Revision Retreat

highlights writing cabin

Cabin #17, I love you


My annual trek up to the Highlights Foundation for a little solitary cabin-in-the-woods time usually falls in April, when the trees are beginning to green and the creek water is warm enough during soggy hikes to dip your toes into. 

This year, due to the driving desire to finally finish this darn revision and dedicate the 24/7 brain space to the story that was really necessary to weave together the elusive closing threads, I came a bit earlier.

There were snow flurries nearly every day and unlike past years, I wasn’t tempted by beautiful weather to leave the cabin and explore beyond walks to the barn for meals and short afternoon walks to stretch and combat mental fatigue. It was lovely to snuggle inside and watch the snow fall through all the giant picture windows.

Some writers listen to soundtracks while drafting and revising but I need complete and total silence in order to focus, so Highlights is a perfect place for me. It’s so quiet at night that–no exaggeration–there were moments where the only sounds were my own heartbeat and the heat kicking on. It’s so different from home. Even though we live in a neighborhood with “whispering” in its cutesy name and I would generally call it a quiet place, we share all four walls and, even if faint, there’s always the muffled sound of televisions and arguments and clarinet lessons and the highway and doors slamming. Then there’s the pets, of course, always circling, begging for attention.

I’m happy to report that the retreat was a sucsess: the revision is (finally) done. It’s an email attachment in other people’s inboxes now and I can take a few weeks off to read and relax and binge watch Netflix and forget about how to solve these characters problems. 

It’s funny the difference a year makes, though. Last year on this retreat, I finished a very rough first draft of this story and sent out query letters in the late night hours. This year, I finished up a major revision, making it officially draft #3, and favorited my delightful agent’s tweets while sipping coffee. I wonder what next year’s retreat will mark.

First Draft

Summed up in one word, 2016 was exhausting. It came at me from all angles–professionally, personally, physically–all twelve months of the year without reprieve. I lost more than one person I loved. I got other sorts of bad news. I failed at a lot at things I tried and built up hope for (though none of those “things” were submission-related, the philosophy of why you should aim for 1,000 rejections a year and be happy about that tally has helped me reframe my feelings a bit).

When looking over the gold stars (one star per hour of butt-in-chair writing time) on my monthly calendar, the way I track out my writing year, I was even more put-out. I kept scolding myself: You didn’t write every day, or even every week! You have to do better this year!

Even though a few wonderful things happened–I became a godmother to an absolute charmer of a cute baby, I signed with a literary agent who is encouraging and supportive and lovely–I’m the kind of lady who is thrilled by gold stars and checking things off lists and other trackable accomplishments, and it felt like 2016 had beat me 10-2.

I snuggled in the last two days of the year reading the first draft of a YA project I started and finished in 2016. I was kind of dreading it. Though I struggle with the drafting process, period–I moan, groan, and whine, my confidence is low the entire time (revision really is much more my cup of tea)–I had this persistent impression that the premise of this story was great and the execution on the page was, at best, an incredibly rough zero draft that would require a rough slog of a revision in the new year.

You can imagine my surprise and delight when the manuscript actually turned out to be…good. My best first draft ever, I’d be willing to say. Oh, there are rough patches and pacing issues and one of the main characters definitely falls a little flat, and I’ve already sliced out 20,000 words that weren’t doing any good, but even despite that, the word “wow” came to mind more than once as I read the pages. It’s no literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination–and it still is a draft after all–but it is without question a huge jump in craft for me.

After reading the draft, I’m looking back at the calendar with significantly more pride: Wow, I was really dedicated this year. I found time despite everything, even during the crap storms. I kept at it. And it really paid off. Quietly, so quietly I didn’t even recognize it while it was happening, I was a more dedicated writer than I’ve been in any year previously. I wrote a full draft faster than I’ve ever managed. And this draft, these characters, this plot–it is doing so many things right. In a year where so much was out of my control, looking at these pages where I managed to wrangle stubborn characters and interweave multiple complicated plot lines during scraps and starts of free time makes me feel a little better prepared to step into January. 

