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Coauthoring A Novel: Part Two

7 Sep

by Susan Dennard (and Sarah J. Maas!)

~~

As Sarah said Monday, the casual idea of coauthoring a book didn’t become a REAL idea for months. And then the actual world-building and novel-writing happened in a matter of weeks.

We were pushing out two to three scenes a day and letting go of our egos (because how else can you let someone read your first draft? It’s scary!). And as we wrote, a new thought weaseled in: What if this is actually good enough to publish? What if…what if…we could show this to our agents?

It was like tossing a grenade into the fray. Suddenly, we weren’t on fire for our own enjoyment—we were infernos of writing madness. There’s something about imagining your book as a REAL, published novel that motivates like no other.

But, all the excitement and dreaming big aside, here’s where you have to remember the fourth rule of coauthoring: writing is a business. Never forget that deciding to SELL a book adds a new dimension to your project—and it also puts more emphasis on being 100% transparent with each other. Why? Because now Sarah and I were talking money. We were talking about the path of our careers. Now we were looking at our writing schedule as a business plan.

And now, we had to bring in our agents.

So we notified our knights-in-shining-armor, Sara Kendall and Joanna Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary and Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. We told them we were coauthoring a book, we were really excited about it, and gave them the rough pitch.

Insert Awesome Agents Stage Left.

Without even waiting to see if we could produce something good, our agents were SUPER enthusiastic about the project, and moved right on to the next step: meeting each other. For an actual coauthored novel to sell, both sets of agents need to be involved constantly.  Everyone is CC’ed on emails, phone calls go out at the same time, and the entire process is completely open and honest.

(Also, it is super exciting. I get to work with a new agent (albeit temporarily). Now there are three possible names in my inbox that make my heart go KAPOW.)

Sarah Chimes In: Getting our agents on board was one of the most harrowing and exciting moments for us. Sooz and I were absolutely honored—and thrilled!—that they trusted us (and our work) enough to move ahead so quickly! And, as Sooz said, it’s SO awesome to closely work with another agent! I’ve admired Sara and Jo for so long that working with them still feels a bit surreal.

We wrote up a detailed synopsis of the entire book and we sent it to our agents before their first lunch date. Funnily enough, the agents instantly recognized—from the synopsis alone—which author (me or Sarah) wrote which character. Even in the synopsis, our voices and unique approaches to storytelling were obvious!

So now that we had our agents in the loop and doing their thing, Sarah and I set to revise our shiny new novel. But I was nervous. Now I was telling Sarah something was wrong with her scenes. Gone were the days of gushing praise—we had to sharpen our claws and get honest.

And so what is the fifth rule of coauthoring? Don’t take it personally. This is one of those obvious lessons we all KNOW we should feel with our novels. We all say our skins are thick from years of criticism, but if anyone out there can say they honestly don’t feel the slightest sting the when someone points out their mistakes, then raise your hand (I want to meet you because you’re clearly not human).

Sarah Chimes In: This is definitely a moment where trust comes into play, too. We had to trust each other to see the things we couldn’t, trust that the other person wouldn’t get upset if we pointed out something that needed fixing, and trust that our friendship could survive through it all. You’re not on opposing sides—you are a TEAM. What happens to one person affects the other. And whatever gets thrown your way, you face it together.

So I had to not fret over hurting Sarah’s feelings, and I had to not wince when she let me know if something I’d written just wasn’t working. I read the entire MS, wrote up a master list of all the problems we had—plot holes, character inconsistencies, etc., and sent it to Sarah. We talked in depth about the issues, and then…

BAM. The hurricane was back. No feelings were hurt at ALL—in fact, seeing the problems somehow drove us to want to fix them. We were determined to reach the book we’d initially set out to write. We’d revise two, three, or more scenes a day and swap. And within a week, we had a new book to show for it.

Now Sarah took charge. With the big problems fixed, there were still all the little issues to fret over. Line edits, pacing, infodumps, etc.  She read the whole novel and with track-changes pointed out everything that needed fixing…

And then we were done.  Well, scratch that. We were done enough for a critique partner.  Sarah and I both firmly believe that sending your agent an un-critiqued manuscript is unprofessional. We had read the book so many times by then, it was all blurring together—we couldn’t see the mistakes any more. An external set of eyes was the only way to spot the remaining problems (and to verify that this book we thought was the Greatest Novel Ever Written was actually any good at all).

Once we got the feedback from our CP, we incorporated her ideas, sent the book through one more strenuous wringer of line edits, and then…we held our breaths, crossed our fingers, and sent the darn thing to our agents.

Insert montage of Susan banging her head against the desk and groaning, Sarah frantically picking all the polish off her fingernails, and both girls writing panicked emails saying “WHAT IF THEY HATE IT?”

