alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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The Devil and Micol Ostow: An Interview

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Micol Ostow writes novels about haunted houses, urban legends, and serial killers. But she’s actually a very nice person!  I had the good fortune to learn from her at a writing workshop last fall. And the even better fortune to bring her here for an interview.

I was so interested to learn that your most recent book, The Devil and Winnie Flynn, is about the Jersey Devil. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and all the kids who visited New Jersey beaches over the summer always returned with stories about the Jersey Devil. In my mind, it’s like a cross between Bloody Mary and Bigfoot. What’s your Jersey Devil like and why did you choose to write about it now?

My Jersey Devil was based on anything and everything I could find online, which mainly came down to various shadowy winged creatures of varying degrees of fearsomeness. One description I read suggest3d that the devil was a sort of winged dinosaur, which–I mean, if you’ve seen Jurassic Park, you know that’s no good, but it still didn’t inspire much fear, in my opinion. My brother and I were committed to writing a mystery, and since the genre itself was so new to us, we decided the best way to connect to our story was to write about something we *did* know, AKA: New Jersey. Once we focused on Jersey as a location, we sort of backed into the Devil, since it’s one of the most pervasive myths of the state. But since the legend itself was so goofy it informed the tack we took with our mystery–it’s the story of Winnie Flynn, a horror movie fan but real-life skeptical who’s swept up with a reality tv “ghost-hunting” investigation that is, by nature, extremely campy. And it’s only when (spoiler alert) she begins to discover that some of the spirits she encounters may not be rigged for the camera, that the story turns into something a little darker, more sinister.

Another curious aspect of Winnie Flynn is that it’s told in the form of letters from Winnie to her best friend. Why did you choose the epistolary format? Does it enhance the suspense factor? Or is it a way to make the book more accessible and down-to-earth in the face of supernatural events? 

I wish I had a clear, thought-out answer as to why the story is told as a running letter! In general I tend to write lots of different genres and age levels and *lots* of different voices: from squeaky-clean aspirational tween to young chapter books, to racy romantic YA “bitch lit.” It’s only in the past 5 years or so that I’ve made a mini-brand of writing dark, edgier young adult fiction. But even with that niche, I’m always coming at the work in a new way, waiting to see how my characters are going to talk to me. In this case, Winnie was clearly talking directly TO someone. Her voice simply sprung, fully-formed, that way. But she was a blast to write, which is why I’m always encouraging my students to take risks and try different voices and points of view. You never know who’s going to emerge on the page!

Let’s talk process: How do you know when you’ve found an idea or concept for a scary novel, that it’s something you want to explore? Do you know right away what age group the concept is suitable for or do you have to work with it a while before deciding?

Well, as I say above, because my writing is so diverse, my process evolves a lot, too. not to mention now that I’m the mother of two small children, I often have to sacrifice the preciousness of a very deliberate process for the sake of just getting words down when I can!

I will say that normally, once a concept grabs me, the general age level is fairly clear–AMITY, for instance, which was a retelling of The Amityville Horror in the form of a Stephen King/Shirley Jackson mashup–was always going to be older YA. Same with WINNIE. Whereas with my chapter book, LOUISE TRAPEZE, I fiddled with voice and age level quite a bit (five very distinct drafts!) because I was so new to the chapter book genre. I had to write that whole story and then step back and determine what age range it was trying to be, and then I had to revise (and revise and revise!) accordingly.

I know from the workshop that you’re a fan of scary movies as well as scary stories. What’s the best horror movie or novel you’ve read recently? Or that you’re looking forward to in the near future?

I’m dying to read Grady Hendrix’s MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM. And while it’s not horror, I LOVE dark thrillers and just read Robin Wasserman’s GIRLS ON FIRE. I also just started the last in Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES trilogy, END OF WATCH.

You’re settling down for a midnight movie marathon. What’s the perfect snack?

Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Cheap rose wine. Red Vines. (NEVER Twizzlers.)

What are you working on next?

