Critiquing, Revising, Writing

The Benefits of Weekly Chapter Swaps

First of all, there’s still time to enter my fifth blogiversary giveaway for a $25 Amazon gift card, so if you haven’t done so yet, check out my post here (ends at midnight 5/11)!

While I’ve been blogging for five years, I’ve been writing for many more years. The beauty of this journey is that I’m continually learning something new. My process with gathering feedback in the past has always been to carefully revise the full manuscript and then send it to critique partners and beta readers. I’ve never sent first drafts to anyone–probably because I’m too much of a perfectionist :).

However, when I participated in WriteOnCon this year, I was in a unique position timing-wise. I was finishing up a revision of the project I’d been querying and getting ready to revise the first draft of my new project. I met a writer in the forums whose writing appealed to me, and we started a conversation about swapping chapters weekly.

Now, I have to say that this has never appealed to me in the past because it is a sloooow process. And I’ve mentioned before that I am not a patient person, right? Added to that, I’d be sending off chapters when I hadn’t even revised the chapters that came after. This was a bit intimidating to me–the idea of sending off unfinished work. But here are some benefits I discovered from going through this process. I should mention that we didn’t stick with one chapter per week as that would have taken fooorever. My patience only extends so far :).

It prevented me from rushing the draft. I finished my regular pass of revisions through the draft about five weeks before I sent my last chapters, so I started checking the manuscript for repeated words. Normally I don’t do this until a later draft, but it’s mainly because I’m in such a hurry to get feedback. Since I was already getting feedback, I could take the time to do this really well. See my initial post on checking chapter by chapter for repeated words. I’m actually not finished with this (six weeks later!), so I may post more about it.

I received detailed feedback on each chapter/section. I have excellent critique partners and readers who often give me line edits and detailed chapter notes. However, it’s different when someone’s reading a short selection every week. Whereas in an overall manuscript a chapter that flows well might get skimmed, in this setup it still gets special attention and thought because it’s the only thing the reader has to critique for the week. The reader is looking for areas that could be even stronger.

It weeds out all the plot points that don’t make sense. Obviously this type of critique happens when someone does a full read-through, but it’s nice to have someone point out an issue in chapter two and you can fix it before she reads chapter six.

The reader knows your characters almost as well as you do. After so many weeks swapping chapters, I feel like we know each other’s characters really well–because we’ve been going through it so slowly and methodically. It’s different from when you read a manuscript within a couple of weeks and send it back. You’re revisiting them every week, so when they act out of character–as mine did–the reader notices.

Overall, this has been a great process, and I’m glad I went through it. My manuscript is much stronger for it. Have you done weekly chapter/section swaps before? What did you like/dislike about it?

Agents, Conferences, Pitching, Querying, Writing

How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents 2017

If you’re in the kidlit community, you probably know about WriteOnCon and missed it as terribly as I did in 2015 and 2016. Well, hallelujah, it’s back! I don’t have anything to query at the moment, but I do have a work-in-progress ready for some feedback in the forums, so I’ll definitely be dipping a toe in. And of course I’ll be soaking in all the amazing knowledge to be gained from the blogs, vlogs, and live sessions starting tomorrow. Woohoo! (If you haven’t already registered, what are you waiting for??)

But back to the title of this post. In case you are new to WriteOnCon, you may be wondering what a Ninja Agent is. Basically, it’s a literary agent who sneaks through the forums leaving comments. Their identities are closely guarded, even after the conference is over. The only way you find out who they are is if they send you a private message with a request.

Anyway, you want to stalk these agents, whether they comment on your query/first 250/first five pages or not. The knowledge you’ll gain from their critiques of others can often be applied to your own materials.

I originally posted about how to stalk Ninja Agents in 2013 and updated it in 2014. Since the forums are on an entirely new platform this year, I decided another update was required. I’m just digging into the forums in earnest today, so I may make adjustments to this post as I learn more, but here we go.

1. Log in to the forum.

2a. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see who’s online (Users Online or Users Online in the Last 24 Hours). Unfortunately, these aren’t in any kind of order. I recommend doing Command+F and searching for “Ninja”–it’s quicker than scanning by eye.

