Last Saturday morning I popped out of bed with the energy of a squirrel on crack to spend a fun-filled day at the Austin Teen Book Festival. It’s awesome to live in a city that has such a big YA book event, even if the heat tries to obliterate my will to live every summer.
- I bought my first gay boy book, Openly Straight, and was reminded how important it is to support LGBTQ authors of all stripes. Bill Konigsberg was a delight on his panel and fun to talk to at the signing table.
- One of my friends listed off many of the famous YA authors with whom she has peed in public restrooms.
- Lauren Myracle tenderly touched the battered cover of my copy of Kissing Kate and marveled that I had the version with the original cover. Kissing Kate was her first published book. She signed it, “To Audrey, who was there from the very beginning.”
- On the Tales of Tomorrow panel, Malinda Lo put hoverboards and other material things aside and said that equality was her dream for the future—equality for people of color and LGBTQ people. EQUALITY. Can we get a slow-clap?
- Rae Carson gave me a look of skepticism when I requested profanity in my book personalization. It quickly morphed into delight when she realized I was serious.
- I made a total mouth-breathing assclam of myself in front of a well-known agent. He has now insisted I query him, and I look forward to his rejection.
For those of you out there who are avid readers of YA, I encourage you to find local book events to attend. Hearing what authors have to say about their books and about the publication process is always interesting, and the panels usually end up being hilarious. YA authors have a great sense of humor and are a wonderfully supportive and fun community.
Big news: I finally polished the last flakes of crust off the turd better known as my manuscript! Although it’s going through one more quick beta round, this version feels ready to query.
So here’s what I’m up to while I gnaw my nails down to the quicks waiting on my beta readers:
- Compiling my agent list! It’s important to submit to agents who represent the correct genre. I’ve been following the #MSWL (manuscript wish list) hashtag on Twitter and researching agents all over the web. It’s a perfect opportunity to use my internet stalking expertise.
- Finalizing my query letter and synopsis! A strong query letter is what makes a submission stand out in the slush pile, and many agents also require a synopsis. Now that my final revisions on the manuscript are done, it is a good time to make sure my synopsis is consistent with any recent changes to the manuscript and that my query is as strong as it can be.
- Reading! I promised myself a reward after finishing my revisions, so I’m finally digging into the enormous pile of books on my nightstand. Reading always helps inspire me and give me something to aspire to.
- Tackling book 2! I’m reluctant to completely give up momentum with writing, so I’ve started the revision process for book 2, which I drafted back in 2011. It needs a lot of work, but the outlining process is going much more smoothly than it did with the first book. Book 2 darker, bloodier, and creepier, so it is a fun change of pace.
Descriptions are not my favorite aspect of writing novels. Given the choice, I’d rather write dialogue. However, while my characters can talk about rocket powered raccoon carcasses all day, what fun would that be without a detailed description of said raccoons?
I blame my fondness for dialogue on my former life as a music nerd, which developed my auditory ability with little regard for the rest of the senses. Dialogue I can hear in my head. Good descriptions go far beyond that. There are two main things I use to help make my descriptions more interesting.
1. Use active verbs (avoid is, was).
There are times when “is” or “was” makes sense to use, but active verbs can help make descriptions livelier. Objects that are doing something are always more interesting than those that are not. For example:
A1: The spaceship was silver. It had long silver tentacles that were reaching for him. The aliens were small, round, and blue.
A2: The silver spaceship thrummed overhead, its long silver tentacles reaching down to close around his wrists. Aliens rolled from the gaping mouth of the ship, their blue fur tickling him as they tumbled around his ankles like sentient basketballs.
It’s also often good to avoid the construction “was/is/were/are with a verb ending in -ing” when you can just use the verb. It’s more economical and makes for stronger sentences.
- He was reaching for me.
He reached for me.
- Her fingers are tapping on the table.
Her fingers tap on the table.
- The raccoon carcass rocket is awaiting deployment.
The raccoon carcass rocket awaits deployment.