I’m all over the place! My younger daughter is 7 months old and I promised I would try to take it easy her first year. That has sort of worked. I have the third book in the LOUISE TRAPEZE series releasing in September, and in my “spare” time I’ve been alternating between a picture book, a new chapter book series, and–you guessed it–a YA thriller. Not horror, but dark and twisty. So we’ll see where it all goes.

micol

Micol Ostow is half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, half student, half writer, half chocolate, half peanut butter. When she is under deadline, she is often half asleep. She believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts except in the case of Chubby Hubby ice cream. She lives in New York City where she reads, runs, and drinks way too much coffee.

 

 

 


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Killer Washing Machines: An Interview with Anna Breslaw

 

I met Anna last fall at a workshop about writing horror fiction for teens. Anna & I had brilliant conversations under the Pennsylvania stars about ghosts, celebrities, serial killers and writing for women. Trust me when I say that Anna has a strange and sparkling mind. We caught up again this week with a few questions about writing and things that go bump in the night.

anna

Your debut novel Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is hyper-realistic contemporary YA fiction. But when we met last year you were working on something much darker for your next book. What’s the status of that project?

It’s driving me crazy! Haha. Yay honesty! I’ve actually turned it into an adult book (the protagonist is 29 now, my age) and am nearly done with the first half but keep going back and making changes, obsessing, et cetera. I might take a break and start a new YA project as a palate cleanser—I am thinking more of a love story this time, and maybe supernatural in some way—but definitely hope to finish it this year.

What personally scares you more—real-life things (serial killers, earthquakes, car accidents) or supernatural things (ghosts, monsters, zombies)?

Real-life things, unless Stephen King is somehow involved, in which case, literally any damn thing (cars, washing machines…).

Process time: Where and how do you work? Home office/kitchen table/on the train? Is writing novels different than writing for magazines?

I have a little desk in the corner of my living room that I work at—sort of an open home office, if you will—that faces my backyard. I’m pretty bad at keeping my writing schedule regular, or hitting a certain word count every day, but I know a lot of people swear by that. Although when a joke or a character idea or whatever comes to me when I’m outside the house (which happens often) I’ll jot it down in my iPhone. My Notes look crazy.

Magazine pieces are generally a lot more structured/formulaic than novels are, at least in the drafting phase. The arc is pretty clear, there needs to be a clear “takeaway,” and there’s a tight word limit so it’s hard to play around. Every word counts. It’s almost more like tweeting than it is like writing-writing. Whereas with novels, you can really go nuts and write long and then tighten it afterwards.

What do you wish you were reading but aren’t (because it doesn’t exist)?

So many things: Fran Leibowitz’s memoir, a YA novel by Junot Diaz, Mary Roach’s nonfiction take on the world of women’s magazines, fiction about this or this, an adult novel with a premise/spirit that’s similar to a Joss Whedon show

 Right now, who is the person/celebrity/fictional character you would most like to subject to a horror movie fate? 

 James Franco. He’s too chill. I don’t trust it.

scarlett

Anna Breslaw is a New York-based freelance writer and author who mostly writes funny things, or things about women, or both at once. Previously, she was a staff writer at Cosmo and a sex & relationships editor at Cosmopolitan.com. She’s also been a contributing writer for Jezebel and Glamour.com. Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is her first book. You should follow her on Twitter.

If you too would like to drink wine and meet writers like Anna–though I can’t guarantee the talk about serial killers–and you’re writing for children or teens, I suggest you check out amazing catalog of workshops offered by the Highlights Foundation.


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Writing Scary: An Interview with Kim Graff

graveyard

Photo by raichovak via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

When Kaiden’s mom was on the second floor, a sudden silence fell upon the first floor that seemed unnatural to him. Yamiyo was fully booked—overbooked, even—for the first time since they took ownership. Every room had at least two people, if not four or five, jammed in to accommodate everyone in the film crew. There was no other ryokan, inn, or hotel in Kuroshi for them to stay.

And yet here, in the middle of the day, the whole place seemed lifeless.