Sarah Chimes In: Way to expose my nervous habit, Sooz!!! 😉 Seriously, though—while we waited to hear what our agents thought about the ms, we were pretty pathetic. It felt kinda like the moment of truth—what if all our hard work was for nothing? What if we had to go back to Square 1?

The sixth rule of coauthoring is to be available when your buddy is freaking out because you will certainly have your own fair share of freaking out.

Fortunately, our agents didn’t hate the book—they actually loved it! And fortunately, they were all in agreement on what needed changing and twisting and fixing.

Flash forward a month and a half (oh my gosh, it’s only been a month and a half?), and Sarah and I are just finishing what we hope will be our last big picture revisions before the Submissions Fairy deems us okay for editorial eyes. Every new round of revisions is like that initial grenade, and we work furiously for a few days, send the newest draft to our agents, and then conk out for a week of recovery (just kidding. Sort of.).

Sarah Chimes In: Not gonna lie: It’s like a writing hangover.

Every time there’s some new excuse to work on this book, my heart does a little dance because this means I get to skype with Sarah for 3+ hours and babble about our fantasy world (much to the chagrin of our husbands). I love to talk about my writing—like LOVE it—and being able to talk about my writing with a writer…and with a writer who is writing the same thing?? BLISS!

So, hopefully one day in the not too distant future, this novel will make its way to some publishing inboxes and pique some acquisitions editors’ eyes, and you can promise that when that Big Deal Day comes, we will let everyone know—because the third rule of coauthoring is to have fun, and the seventh rule is to share that fun with the world!

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

~

Sarah J. Maas has written several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012. She is repped by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency, and resides with her husband in Southern California. You can visit her blog here, and follow her on twitter.

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Coauthoring A Novel: Part One

