” (emphasis mine). I’m thinking they didn’t like the answer they found here …

2. Agents who represent middle grade/young adult books – This would be why that page listed above is No. 1 for the past year and of all time on my blog. When people search for agents I have listed or just for agents who rep MG/YA, it sends them here.

1. Books I’ve reviewed – This category wins by a long shot, probably thanks to school book reports. I spied a number of theme and character searches. I don’t think my reviews will do their homework for them, but I’m happy to be a resource.

It’s always helpful to see what’s working on the blog. I am curious to know if other bloggers see the same phenomenon, where older posts are getting more hits in a given year than new posts. I’m not worried about it as my statistics show more people are coming to the blog; it’s just fascinating.

Ok, on to the giveaway! I have four books from the Scholastic Warehouse Sale to pass on to one lucky winner. Here they are:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan The Dirt Diary by Anna Staniszewski The Swift Boys and Me by Kody Keplinger

I was in a bit of a review slump when I read these, but I highly recommend all of them. To enter, click on this Rafflecopter link. North America only, please. Good luck and thanks for reading my blog!

Critiquing, Revising, Writing

How I Tackle Revisions: Synthesizing Feedback

Yesterday I received comments from the last of my second round readers (thanks, ladies!). I’m itching to jump right in and start revising, but I am forcing myself to take a few days to think through it all and figure out a plan of attack before I dig in. I’ve posted on patience before (here, here), so you all know that is AGONIZING for me, but I’ve assigned myself another task to keep me busy the rest of this week, so I will prevail!

I was sure I’d posted before on how I approach feedback, but the closest I found was a post on Solving the Revision Puzzle, which was more about how getting feedback from multiple CPs helped me figure out how to revise. It’s possible I may find whatever post I’m remembering later, or maybe I’m just thinking of posts I’ve seen from other writers since this is a popular topic :). Anyway, here are the questions I ask when I receive feedback. And let me preface this by saying that I’m talking about big-picture issues here, not the minor issues that you automatically fix.

Does this comment resonate with what I want the story to be?

This is the most important question, and it’s both the easiest and hardest to answer.

It’s easy to answer when I read a comment and automatically think, “Yes! How did I miss that?”

It’s also easy to answer when the suggestion would take my story in a direction I absolutely don’t want to go. To be honest, that rarely happens. More often, it’s something I have to really think about, and more questions arise:

  • Would making this change modify the story in a way that it won’t be what I want it to be?
  • How attached am I to this character/POV/setting/age/plot point/etc.? Do I need it?

For the purposes of this post I’m going to use my one of my earlier manuscripts, DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLIN, as an example. I had a reader who suggested I eliminate a character and gave some valid reasons for it. However, I thought the character was important to the forward momentum of the story and I couldn’t see another way to make it work. Besides, I liked that subplot, so the suggestion didn’t resonate with me. Was it the right call? It doesn’t matter, because I was so resistant to the suggestion, I couldn’t have made it work.

This isn’t the only time I’ve decided not to act on a comment after careful consideration. Sometimes that’s what’s best for my story. None of my CPs or readers will be offended if I don’t implement one of their suggestions. I know I wouldn’t be. Ultimately it won’t serve me well to turn it into something I don’t like or can’t own.

On the other hand, it does serve me well to consider comments that might stretch my comfort zone without going beyond parameters I can accept. So back to DUET: I had an agent who said they would take another look if I aged it up to young adult. That one gave me pause, because changing it to YA would not affect the central story I wanted to tell, and I wasn’t tied to it being middle grade. So that led to the next question:

Will this change make the story better?

Here’s my philosophy: if the suggestion doesn’t conflict with my vision and I don’t see any immediate problems that will arise as a result, I try it. The worst that can happen is I end up going back to the earlier version. (Scrivener makes this very easy to do!) In the case of DUET, I think aging it up was the right change, even though I didn’t find the right agent fit (the agent who requested the R&R stopped agenting).

So that’s my progression for deciding whether or not to make a change. But often when I know I need to make a change, the hardest question is:

How do I fix this?

Sometimes I know right away what I need to do. The comments alone are enough to make a light bulb go off in my head with the various scenes I need to attack to fix the issue. Other times I have to sit and think about it, maybe for hours or maybe for days (hopefully not for weeks!).

For example, with my current manuscript my first round readers were unanimous about a major change I needed to make. To be honest, it was one of those things I’d held onto that I had a feeling wasn’t going to work, so when they said it had to go, I already had a plan in mind. But with this second round, there were some comments from the early responders that I’ve been mulling over while I waited for the final reader, and I’ve needed that time to figure out how I want to approach them or even if I want to (going back to my first question).

