How to Procrastinate Until Your Book Writes Itself

It’s been a long time since I wrote a brand new story idea. I’ve been in revision land a looooooong time. The blank page can be awfully intimidating, writing something rough and misshapen and new, especially after working on something that has years of polishing, and I found myself avoiding some serious butt-in-chair writing time. So I started procrastinating…with purpose.

I was a history major—I LOVE researching before writing. In college, when I had a paper due, I would spend weeks in advance reading articles and books, surrounding myself with them, organizing the sources, before finally putting pen to paper (yes…I wrote first drafts [because yes, there were multiple drafts] of my papers longhand). I once maxed out my university library card and checked out 99 books in total for my capstone research paper. And when I returned them all in a literal suitcase, the front desk manager blinked at me like I was a crazy person…before offering me a job.

All that to say, I really love research. And it’s an excellent, productive way to avoid writing, especially when I’m still in the preliminary brainstorming stage. Jumping in and writing right away is a surefire way to get myself stuck and stumped and frustrated. Maybe so much so that I’ll abandon that story idea entirely. Instead, I read as much and as widely as I can in preparation, really indulging my curiosity and entertaining any and all story directions it could take. Any nugget could spark a future plot twist or prove handy while world building!

So this is the germ of the WIP idea I got a few months back:

EYbIberXgAAoo1Y

I usually start with some broad topical non-fiction, to really fill my brain on the topic, fill in some knowledge gaps, and inform the direction of future research and reading. In this case, I dove into some murder and crime solving non-fiction. Murder lead to a more specific curiosity about murder with poisons:

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And some plant non-fiction:

Then I go broad, fictional, and multi-media—movies, TV shows, podcasts, any age-range—to survey what’s already been done on the topic, common themes and what might be familiar to readers thanks to pop culture:

I love when I can settle down to watch a movie and call it research. It feels so…multitasking.

Then I macro my research further; specifically, I start reading middle grade books that would be adjacent to the story I’m imagining, maybe shelved together or recommended to the same reader. Mostly, I’m trying to triple check that the story I’m imagining hasn’t already been done. I’m looking for a little inspiration. I’m procrastinating in its purest form and pleasure reading. But in the back of my mind, I’m also hunting for potential comp titles to be used in a future pitch.

Along the way, I keep a notebook handy, to jot down any ideas or snippets of scenes I might dream up. It starts to fill up pages, a really useful treasure trove to dig into once drafting starts.

As the research (aka, procrastination) continues, the story takes shape in my head and the excitement to write it starts to overwhelm the anxiety about drafting. Once I finally dream up the opening scene, know where the story starts, I know it’s time to stop researching and write.

 

 

The 5 Stages of Accepting and Integrating Critique Partner Feedback

In the last post, I detailed the process of writing and revising (and revising some more) until my manuscript is as good as I can make it by myself. Now, it’s time to get a few second opinions!

Enter: critique partners! If you don’t have any yet, here are some suggestions on how to find them. Critique partners are WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD! They read your manuscript in full, and give constructive feedback and suggestions on how to make it better. Usually, I ask 2-3 critique partners, depending on their availability, for big picture feedback—plot holes, where they want/need more explanation or details, or character development (my early drafts always need to be expanded).

These fantastic writing pals dig in and, 3-4 weeks later, the perfect amount of time to have distanced myself from the manuscript and prepare to objectively receive a laundry list of all its many many flaws (hahahaha, jk), they send back the manuscript with with scene-level margin comments (example: confusion about how a chapter ends, queries, flagging where the voice deviates, or where a character says or does something out of character, etc.) and a short edit letter with more global feedback (example: add the best friend more throughout, clarify this character’s motivation, consider adding additional chapters from X character’s point of view, etc.).

I’ll admit it: Feedback always stings. EVEN THOUGH I sent the manuscript out KNOWING it needed work, specifically ASKING for suggestions for improvement, when I get those emails, my first reaction is always disappointment (oh, why didn’t I write a perfect novel on the first round?!) and disagreement. Sometimes I read the feedback and, like Leslie Knope, just want to shout “NO!” It’s a protective instinct. I don’t want to tear the manuscript apart, I don’t want to make all these changes.