5 Sep

By Sarah J. Maas (and Susan Dennard!)

~~~

Seven months ago, if you had asked me about whether or not I’d ever coauthor a book, I probably would have just scratched my head. It was something that SOUNDED cool, but seemed really, really hard to do well—not just the writing aspect, but also the emotional and business sides of it. Though I was fairly certain that if the right person came around, and if the right idea struck us, it could be a fun thing to do.

Enter Susan Dennard.

We’d swapped novels before—I had read Susan’s stunning debut, SOMETHING STRANGE & DEADLY, and she’d read both QUEEN OF GLASS and A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES (my “Beauty and the Beast” retelling). We both loved each other’s work, and had an instant friendship back when Sooz joined LTWF in October 2010, and had jokingly talked about one day writing a book together. The problem was that we didn’t have any idea WHAT to write.

Sooz Chimes In: If you think about it, it’s pretty daunting to come up with an idea two writers agree on. We’re all used to being 100% in control of our stories, our characters, and our worlds. Not to mention Sarah’s books are very different from mine—at least in terms of world or genre…

Then, one fateful day—February 8th, 2010—inspiration struck. We can’t yet explain WHY that date is so important, but let’s just say that a simple: “What if?” question turned into a “Holy crap…that’s an idea for a NOVEL!”

The thing is, neither Susan nor I had ever co-written a novel—and didn’t really know the first thing about it. We knew almost right away that the novel would be dual POV about two sisters. Which meant we each would be writing half a novel, essentially (though this actually doesn’t mean there’s any less work involved). But things like coming up with our world, plot, and characters—things like outlining and writing a synopsis…we had to figure out how to do all those things TOGETHER.

First rule about coauthoring a novel? Be flexible. Be open with your ideas, be open to suggestions, be open to learning how someone else’s creative process works, and what inspires THEM. And be crystal-clear when communicating.

Once we had a basic idea of our book (and by basic, I mean it was still “What if we wrote X?”), we began brainstorming. Every day. For a few weeks. We’d talk on skype, on gchat, over email. Most of the brainstorming went like this:

Sarah: So what if we did THIS?

Sooz: Ooh!!! That sounds so cool! But what if we did THIS?

Sarah: OMG. YES. And what if we added THIS?

Sooz: And then that could tie into THIS!

Sarah: Or we could go THIS route…

Sooz: Or THIS route!

Sarah: You are a genius because then we could tie it in with THIS.

Sooz: I know. And OMG—YES.

We even roughly outlined the first six chapters, but after weeks of brainstorming, we ran into a slight speed bump: when would this novel be set? We had originally envisioned steampunk, but given Sooz’s debut has steampunk elements, we were hesitant to also make ours a steampunk book. We both knew from the start that if this was gonna work, we’d have to be clear about what we wanted—about what was working for us and what wasn’t.

Sooz Chimes In: Like Sarah said, because SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY is an alternate history with gadgets and because I’m not allowed to write a new book that would compete with it, it seemed like our original envisioning of this coauthoring project wasn’t gonna fly. So I straight up told her, “My no-compete clause limits me. Would you be willing to look at different settings?”

And though it was frustrating to realize that our steampunk setting might not work, it was also a great sign that we were getting this communication thing down—we both felt that the decision to avoid the steampunk route was the right one. Without being brave enough to voice our opinions—and open enough to hear them—the project could have fallen apart right there. But then things like edit letters and revisions and other projects came along, and before we knew it, our little project got set on the back burner.

Weeks went by, and to be honest, we didn’t think of our little project all that often. But then one day out of the blue, one of us said: “So, I’ve been thinking about our little project…What if we set it in THIS setting/era?” And the other one said: “…Well, maybe not THEN, but what about a few years before…?”

What followed then was explosion of creativity that I don’t quite have words to describe. We had our setting, and our two heroines, and a villain—for the next few weeks, we built the world. The thing about co-writing a book is that you BOTH need to agree on EVERYTHING. In a hurricane of brainstorming, we built a world from the ground up—a world that we absolutely adored. One book became a trilogy.

Maybe we had it easy. Sooz and I come from the same geekdoms. STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, various anime…we loved the same novels. We knew, inside and out, the kind of sources we were drawing from, and knew our target audience. And because we were so familiar with the same things, it made getting on the same page way easier (example: I mentioned wanting a “That’s no moon…It’s a space station.” kinda shout-out moment, and Sooz knew exactly what I was talking about.).

But there comes a point when you can’t do any more brainstorming—when you have to bite the bullet and start writing.

Doing that—deciding to put words onto paper—was perhaps the hardest part so far. We decided to each take a character and write their POV in alternating chapters. After we’d write a chapter, we’d swap those chapters and read through them so we’d be on the same page about pacing and plot development. Initially, it felt like a game of chicken: who would be the first one to write their chapter? Worse: who would be the first one to SEND their chapter to the other?

Confession: Sooz is way braver than me and sent her first chapter before I sent mine. And it was so good that I looked back at the first chapter I had written and CRINGED. And then worried that Sooz would find my first chapter so freaking horrible that she’d realize working with me was a terrible mistake and suggest we not do it.

Sooz Chimes In: Sarah is being ridiculous. When she sent me her first chapter, I got chills…and then freaked out because I had already sent her mine and in comparison, hers was SO much better. I told her what I thought, and she laughed and told me how she felt—next thing you know, we were both feeling pretty confident about our scenes and chomping at the bit to get out more!

Second rule of coauthoring a novel? Embrace your belief that your co-author is writing better stuff than you—and writing faster and more of it. It becomes a powerful motivator.

Seeing Sooz produce such stellar stuff made me push myself. It kept me on my toes. It challenged me to write the very best that I could—it made me demand excellence from myself.

Sooz, like me, is a fast worker. We can both write well over 5k words in a day if we’re focused. Seeing Sooz churn out chapters made me not want to let her down—I wanted to match the quality and quantity of work she was producing. Best of all, these weren’t negative feelings—it was liberating. Inspiring. It was an adrenaline rush and a sugar high and like going 0 to 60 in 7 seconds. I woke up every morning eager to get to work, and went to bed every night dreaming of the next day’s scenes.

We finished our rough draft in two weeks. And then began the process of revision—which is a process that Sooz will talk about in our next article on co-authoring.

Third rule of coauthoring a novel? Have fun.

I keep telling people that this summer has been one of the busiest of my life, and it has. But it’s also been one of the most fun I can remember. Every day, I got to wake up and work (via skype, email, etc) with my best friend. We got to giggle about the guys in our book, or go on wild tangents about Boba Fett or my obsession with Ancient Aliens or the alien-raccoon-demon hybrid dwelling in my attic. Or one of our dogs would bark, and the other would bark in response, and we’d have to stop working for 5 minutes to allow our pups to have a doggie skype session.

We started off just writing this book for the hell of it. Just to have a grand time and write about some of the things we love and wish we could do. But it didn’t take long after we began writing before we asked another question….

“…What if we tried to get this book published?”

~~~

Sarah J. Maas has written several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in Fall 2012. She is repped by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency, and resides with her husband in Southern California. You can visit her blog here, and follow her on twitter.

~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Your Characters Should Exist in Time

26 Aug

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books with characters that have felt ever-so-slightly flat. On the surface it seems as if these characters have been constructed perfectly — they have likes and dislikes, flaws and strengths. My poor brain has been working overtime trying to figure out what’s wrong, what crucial element has been missing in these characters.

