Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ponder, Polish, Perfect: How to Successfully Revise

As I've been promising for some time now, I'm finally getting around to posting my talk from the SCBWI Newport Beach Agent Day on revision. And yeah, I totally stole some snippits from previous posts. Deal with it.


When I had planned to give this talk, I'd originally titled it re-Invision. One of the conference coordinators, Beverly, was smart enough to call me out on that and double check...did you mean re-Envision?

She showed me the definitions for Invision and Envision:

Invision: noun (and possibly also a made-up word) Want of vision or of the power of seeing.

Envision: verb. to picture mentally - used with an object.

I promptly changed the title of my talk, because she was absolutely right; I did mean Envision (and not just because Invision is quite possibly made up) because revision is an action. A process. An ongoing development. Not a WANT, not a THING in itself. It it USED with the thing. NOT the thing. It is a MENTAL RE-Imagining of your work.

I come to the topic of a revision having experienced it from both the writer and agent's perspectives. I started as many in the industry do - thinking I was going to write historical romance bestsellers (wait, that's just me?...). As an author my agent would send me notes and I immediately snatched them up like some sort of test. I thought the goal was to get them done as QUICKLY as possible; I wanted to be the BEST author EVER who POWERED through revisions in no time at all!

As an agent, let me step back now and say: revision is not a checklist you can power through.

If I had a client who had a turn-around as quickly as mine was, I'd seriously take pause. Because, like I said, revision should be a RE-IMAGINING of your work as a whole - not individual bits and pieces. It isn't a process of "receive notes and execute," but rather a process of "receive notes, mull, brainstorm, tweak, and execute."

This is a good thing to keep in mind when you get conflicting advice. Not every agent thinks the same; not ever reader will have the same notes. If you ever find yourself as a writer with two sets of day and night notes - don't panic. Mull. Think how EACH set helps YOU to RE-ENVISION your work AS A WHOLE (can I say this enough?).

Now, onto the good stuff:

I'm going to go over a few ideas, which I certainly hope you will take and expand on and adjust for your own use. These aren’t things that will work for everyone, just tools to help you re-envision your work. They are certainly not comprehensive (this was a blasted 50 min talk, give me a break) but below and throughout are links to some very in-depth checklists and step-by-step processes you can go through and look at later.

1.Take a break - and start with fresh eyes
-brainstorm, mull; don't TOUCH it for at least three days after getting notes (or two weeks after you finish). Scribble down ideas if you must, but take a break!

2.Start from the beginning
-GET fresh eyes on it - use your critique partners! See where your weak spots are per reader - any similarities?

-Think of the WHY not the WHAT: tackle the REASON behind the emotional impression.

Pro tip: Cheryl Klien, an editor at Scholastic (who has, by the way, the BEST post on revision I have EVER seen), says:
I read through the manuscript and make notes of my impressions every step of the way.
o I’m bored
o Love this
o Where is this going?
o Hmm
It allows her to pinpoint exact spots that work, don't work, and might need tweaking.

-create a story-board, scene by scene. Then start taking scenes out. See what you can do…with cutting. (This will help you write a synopsis, too). Post-its are a must.

-play the "what-if" game - for example, take a problem your character is confronted with. Come up with possible outcomes, including completely outrageous and bizarre ones; it'll help you think outside the box

one of my favorite examples has absolutly nothing to do with publishing. A husband and wife were having problems because the wife was tired of doing taxes every year. They brainstormed all sorts of outrageous ideas: Not file and go to jail. Run away to the Bahamas. Etc. In the end, they hired someone to do it. Maybe not the most dramatic solution, but the point is, it opened up an dialogue between them to find a solution.

You can do the same with your plot. Where do these outrageous ideas lead? How does that change the outcome of your story? Is it more dynamic?

-cut first three chapters – keep a scrap document, an original, etc. Just play.