2b. If there are no Ninja Agents online at the moment/in the last 24 hours, scroll back to the top and click on Members. Using the search field on the right-hand side, search for “Ninja” and a list of all Ninja Agents will come up. This list shows you how many posts each ninja has made and how recently.

3.  Click on a Ninja Agent to go to his/her profile.

4.  Click on “View this member’s recent posts” and, voila!, you can see everywhere the agent has commented. To see the post he/she is responding to, click on the title of the thread.

If you want to get even more stalkery, you could keep a Ninja Agent’s profile up on your computer and watch his/her current activity. Or you can locate someone on Twitter who’s already doing that and giving updates. In previous years, there’s always been someone giving Twitter updates once a Ninja Agent was spotted. The hashtag for the conference is #writeoncon.

I tried several different options in the search function to see if there was a way to pull up all of the Ninja Agents at once since you could do that on the previous platform. It doesn’t appear to be possible, but if someone else figures it out, let me know and I’ll add it.

Another option is to go through and follow all of the Ninja Agents individually. Once you do so, if you click on Following in your Profile, it will show you their activity. However, it will mix the Ninja Agent activity with that of everyone else you follow, and it’s not just what they’ve posted. It also lists anyone they follow or become friends with. I did notice that the Ninja Agents tend to follow all of the other Ninja Agents. So, for example, if you click on Ninja Midnight and then Following, it will show you the activity of other Ninja Agents. But again, there’s a lot of activity other than posts mixed in (like “Ninja Dusk changed their avatar”), so whether you go that route depends on whether you want to wade through the extras.

If you’re already in the forums, come find me! My username is michelleimason. My work-in-progress is a young adult contemporary titled YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME.

Agents, Conferences, Critiquing, Querying, Writing

WriteOnCon! With Advice If You’re Posting in the Forums

It’s WriteOnCon time! WriteOnCon is a free, online conference for picture book, middle grade, young adult, and (this year) new adult writers. If you fit into any (or all!) of these categories, you should definitely check it out! The information I’ve gleaned from this conference over the past few years is beyond measurement.

One of the most popular features of the conference is the forums, which allow you to post your query, first page, and first five pages in separate forums. As an added bonus, Ninja Agents–so called because although a list of agents is given they have code names–slink through the forums and leave feedback on the posts. Sometimes they even request additional pages or full manuscripts through private messages. If you want to receive one of these coveted requests, it is in your best interest to post in all three areas (query, first page, first five pages) as an individual Ninja Agent may only stay in a single forum. One of my most popular posts last year was on How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents. It gives detailed instructions on how to find them, so if you want to be sneaky …

If you are posting in the forums, I would like to give some unsolicited advice. Maybe you already know this, and maybe you read my Thoughts on Revising from Public Critiques Post, but here it is anyway:

  1. Don’t try to explain everything, especially with a query. If someone asks you a straight clarification question, by all means, answer it, but if you try to get into too many details, you’re likely to end up making your query even more confusing or adding more details than you need. Often it’s easier to just revise and say, “Does that clear things up?”
  2. Remember your intended audience. If critiquers don’t recognize a reference to something–whether it’s a comp title or something the character is watching or technology they’re using in your first pages–maybe that’s ok. Will an agent know the comp title? Will the 11-year-old know that show? Will the 16-year-old know that gadget? Possibly you have to explain it, but possibly you don’t. Trust your instincts.
  3. When it comes to the first page, if a commenter is questioning something that will be answered later, don’t move it up just to answer his/her question. If that information shouldn’t be revealed until page three–or page fifty, for that matter–save it for the right moment. If an agent is intrigued enough by your writing and voice, they’ll stick with the story to get those answers when the time is right.
  4. Unless a comment automatically resonates with you, wait until you have several to revise. That’s the value of this kind of event. You’re going to receive feedback from multiple writers, so wait to hear from more than one before you jump on that gut reaction. They might not all agree. If they do, it’s easy to know what to fix. If they don’t, that’s when you have to sit back and figure out what’s not working. Because if everyone’s commenting on the same section but not agreeing on the solution, probably something needs to happen there.

I think that’s it. So go forth and post in the forums! If you do, let me know where you are and I’ll stop by. I haven’t posted my own yet, but I will soon!

