On Writing: Writing and Pitching a Series

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”

–  John Dewey

 

A few weeks ago, I received a question on one of my older writing posts. This was from someone who was writing a series, but having trouble making book one “long enough” to reach books two and three. This question intrigued me enough to write a post about it.

There are a lot of people out there whose advice goes something like this: “If you want any shot in being published at all, completely forget about ever doing a series and just write this one book, you naïve plebeian.”

I half agree with that philosophy. First of all, I know exactly what it’s like to pitch a series, because I’ve done it before. When I was sixteen, I began querying a YA Fantasy project I’d been working on for a few years. At this point, I’d written most of the books in my potential series of seven.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why I didn’t get very far with that. I was spreading out my creative energy so thinly across multiple projects, I wasn’t devoting all my attention just towards the first one.

Since then I’ve shelved the fantasy project and focused my efforts on my contemporary YA novel (which is up to three full requests, yay!) but, I do plan to come back to the fantasy project someday. And I do plan to pitch it as a series.

However, there’s a right way to do that.

Again, I truly sympathize with the ideology of plotting out an entire saga, and having tons of elements from book one affect things in books six or seven. But I also think that for a series to truly flourish, you have to let yourself “re-create” it along the way, know what I mean?

For my fantasy series, I knew exactly what I wanted to happen in all of the books; at least, for the most part. I certainly knew enough for that to influence the way I wrote book one. And when I come back to it, I’ll revise book one carefully, keeping certain parts intact so they can set up events in future books. But, I also can’t let these feel out of place during the story.

There are many people—and I used to be one of them—who get so excited about the events in book two or three that they rush book one. This is entirely understandable, but it doesn’t fit well in the publishing business. Book two won’t see print if book one sucks. It just won’t.

With you and I both agreeing that’s unfortunate, what can we do about it?

Glad you asked!

How I approached my “series problem” is I took a deep breath and told myself that I will always be a creative person. And I will always get new story ideas. And if I channel every drop of my creative energy into just (just!) book one, then when the time comes to write book two, there will be more creative energy there to write that one, too.

See what I’m getting at? It’s a balancing act. On one hand, you should keep the series potential in mind, and maybe let that influence certain plot points in book one. But on the other, much more important hand, you have to let yourself get creative and put all your effort into book one, so that it can do well enough on its own. That won’t happen if you “just make it long enough” to be a bridge towards sequels.

Another thing that sucks, but you have to keep it in mind anyway: each book should have its own story arc which builds up, reaches its peak, then gradually concludes by the end of the novel. Do you have to wrap everything up? Of course not! That would defeat the point of a series. But look at the Harry Potter novels. Sure, the whole threat of the Dark Lord taking over is there for the entire series, but each book has its own self-contained adventure (the Triwizard Tournament, the Chamber of Secrets being opened, etc.)

I know for a fact that most agents, while possibly willing to sign on multiple books, prefer to be pitched them one at a time. That makes it easier for the writer, too. Now you only have to write one query letter, and one synopsis! If a book does well enough, and there’s the right amount of suspense at the end, there will be demand for a sequel.

Like anything in writing, it’s a balancing act.

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Happy balancing.

The Best Concrete (On Writing: The Good of Being a Writer)

“When you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic.”

–  Stephen King

 

So today here I am, with a post considerably less bleak than last night’s. Today I discuss what I believe to be the best part about writing stories; in my case, specifically, novels.

Well, there’s the obvious summary: writing equals freedom. You can literally say whatever you want, in exactly the way you want, using the exact phrases and structuring you want. Okay, so it isn’t quite that simple. Looking through the “reality” lens of this situation, we all know that novel writing isn’t total freedom. Good novel writing isn’t, at least. Good novel writing is about adhering to a structure, keeping your story constantly on a very precise track.

But guess what? You build that track. Admittedly, it takes some work to build that track in the proper way, then to stay on it through the course of the story, then to drive back over that track smoothing out every pebble that worked its way into the structure.

No one said writing well was easy. And if they did, please send them to me so I can slap them upside the head. Yes, some people are better at it than others, and in general, the better ones are the ones who are published. But it’s also an acquired skill.

However, I’m getting off-track (Ha! Zing! Okay, sorry). My point is that yes, writing gets a teensy bit less fun when you’re worried about being good. But just as you have the freedom to change the plot twist of your book, you have the freedom to decide not to worry about writing being good.

In fact, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say we all need to get bad writing out of our system before the good can start. Some people get this bad writing out through blogs (ahem), some through manuscripts that they later throw out, and some just write badly their whole lives without giving a second thought to ever getting published.