4.Focus on voice
-One of my favorite recommendations on voice revision comes from Kim Griswell of Boyds Mills Press: highlight all the sensory details in your manuscript a different color. See what you’re doing, what you may need to add. Too much dialogue? Enough sensory details? Too MUCH of one sensory details (like sight)?

-voice is the quality that allows the reader to forget about the author. It has place – a taste of where you came from, what’s shaped YOU, the author, in life, and sensory details. The best voices reveal a piece of the writer – what YOU notice because of who you are -- which, I’ll add, makes sense; as humans we’re going to connect the most to real human voices, because it allows a character to seem real, which allows us to forget that they were written.

5.Focus on conflict
-what is your central plot arc - is it clear? Is it fresh, original? Take a look at your synopsis. A lot of the time, the synopsis highlights the heart of the story, and will pinpoint exactly what the important details you should have – and what you shouldn’t have – are.

6.Focus on characterization
- I loved Nathan Bransford's take on this (and his revisioon checklist!): Does the reader see both the best and worst characteristics of your main characters? What do your characters want? Is it apparent to the reader? Do they have both conscious and unconscious motivations?

-It is very important to make your character believable and relatable (there’s a reason so many characters have no boyfriends and no lives and are so poor – the majority of us are like that too). If your character has un-likeable aspects, make sure there are still flaws, too. Sarcasm is great; whining is not. Think cheeky and feisty rather than arrogant and violent. Inner strength should shine through the voice, even if not in the action.

But I've always heard it's what you do, not what you say, that counts!

Ok. Let me explain:

Scenario one: Greg jumps the fence and slays the evil dragon.

Scenario two: Greg is afraid of heights but he jumps the fence anyway and gets close enough to the evil dragon even though he's allergic. It was easier for him to overcome his fears and allergies because he hates the color green, like the dragon, so much.

In both scenarios we understand that Greg's the hero...but we understand his strength of character from the second, because we have a voice to understand him and his conflicts and personality. Get it?

6 1/2. Focus on peripheral characters
- Avoid black/white characters

What I mean here is: avoid blanket good/bad stereotypes. Yes, sometimes these blanket characters pop up; epic stories usually have them. But the gray area is always so much more interesting and heartbreaking.

A great example of this came to me when I (re) watched (for the millionth time) Pirates of the Carribean. Captain Barbosa is clearly a bad guy…right? But that last scene, when he dies, and the bright green apple falls from his fingers…you definitely feel heartbroken for the guy, don’t you? That little detail, those darned apples, were a beautiful plot device for making him more dynamic. They were a physical representation of his motive. He wasn’t bad for the sake of being bad; he was in pain. Yes, he also gets a chance to explain his motive to us, but it’s the apples that really drive it home.

-Ask yourself: Are these characters just tools to an end?

Part of what may make a character seem less dynamic is if they only exist to drive forward the plot. Yes, yes; back to the epic fantasy example, sometimes it’s unavoidable to encounter these “extras.”

-Their motivations are going to have to come through via interaction with the hero and/or heroine, if you don’t have multiple POVs (which I never recommend). So go back to pivotal scenes, and give them a voice! A great exercise for this is to write a piece of the book in each of your character’s perspectives. You don’t have to include this; but see what they have to say.

7.Focus on Pacing
-First: count your adjectives and adverbs per page. Are you waaay overdoing it? Can they be cut and simplified? How about any of your sentence structures?

-This is where the earlier experimenting will help:
Cut your prologue, dream sequence, and first chapter.Why? Too much back-story upfront really drags pace, and too many tiny, unimportant, menial things like sports games, day-to-day activities, talking to mom/sister/great-aunt also really slow pace. You don’t need to tell me when your character goes pee or brushes her teeth. In other words, don’t summarize events; realize them in the plot.

-Alternately, do you jump too quickly into the action, and not give ANY hints as to what's going on?

I love to consider why people love mysteries: beacause they figure out what happens WITH the main character. But they can't do that without clues! Think of your characters like the mystery: make sure there are enough clues scattered in there to allow the reader to piece together the puzzle of their personality...without you having to actually tell them.