Like those months and months it stood empty while they renovated it. The main floor was built almost 150 years ago, back in the Meiji period. Three years ago, Ojisan started adding on in an attempt to compete with hotels. Yamiyo’s booking rate had been declining for almost a decade and spending money on it was maybe not Ojisan’s best idea.

His parents made the mistake of finishing the renovations instead of selling the place and cutting their losses.

Blackness moved out of the edge of his eyes.

Kaiden straightened and turned down the hallway that led to the indoor hot springs and the only two guest rooms on the first floor. A creak from one of the doors drew him closer. The lights in the hallway shut off, plunging the whole floor in the faint hues of the fading evening sun. He froze as a dark blur shot out from the Gallery and into Yuu’s room.

What was going on? Why was someone running around?

How were they running so fast?

His eyes lingered on Yuu’s doorway—barely opened. He’d have to slide in on his side if he wanted to enter, so how did someone get in so quickly?

A stupid thought surfaced. The rumors that surrounded the ryokan’s past, the legend that gave the room its name. How Yuu died.

How his ghost might never have left.

No matter what anyone said, Kaiden was sure the place was not haunted. He’d lived there for almost a year and never saw a ghost. Sure, he’d heard the stories—they were the bait his family used to lure an international ghost hunting show there. If not for that episode, Kaiden doubted Baku Studios would’ve come, but that didn’t mean he believed in ghosts.

Some guests never experienced anything out of the norm, others heard murmurs from inside the walls, heartbeats below the floorboards, moans at midnight. Felt cold spots all around the ryokan. If you were unlucky, out of the corner of your eyes you might see Yuu’s ghost hanging from the ceiling, neck snapped from the noose around it.

At least, that was what people said.

from When Darkness Comes

Kim Graff is a talented young writer who I suspect we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the future–especially if you enjoy horror. The manuscript of hers that I read at the Books with Bite workshop (It’s happening again this year. I can’t recommend it enough!) was a post-apocalyptic tale, so we concentrated on that for the interview, but as you can see from the excerpt above, she’s a versatile writer who will do whatever it takes to give you a chill.

What’s the appeal of the apocalypse? 

A few of my favorite video games and books as a child had to do with the apocalypse in different ways. The Mist by Stephen King, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil were all favorites. I think that’s where my fascination began.

Other favorite movies or stories about life after the end of the world?

The Road by Cormac McCarty and The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. And This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers—this is an absolute must read. I’m a big zombie fan which I think leads into a lot of my End of World fascination too.

What else scares you?

I grew up on horror. I’ve been watching it since I was five, so my scare-scale is pretty warped and not much gets to me. I deeply dislike the notion of something crawling under a person’s skin though, like what happens in Alien or those evil beetles in The Mummy franchise.

Also jellyfish. Jellyfish creep me out. After living in Australia for a bit, you either develop a healthy admiration and fear of jellyfish or you get stung. Plus, they are brainless lifeforms and that’s just weird.

Tips for writing scary for teens vs middle-grade vs adult?

This is actually a very timely question for me. I’m currently working on a YA horror and an MG horror. For adult and YA, in my opinion, anything goes. I don’t believe in censorship for YA in the least, and with horror in general I believe there needs to be a reason for any gore or fright. You can’t just have jump-scares or bloodshed for the shock value.

Overall, character development is vital. If readers don’t care about the characters, no one will care if something bad happens to them. I see this flaw in horror movies in particular.

But with MG, it’s different. There are more gatekeepers, and though  grew up on horror, I recognize MG-level readers might not all have the same tolerance for fright as I did at that age. It’s important to be engaging for MG-readers, since they need a quick read that has a pace that will keep them turning the pages. It’s still important to have worthwhile characters, but the fright factors and the villain (or whatever the Big Bad Thing is in the story) needs to be tailored to MG. There needs to be a valid justification for why you need to murder a character or have something spooky happen.

I’m still struggling with this concept of YA vs MG vs Adult. I think it might come down to this: YA and Adult can be scary. MG should be more on the spooky side.