I think I’ve finally figured it out. The missing element, the thing that’s holding these characters back from truly popping on the page? Time. These characters were defined purely through their relationships to the things around them. They seemed to have near non-existent histories and were unaware that such a thing as the future existed.

I think one of the easiest traps to fall into with characterization, especially of protagonists, is to view their identity through a purely material lens. “Oh,” the clever author says, “he/she is intelligent, and must therefore own a lot of books about quantum physics!” I actually think that this kind of material characterization is okay, and in fact really good in most cases. It’s active, it involves the character doing something. Namely, reading books about quantum physics.

Characters who have material interests in the present are not necessarily bad or poorly developed. On the other hand, if the material crutch that an author leans on is, say, the kind of clothes or make up the character chooses to wear — I get a little bit more leery.

If clothing, and buying clothing is a big part of the story then that’s a-okay. It’s exactly like the earlier quantum physics example — it involves the protagonist doing something. But. If clothing is simply used as lazy characterization — a way to slot the character into a certain archetypal mold — then as a reader? I get annoyed.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t describe your characters’ clothing. It can add to characterization, can set up that initial archetype — I think for instance, Harry Potter’s skinny frame along with the baggy t-shirts and sellotaped glasses was a good initial character set up. What I am saying is that this shouldn’t be where your characterization ENDS.

I’m saying that you need to move beyond the material.

It’s hard to stop defining your character by the things that they possess, and to start defining them by the things that they do. It’s even harder to get beyond the things that they do, and hit at who they truly are. When asked, “Who is that woman?” A standard answer in our society would be, “Oh, that’s Nancy. She’s a nurse”. The conflation between what we do — job wise especially — and who we are is there on a lot of levels.

And of course, what we do does feed into who we are.

But I think there is a certain fabric beneath that exterior, a fabric of self that is defined in time rather than in things-done or things-owned. A character is not just the sum of all their parts. They’re the sum of all their parts, and all the parts they used to have but are no longer in their possession.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Say a character is presently a very, very confident person. Perhaps over confident. But when they were younger, they were a shy, self-conscious, overweight boy. That element of their past will be taken with them through their life.

It’s the same for less defining moments. Childhood trips, lame inside jokes with friends, ways of texting or speaking that seem so embarrassing to you when you’re older, modes of thinking that you outgrow. Sometimes, it’s the most insignificant things that stick with people, lingering ‘ghost’ parts of their sum.

So you need to weave your character’s past not necessarily into the story, but into your character, into the way that they approach and respond to their world.

And it’s the same with the future. The character needs to have some kind of expectation for the future — it doesn’t need to be a complex plan of any kind, it can just be a feeling “bleak” or “happy” or “bittersweet” or “messy”. Or it can be more specific like “wedded bliss” or “career security” or “ten kids” or “first woman on Saturn”.

Humans are decoders. We’re constantly trying to work this life out, constantly making both minor and major plans — not having a character be aware that there *is* a future would seem odd, to me. Let your character guess at the future, as if trying to predict an upcoming plot twist in a novel. Let what they see or predict influence them, whether for good or ill.

This doesn’t mean that your characters need to spend a lot of time obsessing about their past, present and future and how all three relate to each other. Good, rounded characters seem to display awareness of this dynamic very naturally.

For instance, in the last book I read, Hannah Moskowitz’s Invincible Summer, the main character’s story story is structured around four summers. You don’t see the time that passes between those summers, but that time bumps over into Chase, the protagonist. The pull of the past on him– those idyllic summers from when he was younger — and his absolute terror of a future  and where it will take him, and his falling-apart family, adds a lot of weight to his characterization. For me, more so than if he’d been given a whole slew of hobbies.

So, this is a post to say that our characters are dynamic beings who exist in time, who are constantly changing. I think that acknowledging this dynamic is one of the keys to creating a well-rounded, compelling character.

What do you guys think? Is time an important element of characterisation? If so,  how do you incorporate it into your stories?

~~~

Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

Holding Yourself (and Your Writing) Accountable

22 Aug

 

by Susan Dennard

~~

I’ve talked about productivity before. About how BICHOK is one sure-fire way to get your writing where it needs to be. About how focused practice is the only way to get better.

But what about those times when your self-motivation (if you even have it to begin with!) starts to flag?

What about those days where you spend four hours at the computer and write all of 4 words?

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

On those days, my friend, it’s time to seek help elsewhere. It’s time to find SOMEONE ELSE to hold you accountable.

I mean, think about it: when you were in high school, you got your work done (or I hope you did…). Maybe it was at the last minute or maybe it wasn’t always your best work, but you finished. Why? Because someone else expected you to.

So why not put a dose of SOMEONE ELSE in your writing life?

It’s easy. Find another writer (or as many as you want!) and agree to talk regularly, share your goals, and check in often to make sure you’re staying on track.

For example, right now, the Let the Words Flow ladies are sharing their daily word count goals. In the morning, we all email how many words we want to type out before night…and then that night, we email to say how much we actually wrote.

I can assure you that simply knowing the other ladies are gonna see my daily progress really pushes me to keep TYPING! And, if for whatever reason one of us is flagging, we all shoot out upbeat emails–and when I’m the one behind, that support REALLY helps me get back on track.

So if you’re finding you need a bit more motivation in your life, I challenge you to find another writer who’ll hold you accountable and send you lots of smiley faces when you need ’em.

Is this something you would ever do? Or do you already have someone like this in your writing life?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Thinking = Plotting

18 Aug

A Guest Post by Marina Cohen