-Of course, the best way to improve pacing is to go back and snip snip snip from your finished manuscript; ask yourself: why is this scene really here? Does it actually serve a purpose to the plot? OR DO YOU JUST LOVE IT BECAUSE YOU THINK IT'S THE BEST WRITING YOU'VE EVER DONE AND YOU SPENT TEN HOURS ON IT?

8.Some other important things to keep in mind:
Be aware of your writing tics, such as repeated words and phrases or facial expressions (does your main character pale and purse her lips ten times a page?)

-Read, read, read in your genre, know the expected word counts, and the standards of what is acceptable and what is not

To quote Ms. Klein again: An action novel needs a tighter plot than a coming-of-age story. A moody YA needs more character development than a middle-grade series.
• You want to figure out what your book’s personality is and how to enhance that, but, it's ALWAYS good to know what IS an isn't appropriate, regardless of if you hit the mark on your impression

For example, if someone blushes in the subway because they're reading your steamy YA, maybe that's exactly what you want...but is that appropriate for the age group?

And lastly:
-Save your drafts

-Don't cherish anything (although it's perfectly ok to be upset about having to cut anything; again, just think about WHY you're upset about it - because it really belongs, or because you're just really connected to it and don't want it to go to waste?)

-Trust YOUR gut

CC by SA 2.5 at

Check this out for a PLETHORA of other revision posts and, if you're craving another checklist, go here.

Happy revising!

An Ode to the English Language

by Eugenie A. Nidia*

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and there would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!
Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple..
English muffins weren't invented in England .
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English
should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship...
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns down,
in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and
in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop.??????

*From internet research, it seems that this poem first appeared in the EFITA Newsletter in January 2006... The original title is “Pluralities.”
However, I have also read also that it dates back to the mid-1800s...
The EFITA newsletter lists as the contact; however, the email address doesn't work.
So. Who knows. If YOU do, tell me!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Perseverence: The Hardest P

Today I have a very, very special guest post by Literary Agent Laura Bradford of the Bradford Literary Agency. I'll let her explain the whats and hows of the post itself, but in sum, and why this post means so much to me (and why I want to share it with all of you) is that it demonstrates one of the HARDEST of the P's of Publishing: Perseverance.

I realize that I haven't actually gotten around to having a whole post on these P's yet, but in sum, the P's of Publishing are the P words that are all you need to make it in Publishing, such as:


The list could go on and on. I'm going to try and put together a few posts on these P's, starting with this very special one. Take it away Laura!

Alrighty, so a couple of months ago my lovely new assistant, Natalie, asked me to write a guest blog post for Adventures in Agentland. I said of course and then did what I always do and started to stress about not being able to come up with anything interesting to say. I suggested to her that she should give me a deadline and a topic or else I would probably drag my feet forever. Skip ahead a few weeks and we were at the Romantic Times conference and for some reason or another I was relating a story about one of my author’s recent sales and how it was a super EXTRA special one. She told me THAT is what I want you to blog about. Tell THAT story. And here’s your deadline. (Natalie is an excellent listener.) So here we are.

About a year ago I had an author who lost her publishing contract. And by lost I mean she had finished her contract and her publisher decided not to re-option her. This kind of thing does happen from time to time, and I think given the recent economic downturn and the publishing climate of late, this probably happened even more than usual in the last year. It happens to good people and good writers. We all know perfectly well that sometimes good books get lost in the marketplace and even with excellent reviews and covers sometimes readers just don’t respond and open their wallets. And publishing is a business so we all understand that sometimes a publisher has to make a hard decision and let an author go. But it totally sucks. Sometimes the author can see it coming, sometimes it comes as a surprise but I think no matter what, the news brings the author a certain sense of upheaval, self doubt, anger and sadness. Why did this happen? What will I do now? Is this [genre, series, pen name] lost to me forever?