The apocalypse has happened. You get to keep one piece of current technology to survive the bleak and brutal years to come. What do you choose?

Can my answer be an armor-covered, solar-powered RV?

If I have to go with something I already own, I would say my laptop with the magical ability to never die. So that I can still play around with my stories as I hide in a cabin somewhere away from all the hellishness of the apocalypse.

kim-9474

Kim Graff writes sinister and creepy children’s books in NYC. She works full-time in publishing, but also does occasional freelance editorial work at Wild Things Editing. Before settling in the big city, Kim called France, Australia, Montreal, and Kansas City home at one point or another. A life-long horror fan, Kim one day hopes to live in a haunted castle in Scotland with friendly ghosts and a whole lot of dogs.


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How I Learned to Love Rejection Letters

When I first started writing short stories, the process went something like this:

  1. Finish story
  2. Send to ONE market
  3. Check mailbox obsessively & envision glorious success
  4. Receive rejection letter
  5. Pitch headfirst down stairs of mortification into basement of self-loathing
  6. Give up on story

 

The Basement of Recrimination.  (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Basement of Recrimination.
(Photo: Library of Congress)

Seriously, those rejections were like acid baths that I soaked in for weeks. I’d eventually start to recover and then, like suddenly remembering a nightmare where you’ve accidentally stabbed your mother and drowned a basket of kittens, the pain would come rushing back. I’d remember the cruel words of the rejection, and my unbelievable presumption in sending the story out—what made me think I could write, anyways?–and sink back into the pit.

Your bath is ready, madam.

Your bath is ready, madam. Photo by Iain Browne, via Flickr (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Fast forward a few—well, actually a lot of—years. Somewhere along the way, I hardened my carapace. Rejections became….just one of those things. Part of the business of being a writer. Submit->reject, submit->reject, submit->reject is a background rhythm that means I’m participating in the publishing world. I’ll (probably) even sell the story in the end.

But for the last twelve months, I’ve been focused on novels. Sometime around January 2014, I sold the last finished story I had in my inventory. And that’s when things got tricky. Let’s try a little quiz:

Question: What happens when you aren’t sending stories out?
Answer #1: You don’t get any acceptances.
Answer #2: You don’t get any rejections.

You might not think #2 is much of a problem. But here I am, spending hours at my writing everyday with absolutely nothing to show for it. I’m just typing away, day after day, on some project that no one has read, that maybe no one will ever see, that might not even exist. It’s like one of those quiet Sunday mornings when you go outside and there are no people and no cars and you worry just for a second that overnight everyone decamped in the flying saucer and neglected to tell you.

Where did everybody go?

Where did everybody go?

This was when it was really tempting to turn my focus back to short stories, just to try to prove that I was vital, relevant, active, that I was doing something. But that was wrong, I knew it in my gut. My writing home is in novels, that’s where my happiness lies.

My solution? A novelist’s support group. I had friends from Kij Johnson’s workshop who were also working on novels. What if we got together and cheered each other on? What if we had a place to remind each other of our goals and to complain about our problems and encourage each other?

So we did. We don’t critique. We don’t give feedback. We mostly acknowledge. About once a week, we check-in and say, “Hey, you’re out there working on a novel. I am too.” And “This shit is hard. But we can totally do it.” I swear, this is the best kind of writer’s group I have ever belonged to. Noveling is a long lonely road, and the group is a pair of flip-flops and a handful of trail mix.

The more I work on novels, the more I think that the really truly ONLY skill you must possess in order to write a novel isn’t a mastery of plot structure, brilliant prose, or intense worldbuilding. It’s just the ability to eat your heart out every day and KEEP GOING. If you can do this, you can write a novel. That’s the only single talent required.

And the support of likeminded friends can help get you there.


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Naps, Salted Chocolate, and Divining Your Dream Agent

On February 3rd, four lucky friends received a special email from me. An email containing 77,000 words or so.