Here’s to 2017 and the revsision cave, folks. 

How I Learned to Write

Totally triggered by the most recent PubCrawl Podcast episode about author career qualifications, I got thinking about what’s helped me develop into the writer I am today. Writing is so much more than sentences and grammar (though that’s obviously a pair of critical variables) and learning how to write requires so much more than a creative writing degree (though it helped kickstart me in the right direction).

I learned how to give constructive feedback and absorb criticism thanks to creative writing workshops in undergrad.

I learned about story in those same workshops. 

I learned how to write powerful sentences and build logical paragraphs writing dozens of research papers as a history major. It’s also where I kicked my purple prose habit.

I learned how to accept rejection from rounds of literary magazine submissions.

I learned how to finish a book in NaNoWriMo. 

I learned about pacing and voice by reading reading reading. 

I learned about dialogue from Girlmore Girls.

I learned how to be succinct when writing my pictorial history. (Word count restrictions!) And Twitter, maybe. And my flash-fiction phase. 

I learned about scene structure from a SCBWI conference workshop led by the superb Laurie Calkhoven.

I learned about plotting and structure and beats at a writing conference talk by the fabulous Chris Grabenstein. And by reading craft books.

I discovered revision tactics by reading the blogs of authors I admire.

I learned how to revise on book #4. By pulling the story apart and refashioning it back together, over and over. And by following my critique partners’ advice.

I’m excited to see what the next writing break through might be. :]

Inspiring Thoughts

I love a good book event–and what’s not to love? You’re (usually) in a bookstore. (+10 bonus points) You’re surrounded by a crowd of booklovers so a) they’re great to talk to; and b) THEY HAVE SUCH GREAT BOOKISH ACCESSORIES! (For example, I went to an event yesterday and the people surrounding me had the cutest tote bags with quotes and library-card designs, book-related dresses and T-shirts and earrings…! I was ready to go on a shopping spree.)

And then there’s, you know, the point: the author! They often give their life story (I’m a sucker for the “how did you become an published writer?” tale!), talk passionately about craft and process, and sometimes offer sneak peak readings of upcoming books. In the past year alone I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Markus Zusak, Sarah Dessen, Scott Westerfeld, Victoria Schwab, Marissa Meyer, Julie Eshbaugh, Sarah J. Maas, Lauren Oliver, Gayle Forman, Mia Siegert, and lots others I might be forgetting off the top of my head. I used to be really into buying a book and getting it signed, but now I’ve found that the lines are sooooo long and the presentations are always so inspiring, I want to speed home and get my butt in the chair to start writing ASAP! A book event on a Saturday is a sure-fire way to inspire me for an entire weekend of dedicated writing.

I know I’m pretty lucky to be in such a well-visited area for authors, only a train ride away from New York, and going to book events to hear authors speak might not be in everyone’s cards. To be honest, as many book events I go to, I still find that it’s not enough! I supplement with Podcasts throughout the week to get myself in the writing mood. They’re also so valuable for craft ideas and plotting pointers and general writing advice. I’ve learned SO much from other MG/YA writers who have been willing to share their time on podcast interviews. Some of my current favorite subscriptions:

First Draft with Sarah Enni–74 episodes available for you to binge through! So many excellent authors!

88 Cups of Tea with Yin Chang–I just discovered this one this week! Not every episode is an interview with a YA author, there are other creatives who come on the show, so I picked through the ones I wanted, including some great conversations with Kody Kiplinger, Leigh Bardugo, Kendall Kulper, Mindee Arnett…

PubCrawl–a mix of interviews and craft-related topics with hosts S. Jae-Jones and Kelly Van Sant.

This Creative Life with Sara Zarr–hasn’t had new content in a while, but a delightful backlist to work through if you’re just digging in.

UpvoteYA–another new discovery (and in fact totally new podcast) hosted by 4 monitors for the YA Reddit threads. Enjoyed the first episode and looking forward to the next one.

As you can tell, I’m just burning through these episodes. Any you folks would recommend? I need to add some more to my playlist! I’m trying to push my way through a draft and I desperately need the encouragement of hearing others talk about how they’ve survived their own drafting efforts!