What’s next?

Now that I have all of the comments, I can compare and see where they line up to help me decide what to do. And the nice thing is revision doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavor. If I have an idea and I’m not sure, I’ll go back to my readers and say, how about this? Would this resolve x? CPs and betas are generally happy to help brainstorm a solution or clarify a point. Sometimes they’ll even read again to see if my solution worked.

Once I’ve synthesized all the comments from this round of readers, I’ll do this all over again with another set until I think the manuscript’s ready to go out into the world. But that’s another post :).

How do you tackle feedback? Any other tips to add?

Other How I Tackle Revisions posts:

Revising, Writing

How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words

So I’ve written about crutch words before. On my last manuscript, weeding out crutch words was my final step before querying agents. I decided to address them much earlier in the process this time, while I was waiting for feedback from my first round of readers. I realize that I’ll be making significant changes to the manuscript, but I expect I’ll be much more aware of my word choices as I revise, so I don’t think it’s too early in the process.

Because I was in waiting mode instead of anxious to start querying, I went much more in-depth with this step than previously, and although it was a tedious process, I know the manuscript is stronger for it. As before, I started by creating a Wordle:A Boy Could Wordle 032514 copy

Next, I set my Scrivener window to show the full manuscript as a continuous document. Starting with the largest words that weren’t proper names, I searched for each word individually. I love the way Scrivener highlights them so I can just page down. It’s easier to see when the words occur in close proximity than, say, using the find function in Microsoft Word. Here are the words* I covered:

back, get, didn’t/don’t, something, like, know, just, could/couldn’t, away, way, one, time, really, go/going, want, was/were, would, right, need, think

These are the words I instinctively write in a first draft. Sometimes they’re the right words, but often there are stronger words that could take their place and convey the same meaning more powerfully. The tricky thing about crutch words is that you don’t want to strip them entirely or it can strangle your voice.

Because I was doing a word search instead of reading chronologically, I was forced to consider each word carefully in the context of who was saying/thinking it. Often a synonym would work in the context, but I still had to consider whether it was appropriate for the character. I asked myself questions like:

  • Is the antagonist more likely to say “I get it” or “I understand”?
  • Would the MC’s father say “I don’t think sorry is good enough” or use a more definitive statement such as “Sorry isn’t good enough”?
  • Would a teenager ever say “as though” in place of “like“?
  • Would this character say “going to” or “gonna”?
  • Is “want to” or “could” necessary before this verb?
  • Does it makes sense to contract “she would” to “she’d” or “would have” to “would’ve”?
  • Is there a negative verb I can use instead of modifying a positive verb with “don’t/didn’t“?
  • Can the sentence be reworded/rearranged to avoid the use of “was“?
  • Can I delete the word entirely without changing the meaning of the sentence or the voice?

By the end of the process, I felt confident each of my characters had a more unique voice, and I also cut 1,000 unnecessary words from the manuscript. Interestingly, as I got down to the smaller words, I sometimes found a word I’d swapped out earlier (i.e., “need” instead of “want”) and decided the original word really was the best choice. The nice thing about doing this earlier in the process is that I will be reading through the manuscript several more times, and I will be much more alert to these particular words and how they relate to the character involved.

How do you eliminate crutch words? Do you struggle with the same words I do?

Other posts in this series:

*You may notice I held off on words related to body parts–head, eyes, see, hand, etc. That’s because I plan to go through and analyze my beats separately. I recently purchased “The Emotion Thesaurus,” so I’m hoping that will help me clean those up.

Character, Revising, Writing

How I Tackle Revisions: Getting Inside Secondary Characters’ Heads

Last month I posted about the first two steps of my revision process and said my next step was to write a few scenes from non-main character viewpoints. I’d never done this before, and I don’t know why. I think it just never occurred to me. Well, now that I have, I will definitely be doing it again for future manuscripts.

As I read through my first draft, there were several scenes where I thought, “Why did [character] do that?” It wasn’t that I thought they wouldn’t take a particular action–more that I needed to get inside their heads to make it believable to a reader. Because, unfortunately, I didn’t believe it myself yet. The problem was that even though I’d done character outlines for my main antagonist, secondary antagonist, and love interest before I started writing, I still didn’t really understand what made them tick. And I couldn’t write the MC’s perceptions of them if I didn’t know them.

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 1.53.08 PMAs I’ve mentioned before, I use Scrivener, which encourages you to write in scenes. I decided which scenes needed the most shoring up and added sub-scenes under each of those, labeling them as the other character’s view. (You can see an example to the right.) I then approached the scene from the other character’s view, writing through what currently didn’t make sense. In some cases–particularly with the main antagonist–I started before the MC entered the scene so I would understand how he arrived at that point.