And that’s another great thing about writing. No one said you have to be good at it. No, abysmal authors don’t necessarily belong in the publishing world, but it’s perfectly fine to write badly and keep those bad writings for yourself. No grammar Nazi is going to kick down your door (I promise I’ll restrain myself) and demand you learn the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the world is full of bad writers, nor am I saying that writing badly is a super awesome thing to do. I’m just saying that writing is like driving: anyone can do it, but it takes practice to get better. Not to mention that both are a lot harder than they look.

But luckily, writing is also one of the few hobbies in the world that you control, really control, in terms of what gets set in stone. Words are concrete, but only when you’ve made them concrete. My bigger point here is that writing is like the world’s best cement: you can mix it around all you want—your whole life, even—and wait until it’s perfect before letting it sit. Then you’ve formed a beautiful thing that some people might even be interested in.

To me, that’s total freedom. The power to mold something in your perfect image, and only show it off when you’re totally happy with it. The molding itself might be a somewhat tedious process, but coming up with the project idea gives you enough excitement (usually, but not always) to power through, finish at least the rough sculpting, before stepping back and giving your brainchild a fix-up.

Or, in my case, seven or eight fix-ups. Believe it or not, my manuscript used to be quite a bit worse than it is now. The reason I can so confidently look at it and say “that could suck a lot more” is because at one point, it did.

But the best part comes now, when the fixing up nears its end. When you finally step back, look over what you created, and realize that you can’t find anything wrong with it.

Okay, so in reality the best part is when that creation gets a six-figure publishing deal. But I don’t have experience with that, so I’ll avoid the subject for now.

Happy creating, everyone.

Every Word Counts (On Revision: Stage 2)

“When in doubt, delete it.”

–  Philip Cosby

 

When it comes to most jobs, you need to figure out what you’re going to use to get them done. For painted art, it’s an abundance of different brushes and colored paints. For a writer, it’s words. When it all comes down to it, that’s all writing is: mixing words together in a way to convey exactly what you want.

While writing the first draft of a story, I don’t worry too much about wording. I pay attention to it, but I don’t worry. My brain naturally puts a varying degree of creative spins on descriptions, and I let it do its thing. During that stage, I’m more worried about keeping the characters straight and the plot holes filled (one more reason why I like outlining…means less for me to worry about later).

But alas, I’m past the first draft stage, now in the editing portion. I like to think of that as a transition from middle school to high school: in middle school, you have fun with your friends, grow up, and become who you are. Yes, you have to pay attention to your studies, but it’s not the end of the world if you slip up.

Then there’s high school. It’s still fun, because it still has the same feel as before, but the stakes are much higher. Your grades affect your academic future once you graduate. You have to think about getting a job soon. Then what schools you want to apply to, and keeping in the right circle of friends, and being safe with things like driving and which parties you go to.

This isn’t a pointless analogy. What I’m trying to demonstrate is that editing a manuscript is like the upper grades of school. You’ve had your fun, grown up, made solid progress so far, gotten comfortable with who your own voice. It’s time to get serious, take responsibility for your own work, and now, mistakes are more serious. They aren’t fatal, to be sure, but for editing to have meaning, it works best to be in the mindset of getting something corrected. Otherwise you’ll just have to repeat the process.

The reason I’m talking about editing on such a detailed level is because that’s where wording comes in. If you’re playing “book doctor,” there’s no finer way to heal your story than by one word at a time. It doesn’t go down to the letter, assuming you can spell correctly.

And that’s why it’s so difficult. As I said before: everyone can tell a story, some can tell a good story, but only a handful of those can tell a good story in a good way. I’m still working on it myself. I’m also struggling with the problem of…

Over-thinking things is something most people are probably guilty of doing at some point or another. Unfortunately, the majority of my over-thinking seems to emerge while I’m editing my manuscript. It’s an easy habit to slip into…you hear it time and again from all the submission guidelines floating around out there: “EVERY SINGLE WORD MUST HOLD MY ATTENTION! IF THERE’S ONE SYLLABLE THAT DOESN’T CONTRIBUTE TO THE OVERALL MEANING OF THE TEXT THEN YOU FAIL!”

And yet, stories would be pretty bad if they all were just chopped down to convey meaning, and nothing else.

Peggy Noonan said something on this subject. “Remember the waterfront shack with the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. Of course it’s fresh, we’re on the ocean. Of course it’s for sale, we’re not giving it away. Of course it’s here, otherwise the sign would be someplace else. The final sign: FISH.”

I think the point of this is that word revision, like many aspects of writing, is a balancing act.

So, how can we get better at it?

Luckily, all of the advice I’ve heard on this particular subject is unanimous: read more.

Oh, but I do read already. I read, like, three freaking books a week, you silly blogger.

