Breakthrough

Since starting school, I’ve had little time to work on my personal writing (or breathe either, when it comes down to it), but my characters and novels are never far from my thoughts. I miss them. I’ve spent the last three years pouring my life into them and it feels like someone viciously stripped me of half myself.

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So it was no surprise when, on the way home from school the other day, I began to talk to my husband about a problem I’ve had with “Through This Darkness” for over a year.

I know the first chapter sucks. I’ve KNOWN the first chapter sucks. I was just hoping that someone would tell me how or give me some suggestions on it.

I’ve given a lot of people opportunity. I’ve handed out over 10 copies of my manuscript to friends and family. All the people who read it had something insightful to say, but most of them have said nothing. I waited for a while, but at this point some of them have had their copy for over a year. Now I just assume they hate it so much they’re afraid telling me will permanently damage our relationship.

This assumption has led me to pick, prod, cut, and cull my manuscript in a desperate search for flaws. Good news is I’ve found many. Good news is I’ve solved many. (Bad news is there is all these crappy copies of my manuscript floating around out there. I lose sleep over that…if you read this and you have one, please, just burn it.) The most glaring problem in my mind was still the first chapter, the hook, the thing that will make or break potential agents, publishers, and readers. With nothing else to go on, I figure the majority of the people I’ve given it too can’t even get past the crappiness of those first five pages to finish my story.

I’ve been whining and groaning about it to my husband for a while, just wishing someone who knew would help me see what I can’t. Last Monday, my husband turned to me during one of my rants.

Him: “What would happen if you just deleted the first chapter and started at chapter two.”

The space after he said these words was not as long as it felt. It felt like I had time to watch my entire universe explode and realign in perfect order. I said, very softly, “…sh*t…”

As the conversation developed, my husband and I came to the conclusion that this might be one of my hiccups as a writer, and why I struggle so much writing short stories; I just take too much time to set up a scene, instead of getting right into the action.

I’ve begun to comb through the chapter, searching for anything important I might need to squeak in later on. The rest of it *snaps fingers carelessly* gone! I’ve had to kill several chapters worth of darlings in this novel, but this? Nope, nuh-uh, sorry punk, ain’t gonna miss ya.

I’m hoping this change will not only be a huge leap forward for my novel, but my writing in general. And it’s all thanks to my brilliant, wise, patient, dearly beloved husband. I love you Buppy! ❤

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Not Ready Yet

It wasn’t the rejection letters that made me think it over, not really. I was expecting them. Honestly, I think it was the fact of my so definitely expecting them that made me really think it over, like I didn’t have a chance in hell.

It’s because my query letter sucks, I thought. I just need to rewrite my query.

And then I thought, No. It’s something else. It’s not ready. But what could be wrong with it? I have combed over it near to 1,000 times! I’ve checked on every comma, every line of dialogue; what else could be wrong? What’s missing?

That was the key to the puzzle, “What’s missing,” because the answer to that question is, “a lot apparently.”

One of my favorite writing gurus is Roy Peter Clark. He’s written a bunch of books about writing, most of which I own. I was reading Help! for Writers in conjunction with a book on query letters, The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt – Thomas. I think it was the combination of their advice that helped me pinpoint the problems in my manuscript.

In the section called “finding focus,” Clark discussed the need to cut your writing back to its essence. He suggested writing down the theme of your work, like a missions statement, so that you can chop off the unnecessary limbs. In conjunction with this, he mentioned deleted scenes in movies. He suggested watching the deleted scenes of your favorite movies and decide why it was that they cut that particular scene.

At first, this was all just information in my head. I could feel it mattered, but couldn’t pinpoint why or how it applied to my novel.

Then I picked up my query letter book. One of the examples of a good query opened differently than most of the others I’d seen, with a succinct statement of the major theme of the story, written in such a way that it tantalized you to read down to the pitch synopsis below. I’d read about these in other query books, but never before seen the tactic so well employed. I wrote one for mine:

“Told through a mixture of letters, poetry, and smatterings of cheeky dialogue, Through This Darkness is a novel about death interrupting the plans of the living and finding a new path of love through the darkness.”