2. Incorporate smell, taste, touch, and sound.
Descriptions are not all about how something looks. Taste, smell, sound, and touch are as or more important than a visual image and add extra depth to the world you build. This is particularly important when writing fantasy or science fiction. Your secondary world will come to life more fully if all senses are incorporated. It’s not enough to tell us that the bushes are bubblegum pink. Do they also smell like bubblegum? Or do they reek of desiccated fish? Either one adds a completely new dimension to the scene. For example:
B1: The pine trees were dark green ahead and the sun was out in the blue sky. There was no sign of the mutant vulture that had been chasing her. A bird was singing in the forest. The pine needles underfoot were sharp as she walked into the woods.
B2: The cool scent of pine washed over her as she strode toward the forest. The lonely song of a bird called out as she neared the shelter of the trees, almost making her feel safe. She squinted into the blue sky, nervously searching for any sign of the mutant vulture. Dry pine needles stabbed into her feet as she hurried into the woods.
There’s only one important piece of advice I can give anyone how to write the first draft of a novel (or anything, for that matter):
If you have nothing written, you have nothing to revise. There isn’t any magic trick to finishing a book other than dedication. It’s okay to make mistakes and messes, and it’s okay to know you’ll have to come back later and do a better description of the flying rainbow whirligig in chapter 8. The most important thing is to finish.
Revising isn’t so simple. Since returning from Los Angeles, I’ve been deep in the bowels of revision hell putting to use some of the excellent feedback I got at the retreat. It’s both thrilling and agonizing—thrilling because I can see my book getting closer to something I’ll be proud to query, and agonizing because there are still days when I feel like I will never get there.
I’ve learned more about writing from revising this book than I did by drafting my other four novels combined. I don’t think there is any one right way to revise (or to draft for that matter) as every writer’s process is different. However, I do suggest the following:
- Set aside a first draft for a while before attempting any revision at all.
- Always make major changes to plot/structure before trying to line edit.
- Find a critique partner or beta reader who gives honest, detailed feedback.
- Be kind to your beta/critique partner—wait to send out your draft until you truly feel it is the best you can make it on your own. The same applies to querying agents.
- Revise ruthlessly, but also be kind to yourself during the process. After all, both you and your book are works in progress.
Day 7 contained a great discussion about querying/the business of publishing, a mild sunburn, and a perilous walk along a freeway access road.
Since our critiques were complete for the week, Malinda devoted Saturday’s workshop time to a discussion of querying and other aspects of publishing. She turned over the reins to the two among us who already have agents. Her rationale for that was that they had queried more recently, and things have changed a lot since she initially queried her debut, Ash, in 2007.
M-E Girard gave us a detailed process that she used for querying, and also taught us how to be stealthy online stalkers. Fortunately, my online dating life before marriage allowed me to hone those skills to a frightfully advanced level. It’s kind of fun to have a reason to put them to use again. Here are my notes on M-E’s steps for query success:
- Finish your manuscript.
- Revise until it is the best you can make it on your own (beta readers and critique partners highly recommended).
- Write your query and have it reviewed/critiqued by your writer friends.
- Compile a list of agents that represent the genre you are querying and sort them into tiers by preference (5-10 agents per tier).
- STALK THEM ALL. But only on the internet. And stealthily.
- Develop a unique personalization based on the information you learned while stalking. But don’t be creepy (I struggle with this in all aspects of life).
- Create a query tracking system or use something like QueryTracker.
- Send your query to Tier 1 and sit back to gnaw your nails to the quicks while you wait for responses.
- If you don’t get any responses or only get rejections, your query is probably not working. Revise your query and get more feedback, then submit to Tier 2, Tier 3, etc.
It was strange and sad to leave our workshop room for the last time, though I won’t miss the smell of dirty socks that always seemed to permeate it. However, I had an adventure to head off to. A friend of mine from Austin picked me up to take me down to Santa Monica. We decided to grab something to eat and then walked down to the pier. I took a few pictures on our walk:
After our walk on the pier, my friend dropped me off to visit with my mentor from my day job. Hopefully my mentor has forgiven me for being completely feral by the time I saw her; work was but a distant dream after being out of the office for two weeks. We spent a couple of hours chatting in her beautiful back yard, which reminded me how much I love to be outside in places that aren’t Texas.