Let me correct myself: read more books similar to yours. You might already be doing that, if you’re like me and you write the same kind of stories you like to read. Or you might be reading more…even better! That’s what I try to do, though I have limited success.

 

I’m sorry this is more-or-less an unhelpful post. It doesn’t offer all that much insight to the act of editing, word for word, and I guess that’s because it’s not really something to be taught. It’s just a matter of knowing what wording will work best for your book, then injecting it in.

And, finally, chopping out words when necessary. This is especially painful for me, because I hate diving into my crowd of modifiers and killing all but a handful. In fact, I think that’s why the whole editing process as a whole is painful for me. I hate chopping up the work I worked so hard to put together. And I hate destroying words.

But then again, if you put too many stars in the sky, none of them can shine.

On Writing: The Last Sentence (For Now)

“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world. ”

 –  Tom Clancy

 

I haven’t posted about writing for a while, but last I remember, I discussed the actual writing of a book, of transforming the bullets in an outline into the words on a page. I was a bit limited with that subject, as people have their own way of going about laying out their story. But tonight I wanted to talk about what it feels like to actually finish a manuscript (albeit the first, unedited draft).

Some people don’t. In fact, I don’t think it’s too bold of a statement to say that many people who start novels end up giving up and never finish them.

I’ve only done this once. And I’m not sure if that time counts, because it was a novel I’d never planned on taking very far. It was actually based off a TV show I enjoyed, but it only ran for a few episodes. The series closed on a cliffhanger, so I decided it might be fun to imagine how the story ended. I knew from the start it was mostly an informal chance to play around with writing techniques, and after a few months I scrapped it, moving on.

I have finished my share of first-draft manuscripts, though, and I must say I’m still not used to the feeling of typing the last words of a story I’ve worked on for months.

Based on what I’ve heard, that feeling is different for each person. Some people feel sweet, amazing relief that they satisfactorily completed a story, start to end, and they just want to put it away for a while. Others want to immediately whip out the editing pen and get to work making every word as perfect as possible.

I’m mostly in the middle, but if we were to draw out a spectrum, I would be more towards the first option. With my time as limited as it is, I’m so relieved just to have a manuscript done and wrapped up that I don’t want to come back to it for a while. When I finish, I make note of the time and date, jot down a few words to commemorate it, whip out the sparkling grape juice, and usually watch the movie Super 8 if only because I still enjoy it.

I give myself a resting period of a few days (not too many, though) and then get—as our friends in Aerosmith say—back in the saddle. Generally that means deciding what story I want to start on next, because I believe in letting a manuscript sit for at least a month before beginning the process of editing.

But, that’s another subject. One that I’ll be tackling soon, in fact.

So. If you actually do finish (or have finished) a novel, congratulations! I know that doesn’t mean much coming from a stranger with a blog named after an obscure sci-fi movie, but I still like saying it.

Because I know so, so many people who have given up on their stories, and that always makes me sad, because I feel like if you love something like writing, you would keep doing it no matter how bad the finished product is. Maybe that’s because I have low standards, or else because I’m ridiculously stubborn in finishing something I’ve started. I’m not sure.

In any case, even if your story isn’t published (none of mine are, for example), you can still keep them for yourself. Neil Gailman once said that “a book is a dream you hold in your hands.” I at least try to keep in mind that not every dream we have is meant to be shared. Sometimes, they’re so precious because they’re ours alone. No one else’s.

Sometimes, dreaming itself is what’s important.

On Writing: From Outline to Manuscript

“The first million words are practice.”

 –  Stephen King

 

In continuation from a previous post on writing a book: so, you’ve either typed out some sort of outline or decided to keep it all in your head. I personally like to write down the outline. And once I’m ready to turn it into a book—like, an actual readable book with chapters and descriptions and everything—here’s what I do.

First of all, I—to quote Miss Swift—“never, ever, ever” write my book out of chronological order. I always start with chapter one, work my way through, and finish the manuscript with the last sentence of the last chapter.

I do this for a few reasons.

Primarily, pacing. Yes, the flow of the story is something you more worry about when going back and revising it, but still. I need to ride along with the characters and be there to pave the path of the plot as it unfolds. That’s just my style; I know plenty of authors who do the exact opposite. It’s about whatever works to get the story laid down as neatly as possible.

Another reason I go in order is because I more or less “re-invent” the story as I write it out from outline to concrete existence. My outline will describe what happens overall, but when I get to a certain chapter, I might think of something else to add or another twist to throw in, based on what I’ve written so far. To me, typing out an outline is the equivalent of writing a story, and actually turning that outline into a book is a way of re-writing it and expanding on its ideas.

The next thing I do when writing the first draft of a manuscript: I think about what the first sentence should be. Not too much, since I know I’ll probably change it, but I do think a bit before I type. I want it to be something to draw people in, but also not too flashy.