I don’t yet know if I’ll employ this in my query letter and I’m not sure if the wording is right, but the exercise of writing down the theme of my book helped me put the rest into focus.

I was finally getting it.

Now I know what I’m missing. Now I know what needs to go.

So, I’ve cut a chapter of my novel (for the greater good) and I’m in the process of writing at least two more letters along with a slew of new dialogue. Plus, I’m now twice as thankful for those five rejections. Not only do they mean I’ve crossed over the threshold into the realm of those who tried, but also no one requested to see a full manuscript for a book that would not actually have been ready.

Sometimes your inner critic DOES know what they’re talking about. 😉

Already Taken

I loved the original idea I had for the title of my novel. Us. Just one word. Simple and direct. And then as I made extensive notes for possible sequels, I thought I could call call the second one We and the third They. I loved how the titles fit with the plots I’d created and how they were all matchy and pronouny. It made me smile.UsNovel

The problem is, that David Nicholls has also written a book by that title. He’s a widely read author, and it’s a widely read book. Now, I’ve seen double title’s out there, and it wouldn’t be as bad as me saying I wanted to call my book The Fault in Our Stars, but I was still cognizant of the fact that I was more or less setting myself up for second place.

At first I didn’t worry about it, reason being, I’d read in many places that if a publisher picks up a book, they often change the title themselves. I figured, since I was going to try the traditional publishing route, I’d just keep it as a working title and let them do what they do best on the other end. And if I ever decide to self publish, I’d deal or not deal with it at that juncture.

Some of the agents I’ve been sending queries to keep blogs on do’s and don’ts of query letters. I found two that specifically mentioned the title as being something they took into consideration when they received a query. They said it was, “like a first impression, and first impression’s stick. So make it count.” So I swallowed hard and started brainstorming for a new title.

Fact: I suck at coming up with titles for my novels.

Truly. Not even just my novels. My blog posts often have sucky titles. It’s just not something I do well. So when I started thinking I thought out loud with my husband. He’s a clever guy and as honest as they come. If he thinks it sucks, he just says so. So, during our hour plus trip to the grocery store, I walked beside him and shot lame title after lame title at him. He wrinkled up his nose and shook his head and shrugged at The Distance Between Us (Which is also taken), You and IOf Cyrano and RoxanneHold Onto Me, and The Space from You to I.

They all sucked.

One of the characters in my novel is a writer and he writes a book called Through the Darkness as part of the plot. I said to Tim, “What if I called it that?”

He said, “If you do then when your book is famous you can’t write that book and publish it under your character’s name.” I rolled my eyes and told him I would never do that regardless. I thought for another minute then said, “What if I called it Through This Darkness?”

That stuck. It makes sense with the story in general and has that extra nice tie in with that point of the plot. I liked it so much that by the time I got home I had already figured a way to rename the sequels to tie them together in a cute and matchy way.

So, until further notice, my novel is now called, Through This Darkness. And as far as Goodreads is concerned, it’s not already taken. 😉

Best Laid Schemes…

I’ve been meticulously methodical about sending my novels out for representation to the point where, last month, I called myself out for being utterly ridiculous. And, as J.R.R. Tolkien said,

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

IMG_5062So, I decided to take March off from writing new things and focus on querying for Us. I knew it would be hard and that I’d be scared and maybe even polish off one or two containers of antacids before April rolled around, but this thing won’t happen on its own.

I started out well. Then one day I unwittingly began to mull over some old cut material from a first draft of my fantasy trilogy. They were scenes I liked and plot points I enjoyed, so I hoped that one day I could resurrect them in something else. I chewed on bites and pieces of them over the next two days until something lit a fuse and my brain exploded.

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It was madness. It was fever. In the space of a week I had over 90,000 words in a document, over 50,000 of that are brand new. And that word count doesn’t even take into consideration the 10k+ that I scribbled into my paper journals. One day I wrote for almost 10 hours straight. When I rose from my desk, I wandered the rooms hardly present, my head was clouded with voices and scenes from another world. I lost tons of sleep, had difficulty entering into conversations that did not involve me talking through the rough patches of my story outline, and ignored my husband when he called me to meals.