Conferences, Middle Grade, Pitching, Querying, Writing

Make Your Pitches Specific and Other WriteOnCon Takeaways

Another WriteOnCon is over, and once again I feel energized and ready to get back out there with my manuscript. It’s amazing to me how different the conference is from one year to the next. The organizers do a great job coming up with new topics and presenters. In case you missed it, here is my post from last year as a comparison before I jump into this year.

Live Google Hangouts

I loved the addition of the Live Google Hangouts, during which agents reacted real-time, on-screen, to Twitter pitches. I attended three–Suzie Townsend/Kathleen Ortiz, Danielle Smith, and Tamar Rydzinski.

Here are some of the takeaways:

  1. If your pitch could apply to dozens of stories, i.e., “She must figure it out before it’s too late,” it’s too generic.
  2. Avoid cliches.
  3. If you can, use comp titles. It’s a quick way to give a sense of the story, particularly when you only have 140 characters.
  4. It’s still a matter of taste. The Suzie Townsend/Kathleen Ortiz hangout was particularly great on this point, as one could be totally intrigue by something while the other would shrug and go, “eh.”
  5. Be clear, specific and inject voice.
  6. Make sure the pitch includes a plot in addition to a premise. Agents want to know what’s going to happen, not just the situation.

Danielle Smith also mixed in great info about the market for picture books and middle grade. I admit I was a bit distracted after she talked about my pitch (!!!), but here are a few things I caught:

  1. PBs about princesses are a hard sell
  2. The market is saturated with PBs about farm animals
  3. MG science fiction is a hard sell (:() but can still be done if the voice is fantastic

Whether you plan to query Danielle or not, the info she shared was fantastic, so I recommend you watch the replay.

Middle Grade

As primarily a middle grade writer, I’m always interested in the posts/events that focus on middle grade, and two stood out to me this year: the vlog by Frank Cole and the Q&A with Peggy Eddleman. Here are a few of the points they touched on:

  • Violence–Scary is good, but creepy is better. Although there are exceptions, if you start killing off characters, it’s no longer MG. The more violence you include, the more you narrow your audience, and fewer gatekeepers will buy the book.
  • Romance–Younger MG boys make fun of girls they like, while older MG boys will do things to try to impress them. However, boys are more likely to guard their crushes closely, while girls will tell their friends.
  • Relationships with adults–Most 8 to 12-year-olds have a lot of respect for adults, so if your character doesn’t, it should be noticed as out of the norm by other characters.
  • The market–Middle grade doesn’t generally have the saturation / burnout on genres like YA does. With MG, platform doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does for older age groups, although you will need a website post-deal. There’s less of a market for upper MG for girls because many of them are already reading YA.

Agent/Editor Thoughts

The agent and editor chats are always enlightening as well. Here are a few of the things I tweeted during the conference.

  • On breaking rules in queries: “Is the voice, character, or concept good enough to get away with the rule break?” Victoria Marini
  • Common query problems: “Often a query is soooo vague it could apply to 3-4 books…that have already been published.” Katie Grimm
  • On queries for books with dual POVs: Generally, one character per paragraph. An Inciting incident. Wrap-up. Victoria Marini
  • On how to write a strong query: Grab our attention with a compelling or witty logline then explain the larger conflict. Brooks Sherman
  • On what an editor will take on: “You can fix a plot, but it’s…hard to fix something as subjective and as personal and intrinsic to a writer as voice.” Sarah Dotts Barley
  • On world-building: “You need a hook or a voice that pulls readers in and makes them ask questions without feeling lost in this new world.” Andrew Harwell
  • On pop culture: “If your references are all pulled from the headlines, your book will become dated very quickly.” Andrew Harwell
  • On the same issue, Lindsay Ribar added that it depends on whether the references will be relevant when the book comes out in 2-5 yrs. Disney and Elton John are probably ok, but “Call Me Maybe” not so much.

Everything Else

Obviously I can’t recap the whole conference, so when you have time, I urge you to go through and read the other articles or watch replays of the events. Here’s a link to the full program.

If you attended, what were your biggest takeaways?

Conferences, Critiquing, Querying

How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents

Please see my 2017 post, which is updated for the new forum platform.