But the book won’t get any better if I don’t listen to feedback. This is where the 5 stages come in:

1.  Defense & Denial

Read the feedback. Deny, loudly, to myself and anyone within hearing distance, that any of the things pointed out for revision are actual problems.

2.  Mourning

A few hours later, consider, upon further reflection, that the manuscript is a mess, that all the feedback is correct, and I’m probably going to have to overhaul the entire book. Maybe it’s not even worth saving. Revision is hopeless. Or, at least, endless. Usually chocolate is required. And a loooooooooong walk.

3.  Reconsider

24 hours later, reread the feedback. Every. Single. Time. On the reread, I realize that 80% of the feedback is spot on. Perfect, even. I nod my head as I read along: How didn’t I think of that? That’s EXACTLY what the ending needs. My critique partners are BRILLIANT! This is what it feels like when feedback resonates, when it fits with my vision of what I want the book to become, falling into place like a missing puzzle piece. I usually know when a revision change is right because I’m energized to make the changes.

What about that other 20%? It’s not that I disagree with these comments and suggestions necessarily, but they don’t resonate in the same way. They feel off, not right for the book.

I’ve found, as Neil Gaiman put it:

“…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

If, even after 24 hours, feedback such as “Consider simplifying cast of characters and get rid of this one entirely,” results in my stomach flipping, my heart squeezing, my gut screaming NO! That character is critical! That suggestion is wrongwrongwrong for the story. The book—as I envision it—doesn’t work without that specific character! If the Leslie Knope inside of me is threatening to come out and throw a temper tantrum, then clearly, this feedback doesn’t resonate with me and my vision and shouldn’t be integrated during revisions.

But. Instead of totally throwing the suggestion out the window as entirely incorrect, I parse down the reason behind it. Why did the reader feel that way? I skim the pages and, as a reader, I can usually identify why that character wasn’t working for them. Maybe in my head the character looms larger than life, but on the page I failed to make that clear. Maybe they only have a few cameo scenes. Of course the story as-is lead the reader wrong! If I’m still sure they’re critical, then I figure out a solution that both resolves the issue my critique partner had but also resonates with my vision. For example, in this instance, I’d decide that instead of deleting this character wholesale from the book, I need to make them a more active character throughout.

4.  Thank

Profusely thank my amazing critique partners for their time and help and insights. Ask follow-up questions, if any, about that 20%. Usually, I throw a brainstorming idea at them. “You responded negatively to X and suggested Y, but what if I did Z?”

5.  Edit letter

Yes, again!

I take all the reader feedback that resonates, dump it into one collated document, add in all the other revision ideas the feedback kicked up in my brain, and keep that up on my screen while I reread the book. AGAIN.

Just like the first solo rounds of revision, I make margin comments throughout. Don’t allow myself to edit. Revise the edit letter until it’s complete. Organize revisions from biggest to smallest and tackle accordingly.

Rinse and repeat—including sending the latest revision to a second round of critique partners—until it’s as good as I can make it, as good as it can be in my reader’s eyes…and then…it’s done!

(For now. There’s always more revisions on the horizon, with an agent and with an editor!)

How to Revise a Novel (Before You Waste a Year Fixing 300 Pages That Never Get Any Better)

Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting.

After years of reading craft books about how to shape hooky opening chapters and structure A+ plots and experimenting with nearly every revision process an author has ever posted on the internet—handwritten index scene cards taped to the wall, printed out chapters sorted like puzzle pieces on the floor, color-coded highlighters, color-coded sticky notes, red ink markup on hardcopy, tracked changes in Word, dozens of chunks rearranged digitally in Scrivener, leaving my laptop open when I went to bed in the hopes writing elves might revise it overnight (no luck there)—to finally come up with a process that works for me.

Having a go-to revision process was a writing game changer. Firstly, the quality of my writing leveled up as I became better at executing my story vision during revision, ultimately reducing the number of rounds of revisions I’d need to circle through from first to final draft. Secondly, my precious writing time efficiency and turnarounds skyrocketed. Rather than an entire writing session spent trying to figure out how to revise and puzzling out where to even start, I could spend the time executing my revision action plan and actually revising. Rather than taking a year to do a revision, I was able to execute a major revision in a few months, a smaller one in weeks. 

So, in the hopes it helps develop your own efficient and customized revision process, I thought I’d share details of mine.