~~~

I’m often asked how long it took me to write my first novel. It’s an easy enough question. You’d think the response would be fairly straightforward, right? Not so much. In fact, by the time I’m finished I’m sure people wish they hadn’t asked.

I start by saying it took me six months to write my first novel—because that’s how long I spent hammering away at the keys of my old computer to turn the idea floating around my head into pixels. Most smile, satisfied with that response, but then I tell them I’m not finished. I go on to say it took me nine more months to rewrite the exact same story—just to get it right. This is when they begin to nod politely and back away. Hold on, I say. I’m not done yet. I spent another four years editing, revising, submitting, getting rejected, revising some more, editing again, re-submitting, getting truckloads of rejections, before I finally got my very first contract. And then it took another year before I held my novel in my hot little hands. At this point they turn to run but I give chase. Wait! That’s not the whole story! You’re going to miss the most important part! Because before my fingers ever grazed a keyboard, I spent ten years thinking.

Ten years.

Thinking.

Huh.

So what exactly was I thinking about? Well, my plot, of course.

For me thinking is synonymous with plotting. Even now, five novels later, I need to think out my entire story before I can begin to write the first word. There are all sorts of different plotting graphs and styles, but honestly, it all boils down to thinking.

My family has gotten used to it—that glazed look in my eye, the vague responses, the rich scent of burnt toast filling the air when my brain has abandoned the real world and entered the world of my current work-in-progress.

Now, I’m not a meticulous plotter in the sense that I don’t sketch out every chapter, nor do I use charts or configurations. But there are elements I must work out in my mind, or the idea just goes into a folder to revisit at a later date. Here’s what I need to know prior to writing:

  1. What’s the inciting incident?  What propels my MC off their path and spins them in a totally different direction? Of course this incident can be subtle, but I like to make it something quick and dramatic to hook readers.
  2. I must know how my story will end. This is critical, so that I can work toward setting up the climax and ending, building it, moving toward it with every detail. If you don’t know how your story will end, you can plod forward, but I think you may end up doing a fair amount of re-writing. I like to have a twist ending—something readers don’t see coming. And I also like to connect my ending in some significant way to my inciting incident.
  3. I divide my plot into three chunks—that three act structure I’m sure you’ve already come across. And each chunk ends in its own climax, spinning the story in a different direction again, but bringing the reader that much closer to the ultimate climax.
  4. Finally, it’s important to remember that plot does not simply refer to the events of your story. It’s also (and in some ways more importantly) about the emotional journey of your character. Who are they at the start of the story and how they change as a result of the events of the story.

Now, even though I have all this in my mind, when I sit down to actually write my story, more often than not, it takes unexpected turns. Characters I hadn’t imagined muscle their way into my manuscript uninvited—and it’s usually these surprise twists and characters that I end up loving the most.

So I sit. And I think. And I think some more. I think while I cook and clean and shop—but never while I drive, er, ’cause that would be dangerous. Ahem.

I think while I’m awake. I think before I go to sleep. And I even think in my dreams—which, by the way, often provides me with the best answers to my plot problems!