My author had been writing science fiction romance which is one of those romance sub genres that people either adore or REALLY don’t care for. Like time travel. It just isn’t quite as mainstream or considered as widely appealing as say…a demon hunter theme or vampires. The author loved writing paranormal romance and while I AM fairly biased, I think she is very skilled at it and it made sense for her to pursue another contract in paranormal. But after she lost her SF romance series, she discovered just how much of an outside-the-box author she was. She wanted to write about all the things that NY was not really interested in…her ideas were risk-taking in a market that had become increasingly risk-averse. So where did that leave her? Questioning A LOT. In a situation like this, does an author choose to write something that doesn’t interest them in order to please NY? Do they choose to go another route entirely and move to epublishing where greater risk-taking is allowable? Do they find a new genre and try it on for size? In my author’s case, after a lot of soul searching she decided to try something completely different. She might fail spectacularly but at least she would be writing something that made her happy and we would work out the future as we went.

So she made the leap from very, VERY sexy science fiction romance to young adult historical romance with steampunk elements. There are some similarities between the two genre types but really they are more different than the same. And writing for young adult is TOTALLY different than writing for adults. As an agent who handles YA, I see a lot of YA manuscripts and if there is anything I have learned, it is that writing a truly authentic YA voice is VERY hard to do. Many, MANY more people fail than succeed at it. There is no shame in that. Not every writer is skilled at writing every type of thing and that is okay. If it was easy, everyone would do it. My author told me the story she had in mind and it was really pretty awesome. I told her to go for it. And she did.

In fairly short order she sent me the 1st 30 or so pages of the new story and I was thrilled to take a look. This is what happened: I didn’t like it at all. It just didn’t work. The voice was wrong…it didn’t feel age appropriate…the pacing was off. The hook was solid and I knew the plot twists were very cool but at the end of the day, with YA, if the voice isn’t there, the most compelling plot in the world can’t make it work. And it is my job to tell the author this. We brainstormed some ideas on how to make it work better and she tried again. This is what happened then: it still didn’t work. The voice was not right. Not just a little not-right. A LOT not-right. And if it wasn’t right, it wasn’t going to be sellable.

Now I am an editorial agent, so my response to a manuscript one of my clients sends me will almost never just be NO. I think it is my job to help the author make their work better, to make it appealing, to make it sellable. To make them money. I WANT to be encouraging. I BELIEVE in their skills and talents. And I do not like to hand out news that will be disappointing. But as I said before, not every writer is good at writing every kind of book and that is okay. And I am not doing my authors any favors if I continue to encourage an endeavor that may never be the right fit for their skills…when the result might ultimately be a lot of time spent without a sale to show for it. It is hard to know in these cases what is the right thing to do. Should I suggest the author keep going? Should I suggest they hang it up and try something else? I told the author what was not working with the piece. I told her what it needed to be in order for it to have a chance. I gave it to her straight. I didn’t sugarcoat. I also did not expressly suggest that she try it again. I left the decision to her to decide whether to continue working on the piece. And she decided to hang it up. She’d known all along that the project was far outside her writing comfort zone. She agreed that the voice was not right. And she understood that she might not ever get it right. And that it was okay.

Though she was very nice about it and kept a stiff upper lip, I think this decision was really quite upsetting. She LOVED this YA story. It was cool and romantic and fresh and adventurous. It made her happy. It was what she wanted to write and like the SF romance, it was turning into something else that she loved that she might not ever get to publish. And now she would abandon it in search of something else that might please that fickle bitch, NY (even if it didn’t please her).