Revision is not a small thing. It’s not a tweak here or there. It is a deep review and reshaping of story, character, and plot. In my early writing days, I thought my revision attempts were significant. I deleted an entire chapter! I added an entire 1,000-word scene! How many darlings can there be left to kill? Those were important steps towards a better manuscript, true, but often it was just addressing surface problems and window dressing. I added three scenes and deleted two chapters. And polished every sentence from beginning to end. Done! (Right?) And then I’d cycle through rounds and rounds of “revisions” that continued to poke and tweak, but never ultimately addressed the bigger, underlying problems that demanded an entire overhaul.

With time I realized that with true revision, especially early rounds, no word is left unturned. Revision looks a lot like this:

A recent revision on the WIP based on my agent’s amazing feedback. It took 3+ months and ultimately added 16,000 words! The story was SO MUCH STRONGER as a result.

Once a draft is done, I set it aside to rest for 2 weeks. Distance and a brain break is critical.

At the two week mark, I reformat the document in Word with a new font that’s appealing to read but also makes it look different from the “drafting font,” fuss with the margins and change the spacing to 1.5 so it looks a little like a typeset book page (about 250 words-per-page). I heard Markus Zusak mention this at an author event years ago as his own personal revision brain hack and I immediately went home and tried it and have been doing it ever since. I make the Word document full screen so I read in spreads, just like a book. These things might seem simple and a little silly, but it tricks my brain into reading the rough manuscript like it’s a book. Not only does it look like a book, but it feels like one too when I “turn” (scroll) the pages at the same pace. It results in a more immersive, objective, and critical reading experience.

I read the entire manuscript, as much in one sitting as possible, to keep it fresh in my mind, and only make margin comments. I do not allow myself to get sidetracked actually fixing anything at this point.

I read over all my comments and write myself an edit letterthat revision action plan I mentioned earlier. An edit letter is a big-picture strategy to-do list of what needs to be revised and how, usually 2-3 pages. It’s a great point of reference every time I sit back down to revise. It’s useful (and satisfying) to see what’s been done and what’s left to do, and keeps me on track.

I organize it, and tackle it, from biggest issues to smallest. Hallie Ephron describes this really welland in greater detailin her book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel (though, as a craft book, I think the entire book is useful no matter what genre you’re writing and worth a read), as “flying high” for the big-picture changes (plot holes, global character issues, missing pieces, timeline issues) and “flying low” for the more prose-level improvements and polish.

Why biggest to smallest? It’s another revision efficiency. If you’ve decided to change the POV from third person to first person, for example, it’s tempting to do that first. Fix it everywhere, it’s a global improvement, right? A worthy investment of time? Well, imagine you do that, then get to work on the big picture issues: deleting and rearrange scenes, rewriting a subplot, anything major that will have ripple effects throughout the manuscript. After spending all that time addressing the POV and polishing sentences…you ended up deleting five of the chapters anyway. Thousands of words that didn’t need all that fussing! What a waste! 

Rinse & repeat until the manuscript is as good as I can make it by myself. Revision isn’t over yet—far from it—but at this point I’ve done a ton of work and I’m book blind. The next step is to send the book to beta readers for a fresh perspective. What I send doesn’t have to be perfectit’s a judgement free, constructive criticism zonebut before I hit send it needs to be thoroughly combed through, book shaped, but has some known weaknesses. For example, I often know that the ending on an early draft isn’t right, but I’m at a loss about how to fix it. So, when I send it to beta readers, I mention as much and ask them specifically to provide feedback on that and other weak spots.

Next post, I’ll talk more about revising in response to reader feedback.

 

 

 

Where I Write and a #Shelfie

Quarantine has me spending a great deal of time in the home office/library, thanks (many many thanks) to the day job combined with additional writing time. It’s the coldest room in the house so we have a little space heater in there and it’s also, officially “the cat’s room” where he has laid claim to his own chair that’s draped with a blanket and no one else is welcome to use. We’ve spent the last year focused on shaping the room into the cozy, colorful place it is, painting it Dragonfly, building and installing shelves to finally get the full book collection out of the boxes we kept moving from one room to another the first year we lived in the house. (The DIY before/after is documented here.) 