Wrapping Up 2015: Too-Few Book Reviews

And the series continues! At the end of the month I give a few little book reviews. I focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 3,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my beginning reading them, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

The Only Thing Worse than Witches cover

Book: The Only Thing Worse Than Witches by Lauren Magaziner

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  252 ratings

Date Published: August 2014

Publisher: Dial Books

How I Discovered this Book: I think while perusing the Internet looking for books about witches for comps for my next WIP…? I honestly can’t quite remember how I stumbled across this one.

Thoughts: Cute and funny, full of nonsense names and spells reminiscent of Roald Dahl silliness, a light-hearted middle grade for young readers.

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Book: Paper Hearts by Beth Revis

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  19 ratings

Date Published: November 2015

Publisher: Scripturient Books

How I Discovered this Book: Author’s twitter account.

Thoughts: Great little craft and writing encouragement book that felt like having a coffee date with a more experienced writer who was happy to share some pointers on general knowledge writing topics. The casual/chatty tone of a blog made it an easy read and includes particularly good overview/perspective on story structure.

Salt and Storm cover

Book: Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  1,823 ratings

Date Published: September 2014

Publisher: Little Brown

How I Discovered this Book: Book blogs everywhere, specifically The Perpetual Page-Turner, as I recall. Folks have been chatting up this book for awhile and the description had me thinking about it until I finally got my hands on a copy.

Thoughts: Perfect for readers who want witches, historical fiction, and seaside lore. With a New England island setting, whaling romanticism, and a dark family curse, this YA was a perfect brew of my favorite things.

Hattie Ever After cover

 

 

Book: Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  2,082 ratings

Date Published: February 2013

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Read the first one earlier this year and liked it a lot, so hunted down the second on Scribd audio.

Thoughts: It was fun to catch up with the character I had come to care for in book 1 and follow her new adventure. Historical fiction set in early 20th century San Francisco as Hattie pursues her dream of becoming a reporter, much of the story is conveyed in the form of letter correspondence.

Velvet Undercover cover

Book: Velvet Undercover by Teri Brown

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  292 ratings

Date Published: October 2015

Publisher: Balzer & Bray

How I Discovered this Book: While perusing the bookshelves at work.

Thoughts: Loved this–If you’re in the mood for YA, historical fiction, spies, codebreaking, WWI, and are particularly interested in a setting beyond Allied territory (specifically, the German palace and its secret tunnels!!!), this book is absolutely going to be your cup of tea. Found it to be a well-paced and plotted thriller.

Anyone But Ivy Pocket cover

Book: Anyone But Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  190 ratings

Date Published: April 2015

Publisher: HarperCollins

How I Discovered this Book: While perusing the bookshelves at work.

Thoughts: Spunky and plucky MG character–young orphan Ivy Pocket is a terrible British housemaid and on her adventure she leaves chaos in her wake. Bit reminiscent of the charmingly bumbling antics of Amelia Bedelia, now that I think on it.

Seriously Wicked cover

Book: Seriously Wicked by Tina Connolly

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:   383 ratings

Date Published: May 2015

Publisher: TOR Teen

How I Discovered this Book: My book club voted on reading it for the month of August.

Thoughts: Contemporary teenage witch trying to balance high school, a new crush, and the impossible demands and never-ending chores set by her evil witch guardian, it was a fun and funny read with some charming things like a dragon who lives in the garage and spellwork being a combination of algebra homework and dipping wands in spices stuffed in a fannypack. Would appeal to fans of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Just my cup of tea, honestly.

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Book: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  3,663 ratings

Date Published: January 2014

Publisher: Knopf

How I Discovered this Book: I kept seeing this mentioned as a favorite MG fantasy book on several agent’s blogs so I decided to see what the buzz was all about.

Thoughts: Bit like The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in that is an adventure set in a museum after hours and in forbidden hallways (mostly) but add in an evil witch and an in-prisoned little boy from another magical world.