Yep, that’s right. For the first time, I sent a completed novel draft to beta-readers. I’ve threatened to write a novel twice before, and even “finished” the second one, but didn’t have the courage or knowledge to take the next step. By sending the manuscript to readers and asking for feedback, I’m already closer to publication than I’ve ever been before.

Hopefully I’ll be hearing back from my readers soon and–when I get done breathing into a paper bag–I’ll bring out the garden tools and start trying to make the story better, pruning back that pesky fast-growing exposition and tenderly watering and fertilizing the exciting bits in the hope that they will take over the whole damn garden.

But in the meantime: What have I been doing all month?

Well, first I slept a lot. And complained about the cold. Then I went climbing, and made salted chocolate rye cookies. I also read a short story* every day while slurping defrosted frozen mangoes for breakfast.

Reading short stories at breakfast. Everybody likes the electric blanket. (Bonus points if you can find the dog in this picture.)

Reading short stories at breakfast. Everybody likes the electric blanket. (Bonus points if you can find the dog in this picture.)

I wasn’t entirely unproductive. I wrote some flash fiction and entered it in a contest. I revisited some old projects. I practiced for a public reading coming up in early March. And I started researching agents. If all goes according to plan, I’m going to turn up with a finished novel later this year, and that means I’m (probably) going to need an agent.

So, how do you get an agent?

Research, research, research!

You might hear that Agent Morton T. HotDealz is THE BEST AGENT EVER ZOMG! Maybe it’s even true. But what if he represents military thrillers and you’re writing a cozy Southern mystery with recipes? Surely your manuscript is the best Southern cozy ever, and if you just send it to him along with a beautifully wrapped box of your divine pralines, then he’s bound to make an exception, right?

Er, no. And you don’t want him to. You want someone who knows the market for YOUR book. My current project is fantasy/horror YA, and it’s nice to daydream about being repped by Barry Goldblatt Literary (Rumor has it they host annual retreats for their authors!). But! I have to think about my whole career. Goldblatt Literary only reps YA, and I have plans for other genres (primarily historical romance). Ideally, I’m looking for an agent that can represent both.

So, how do you find the agent that will be your One True Love?

  1. Look for books like yours, and find out who represents the authors. Check the Acknowledgments, the author’s web site, or just google [Author Name] + agent.
  2. Publisher’s Marketplace has information pages for many agents. [See sidebar for the top ten]
  3. For YA & Children’s, Literary Rambles does an in-depth Agent Spotlight, often with links to interviews with the agent on other sites.
  4. If you have friends (or even acquaintances) with agents, ask how they like them.

Also recommended:

Once you have a list of agents that look and feel like a good fit, then you can start thinking about your submission package (which will be slightly different for each agent). Usually this includes a query letter, synopsis, and the first five pages of your manuscript. But that’s a whole other can of worms.

Mmmm, worms.  Photo by Nick Cross, via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

Mmmm, worms.
Photo by Nick Cross, via Flickr CC-BY-SA 2.0

*Turns out some of those breakfast stories have since been nominated for Nebula awards. They are:
–Chris Barzak’s “Paranormal Romance” (Lighspeed)
–Sarah Pinksker’s “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind” (Strange Horizons)
They’re good stories. You should check them out.


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2013: I Did It

I am a writer who–like many of you–routinely deals with rejection from editors, setbacks, uncooperative drafts, lost opportunities, time constraints, deadlines, idea droughts, revision hell, and other unfriendly aspects of the writing life. One December, after I’d had a particularly awful week, I needed some perspective. Surely I had done something right that year I could be happy about?

So writes Lisa Romeo, in her end-of-year blog post, encouraging other writers to join her in an “I Did It” list.

It’s 20F outside in the middle of the afternoon. I have a terrible cold that makes me as sharp and lively as a dehydrated blueberry. I tried to work on my novel this morning and I couldn’t make sense of my notes from last session (Thank Goodness there are notes, at least). I’m at about the 3/4 mark on this draft and realizing how very much important structural stuff I left until “later.” I really want to be done with it and getting reader feedback, but I still have pretty much all of Part IV to go. So I thought maybe I needed to look back and see how far I have already come with this novel. Maybe I can’t say “I Did It” to a finished novel, but there are lot of pieces I Did Do.