Gizmo cat

Being in the room so much has given cause to touch up the paint in spots, but also several other quarantine-induced hobbies:

Shelved all the books that had been sitting in piles on the floor, first by category, then alphabetical. It goes: adult fiction, then YA, then middle grade, and finally non-fiction. (Quarantine activity time: 2 hours.)

Weed the shelves, pulling books that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re never going to read, and books we’ve read that we’re never going to read again or recommend to friends. Into two giant donation boxes they went, waiting very patiently in the trunk of my car (no, I have not been inspired to clean it, we’re not that desperate for Things to Do) for the libraries (and world) to reopen. (Quarantine activity level: 1 hour.)

Considered the “collectibility” of first editions and signed copies that mingle indiscriminately on the shelves. Went down a rabbit hole on this site and discovered to our great surprise that a few aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on, while a handful of others are perhaps worth double, or triple, or sometimes ten times their original listed price thanks to the addition of an author’s scribble or the unknown and unintended fact that our copy happens to have a print history line on the copyright page reading “1.” Who knew? What does one do with a book that is, in all likelihood, worth more than my 12-year-old, 150,000-miles, check-engine-light blinking car? For preservation purposes, are we supposed to put them in, like, Ziplock bags? In a dark closet? Do we only handle with archivist gloves in the future? For now, at least, we’ve pulled them with some reverence and have put them on a separate, dignified shelf, awaiting further research. (Quarantine activity level: 3 hours.)

It was fun to go down memory lane and recall how all the signed editions were acquired. Some were gifts. Others, such as Mary Pope Osborn, were authors I vividly recall visiting my elementary school. Some were bookstore author events, such as Meg Cabot and Markus Zusak, or festivals such as Neil Gaiman. There was the time I got to see JK Rowling speak and thanked her for writing Harry Potter. In a similar wander down memory lane, this is how my writing space used to look. Same desk (at least one of them), but very different set up.

The desk has secret drawers (which I discovered currently contain $.06 and a safety pin, for unknown reasons). Perhaps I should stuff my quarantine diary in there, for future generations. The desk itself was a gift from my dad on my eighteenth birthday and I’ve lugged it everywhere I’ve lived since. The framed letter was another gift. It was my very first acceptance letter for my writing, a poem that won a county contest when I was in high school, that he kept and framed as a surprise. I love being surrounded by these reminders of early support and encouragement for my writing.

So, You Want to Be a Managing Editor

Longtime readers might recall a series I ran back in 2012/2013 called, “So, You Want to Work in Publishing,” interviewing entry-level book publishing folks across a variety of companies and departments about their professional experiences. I’d like to think many people found it useful, but I know for a fact it helped at least one reader. An interviewee brought it up once, after I’d introduced myself, squinting to recollect where they already knew me from. “Did you have a blog? About publishing?” I admitted I had, mentioning the series. I was tickled pink by their response: “I read all those posts during my job search!”

You can still read those interviews in the archive, my own self-interview among them. My original post features an adorably starry-eyed assistant editor in her first year at her first job at the now defunct Transaction Publishers. I still stand by the advice I offered back then: publishing opportunities certainly do exist outside NYC. Academic presses on university campuses, journals publishing is scattered in a variety of areas, remote freelancing, several literary agencies, are based elsewhere, and I’m lucky enough to work at one of the two trade book publishers in Philadelphia, even luckier to work from home during this pandemic. Publishing jobs outside of NYC might be even truer in the near future: there’s been some really interesting discussion about how this pandemic might change and expand remote opportunities in the industry.

But as I’ve had eight more years of experience since that post, including positions at two Big 5 companies in two different departments, and a rotation of freelance jobs, I figured the post deserved an update.

Nowadays, if I were to only give a single kernel of advice to brand new publishing wannabes, it would be this:

Learn Chicago Manual of Style

Why? CMS is the style guide for book publishing. You’ll need to know the rules it contains to edit, proofread, index, design and layout interiors. It’s critical for freelance opportunities and in-house positions alike, dictating the order of contents in a book, how bibliographies are set up, how pages are numbered, the standard symbols for page markup, among a million other things. It is the sole thing I accredit many early professional successes and steady freelance work to. If you’re an English major you’re more likely learning the ins and outs of MLA style. If you’re in journalism you’re learning AP style. Chicago Manual of Style, as far as I’m aware, if sequestered to History departments. I cannot recommend more strongly teaching yourself CMS if your ultimate goal is to work in book publishing. It opened doors for me.