Note: I’ve postponed the MMGM I had planned for today due to being lost in the WriteOnCon forums. What’s that, you may ask? Read on.

WriteOnConIf you write for kids, teens or new adults, you should attend WriteOnCon tomorrow and Wednesday. It’s a free* online conference featuring vlogs, blogs, live events and more from agents, editors and published authors. 2013 will be my third year attending, and I will be chained to my computer for this year’s event.

The beauty of WriteOnCon is that it’s more than a deluge of information (although that part is great, too). It’s also an opportunity for feedback and maybe even to catch an agent’s interest. If you’re a querying writer, you should participate in the forums. You can post your query, first 250 words and first five pages for critique by other writers and possibly even Ninja Agents. It doesn’t have to be ready to query. If it’s a work-in-progress but you have something you want critiqued, take advantage of the opportunity because this is the greatest concentration of kidlit writers you’ll find at a time. You might even find a new critique partner there. I did last year.

Ninja Agent, you say? Yes, so named because it’s an agent in disguise who sneaks through the forums leaving comments. Their identities are closely guarded, even after the conference is over. The only way you find out who they are is if they send you a private message with a request. I have mixed feelings about this as it would be nice to know who left you the comments if they don’t request, but I can also see the value in the agents maintaining anonymity.

But back to the title of this post, you want to stalk these agents, whether they comment on your query/first 250/first five pages or not. The knowledge you’ll gain from their critiques of others can often be applied to your own materials. And it’s so easy to do.

1. Log in to the forum.

2a. If you’re in the thick of the conference, scroll down to the bottom of the page to see who’s online (Currently Active Users). They appear in alphabetical order, and if there’s a Ninja Agent listed, you can click on their profile.

2b. If there are no Ninja Agents online at the moment, scroll back to the top and click on the Quick Links pull-down menu. Select View Forum Leaders. The list of Ninja Agents is at the bottom.

3.  Click on a Ninja Agent to go to their profile.

4.  Click on Find All Posts and, voila!, you can see everywhere the agent has commented.

If you want to get even more stalkery, you could keep a Ninja Agent’s profile up on your computer and watch their current activity. Or you can locate someone on Twitter who’s already doing that and giving updates. The last two years, there’s always been someone giving Twitter updates once a Ninja Agent was spotted. The hashtag for the conference is #WriteOnCon.

2014 Update: I’ve discovered there’s also a way to search for all of the Ninja Agent posts without looking through individual Ninja Agents.

  1. To find all Ninja Agent posts, click on Advanced Search. It’s to the far right under the general search field.
  2. Select the Search Single Content File tab
  3. In the User Name field, enter “Ninja Agent”
  4. In the Search in Forum(s) field, click on Critique Boards–or you can select a more specific one if you only care about, say, YA Query Crit
  5. In the Find Posts field, select A Week Ago and newer (or change this if you’re looking at this after the conference is over)
  6. In the Show Results As field, select Posts. If you leave it as Threads, it will take you to the general thread rather than directly to the Ninja Agent’s post.

If you’re already in the forums, come find me! My username is mmason. I’ll be posting my key takeaways from the conference later this week.

*They do ask for donations at the end, but it’s not required.

Querying, Revising, Writing

When Is It Time to Revise?

There’s a time to query.

There’s a time to wait.

There’s a time to … revise?

I started querying DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLIN in April, entered a little contest called The Writers Voice in May, queried a bit more for the first two weeks in June, then decided to wait. You see, I had quite a few submissions out at that point, and honestly I was afraid to keep sending out queries without knowing if my manuscript was really ready. I thought it was, or I wouldn’t have been sending queries out in the first place, but after the mistakes I’d made querying my earlier novel–too many too soon–I’d much rather err on the side of caution with this one and give it the best possible chance.

Over the next two months, a bit of feedback trickled in, but none of it lined up. And that’s when I came to the question of whether to revise or not. The agents didn’t mention the same issues, so were their comments just a matter of taste or something I needed to fix? I decided not to do anything for the moment.

Enter WriteOnCon. I came away with the basic idea that if an agent loves your work enough, it’s ok if it isn’t perfect. They’ll work with you to get it where it needs to be. So I started querying again. I also had a couple more people read DUET, and reader feedback confirmed for me again that it was ready for agents.