Here are a few of the questions I needed to answer. Keep in mind some of these apply to both the antagonist and love interest, while others are specific to one or the other.

  • What are his mannerisms and facial expressions?
  • How good is he at hiding his emotions?
  • Is he putting on an act or being himself?
  • What tactics does he use to get her attention?
  • What tactics does he use to throw her off?
  • What is he thinking when he says x?
  • What does he hope to gain by taking x action?
  • What does he think she will do?
  • What does he see when he looks at her?
  • Why is he attracted to her?
  • Why did he do this evil thing? Was it premeditated or in the heat of the moment?
  • How does he react when cornered? Is he calm and calculated or panicked and reaching for anything to save his skin?
  • What is he concealing from her and for what purpose?
  • Does he rely more on logic or emotion?

The answers to these questions influence the decisions the character makes, how he acts, what he says, and how he feels. Before I took a trip inside their heads, I had very little idea how they would look to the MC. But afterward, it was very clear what the MC would see when she interacted with these characters–of course colored by her own view of the world.

In addition to helping me better understand my secondary characters, this exercise also clarified a number of plot issues. For example, the whole story hinges on the antagonist telling the MC something at the beginning of the story that begs the question: Why would he even bring that up? And to be honest, I didn’t know. I just knew that he had to or there wouldn’t be a story. But once I wrote his view of the scene and backed it up even further to how he got there, it made perfect sense. Now that I’ve worked all that out, I just have to make sure that comes through in what the MC sees. I’m excited to see it all play out. After all, revising is my favorite part :).

I’m not sure why I had so much trouble understanding the secondary characters in this manuscript. Perhaps it’s because I’m writing contemporary this time and I feel like everything has to be more explainable than when there’s an element of magic or fantasy. Whatever the reasons, this worked!

Have you ever tried writing scenes from other viewpoints? Did it help?

Revising

How I Tackle Revisions, Steps 1 & 2

It’s been over a month since my last writing post and for very good reason–I’ve been taking the first step toward revising my work-in-progress: letting it sit.

I’ve learned to set a first draft aside for at least a month. Often that’s hard to do, but with the holiday season, it was much easier. I spent two weeks making endless photo gifts for family members for Christmas–cards, books, calendars. I also had some revisions to do on DEXELON and sent out more queries. And finally, I brainstormed titles and started a query for the WIP. I think I’ve decided on the title, although I need to run it by some of my CPs to see what they think.

At the end of last week, I knew I’d let the manuscript sit long enough and it was time for step 2: the read-through. I’m pretty strict about how I do my first read-through. In order to get a good feel for big picture items, I don’t make edits while I’m reading. Now, if it’s a typo, I’ll fix that, but even if it’s something minor like strengthening a metaphor that isn’t quite right, I save it for later. Instead I make notes as I go, and they look a lot like the notes I would send someone else. Here’s a sample page from my Scrivener file:

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 1.25.05 PMBecause of the time I’ve spent away from the manuscript, I can approach it more as a reader than as the writer. I have to chuckle sometimes when I ask myself a question. If I don’t even know what I meant by something, it’s for sure no one else will!

I like this method because it allows me to point out minor things I want to spend more time on later and also work out the bigger picture items that need to be fixed. The notes are sometimes specific in what I want to do in a particular place, and other times they’re a brainstorming tool for me to work through the things I know aren’t there yet.

Having finished the read-through, I feel pretty good about this manuscript. It’s by no means ready for anyone else to read, but there are moments that made me go, “Yes!” They don’t yet outweigh the parts that aren’t ready, but I see the potential and have confidence that I will make it all work. The plus side of having written multiple manuscripts is that I have a pretty good idea of my weaknesses and what to look for even this early in the process.

I probably won’t get back to this manuscript until after the holidays, but I’m going to try something new before I dive into full revision mode. Taking the advice of several more experienced writers, I’m going to get inside the heads of some of the other characters and write scenes from their viewpoints, possibly even some scenes that don’t involve the MC at all. It’s clear after reading through the story again that I don’t fully understand the antagonist or love interest’s motivations, and I think writing a few scenes in their voices will help. It’s something new for me, so we’ll see.

What’s your strategy for tackling revisions? Do you let your first drafts sit or jump right in? How do you do your initial read-through?