Thankfully, it’s dying down now, as I’ve rough drafted all the scenes in my head and thought through the outline enough to know how the story is shaping itself. I’ve got three new characters I adore, one of which is probably my most morally complicated character to date.

So my departure date for the long trip that is the publishing process is pushed back again because I love what I do too much. I sometimes have this morbid sensation that I’m going to die with over 20 completed novels sitting in files on my laptop.

…that being said, I think I’ll work on query letters after I finish writing this blogpost. 😉

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text © Rachel Svendsen 2016

All Growed Up

I’ve been working on a young adult fantasy trilogy for over a year now. The way I have it plotted is in a sort of broken chronological order, meaning that book number 3 is meant to be published first followed by book 1 then 2.

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Book 3, entitled Immortal Bond, has been complete for over six months and placed to the side for additional work when I finish books 1, The Channeller, and book 2, My Brother’s KeeperThe Channeller is my current project (aside from copy editing Us which I am hoping to query for soon). I finished the first draft in early December 2015 and it was about 86,000 words. Working this series backwards has been interesting. I expected the world to morph and develop as I went through the series, and I knew that by the time I made it back to Immortal Bond there would be a lot more than just copy editing to do.

I just never imagined I’d have to redo the whole thing.

I was nearly done with The Channeller when I started saying to myself, “Wow, there’s some mature themes in this story. I better be careful.” Then the writer in me rolled her eyes and said, “Look just write what you need to write and you can tone it down later if you have to.” I let myself believe this, until one day I wrote something that I knew had to stay. It was a scene that told a lot about two characters, one of them, named Renaud, is key to my entire series. I read over the scene once or twice then took it blushingly to my husband.

“Hey honey,” I said as I handed him my laptop. “Can you just read that bit there and tell me what you think?”

He read it while I stared at his face, trying to gage his reaction. When he finished he turned to me and said, “It’s good, but this is not young adult anymore.”

I hadn’t prepped him for that reply which made him saying it all the more compelling. I spent the next few weeks with a nagging question in the back of my mind, “now what?”

After weeks of running Immortal Bond through my mental editor, I finally worked it out and came to this conclusion: The whole thing needs to grow up.

I don’t often plot on paper, just in my head with the occasional notes jotted here and there in my notebook or word document. But I went through all the key scenes and I am certain that I can mature them and grow up my characters (some of them literally). I even got excited about it, thinking that it will probably be better this way then my original idea.

However…

I am basically going to have to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. I already started. I’ve been making notes for rewrites of Immortal Bond as well as making notes for how this will effect My Brother’s Keeper (which is tecnically next on the agenda after The Channeller). I even took the time one day to rewrite a whole scene in Immortal Bond, the same scene that started my professional writing journey in July of 2013. It’s the scene that defines the whole story of Immortal Bond, everything else in the book bleeds out from that chapter, like an ink spot on a blank piece of paper.

It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m a proud parent and I can’t wait to see what my baby will look like after I finish taking the YA out of her name.

© Rachel Svendsen 2016

Reflections on NaNoWriMo

It was not my intention to dive into the sea of National Novel Writing Month. I watched swarms of writers on social media, flexing and stretching along the dock, waiting for November 1st, the starting pistol shot that would send them all plunging downward in a desperate race against themselves for 50,000 words and a brand new novel manuscript.

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I wasn’t wholly against the idea, but not wholly for it either. I have a rhythm to my writing. I put in about four hours of work every day on my manuscripts. Sometimes those hours are so beautiful and perfect that I write past my allotted time, in a fever of words and inspiration. Sometimes those hours are spent angrily poking the keyboard, writing anything, even if I know it sucks, just to stretch my brain. Other times it’s all spent in research or editing or outlining. I divide the rest of the day between query letters, reading books and articles, or performing necessary household duties.