Pip Bartlett's Guide to Magical Creatures cover

Book: Pip Bartlette’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Jackson Pearce and Maggie Stiefvater

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  780 ratings

Date Published: April 2015

Publisher: Scholastic Press

How I Discovered this Book: A gift from a friend, though this was on my radar for a while because I read everything Maggie Stievfater writes.

Thoughts: Funny, spunky, and chock full, as promised, of magical creatures like unicorns (who are actually quite vain and ill-tempered) and other fluffy and fierce creatures with unexpected personalities. Includes diagrams of the animals, reminded me a bit of a younger-audience Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them.

Lily's Ghosts cover

Book: Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  703 ratings

Date Published: August 2003

Publisher: HarperCollins

How I Discovered this Book: After reading and loving Bone Gap, I started digging into this author’s backlist. (Nothing sells backlist like front list!) And I was delighted to find a MG ghost story set in Cape May, one of my favorite places in the world!

Thoughts: Set in Cape May, NJ (one of my favorite places in the world!) with a full cast of quirky ghosts, a haunted Victorian mansion, and a girl with a chip on her shoulder, every single character in this story was charming and fun to follow.

The Night We Said Yes cover

Book: The Night We Said Yes by Lauren Gibaldi

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  2,661 ratings

Date Published: June 2015

Publisher: HarperTeen

How I Discovered this Book: I’ve been following the lovely Lauren Gibaldi’s blog since I was a brand new blogger in 2011 and I’ve been waiting for this book ever since she announced the deal!

Thoughts: I love contemporary YA books set in summer and I particularly liked that this one was set in that strange, tense, nostalgic summer after high school graduation and before everyone leaves to start their new lives. A book about friendships and forgiveness, taking chances and making tough choices, enjoyed this one.

Ghost Buddy cover

Book: Zero to Hero by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads:  326 ratings

Date Published: January 2012

Publisher: Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: While searching for MG ghost story comps for my book, lots of Googling lead me to this series.

Thoughts: Listened to the audiobook read by Henry Winkler and, as a result, the ghost character came off as sounding a lot like the Fonz (he used a lot of the same slang and presentation and obsessive hair-combing) but all the same it was a fun little MG about a boy who moves into a haunted house and makes friends with a ghost.

How to (finally) Find Critique Partners

Maybe you all already have a stable full of writing friends and critique partners who read your work at lightening speed and give the most amazing life-changing feedback and offer book recommendations that are in perfect line with your tastes. 

Lucky you.

It’s taken me years. 

It hasn’t been for lack of trying. Since 2013, I’ve done it all, multiple times in multiple ways, for multiple WIPs. I’ve:

  1.  Attended MeetUp groups;
  2. Attended SCWBI regional conferences;
  3. Emailed people on the boards on Absolute Write;
  4. Emailed people who commented on Maggie Stievfater’s critique partner hookup blog post;
  5. Emailed folks who commented on Susan Dennard’s CP hookup blog post;
  6. Reached out to already existing groups listed on the local SCBWI writing group boards;
  7. Co-hosted a writing social through SCBWI;
  8. Shouted from the rooftops on Twitter, putting out an open call 

In the past three years I’ve swapped partial or full manuscripts with more than 18 people, poured hours of my own limited writing time into reading other people’s work in the hopes I might make a connection, find a writer with a like mind, with a WIP that suits my taste so I want to read every word in slow-motion (this might be a poor way to explain what it feels like to give detailed feedback, but let’s just go with it), who opens my eyes to problems I was blind to in my own manuscript. 

And I’m happy to report that finally–FINALLY–I think I’ve found a small handful of people who are my people. People I trust, who’s opinions I respect, who’s writing talent I totally admire, who wrote books that are just my cup of tea, who I want to be friends with. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on those other folks who I haven’t continued to swap pages with. None of the writers were untalented or anything like that, nor was I alone in ending these critique partner relationships; sometimes someone didn’t work for me, sometimes I didn’t work for them. Not everyone in the world is your people, which is why it’s important for writers to test each other out, try each other on for size before going all-in and investing the time to read each other’s full manuscripts. 

As frustrating as it may sound, from what I’ve gathered from other writers this isn’t an uncommon experience. Finding a critique partner takes time and patience. 