When it was finally time to head home, I caught the bus a few blocks from her house. The ride itself went relatively smoothly, but the stop at the end of my journey turned out to be on the opposite side of the highway from the campus. I walked across the overpass, but then the sidewalk disappeared, so I had to hoof it through the dirt or walk on the freeway access road for half a mile, which resulted in some dude shouting out his car to see if I needed a ride. I suppose it’s possible that he was trying to be polite, but signs on the bus had just warned me about the dangers of human trafficking in LA. Ending up in the trunk of a car bound up with duct tape alongside a bunch of weaponry didn’t seem like a good way to end the day.
I got back up to campus just in time for the farewell party, which was an epic affair involving plenty of cake, scotch, an open mic, and eventually karaoke. Everyone went completely batshit when Hold On by Wilson Phillips queued up, and the most majestic singalong of all time took place. I won’t post any pictures or video here to save your retinas and eardrums, but you can have your own little singalong to the original video:
I still can’t believe the retreat is over. A piece of me got left behind in Los Angeles. Still, I’m excited to see what the future holds, and am so grateful for the connections I made that I know are going to be amazing friendships.
Some sort of magic happened on Day 5, and by Day 6 of the retreat our cohort turned into a family. The final morning of critiques went well. There was another guest lecture in the afternoon, but in the spirit of the teenage audience we write for, most of the YA/Genre Fellows played hooky.
We sat outside in the gloriously pleasant afternoon, all pretending to work at first, but quickly getting distracted and talking instead.
It was strange to just kick back and relax. Most of the week was intensely busy between the workshops and having to read and prepare the critiques. Friday was really the first day we had an afternoon to decompress from it all. The only people who were still stressed out were the ones who hadn’t read yet.
Friday evening readings were just as good as Thursday’s. Lots of wine was consumed afterward, and we had a fun time goofing around and staying up much too late.
On Day 5 of the writing retreat, I FINALLY GOT MY COMPUTER BACK! As it turns out, the problem was simply that the trackpad had failed, which made it impossible to wake the computer from sleep mode. *headdesk* I’m so happy to no longer be reading from a dodgy monitor that looks like something from an elementary school circa 1995. I hitched a ride with Tony, the director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, to get the computer. It was fun seeing a little of LA again and to get off campus for the afternoon, and I really enjoyed talking to Tony. I’m going to have to write another entire post when I get home about LA, and how so many things about it weren’t at all what I was expecting.
When we returned from lunch, the big decision loomed: what to read? The reading had to be between 3-4 minutes, which is approximately 2-3 pages. I decided to keep it extra short, because I like to feel like I have time to read and not have to rush through anything. I settled on the big kiss scene from my novel, since it didn’t require any major changes to be ready for the reading.
I also had my one-on-one with Malinda in the afternoon. She gave each YA/Genre Fellow the opportunity to ask her anything, whether related to our writing or to publishing. I talked to her about a few plot issues in my book, writing characters of color, and querying. Talking to her was such a pleasure; she always offers her thoughts with honesty and frankness, and I really appreciate that about her. She told me repeatedly that my book was nearly ready to query if I just work through some of the revision ideas that came up in my critique. Eep.
Readings began at 7pm with the help of some adult beverages. I’m not sure I have words yet for how much the readings blew me away. Every writer brought something different to the podium and kept me engaged with their words. Each reading provided a glimpse inside that writer, and the relationship between the readers and audience demonstrated the miracle of the simultaneous difference and sameness among us all.
The videos will eventually be posted online, and I highly recommend giving them a watch.
Also, I found out tonight that there will be an open mic at the farewell party on Friday. More unicorn antics are undoubtedly forthcoming…
Day 4 was unexpectedly relaxing. I slept in a little and accidentally missed breakfast, but the mid-morning snack saved me from hunger-induced Hulk rage. We did three more critiques over the course of the morning. I continue to be amazed by the feedback people give, and how much value I get from hearing it. A lot of what is said in other critique sessions could just as easily apply to my book.