The History of a Novel-in-Progress:

  • February 2012: Scene-by-scene outline of novel, following Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure model. This was a homework assignment in “Narrative Structures in Fantastic Fiction” an online course taught by Bruce Holland Rogers through the Odyssey Workshop. I took this workshop hoping to improve my short stories, I didn’t expect anything to do with novels, and I had no idea for this novel before doing the assignment.
  • November 2012: Breakneck zero draft for NaNoWriMo, based on February’s outline. This is where I learned to give my protagonist a problem I cared about. I hit the end of the outline about 10,000 words short of the 50,000-word goal. I kept writing. Those last 10,000 words? That’s when I learned who all my characters really were–they weren’t in service to the plot anymore, and I had the freedom to get to know them.
  • November 2012: Talk with Clarion West-classmate Jenni Moody about how we really need to go to the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in the summer of 2013. Because Kij Johnson!
  • January-February 2013: Reverse out-lining of NaNoWriMo draft and hectic re-writing of first 3 chapters to a highly polished sheen.
  • February 2013: Apply for an Individual Artist grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to support writing novel in 2013/14.
  • March 2013: Apply for and acceptance to CSSF Novel Writers Workshop. Whew!
  • June 2013: Two weeks of wisdom, example, outline, imagination, and the Glorious Fishbowl at the CSSF Workshop in Lawrence, KS.
  • June 2013: Receive IAC grant.
  • July-September 2013: First *real* draft of novel.
  • October-December 2013: Preparing draft for beta-readers.

I knew, of course, that writing a novel is a lot of work. But I think our little primate brains protect us from understanding the full scope of how much ‘a lot’ really is. I don’t regret my decision to go down this revision-paved road. And for 2014? It’s going to be finished. This novel is hitting the road, knocking on the doors of agents and editors.


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The NaNo Novel: One-Month Stand or LTR?

Tomorrow is the first day of National Novel Writing Month. Many of you will open your blank page of choice and inscribe the first words of your epic genius. It’s a heady moment; thrilling, exhilarating, and full of possibilities–like falling in love.

Photo by Epiclectic via Flickr

Photo by Epiclectic via Flickr

In those dreamy first days, it’s all chocolates and long walks on the beach (or screaming fights and great make-up sex, YMMV). But have you ever wondered what happens after? What if you and your novel want to stay together for the long haul? Can you make it work?

Just like in a human relationship, you’ll have to put in some effort to keep that author/novel flame burning. Not every day will be consumed by the fiery passion of your literary brilliance. Some days you’ll wonder why you ever returned this novel’s calls. Surely, it didn’t always have that bloated section in the middle where the protagonist runs around in circles and whines constantly? And why did you never notice that “chuckled” is used in every dialogue tag in Chapters 7,8, & 13?

Not every novel is a keeper, but if the romance is still there, there are steps you can take to keep the relationship strong.