So the next time you’re just sitting there staring off into space and someone asks you what you’re up to—you tell them not to disturb you. Can’t they see you’re busy plotting your next incredible novel?

~~~

Marina Cohen is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction for both children and teens, including three middle-grade novels: SHADOW OF THE MOON, TRICK OF THE LIGHT, and CHASING THE WHITE WITCH; and two teen novels: GHOST RIDE and MIND GAP. GHOST RIDE (Dundurn Press, 2009) was voted Honour Book of the 2011 Red Maple Fiction Award.

The Lightning Thief: a book recommendation

17 Aug

by Susan Dennard

~~

I have to say, I’m not usually a middle grade reader. I typically pick up YA, and if it weren’t for recent forays into writing MG, I wouldn’t have probably ever started the Percy Jackson series.

And oh how tragic that would have been.

Yes, this is a repeat review from my blog, but no, it’s not because I’m being lazy. It’s because you NEED to read this. As writers, you need to pick this up and observe how well Rick Riordan controls his craft.  From voice to plot to characterization, this book does it all REALLY well.

And come on, what’s not to love about modern day Greek myths and fish-out-of-water (quite literally) heroes?

After getting expelled from yet another school for yet another clash with mythological monsters only he can see, twelve-year-old Percy Jackson is taken to Camp Half-Blood, where he finally learns the truth about his unique abilities: He is a demigod, half human, half immortal. Even more stunning: His father is the Greek god Poseidon, ruler of the sea, making Percy one of the most powerful demigods alive. There’s little time to process this news. All too soon, a cryptic prophecy from the Oracle sends Percy on his first quest, a mission to the Underworld to prevent a war among the gods of Olympus.

As hinted above, the voice had me hooked on page 1. Percy is just so compelling and so entertaining. I love his sarcasm and the way you feel like he’s just a regular dude telling you his very non-regular story.  He feels twelve, but he also feels like an adult (read: CROSS-OVER APPEAL!).

If the voice hadn’t gotten me so thoroughly, then the characters would’ve been the thing to draw me in. I loved Annabeth (kick butt secondary females unite!) and Grover–not to mention all the gods and demi-gods and monsters. Yeah, Riordan did an amazing job bringing this world to very vivid life before my eyes. I loved how he dropped in all the Greek myths–and I had so much fun identifying things before Percy sorted it all out.

What really got me (in a good way), though, was that it had so many nice twists and turns! Figuring out who the bad guys were, what the prophecy referred to, and seeing it all set up for Major Epic-ness in later novels made this one un-put-down-able book!

If you’re looking for some great adventure, the sort of lovable hero who just barely scrapes by, or a world of gods and goddesses, be sure to read The Lightning Thief!

Have you read The Lightning Thief? What did you think?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Writing a Saleable Book

10 Aug

by Susan Dennard

~~

Recently, someone asked me:

What is required to make a book saleable?

That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague. All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.

🙂

My super broad response is the:

The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book.

I am 100% convinced that if you have a well-written, compelling story, your novel will eventually find an agent/editor. Period.

That said, there are a few critical things that define a “good book”. Again, these answers are vague, and I’d be more than happy to get specific for anyone with questions (ask in the comments, please!).

Parts of a Good Book

1. First and foremost, the story absolutely most flow. Stilted dialogue, poor pacing, or unreadable grammar/syntax will kill a manuscript. A reader can put up with slow scenes if it all flows beautifully, and a reader can put up with a less-than-compelling plot if it’s smooth.

The way to ensure your novel flows is to revise-revise-revise. Learning to master the written word is absolutely critical. Few people write stunning first drafts, but give them a red pen, and they can line-edit their words into perfect prose.

2. Secondly, a book needs a compelling plot with tension on every page. The story builds, the tension builds, and everything ends in an explosive climax (and this applies to any genre—by explosive I simply mean all aspects of the story finally come together).

This is something you can learn by reading about writing, taking workshops, or simply reading heavily in the genre you write. There are structure to stories (three-act is the most common), and your job is to practice until these are second nature when you write/revise.

Again, my first drafts are rarely good examples of compelling plot, but I can revise them until they shine and all the subplots weave into the main plot.

3. Third, a book needs a cast of characters that readers care about. The best way to achieve this is to ensure the MC has a desperate need—secondary characters too. This is also something you have to learn by doing/practicing.

4. Fourth, the book must have high stakes. “High stakes” simply means we are invested in whether or not the MC achieves his/her goal. What will she lose if she fails to reach her goal? And why does that matter? A common reason a book fails to compel readers is low stakes—if we don’t care about the MC’s failure, we don’t care about reading the book.

Finding Problems

My biggest suggestion in terms of how to address these 4 components is to start critiquing and getting your work critiqued. Either find a critique partner, join a critique group, or stay active in a critiquing community. This is no doubt something everyone here already knows, but it’s so important (in my opinion) that I just have to emphasize it!

When you see others make mistakes, you learn to spot them in your own writing. Additionally, we, the writers, are often too close to our novels to see them “as a whole”. CPs and betas have the needed distance to spot problems

When I got an agent, Something Strange and Deadly had been through 4 crit partners and 2 betas. Did I always listen to my CPs’/betas’ comments? No—you must decide and filter feedback—but it was thanks to my CPs/betas that I caught some of my biggest mistakes (character inconsistencies, flat climax, plot holes, etc.).

What do you think? Are there any other components you think a saleable book needs? And how do you feel about critique partners or beta readers?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Writing as therapy.

1 Aug

by Biljana Likic

~~~

My sister keeps diaries, and she has all her life. It’s a form of therapy for her; getting it all out. It was also a form of frustration whenever she thought I read them (I still maintain that I never did). There would be times where she’d shoo me out of the room so she could have her alone time with a pen and journal.