The one sad thing is that I’ve been so focused on critiquing that I haven’t had much time to work on my own writing. The good news is that I only have one critique left to do! I’m hoping that means I can spend tomorrow and Friday revising or working on a story.
After each person’s critique we’ve been playing the game “If My Book Was a T-Shirt…” This is what the Fellows came up with for mine:
In the evening there was a guest lecture by the fantastic Kelley Eskridge. I did not attend because I was distracted by Indian food and wine, but I feel that I should let you know that there is more going on than a bunch of the YA/genre Fellows frolicking around in a creepy unicorn mask (though we did get one of the poetry Fellows to put it on today). Despite not attending the lecture, I did do the pre-reading Kelley left for us, and one piece especially captured the essence of being a writer. You can check it out on her website here. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Day 5 is going to be fun and scary. I have a one-on-one with Malinda in which I’m planning to ask some questions about race in my novel. It could prove awkward as I may have attacked her while wearing a unicorn head earlier this week.
I’m not scared of Malinda, though. She’s cool. The scary part is that I have to read an excerpt from my novel in front of 50 people and be videotaped. I think I peed a tiny bit just typing that. Trying to dig out two or three pages to read from my 280-page novel is like sifting through a cat box hoping to find a candy bar. We’ll see how it goes.
*Photo/design credits: Dave Ring. Follow him @slickhop on Twitter!
Day 3 was our first day of critiques. In an act of imbecilic self-sacrifice prior to the retreat, I offered to go first. Some method existed behind my madness; I hoped to get it over with quickly so that I could spend the rest of the week contemplating the feedback and working on revisions.
After two days getting to know everyone, I already had a good sense of the other Fellows and felt very comfortable with them in the critique environment. The comments and criticisms often made me smile, and always made me think. It’s a wonderful and valuable experience to be a fly on the wall in a room full of people who are discussing your work. Not only did I come away with a fantastic idea about how to fix a device that never worked properly in my book, I now have a great idea for a companion story to go along with my novel should I ever be fortunate enough to get published.
The evening unfolded with a post-dinner happy hour for our workshop group that began with some awesome conversation and ended with a great deal of silliness that resulted in this majestic photo taken by Malinda:
Connecting with the other Fellows outside the workshop helped ease some of my anxiety around being at a retreat. I still struggle to take myself seriously as a writer, and feeling comfortable enough to assert myself in a writing community can be challenging. Being photographed in a unicorn mask may not seem like great example of me taking myself seriously, but spending some time goofing off helped me feel more at home. This is an amazing group of people, and I’m so happy to be here.
I forgot to mention that after the welcome on Sunday night (Day 1) we had brief meetings with our workshop groups. Malinda went over her plans for the week, and we each spoke briefly about how we became writers. Even through those short introductions it became quickly apparent how much we have in common. Many of us began with, “I was that weird kid who wrote a novel at ten…” or “I wrote a lot of horrible, angst-ridden love poems about the girl/guy I had a crush on.”
Day 2 began with another quick round table to identify what type of feedback each writer hopes to get. What I’m hoping for is to get a sense of where multiple people have the same points of criticism. That will tell me a lot about what I need to revise. I also asked for title assistance since “Gay Princess Pony Palooza” is probably not going to cut it, and my other working title is too similar to a couple of other books that have come out recently or are about to be released.
Most of Day 2 focused on an in-depth look at world building. Essentially, the five basic elements are:
We read excerpts from several published books and discussed how each author effectively conveyed a sense of one of the above aspects of world building. It was a great exercise, and I already see ways that I can add depth to the world where my novel takes place.
After our world building discussion, Malinda walked us through revisions on a scene from her second book, Huntress. Seeing how a particular scene evolved was quite enlightening, and she’d highlighted different sections to show us why they were removed or changed. Cool stuff!
In other news, I am sad to report that my computer situation is still dire. I tried to use one of the prehistoric computers in the lab after lunch, but it puked a bunch of digital vomit onto the screen and wouldn’t even boot. I think my ages-old bathroom curse has somehow evolved into a technology curse instead.
For Day 3 I’m first on the list for critique. There will undoubtedly be more to report tomorrow!