  • “Me” Time – Yes, you love your novel, and there is a danger in only writing ‘when you feel like it’. But you don’t want to spend so much time together that you’re sick of the sight of your literary love. Taking judicious breaks–usually between drafts–clears the novel out of your conscious mind and frees you to have a fresh and generous perspective when you return.
  • Clear Goals – A novel goes through many drafts before publication (6-8 is an average number). One of the worst things you can do is try to work on too many drafts at the same time. If this is Draft #2, be clear about what you want to accomplish. If you’re fixing the plot, don’t worry about the prose. If you’re clarifying character motivations, don’t worry about the pacing. After all, you’ve got to save something for those other drafts.
  • (Semi-) Public Commitment – Stand up in front of your friends and family and proclaim your dedication to your novel. This doesn’t mean rushing out to buy a pound of gold-infused Stilton for the holiday cheese board because of course you’ll be getting a six-figure advance. For me, it meant contacting my beta-readers and asking if they’ll be ready to read by a certain date, because that’s when I intend to be done.
  • Manage Stress – The biggest challenge I faced in beginning the next draft was holding back the panic. Once I got a clear look at the problems and gaps, the job before me seemed enormous. I had to get that hysteria firmly stamped under a boot heel or I wouldn’t be making any progress. Step One was referring back to those Clear Goals: I didn’t have to fix everything with this draft; I just had to make it better than the previous one. Step Two was writing down a couple of phrases that made me feel better (“Better to fail than give up”; “You won’t know for sure until you finish”) and sticking them on the bottom of my monitor. Step Three: 10-minute guided meditations. I’m not a pan-flute kind of person, but I started listening to guided meditations to get through the stress of Clarion West, and the habit has (sporadically) stuck with me. Try the free ones from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.
  • Support Network – Writing a novel takes a long time. You need people who know what you’re doing and how hard it is. Celebrate successes with friends. Turn to them if you’re having a bad day. When I was having a slump, I asked, “Tell me why I’m doing this again?” The answer: “Because its going to be awesome.” My writer friends have read early chapters, and they want me to write it. They want me to succeed. Feelings like that can carry you a long way.
  • Write – You’ve heard this one before. Writing a novel means having to write. It means butt-in-chair and fingers-on-keyboard. Whatever tricks you have to play to romance your muse or quell your rowdy two-year-old, you do it. Then you sit down, and you write. And then you do it again.
Sticky pep-talks

Sticky pep-talks


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8 Reasons Why Your First Novel Isn’t Working

In my previous posts, I talked about Why Novels Are More Fun Than Short Stories and lifted your spirits with How To Not Hate Your First Draft. Now that you’ve dried your tears and have begun to envision a glorious future for your deformed brainchild, it’s time to talk about exactly how you’re going to climb that gilded staircase to the stars.

In June, I spent two weeks at the Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, learning from two sharp and insightful instructors: Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb. On the first day of the workshop, we eight first-time novelists sat around the table in the fishbowl and listened as Kij told us everything we had done wrong.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.

Common Problems of First Novels

  1. Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
  2. Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
  3. Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
  4. Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
  5. Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
  6. Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
  7. Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
  8. Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.  Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.
Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Keep in mind that though everyone in the class was a first-time novelist, we were reasonably experienced writers with publications in professional markets like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Writers of the Futureand we still did it wrong.

That’s because writing a novel is hard. It’s probably not much like anything you’ve written before. So don’t freak out: now that you know what’s wrong, a second draft is the perfect place to fix it.

*If you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re going to get the founding of the nation in which she lives and the genealogy of her ancestors.


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Rewrite Your Way to Greatness

Today, I’m less than 10,000 words away from the end of the first* draft of my first** novel. You might think that at this point I’ve got the finishing line in sight and I’m feeling good.

You would be wrong.

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Now that I’ve written more than 50,000 words and have the overall shape of the novel in front of me, I have this lovely, panoramic vision of All The Things I’ve Done Wrong. It’s like the view of Mordor from Mount Doom. We’re talking volcanoes and wastelands: this is not the kind of stuff I can put right with another measly 10,000 words.

The last couple of days, sitting down to work has made me want to cry and yell at the cats for…having fur and stuff. I wont lie–it feels terrible. But, just as with most other things about writing novels so far, this is just another crisis of faith.

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Maybe (okay, probably) some of what I’ve written is terrible. Maybe it’s missing big chunks of plot and character motivation. But that doesn’t mean the book itself is going to be terrible.

I think, as novice writers, we fall into a trap. We compare our first drafts to somebody else’s completed novel. In a side-by-side comparison, that thing we just made–that we struggled with and worked so hard on–looks like crap. Because the thing we made is NOT a complete novel. It’s an early stage draft. And you never see anybody else’s early stage draft. You don’t see the mangled first pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or Life After Life, or Wild Seed.