Name: Hannah Karena Jones
Current Title: Senior Managing Editor
Hometown: Langhorne, Pennsylvania
Graduated from: Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, May 2011
Where I currently work and live: I live in the Philadelphia suburbs and work in center city Philadelphia

My Path to Publishing: Again, I’d recommend the original post if you want the full, bookish elementary school kid grown into NYU Publishing Institute student backstory. But since then, my path in publishing? In 2013, HarperCollins moved some of their operations to Princeton, NJ, only a mile or two from where I lived. I’d been an assistant editor at Transaction for two and a half years with a fantastic boss, but I was eager to shift from academic to trade publishing. I worked for three years in HarperCollin’s content management department for another fantastic boss, working in InDesign to integrating interior text corrections, lay out templated design mass market and large print book interiors, generate ebooks, and manage reprint corrections. After nearly six years in New Jersey, though, I was homesick for Pennsylvania. The managing editor position at Running Press in Philadelphia, part of Hachette Book Group, offered the chance to move closer to family and to join a truly stellar, creative team. No matter where I’ve been, one thing has always been true: Book people are the best people.

How did you find out about your publishing jobs?

Every job I’ve applied to has always been posted on the Publishers Lunch Job Board. 

What does your typical day look like?

Even in the middle of a pandemic, my job is nearly the same, albeit more digital. I work 9-5, Monday through Friday and spend a good chunk of the day emailing. Responding to questions, organizing schedules for individual books, revising schedules when something is late, cleaning up metadata for the ONIX feed, reviewing interior and cover files, signing off on final files before they’re sent to press, routing reprint corrections, attending meetings about active and future books, among other things. Being a managing editor is a lot about keeping the trains running on time and following up if something derails. Despite “editor” being in the title, my position is not related to acquisitions.

I work on five imprints: Running Press Adult, Running Press Kids, Black Dog & Leventhal, RP Minis, and RP Studio. It means I get to work on a ton of different content—fiction, non-fiction, licensing, cookbooks, gift books, stationery, games, toys, highly illustrated—and all of the titles are really beautiful. A personal fave is this little Phrenology Cat mini, an idea I brainstormed. It turned out cuter than I imagined!

Connect with her: Of course, you can follow the blog itself, but I’m also on Twitter and Instagram where I mostly talk about writing, gardening, dogs, and cooking.

 

Quarantine Diaries

I’ve revised a manuscript, baked (several recipes from this delicious book), experimented with homemade pasta, rearranged furniture, joined digital cocktail hours, attended lifestream exercise classes, planted a tiny vegetable garden, combed through 10,000 dog adoption websites, washed 100,000 dishes, DIYed, binge-watched the entirety of Brooklyn 99, read a couple books, and now I’ve even overhauled this website. Welcome! I think it’s pretty.

Next time you see me, I might have even resorted to cleaning out my car.

But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Thought I’d take the time to recommend a few things:

WWI/WWII-adjacent stories are a current source of joy. I normally enjoy historical fiction, but right now, in particular, I’m gravitating towards stories with giant global disasters in the distant background, while the main plot focuses on the more domestic matters actually within the character’s control: solving a murder, mending a relationship, digging into family secrets. It’s a calming distraction, escapism in its purest form. Specifically, I’ve been binging Foyle’s War and finished the fifth book in the Kopp Sister’s series. And we even managed a game night on Google Hangouts solving the last case in this Sherlock Holmes board game (our group has been playing for more than a year, highly recommend). Perhaps the mental puzzle/problem solving of a detective story  offers a mental relief? If that sounds like your cup of tea, may I recommend further reading materials: Murder, Magic, and What We Wore, World’s Greatest Detective, Strange Practice, Killers of the Flower Moon. (Thank goodness for libraries and digital options like Hoopla and Libby and CloudLibrary.)

On that note, the WIP has meant I’ve had scavenger hunts on the brain and on my TBR list for a long time, which have a similar mentally-consuming puzzle-factor. Perhaps you’re in the mood, too? Book Scavenger, York, The Parker Inheritance, The Ambrose Deception.