I have to admit, I was a little bit jealous. I tried, by her example, to start a journal, but would always end up ripping the written pages to bits out of paranoia that somebody would read them. This paranoia was incredibly unfounded. I never wrote things down that were personal. In fact, I seem to remember one particular entry to be something along the lines of this:

Dear Diary,

Today, Daniel peed his pants! It was so funny.

Love, Biljana

Fascinating, I tell you. It was an embarrassing situation, but not for me. It was embarrassing for somebody else. Sure, there had been a time or two when I was little that I couldn’t hold my bladder, but you would never catch me writing about that in my journals. You would always find stories of what other people did, or which boy my friend liked.

And I would still take the pages, rip them up, and throw them out, scoffing in the process, and always feeling slightly self-conscious. Because even though the stories weren’t about me, they were still my stories.

It’s a revelation that came to me recently. My sister would write about herself in her journals, and I would write about others. Almost every story I wrote would be one I could relate to. Sometimes they’d be embellished, other times too plain, but ultimately, the reason my diary-writing was short-lived, was because after a while I felt like I was lying. The stories would suddenly have things in them that never happened in real life. It didn’t matter that they were little things, like saying that we ate spaghetti when really we ate pizza, they still made me feel like what I was writing wasn’t worthy of a diary because it wasn’t true.

It was around that time that I discovered creative writing.

Suddenly, lying became okay. I stopped feeling guilty about changing the details to make a better story, because when a whole story was fake, it didn’t matter. My early characters would have problems similar to mine, living out situations that I once lived through, and in themselves became to me what a diary was to my sister: therapy.

To me, writing a story is a way of writing a universal diary; something that anybody can read and say, yes, that’s exactly that, I feel exactly that shitty, or that happy, or that jaded. It’s a way of baring my soul without really baring my soul. Of discovering the reality behind an enigma and in that way, having one less person in the world that’s misunderstood. It doesn’t matter that it’s made-up. All that matters is the knowledge that having someone else feel what you feel is entirely possible. All that matters is reading that in the end, it can be okay; people do triumph. The time will come when we’ll be able to succeed, and the road will be easy, or tough, or hardly noticed, and we have all the coping templates we could ask for no matter which way life takes us.

You see, my biggest problem with diaries is that they take place in the present. I already know how I’m feeling right now. I want to know how I’ll feel when it’s all over; months from now; years from now. I want to know how I’ll feel in the future. Stories have a future you can explore. They are instant emotional gratification, a form of vicarious living. No waiting years and years before you can learn from your mistakes. They make you wise. They help you understand. Not just yourself, but people.

They help you understand people.