You may, in fact, have the most precocious, promising, early-stage draft in the history of novel-writing. But if you compare it to that OTHER thing, the finished novel, what you have looks like utter, meaningless crap.

Would you compare a cement block to a skyscraper? Would you look at that block and scorn it because it doesn’t have a marble lobby and banks of high-speed elevators that shoot straight to the rotating rooftop restaurant?

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Yet, when that skyscraper’s finished, that worthless cement block will still be a part of it***, hidden somewhere inside, doing its bit to keep the rooftop restaurant turning out platters of regionally-sourced pork belly and craft cocktails.

A first draft is a necessary step on the way to completing a novel.
A first draft is not the same thing as a novel. Not even close.

Go ahead, have a drink. You're going to need it. Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Go ahead, have a drink. You’re going to need it.
Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To prove it to you, Maggie Stiefvater dissects a first draft of a chapter from her novel, The Scorpio Races, and walks you through step-by-step of what she changed and why.

And then she gets ten other novelists to do the same. Including blog hero, Margo Lanagan, talking about her latest, The Brides of Rollrock Island.

There’s also “Writing Excuses: 5.29: Rewriting,” in which guest author and Writers of the Future judge Dave Wolverton (Farland) promises that even Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning authors write terrible first drafts. This is a really good episode, with specific advice, and I highly recommend checking it out. After all, it’s only fifteen minutes long.

This is how novel-writing works:
You write a draft, you find the problems, and then you fix them.
And then you do it again.

* “Real” because this draft was preceded by a zero draft, written at breakneck (NaNo) speed last November.
** In some senses this is my third novel, but those other two have been put quietly away and we’re not going to talk about them.
***Don’t tell me that modern skyscrapers don’t include cement blocks or that’s the wrong kind. It’s an analogy, okay?


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NaNo Now What? — The Great Novel Revision of 2013

Very sad statue in Paris

Photo by Toni Birrer, via Flickr (CC-BY_SA)

In November, I wrote a novel novel-length THING.

On December 1st*, I felt immense relief and deep, personal satisfaction.
On December 2nd, I entered the 6 stages of grief PTSD (Post Draft Stress Disorder):

  1. Talking about how much I hate what I wrote
  2. While secretly fantasizing about how superb (imaginative, yet readable, yet funny, yet brave, yet unexpected, yet deep and touching, yet best-selling, yet critically-acclaimed) it is
  3. But knowing even more secretly how this is completely NOT TRUE
  4. Deciding it was a good experience and I learned a lot but I will never look at this particular lopsided story aberration ever again. It would be the kindest thing to do, truly. Best just to move on.
  5. Remembering that brilliant first draft of that *other* novel I wrote 3 years ago, which would totally TOTALLY be less work to revise–only two weeks, okay a month, tops–after which it would be a best-seller, yet critically-acclaimed, yet funny, yet heart-wrenching, yet…see #2.
  6. Talking it all over with Ashley Hope Perez on a freezing cold morning run, and deciding that the wisest course is to suck it up and REVISE** what I just wrote.***

This morning, I sat down to try to make a plan for THE GREAT NOVEL REVISION OF 2013. I got out my trusty notebook, wrote today’s date at the top of the page and the word, “Plans,” which I underlined 3 times to emphasize my sincerity and determination. And then…

<<< >>>

Yeah. Exactly that. Because you know what? I’ve never revised a novel before. I have no idea what happens, or how long any of it takes. But, you know, learn by doing and all that. Thanks to Nos. 1 & 3, above, I have some ideas about where my story is lacking. And I’ve identified some resources that I think might help:

Did you write a novel for NaNo? Did you write a thing? A half-thing?
Are you going to do anything with it?
What’s YOUR plan?

*Well, actually at about 11:52 am on November 30th
**You smart people saw this one coming, didn’t you? That was always going to be the answer. The shortest distance between two points is….well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t be a writer, now would I?
***Though it’s possible I would have agreed to anything while my brain was popsicled. Seriously, it was colder than a polar bear’s breakfast out there.