Otherwise, the garden has truly been paying dividends this spring. It’s been such a joy to go out every day and see what things have returned (the ferns! the bleeding hearts!) and what’s blooming. I’m very excited to see the literal fruits of our labor in a few months: concord grapes, blackberries, blueberries, mint, tomatoes.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram where, in non-quarantine times, I tend to spend the majority of my social media time.

Hope you and yours are well.

Writing with a Full-Time Job

I am a little bit of a productivity addict. I love to make lengthy checklists–at work and at home. It’s partly practical, to keep myself on task, to sort out some sort of priority system when there’s a mountain of stuff to do and I have no idea where to start, but I also really love to admire all the things crossed out, proof of what I’ve accomplished in my day.

To that end, I used to try to keep records of how many words I wrote a day. But as someone who squeezes in moments of inspiration and butt-in-chair time on the half-hour train commute, the narrow window of time between all the daily adulting requirements and bedtime, and on busy weekends, as someone who just cannot, for the life of her, accomplish 50,000 words no matter how hard she tries in November, it became a pretty depressing record. “Only five hundred words today!” I’d scold myself. “Pathetic. You need to do better! You need to prioritize your writing more if you love it as much as you say you do!”

It was a real bummer, to be honest. I felt so unproductive, so unaccomplished. It started to mess with my enthusiasm to sit down and write at all. I felt like a constant failure. And I started sacrificing other important things–going to the gym, cooking healthy meals, hanging out with friends–so I could stack up bigger and bigger word counts, in the hopes I would finally feel productive enough.

After a year or so of just feeling guilty all the time, I stepped back to reframe how I looked at my writing time. I started the one star = one hour system of record keeping. I finally accepted that I honestly have no control over how many words I eek out in a writing session and I needed to stop beating myself for something I couldn’t control. For my process, the only thing I have control over is how many hours I put my butt in the chair and write.

As a result, instead of constantly being disappointed in my progress, I now get to celebrate all the silver stars that stud my calendar, and be so incredibly proud of myself and my dedication.

It was great, until I started critically reviewing the calendar at the end of each month and seeing long empty stretches in-between writing stars. “What were you doing with your time last Tuesday!?” I’d scold. “How could you have just SKIPPED writing four days in a row the second week of the month?! Lazy. Unacceptable.” (We writers are so kind to ourselves, aren’t we?)

Logically, I knew it was ridiculous. I work a full-time job and adulting, as mentioned earlier, has a lot of requirements! Doctors appointments and grocery shopping. Pets and plants to keep alive and happy. Relationships with friends and family and loved ones that need attention. Sleep!

I stepped back to reframe again. Other little symbols got added in to illustrate how I was spending big chunks of my time. Hearts for a workout. Little arrows to indicate travel out of town. Quotation marks for local hangouts with friends. A little camping tent to illustrate overnight-guests. Little skulls and cross-bones for days I was down and out with a head cold. And those “blank” squares M-F? Not for nothing, but those days I still worked a full day at a job I love.

I had to remind myself of this–and maybe, somewhere out there in the Internet, you do too–but it’s okay that I’m not a full-time writer. I’m allowed to have a day-job career I love and dedicate a lot of my energy to which, some days, doesn’t leave any left for writing.

This is the full-picture of a person who works full time and writes on the side. Someone who finally has balance in her life. And at the end of the month, before I flip to a fresh page, I’m pretty darn proud.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re accomplishing, however many hours you manage to dedicate to your stories, I’m pretty darn proud of you too.

Drafting: False Starts and Knowing When It’s Working

For me, I know for sure whether a new manuscript is working around the 10,000 word mark. That also means sometimes I have to scrap hopeless false starts around 10,000 too.

I’m rewriting an old story–in fact, the manuscript that got me my agent–for the ~fifth (?) time. Every version before it has essentially been a variant on the wrong direction. Practice runs, if I’m being generous to myself.😂

I started in December with confidence. I had notes and an outline and I made it all the way to 10,000 words by January 2nd before it just tanked. I was sitting under the covers in a soft bed with my laptop nearly in tears because I knew it wasn’t working. 😭

I knew I had to toss all 10,000 words–which is not easy for me because drafting is like pulling teeth, especially in the distance from 4,000 to 10,000 words. That first “hump” is an obstacle that can take me weeks or sometimes even months to hammer out. It’s the pivot point (it’s also the inciting incident) that defines the direction of the rest of the story, so it has to be right!