I like my schedule. It suits me. I added more structure to it in September, when I started setting myself monthly goals. My goals for November were to finish the first drafts of two of my half-finished novels and keep working on querying agents.

Then my writing buddy Chandler, emailed me and asked me if I wanted to buddy up on NaNoWriMo’s website so we could encourage each other towards the goal. I thought about it for a few days. It isn’t like I was devoid of new ideas. I have notebooks full of stuff for new projects, but I also have 7 other novels at varying stages of development, that’s not including the 2 completed ones that need more love and proofreading, in preparation for (crosses fingers) a possible manuscript request.

But on a whim, I decided to slip into my bathing suit, and on November 1st, about 6 hours after everyone else was in the water, I held my nose with one hand and cannonballed in after them.

I started a middle grade fantasy novel called, “The Land of the Golden Raindrops.”

Here’s some of my thoughts and reflections, on what the whole NaNoWriMo process taught me:

1. Setting Goals for Your Writing is Key to Progress

I was beginning to figure this out on my own, but NaNoWriMo reenforced the lesson. I knew part way in that it was unlikely I would have an organized and readable first draft ere time had stolen sweet November from my grasp, but I was determined to get those 50,000 words. It gave me something to shoot for and I loved watching that graph tick slowly upward as my word count approached its goal.

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2. Plug in and Build a writing community

Usually if I need history help, I shoot a text to my history teacher friend, Steve. So when my Google searches brought up useless information on the burial customs of the poor in 19th century London, I sent Steve a text but also posted in the forum. In less than an hour, a fellow writer had posted links to 4 great articles for me to peruse.

It wasn’t just about how fast the response came, it was that another writer, a stranger under the same deadline as me, took the time to copy and paste those links into the forum for me.

We know how to commiserate and encourage each other in a way that a non-writers can’t. We know how it feels when your brain is constipated and you can see your thoughts leaking from your ears in tendrils of wispy pale steam like a fresh cup of tea. We know how confusing it is to wander the internet, in search of fact, to find nothing but opinion. It was nice to know that if I ever got discouraged, I could email one of my three NaNoWriMo buddies or tweet out my progress, and immediately get love in the form of a thumbs up emoji. Sometimes that’s all you need. It’s something I hope to retain now that this is all over.

3. Do What’s Best for Your Progress

I got a lot of good out of this, so I’m glad I did it. However, if next year rolls around and I have to choose between my personal goals and starting a brand new project, I will probably watch the swimmers from a safe seat on the dock.

Life ate up a lot of my spare writing time this month making NaNoWriMo the only thing I accomplished. Don’t get me wrong, I love the result. I love my new characters, Lilly and Rascal, and had a blast making new worlds for them to play in, but they would still have come in time. Then it wouldn’t have cost me a whole month of spending time with Rory, Graham, Renaud, and Kaeli. It wouldn’t have set back my query letters and copy editing of “Us”, things that I consider more important.

You have to do what’s best for your art. If that means that you have your own personal NaNoWriMo in December, then you do so with a nod and smile. Or, perhaps…

4. Sometimes It’s Okay to Miss the Mark

If I had been a little smarter, I might have just shrugged and said, “Well today I’m not going to increase my word count on NaNoWriMo. Today I am going to work on the first draft of ‘The Channeller.'” But there were those badges that you could earn if you updated your word count every day, and that cool graph that told you how many words you added, and, basically, I got a little carried away with the fever of the thing.

I did it. I finished. On November 25th, I verified my 50,078 words and immediately dropped the project. My first draft is a chronologically disorganized mess, with bits and pieces from every end and corner of the story all mashed together. This is usually how my first drafts end up. I could have spent the next 5 days in November putting it in order, knowing full well that this draft would be thrown to the back of the queue for the next project I attack. It’s there. It’s a first draft. That’s it. I immediately printed out a new copy of “Us” and spent the rest of the day editing.