But. A couple of comments I’d gotten in the forums at WriteOnCon kept niggling in the back of my mind, so I revised my first page–of course after I’d already sent out some queries. The comments weren’t necessarily new, but it was the right time for me to hear them and figure out what to do with them.

I think that’s a big part of knowing when to revise. Sometimes a valid comment doesn’t make any sense to you, but when it’s said in the right way at the right time, boom! You know what to do. This really came into focus for me a couple of weeks ago. I entered #GUTGAA and received three votes to go on to the agent round. However, one of the judges said she’d had reservations about voting for me because DUET sounded too old and because of a Bugs Bunny mention in the first 150 words. I’d heard both of these comments before, but two months ago I wouldn’t have known what to do about it or even if I should do anything about it.

From the beginning, my query worked. I received a number of requests off of it. But just because it was good didn’t mean it couldn’t be better. Thanks to WriteOnCon, I now had this idea that friendship has to be a major focus of MG. One agent even said he wouldn’t consider an MG if friendship wasn’t mentioned in the query. Well, friendship is a huge part of DUET, but I’d never figured out how to put it into the query. But now, because someone in a position of power told me it gave them pause, I figured it out, and the query has much more of an MG feel than it did before. I know it’s stronger as a result.

The same goes for the Bugs Bunny mention. There’s a scene in my novel where the main character goes into an old Looney Tunes cartoon. I’m confident I’ve handled it well in the actual manuscript as none of my readers have had an issue with it. However, this judge brought it home to me that it was an issue in the first page. All the times someone said before that MG readers wouldn’t know Bugs Bunny and I ignored it because I knew it was fine in the manuscript, it didn’t occur to me that the first page was the problem. It was a simple enough solution to take out that reference and leave it for later. I don’t know why I didn’t figure this out sooner. I guess we writers have hard heads.

But wait, I have an even better example. The first day of the #GUTGAA agent round, I received a rejection from an agent who’d been considering my full. Her reason was exactly the same as the very first agent who rejected DUET. Now, I have to back up a bit to say that this first rejection completely baffled me. Her issue with the manuscript was what I thought was the very best part of it. We’re not talking about a single chapter here but a major chunk that makes up the premise. I dismissed it pretty much out of hand because I just didn’t get it. But when this most recent agent said it, I’d had four months with that other one swirling around in my head, and suddenly a light bulb went off.

All this time I’d assumed the section she mentioned was the best part and worried about the rest living up to it. But that was just me being blind. Those parts had come so easily to me I didn’t work very hard on them when I revised, instead focusing on the other subplots. Looking back at my first draft, those sections didn’t change much. While I ignored those easy parts and felt insecure about the rest, the opposite actually happened. And when I looked at it that way, yet another agent’s comment came into focus. So I now had three agent comments in line.

Well, you can guess that this is when I figured out I did need to revise. I spent the week of #GUTGAA going through those parts of the novel and beefing them up. I know the manuscript as a whole is the better for it. It would have been nice if I’d figured this out when that first agent mentioned it, but I wasn’t ready to apply it then. And I truly believe that if any of the agents who read that version had loved my writing and premise enough, they would have worked with me on it. Instead, I’m grateful they gave me feedback that has helped me get the manuscript to the next level.

I received an agent request the last day of #GUTGAA, and that agent has the shiny new version. I also followed up with an agent from that first contest and got the opportunity to send her a revised version, so I’m feeling pretty good about it right now.

So am I done revising? Probably not. If I do get an agent with this version, I’m sure they’ll have changes. If I don’t, I’ll probably get feedback as to why not. It might not make sense to me at first, but I’ll keep chugging along until it clicks.

So where are you in the journey? What has made you decide to revise?

Conferences, Pitching, Querying, Writing

Homicidal Fairies and Other WriteOnCon Lessons

WriteOnConI spent the last two days glued to WriteOnCon, plus several days before in the forums critiquing and posting. If you are a writer and don’t know about WriteOnCon–particularly if you write for kids or teens–head over there now! The conference was online, and everything remains posted forever.

Thank you to all of the published authors, agents, and editors who participated. I’m going to share a few of the points that stood out most to me.