But I suppose tossing 10,000 is better than tossing an entire draft and starting from scratch. I used to plow through to the bitter end, forcing 60,000-80,000 words even when it didn’t feel right, sure it was just the weird feeling of drafting and not a more serious red flag.

And that’s how I have two first drafts of two different stories on my hard drive that I shelved as soon as I reread them. Because they’re completely wrong, pivot point/incident to end. 🤷🏻‍♀️

It’s funny, because that first hump is only roughly a span of 6,000 words. At any other spot in the manuscript, if I have the writing flow going on, I can easily write 6,000 words over the course of one breezy weekend and a few low-intensity writing sessions.

So, going back to the drawing board in January, I read some craft books (the most helpful being STORY GENIUS by Lisa Cron, seriously, 💯💯 READ THIS if you need plot/structure help!), filled the well by reading an entire stack (and rereading a few favorite) middle grade books in search of inspiration/comps, and made a new outline. Honestly, it took nearly two months to work out an outline that I didn’t hate or tear apart with logic every time I reread it. And then I let it sit for a month to simmer. I reread it a couple weeks ago and…I still didn’t hate it. In fact, I sort of liked it, which seemed promising!

So I’ve started over again. Page one. And it’s been slowly growing, the word count ticking up steadily, but I was still wary. Was this a false positive? Was I going to have to toss this too and restart again?

[pulls out hair]

. . .

. . .

Happy to report that I made it past the 10,000 word mark this weekend and I’m still going! It feels right, past that hump, I know the direction is solid. Sure, it’s still a terrible “zero draft” as I like to call it, that I won’t ever share with another soul, but it’s the bones, the foundation of a only mildly less terrible first draft I can share with CPs someday.

I’m just going to relish this hard-earned moment for a bit, being in the post-10,000-word drafting sweet spot. Not only because it’s the green light to keep drafting using this outline, but because every session added to it feels like the best number! Today, I squeezed in 1,400 words on lunch break at a cute coffee shop in the city and now it’s a whopping 14,000 words! That’s, like, a real on-it’s-way-to-book-shaped size! Five-digit word count numbers feel good. 😎

First Drafts vs. Final Drafts

In the last four years I’ve drafted (and revised and rewritten and revised again…and again) two middle grade manuscripts. I love the revising stage because every decision and change improves the story in some way (thank goodness). Drafting? Less of a delight. The product is such a hot mess and such a far cry from what I’m hoping to achieve that I cringe opening up the document. I spend more time questioning my writing skills (do I have any? Why is each sentence more terrible than the last? Why is this scene boring and undeniably the worst thing I’ve ever written? Even worse than that English paper from 9th grade that I purposely reread just for comparison sake [not procrastination, no of course not]?! Am I getting WORSE at writing? Is that possible? What am I even doing?! 😂) than getting words on the page so the process is slowwwwww and excruciatingly drawn out. Also, my characters are usually completely mute in my head during the first draft, I have absolutely no idea what their voice is like or what they’d even say in a situation, they’re resistant to all of my pleas to just “tell me what you want and why and oh for the love of brownies why won’t you reveal anything about yourself why are you giving me the cold shoulder I don’t understand can’t we just be BFFs–”

(Yes, it’s dramatic. But they’re my real and true feelings. For months!)

While the secret to finally (finally!) getting a full manuscript down on the page was very different for each project (I will never tell those secrets, I promised the troll I traded with for my first and second borne) (jk) (but sort of not), they did both involve months of bribery (of myself: chocolate, wine, caffeine, Netflix, whatever it took), craft books, crying into my coffee with writing friends, and hair pulling.

And they always end with a messy first draft that I sort of side-eye with fear and mild loathing.

But I’m starting to notice a pattern in my first and final drafts. Which I actually find very reassuring as I start thinking ahead to the next story idea and drafting in general. Instead of hating drafting/considering it a failure, maybe I can just appreciate it as a very predictable first step towards a polished manuscript I love.