But what if I hadn’t finished? What if I had decided to drop the project entirely in favor of my previous list of goals for November? There is no shame in that. There is never any shame in setting a high goal for yourself and missing the mark. Do the work and do it with all you have. If you get to the end of the month and your word count isn’t 50,000 or you haven’t sent out those 10 query letters, it’s okay. Don’t batter yourself bloody. Just try again tomorrow. It’s about the journey. It’s about the climb. It’s about the effort. If you keep trying every day, eventually you’ll get there.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015

 

“Replace All”

Autocorrect. Spellcheck. Tab stops. Cut and paste. These are a few of the little things in word processing that are a mixed bag of blessings and curses. They may help us if we perpetually misspell “disease” but sometimes they may cause us to accidentally send a text to our mother to inform her that Dad’s hysterectomy went smoothly. I do most of my writing on my computer, and make regular notes on my iPhone, so I am constantly in a tussle with some smart technological device or other.

This includes the “Find and Replace” feature.

I only used this nugget of blessing once or twice in high school. I wasn’t very computer savvy, so most of my editing was accomplished with a printed copy, pencil, and eraser. Even now, I don’t have the feature quite figured out, except that I know it’s a tricky devil.

When I was working on Immortal Bond, my first novel, I spent the first few drafts trying to think of a decent name for the capital city and country of my setting. Until I decided on one, I just had the words “The Capital” as a place holder. Once I decided on “Cathair,” I opened up the Find and Replace box and found and replaced. This box has a deceptively helpful looking button labeled, “Replace All”. (Beware the Replace All button people. Beware!) I smiled benevolently at it. How sweet, I thought. Some programmer is saving me time. I clicked. I printed.

Somehow, every time “The Capital” was replaced with “Cathair” there was now an odd spacing issue. A sentence that once might have said: “Father, I can’t wait to get to The Capital!”, now said: “Father I cant wait to get toCathair !” I scratched my head, and manually fixed every single one.

Since then I’ve been more cautious.

So the other night when I changed a character’s name for the third, and hopefully final, time I was sweating.

This character suspiciously looks and acts very much like a friend of mine. In my first drafts, this character even, veeeeery suspiciously, had the same name. Obviously this would not do, so I changed his name to Don. It didn’t work for me at all. So my husband and I have been trying to rename him. Last night I decided to try Nick on for size. When I opened the find and replace box, I groaned. There was over 350.

I whined to my husband, “This is going to take forever.”

He shrugged and took the laptop from me. “Just do this.” The mouse hovered ominously over the “replace all” button. I squealed like a wild boar and slapped his hand away.

“Are you MAD?” I snapped. “D-O-N is in all kinds of words! It’ll turn all my ‘donuts’ to ‘Nickuts.’”

“Ooooh,” he mouthed and began to play with the box. A few seconds later he smiled at me. “Just do this!” He clicked a little checkbox that said, “whole words.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What will that do?”

“Watch.” He refreshed the box and the word count dropped by over 150. I turned my skeptical gaze to him.

“You sure that worked?”

“Of course.” His confidence eased my mind. I let him hit the “replace all” button then kissed him affectionately.

“You’re amazing!” I said, then skipped off to shower while he set it up to print.

Shortly thereafter, I was holding the first printed copy of my second novel in my hands. Giddy as toddler with a mini drum set, I sat down to play with my second child. I flipped open to a random page. My face fell.

“TIMOTHY YOU NINNY-FOPPER!”

Yes I did yell that for real. This is normal for me, for these are the names I call my husband. He did not respond. He was in the basement doing laundry. (See! How can I yell cuss names at a husband who does laundry without me even asking?)

He came up the stairs humming. I waited, patiently scowling at the door, until he stepped inside the bedroom. He saw my face and cocked his head at me.

You are a Ninny-fopper,” I repeated, softer and with additional menace.

“Why?”

I motioned to him with one finger. He sat down beside me on the bed. I lifted my laptop onto my lap and opened the find and replace box. I typed the word “Nick’t” into the find section and got a little grey notification that said “167 found”.

Every “don’t” in my story was now “Nick’t”.

Timothy proceeded to hug me and say “I’m sorry” while simultaneously giggling. I changed all my “Nick’t”s back to “don’t”s in my document, but I refuse to print another copy. Save the trees and all that.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015