1. Not everyone defines the lines between MG and YA the same way. I thought I had a pretty good handle on what’s MG vs. YA, but not everyone agrees. Here are a few of the points agents and editors made, with links to the source material:

Agent Jen Rofe: “If the fairies in your book are doing mean things, it’s MG. If the fairies in your book are homicidal, it’s YA.” (more people retweeted this quote than any other I posted)

Editor Liesa Abrams: “In MG, the characters are learning how they fit into the world. In YA they’re learning how they stand out!” (my favorite definition)

Peter Knapp conducted a query/pitch workshop in the forums. If an MG pitch didn’t include a friendship element, he rejected it. He said MG must have friendships, and in his case, that must be highlighted in the query to get a request. (You must register in the WriteOnCon forums to view this event.)

Editor Martha Mihalick: A middle grade book is usually about a kid and their place within something. YA is about finding your own path. (similar to Liesa’s definition)

In the final live event, agent Katie Grimm said a lot of “tween” is disguised as MG and explained it as: “Well, of course there’s the obvious age difference of more 9-11 and those creeping on 12,13,14…and calling it MG. … And although it doesn’t seem like a big difference to us, there’s a HUGE DIFFERENCE between elementary and middle school.”

I found this last one interesting as I’ve always considered MG to be aimed at middle school, whereas her definition implies MG is aimed at elementary school kids. I think it’s an excellent example of how agents see things differently. My take-away was that I shouldn’t pitch Katie Grimm my 13-year-old character as MG :).

While it was interesting to see how agents and editors viewed the MG/YA divide differently, the best post on the topic was by author Claire LeGrand. It includes a comprehensive list of options with examples. My favorite? “Kissy-Kissy or Kissy-Kissy?”

2. It’s all about an agent/editor connecting with your writing.  Another common theme was that for an agent or editor to take on your novel, they have to connect with it. Here’s how a few of them explain it.

Editor Liesa Abrams: “If I connect to what the character feels then I can go with the character on any kind of plot journey.”

Agent Jen Rofe: “I want something that will make me read it in one sitting. Something that, pages into it, I’ll be rushing to offer representation.”

Agent Mollie Glick: “I’m always looking for a great story. A manuscript that I pick up, intending to read just a chapter or two and pass, and wind up staying up all night, ignoring my husband, to finish.”

Agent Sarah Davies: “I often know very soon – like a few lines in – whether a new writer has that ‘something’ or not. Obviously I have to see how the story/characters will develop, but that sense of voice and the moment is often there from the start. It’s like listening to a young musician. You can hear the musicality even if they just play a simple scale of C.” (I can’t even express how much I love this quote!)

Agent Katie Grimm: “We are all looking for a book where we say, man why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

So specific, right? Actually, I think it’s very telling. What I take away here is that your novel doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to make an agent/editor care. That’s going to be subjective, but all you need is one.

3. Consider critiques carefully, but don’t make every suggested change. I posted in the query, first 250, and first 5 pages forums. On the plus side, these are people who haven’t read your manuscript, so they’re looking at it the same way an agent would. On the negative side, they’re seeing each piece independently, whereas an agent almost never sees the writing without a query. I wish there’d been a forum where you posted the query with the sample. Regardless, here’s how I approached it. I never make a change as soon as someone suggests it. First I ask myself these questions:

Did more than one person comment on this issue?

Is this critiquer’s point a matter of taste or a real issue?

If I make this change, will it improve the piece or bring up even more questions? (mainly on the query)

Is this change in line with my theme/the overall feel of my manuscript?

After evaluating each critique, I decided whether to revise or ignore. I didn’t get any Ninja Agent visits, but the process was still valuable, and I met some great new writers in the forums. There are so many exciting projects out there!

If you didn’t attend WriteOnCon, go check out all the posts and review the live events. You’ll get insight into the personalities of agents and editors, as well as excellent advice as you start, revise or query a project.

On a personal note, points No. 2 and 3 have made me decide to jump back into querying. I had been waiting to hear back from the agents who still have my manuscript, but the events with the agents and editors reminded me that it’s never going to be perfect. It’s just a matter of finding that agent who connects with Miranda. Guess I need to learn the same lesson my character does!

I’d love to hear what everyone else learned from WriteOnCon. Tell me in the comments!