First draft is ALWAYS:

  1. Bare bone/short word count (like, really short! Think 35-40,000 words). Woe is me, I think. There’s nothing else to say. That’s all she wrote, folks. There’s no hope.
  2. 95% descriptions, 5% dialogue. Argh!
  3. Cluttered with lonely scenes where the main character is totally alone with their thoughts, while participating in completely solitary activities (hence contributing to the 95/5% ratio referenced above). This also often leads to very melodramatic main characters. Stop whining! I want to shout and shake them by the shoulders. I’m so tired of your repetitive complaints and worries!

Then there’s some of this in-between. Rinse and repeat until the book makes sense. Throw in some critique partner reads and opinions.

So much purple! Always so much purple 😭

To my great and utter relief, I’ve now twice been able to replicate that the final draft is ALWAYS:

  1. So much longer! After layering in more and more with each revision, manuscripts start clocking in at the much more standard/acceptable 60-70,000 word range. Can it be true? I sniff the air, refresh the Word word-counter half a dozen times, just to be sure. It lives! It grows!
  2. Sooooo much more dialogue! I don’t know the exact ratio, but a chapter never goes by without someone talking to someone. Hurray! They speak!!
  3. Except for maybe in the dark night of the soul, very little totally solitary scenes. New side characters and relationships have been layered in and the main character now has a PERSONALITY (hallelujah!) so he/she actually has things they want to say and people who want to listen/talk back! Slow down! I want to shout, but don’t, to avoid jinxing it, fingers flying across the keyboard to catch everything they’re yammering so fast and loud in my head before I lose it. As a result, the melodrama dial is turned wayyyyy down and while it takes two to tango, it also takes two to joke! So there are actual jokes and humor in final drafts which make the stories so much more fun to reread! (And reread…and reread again.)

Thank goodness for revisions. Maybe (just maybe) I’m willing to admit my writing has improved since 9th grade. 😂

–Hannah

New Year, Not So New Project

Ah, 2017. For me, it was personally excellent, full of major changes. A new manuscript. A new job. Getting engaged. Buying our first house. A new niece to dote on. This year was exhausting and nerve wracking in so many ways, but with a lot (!) of elbow grease, there were also so many rewarding moments. So much to be thankful for.

Looking forward to next year, I’m hoping I can snuggle down and settle into all these things. Also, now that most of the boxes are unpacked and we’ve set up a life routine of sorts, I’d love to participate more in the local KidLit community. Being a PitchWars mentor this year was definitely a highlight–I loved joining the crowds to cheer on the mentees and helping one awesome writer in particular in a meaningful way–I hope to do it again next year, but also, I’d love to stretch that seasonal PitchWars community feeling into a year-round experience!

On the writing front, after a glorious year romping around with a new cast of characters and a totally new world in the HM manuscript, 2018 is going to involve returning to an old manuscript and revising, yet again.

Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting, a lesson this TPOPF manuscript seems specially designed to torture remind me of year after year. Someday, someday I’ll get this book right! As of this month I’m diving into what probably amounts to the fourth complete rewrite of this novel since 2013, not counting the more half-step revisions in-between that involved rearranging scenes and scrapping and replacing a handful of chapters. (Mere child play compared to a rewrite! ha-haha…)

What does a rewrite entail? Well, for TPOPF, at this point I think I’m keeping a grand total of 500 words—a handful of sentences from one scene—from the last 50,000 word version. [bites nails] Only 500! This is simultaneously terrifying, frustrating, and a relief. (Wouldn’t it be nice to write the story the right way the first time? Do other people do that? Don’t tell me.) On the bright side, instead of feeling like I’m rehashing the same story again (again!) after four years of tapping out those same dance steps, it instead feels like I’m taking these characters I adore and have had so much fun with and sending them on an entirely new and exciting adventure that even I am going to be surprised by. Beyond those 500 words, the only other things remaining are a subset of the cast of characters and their relationships to each other, though their motivations are completely reimagined and every step they take in this new draft will take them down a completely new, never-before tread path.

In 2017, I wrote HM. Then I completely rewrote it, preserving maybe more like 12K from one draft to the next. It wasn’t easy, because each one of those carryover sentences was massaged and tweaked as I changed tenses and also aged the book from YA to MG. But it feels good walking into 2018, knowing I’ve done this sort of work before and I can do it again.