Before the Draft, Writing

Before the Draft: Outlining in Scrivener

I know I promised the last post in this series last week, but I spent much of the week at the hospital or at my parents’ house as my mom recovered from her hip replacement. She’s doing great, by the way (Hi, Mom!). In any case, I did meet my daily word count goals for drafting, but I just couldn’t get to the blog. So, here we go with the last post in my “Before the Draft” series. And it’s on…

…outlining. Which you already know from the title, but I feel like it deserves dramatic music because writers have such varied views on it. I can understand that. I didn’t outline at all for my first two books. One of those I barely claim, and the other probably would have benefited from some additional structure. Then, before I started writing DUET, I discovered Scrivener–cue choir of angels–and my brand of outlining was born.

I love a lot of things about Scrivener, but the corkboard is my favorite organizational tool. Once I’ve completed my research and figured out my characters, I use the corkboard to lay out my scenes. I start by making notecards for the scenes I’ve been jotting down in a Word document from the moment I first had the idea for the story. Then I go through my character profiles and add notecards for scene ideas that came up during that process. Finally I get strategic and figure out what other scenes I need to connect all of those. I give each scene a title and write a few sentences about what I expect to happen. I was going to post the corkboard I’m working from right now, but I’m not quite ready to talk about that project yet, so here’s the corkboard from DEXELON:

Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 2.56.02 PMMy pre-draft corkboard isn’t a complete list of scenes, but it gives me direction when I start drafting. I don’t finish a scene and wonder, “What happens next?” This DEXELON corkboard is a pretty good example of how I use it. You’ll notice a couple of notecards don’t have descriptions. Those are scenes I added after I started drafting. And those of you who have read DEXELON might notice the descriptions don’t match up with what actually happens in the story. That’s because I solely use the corkboard as a pre-draft resource. I rarely update the notecards once I start drafting, so it’s kind of fun to look back afterward and see where I originally thought the story would go.

As you can see, I’m definitely not a pantser, but I’m not a super-detailed plotter, either. I like to know where I’m going, but I’m fine with diverging from that path if the story takes me in a different direction. In the half-dozen scenes I wrote last week, I already moved around a few notecards and inserted a new one. If I had to do all of that in a Word document, I’d go crazy!

How do you outline? Do you like to have every plot point laid out in advance or just let it come as it flows?

Other posts in this series:
Before the Draft: Research
Before the Draft: Procrastination
Before the Draft: Character Development
Revising, Writing

Those Pesky Crutch Words …

I had this whole post written and WordPress deleted it–twice! Thank goodness I discovered you could retrieve a draft, although I’m still having to cut and paste it.

Anyway, there’s a lot of advice out there telling you to eliminate words like:

  • just
  • very
  • kind

This rule is so ingrained, I don’t have an issue with these particular words anymore. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own crutch words. The other day, I came across a post on the From the Mixed Up Files blog about some other overused words: eyes, head and smile. I’d already checked for those, too, but the post also reminded me about Wordle, a site that lets you paste in your text. It then creates a word cloud of the most common words, excluding words like the, and, it, etc.

What a great way to figure out which words you overuse. And I have to say, the words I discovered were my crutch words surprised me. I’m sharing them here in case they might be your go-to words, too.

Something. What a lovely word. It’s so … universal. It can mean anything, and that’s the problem: it’s vague. Culling out this word encouraged me to be more specific, and it strengthened a number of passages in my manuscript.

Back. It’s really handy that Scrivener highlights all instances of a word you search for–until you see it five times in one paragraph. How did I miss that? Well, it has to do with the fact that this word is so versatile. Someone stepping back, the body part, taking something back, and so on. I didn’t notice I was using the same word because it had different meanings. And the interesting thing was, often I could just delete it entirely.

Around. Another word that often was unnecessary or could be replaced with a stronger description.

Time. I never realized how many different ways you could use this word. At a time, in time, on time, the last time, at the same time … Often I had to leave it because I couldn’t come up with a synonym that wouldn’t sound pretentious or awkward.

One. The biggest culprit here was the phrase “no one,” but I also discovered a tendency to use this particular number if there were amounts involved. I’m not sure what that means.

Way. Another versatile word–the way someone does something, no way, on the way, a direction, by the way. I used all of them!

Know. When this word appeared, I expected it to be a lot of sentences starting with “I know I …” That wasn’t the case at all. It’s amazing how many things my characters don’t know, need to know, or want to know, and often there wasn’t a synonym that fit.

Through this exercise, I cut 1,000 words from my manuscript, and it’s better for it. Of course I didn’t eliminate these words entirely, but they’re much more sparse now. Here’s my final Wordle for THE DEXELON TWINCIDENT:

Dexelon Wordle

What are your crutch words? Do you rely on any of the same words I do?