I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks after that and I gave her some space. I knew she was planning on finding some mainstream paranormal idea to work on in an effort to get back into the romance game. It was probably for the best. Then she emailed me and told me that after she’d decided to set aside the YA, it just would not let HER go. And she couldn’t help but to give it one. more. try. I thought: oh, boy. If this doesn’t work again, this is when the break up (the author and the story) is really going to hurt. This is what happened: I LOVED it. It was fantastic. All the issues with voice and pacing were gone. It had turned into everything that we had wanted it to be. It turned out she DID have a YA voice in her repertoire. I don’t know if the author had needed that time away from the story for that intangible thing that was missing to crystallize but whatever had triggered the change, it was a great thing and I told her to hurry up and write the full. She did. And it was awesome. Then this is what happened:

Kristin Welker’s YA debut, THE CLOCKWORK KEY, a clockpunk romantic adventure set in Victorian England about a girl who unravels the secrets of a mysterious society of inventors and their most dangerous creation, to Anica Rissi at Simon Pulse, for publication in Fall 2012, by Laura Bradford at Bradford Literary Agency (World English).

So what was the point of this rather long and ramble-y story? Everybody did their job, especially the author and her job was the most difficult one of all (and I don’t mean writing the book). My job was to support my author and tell her the truth. And I did exactly that. Even when the truth wasn’t nice or pleasing. Those earlier drafts DIDN’T work. The author’s job was to believe in herself. To believe in her story. To dig deep and to risk failure. And boy did she do that. If it had not been for her belief in herself and her abilities, a gut deep knowledge that she had the chops to write the story she had dreamed of, she would not have a hardcover YA debut coming out next year. She’d been prepared to leave the story behind and I think that decision broke her heart a little…but then that determination and grit way down deep made her try again. It wasn’t MY encouragement. It wasn’t that anyone had told her she could do it.

She knew it. She believed. And she did it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

HOOK 'em in (in three seconds or less)

What is it?
The hook is the one-sentence core element of any pitch, logline, or query letter. It is incredibly handy to have memorized for any impromptu meeting with an agent or editor (or nosy family friend…) in a situation with limited interaction time (like an elevator).

Essentially, it answers the question: so what is your book about? In a way that intrigues the reader in exactly three seconds (because that is approximately how long you have to catch his or her attention).

Helpful Hook TipsFiction

Version One:
X genre in which/When X happens, X must do X to X/otherwise X

If you need help getting started, answer these questions (one sentence answers) and plug them into the formula (and tweak from there):

1.What is your age group and genre?
2.What happens?
3.How does your main character react?
4.What are your main character’s options?
5.What does your main character do?
6.What happens if he or she doesn’t get through it?
7.What are the larger consequences of this?

Version Two:
A specific frustration or situation one of your characters has to deal with that illustrates a key theme or problem (that is ideally unique) in the novel.

Non fiction

Why THIS book NOW? (Be prepared to follow up with: why YOU?)



Version One:
*A sci-fi trilogy set in a dystopian future in which a 16-year old girl offers herself as a "tribute" in a series of deadly war games to save her family

Using the help tip:
What is your age group and genre?
YA contemporary fantasy
What happens?
Two girls become sirens
How does your main character react?
freak out
What are your main character’s options?
become a bird or finish the task and return to normal
What does your main character do?
attempts to finish the task
What happens if he or she doesn’t get through it?
they will belong to Hades
What are the larger consequences of this?
they will lose their freedom

Plug it in:
YA contemporary fantasy in which when two girls become sirens they must lure a man to the underworld to be set free or they will belong to Hades and lose their freedom.

Tweak it:
YA contemporary fantasy about two girls forced to work for Hades as sirens luring individuals to the underworld unless they want to belong to Hades forever.

When you’re finished, it should be easily recognizable as a SPECIFIC book.

Version Two:
*It’s hard to fall in love with the boy next door…when you don’t remember who he is.

*Becoming a goddess would be pretty awesome…if it didn’t involve death.

This version is more vague, a pure interest piquer.


*Star Potential is the first astrology how-to guide written exclusively for high school girls ages 15-17 that will capitalize on the teen obsession with astrology-related titles such as the bestselling Star Crossed (Running Press Kids, 2010) and The Star Shack (Sourcebooks Fire, 2010) at an all-time high, and the constant popularity of the horoscope section of teen magazines.

Look at the listings in Publishers Marketplace; these descriptions stem from hooks, though they tend to also be vague.


Other Helpful Tips: – index of helpful writing tips