In addition: I don’t worry about words. I don’t worry about how I describe things (though of course I do my best to get it right the first go around), and at the same time, I don’t worry about how many words total the manuscript will turn out to be.

I know it’s easy to fret over the length of your story, page-wise and word-wise. I do it myself all the time, even though I know it’s only the first draft and the word count means almost nothing right now. The fact of the matter is that my main goal is to get the plot down, and to bring the characters to life. Once that task—writing the first draft, in other words—is finished, I can move on to worry about the mechanics of it.

The first book I wrote was thirty-six pages long (though it was single-spaced at the time, so that brings the manuscript length up to seventy-two). Through the course of my tweaking, that went up to three hundred and fifty pages, then was chopped back down to just over three hundred. Of course, I’ve since thrown out that entire manuscript and am re-writing it from scratch, so there’s the writing world for you.

So yeah, that’s about it for now.

Occasionally throughout this series of posts I’ll re-iterate my disclaimer, and so I will now: these are my thoughts only. And while I’ve been writing for a while, I’m not published, and thus my advice is subjectively useful at best. So I appreciate it if you’ve even read this whole article.

 

And as per usual with my writing posts, I’ll include a random fact, so you can say you learned something:

The Japanese name for the (thankfully) cancelled show Jersey Shore translates as “Macaroni Rascals.”

Happy Election Day.

On Writing: Mapping Out a Story

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

 –  Sylvia Plath

 

Starting a novel.

It really isn’t difficult. Writing a book isn’t hard…it’s writing a good book that’s the kicker.

But here’s something I keep in mind: if you’re writing this for yourself, then it doesn’t matter if it’s terrible. And even if you’re writing to impress and become the most awesome kid in the school (good luck with that one) or maybe, just maybe, get published…well, in that case, revision exists for a reason. As someone who’s been revising their own manuscript for close to four years, I can say you won’t be able to escape it, no matter how perfect you think you can make it the first time around.

But I’m getting off topic. So, you have a story and you want to turn it into a novel. Whatever shall you do?

Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. That being said, I can tell you what I usually do: I generally open up a word document and make a bulleted list of everything I know about the story from my head. Who’s the protagonist? What do they want? How do we first meet them, and what happens from there?

And for the record, no, this isn’t really outlining. Not unless you put it in the roman numeral form with the hanging indents. Which, I always do…but after I make the bullet list. The list is just a dump so you can empty your brain before playing around with the contents.

After the list is finished, I open two new documents: one being called “Untitled, Character Outlines” and “Untitled, Plot Outline.”

And then I start to piece it together. I spill everything I know about the characters and everything I want for them. That means appearance, personality, abilities, backstory, etc. (I promise my next post on writing will talk about character creation and development).

As for the plot outline, I usually get to that once I’m done with rough outlines of my characters. Because once I have them, I can start putting them together in a story.

If I still have no clue about plot details—just a vague overview—I’ll keep it in bullet form and worry about breaking it down into individual chapters later. But eventually, I always do, because I’ve found I can’t write a book if I don’t have a clear vision of where it’s going.

 

Another perfect example of where I may be horrifically wrong, or maybe you just want to do it differently. There really isn’t a best way…Stephen King is famous for not outlining beforehand. As he said in his fantastic memoir, On Writing, he prefers to develop strong characters right off the bat. He then sets them all up in an opening chapter and lets them “write the story for him,” in that he gets inside their minds and decides what they would do next to make the plot happen.

On the other hand, J.K. Rowling had the epilogue scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows written up, polished and tucked safely in a folder before Book One even hit shelves in 1997. According to her, it stayed there for ten years and was put into the final story with minimal editing. So, it’s up to you to decide how much of your book you want to map out beforehand.

One more thing: I think it would be unfair not to address anyone interested in writing a series, as I myself want to.

What I’ve heard most literary agents and publishers recommend is this: have a vague outline drawn up for future novels, but only focus your energy on writing and developing the first one. Because if that one is terrible, it won’t sell, and the world won’t get to read the rest of your series, which happens to turn amazing at book three of six.

But, publishers and agents are an entirely different topic, and one I’m not particularly well-versed in. So enough for now.

Well, that’s a solid intro, at least. I think that’s about all I have to say concerning the point at which you come up with a story to the point where you have it all outlined chapter by chapter, ready to turn it into a book.

 

No, that might not seem like much.

But it is. Even J.K. Rowling had to start somewhere.

Of course, if you want to write me off as a rambling idiot, that’s fine too. I’m not published, after all, as I’ve so persistently reminded you. But we all have to be stupid somewhere, and to me a blog seems as good a place as any.