I find this incredible.

~~~

Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s going into her second year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.

Beasts, Monsters and Eldritch Abominations

25 Jul

A lot of fantasy worlds tend to be populated by the same sorts of creatures: dwarfs, trolls, giants, elves, things that look like elves but are called something else to show you that they’re not your typical elves and are possibly speshul, etc. It can be fun to play around with these standards, like giving your own twist to vampires or mermaids, but it can be even more interesting to find an obscure creature or to create your own. If you want to make your own fantasy world, you’re going to need more than a few old standbys as well to give it enough complexity to make it believable.

One source to look at for inspiration is folklore. Folklore is the origin in one way or another of most of our traditional monsters, like vampires and werewolves, but there is far more variation on these creatures in the original stories. Can your vampires cross running water? Or do they have to be beheaded and buried at a crossroads to stay dead? It depends on which area your vampire tales come from. In particular I like creatures from American folklore. Books of folklore are a handy source too, along with folklore journals. If you’re still in college or have access to academic journals, there are whole journals devoted to folklore studies. There’s also an encyclopedia of American folklore and a dictionary of English folklore.

Extinct animals are great for adding flavor to a new world. Mammoths, cave bears, and saber-toothed lions are recognizable enough that they don’t need explanation but extinct so they immediately let your reader know they’re dealing with a slightly different world. Moa, flightless birds bigger than ostriches, and giant sloths are odder. While something like a Paraceratherium, a long-necked hornless rhino bigger than any mammoth, or a tasmanian tiger would need some explaining but add depth and detail to a new world.

And for the terrifying and bizarre I’d suggest looking at the world’s oceans, especially those animals that lived with or before the dinosaurs, or at bugs. For example, the sea creatures from the Cambrian look particularly alien: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomalocarid. Of course you don’t have to go for species that have been extinct for millions of years to get inspiration. Tube worms, jellyfish, and deep sea crabs are strange creatures that could give rise to plenty of nightmare fuel if used properly.

However, you want to be sure you have the right sort of creatures for your setting. Horror can get away with almost anything because monsters in horror don’t need a reason to exist. They are just there to be scary. On the other hand, for sci-fi and fantasy the point is usually to create a congruous world where the various elements fit together to make a setting that feels complete and real (according to its own rules). Essentially, don’t have a swamp monster living in a desert, unless you put it in an oasis. Similarly, don’t have a dark forest filled with only predators, they’ll end up going hungry. But it’s fine to make the things they eat dangerous too.

And finally, it’s always good to over prepare. Just look at J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. She has tons of magical creatures that don’t appear in the Harry Potter series. But should she want to write about Ron and Hermione taking the kids on a vacation to any part of the world, she already has the creatures that they’d encounter there. The more you have worked out beforehand, the less chance you have of things seeming slapped together or incongruous. So go ahead and start working on a bestiary.

What’s the strangest creature you’ve come up with, or your favorite published monster?

Victory Fist Pump!

20 Jul

 

by Susan Dennard

~~

So, the first round of the Nautilus Writing Workshop Writing for Young Adults came to a close last week. Sarah and I hope (and think!) our six diligent students learned a lot, but there’s one thing I’m absolutely certain they all came away with. I know it because I came away with it.

And that is this:

One of the most important pieces of your writing life is TO TALK about it with other writers.

This same maxim applies to other crafts–interior design, knitting, water colors, whatever. There’s really nothing that will motivate you to work, stimulate your creativity, or make you smile quite like talking about your art.

From sharing your experiences and dreams to discussing your toolbox to bemoaning your frustrations–you’ve just GOTTA talk about this stuff. But more importantly, you need to talk about it with someone who knows what the heck you mean.

It’s one thing to have your idea-bouncer-offer-person–someone I do believe we all need in our creative lives–but it’s quite another to have your writing buddy who knows the terms, the trials, and the terror.

So I’m coining a new phrase.

Victory Fist Pump Buddy: a person who is also a writer, and therefore knows just how freaking hard this whole writing biz can be. This person is qualified to Fist Pump over your victories and share a tissue over the roadblocks. This person actually knows what it takes.

I mean, we all know how it feels when you see that dude at the supermarket…

DUDE

Oh, so you’re a writer?

YOU

(proudly)

Yeah, I just finished my first novel.

DUDE

Awesome! When’s it come out?

YOU

(uncomfortably)

Um, well…it doesn’t quite work that way.

Or how about this conversation?

YOU

I just got an agent! Oh my gosh, this is the happiest moment of my life!

DUDE

(staring stupidly)

Why? Aren’t you the one that hires them?

YOU

No. It’s a really competitive thing–like, thousands of writers all have to send query letters and… Oh, what’s the point. Forget it

You throw your hands in the air and storm off.


Or maybe even this one:

YOU

Oh. My. Gosh. My book has SOOOOLD!

DUDE

Sweet! I’ll go buy it! Does Amazon have it?

YOU

(frowning)

No, it takes an average of 2 years for a book to reach stores.

DUDE

(stupidly)

What? Why?

YOU

Because! That’s just how it works. And no, it is not a reflection on the quality of my book! I’m really proud of my novel.

DUDE

Oh, well that’s still awesome! So your book will be the next Harry Potter, right?

You just roll your eyes and stalk away.

But then you have your writer buddy–your Victory Fist Pump Buddy who knows EXACTLY what you’re talking about. When you tell them that an agent requested a partial, they squeal with delight. When you groan over lack of self-motivation, they offer to keep you in check. When you feel like jumping off a bridge, they talk you down.

I never knew how much I was missing until a year ago, when I joined some online communities and suddenly felt connected–felt like I’d found people who really understood.

And since then, my relationships with other writers–the LTWF community, in particular–have grown stronger and more valuable. I can’t live without my Victory Fist Pump Buddies! Sorry to my husband, but when it comes to writing, your ever-willing-to-listen-ear just isn’t enough. I need someone who’s been there too! Someone who’ll nurture my creativity while also challenging it.

That said, I challenge YOU to find your own Victory Fist Pump Buddy. If you don’t already have one, go out and meet some other writers (online or in person) TODAY! If you do already have some buddies in your life, then drop ’em a line and tell them how much you appreciate having them around.

I appreciate all of you guys–all of you readers who leave us comments that let us know we’re not alone. I appreciate my fellow LTWF gals who answer my panicked or joyful emails with unwavering support and love.

So let’s all do it together in a super cheesy made-for-TV movie moment:

::victory fist pump::

Huzzah!

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.