If you’re currently hunting for a critique partner, a few general guidelines I’d offer from my own experience:

  1. Only swap a sample to begin with, a few pages, a few chapters. Remember, you two are (probably) total strangers! If you don’t end up liking their writing enough, or their feedback doesn’t resonate with you, no hard feelings if you decide not to go all-in. Less wasted time and disappointment on both ends.
  2. Agree on firm deadlines. There’s nothing worse than swapping chapters and then not hearing back for three months from the other person. This puts your revision on hold for months, unnecessarily! Or maybe you move ahead without their feedback and by the time it arrives, it’s worthless. 
  3. Communicate. If you’re going to miss the deadline, tell the other person. If you’re not enjoying their chapters and feel like you have nothing valuable to offer, tell them (nicely!). If you’re decided to quit writing and have abandoned your manuscript, shoot them an email! I lied earlier–there is something worse than not hearing back for months and that’s not hearing back at all. It’s a horrible feeling when you send something you created to someone else in the world and you take the time to read their work and then…they disappear into the void like a phantom.
  4. Don’t settle. I promise you, the right writing friend/critique partner is out there! Don’t agree to read someone else’s manuscript if you dread working through it and are just doing it for their feedback. That’s not fair to either of you. You both could have spent all that time working on your own books or looking for your ideal critique partner instead! 
  5. Be kind. The purpose of a critique partner is to build someone up, to help, to offer a new perspective on their writing. Don’t tear someone or their craft down. All feedback should be constructive. No matter what. 
  6. Be respectful. A critique partner does not work for you. It’s an equal partnership and you should maintain that balance. 

While a critique partner is an incredibly valuable thing and I truly believe it can help you get your writing to the next level (certainly has for me!) just having a critique partner won’t fit the bill. Make sure you do your due diligence and find a critique partner who you’re compatible with for the long-haul, all 50,000-120,000 words of it. 

Designing Your Characters Names

Typography glossary

When it comes time to name a cast of characters in a new manuscript, I tend to surround myself with thick-spined baby naming books (or long lists online) and get bogged down in the meaning of a name–king? queen? strong one? mouse-like? darkness?–and sometimes the pattern of sounds. For example, in a recent manuscript I had a group of siblings all share names with double letters in them and end with a y-sound (example: Billy, Jennie, Bobby, Annie) to connect them as a unit. As writers, common assumption is we can control the content of our stories, but not the design: publishers, being the experts they are, usually take on the responsibility of cover design, and for interior pages choose the fonts, design the layout, determine the look of the running heads and page numbers.

But what if content and design are so linked that writers can choose one and affect the other? If we could, in fact, design our character’s names?

I am taking a super interesting typography class for my day job–my book-nerd and word-lover heart is so happy learning about fonts and design principles and practicing making words pretty–but something from the first class tickled the writer section of my brain.

The professor was talking about how our brains associate certain shapes with certain meanings. For example, straight lines indicate power and strength. Richard Campell Gansey (Raven Boys, anyone?) is an interesting name in it’s own right, but Richard Campell Gansey III? Something about that particular Roman numeral (rather than any other Roman numeral, say, IV) really does whisper the idea of strength, both in meaning (family dynasty and power), and in form, the actual shape of it.

In our culture, curved lines often imply feminism and our professor argued curved lines also command immediate compassion. For a soft, sympathetic feminine character (of course, there are tons of other sorts of lady characters!), a name composed of rounded letters, o’s and s’s, a’s and j’s–perhaps Sophia? Or Amelia?–could do the trick.

The letter X has traditionally been associated with mystery. X marks the spot, solve for x in algebra or a word problem (always the greatest mystery of all, for me in high school at least!).

Other things to think about: horizontal strokes imply no movement, while vertical strokes imply alertness. Diagonal strokes–whether ascending or descending–are full of energy (increasing or declining). To me, the trump letters of diagonal strokes in the English alphabet are Z, W, and V. Think of what a name with the letter Z in it, like Zelda, or V like Victor, or W for Wanda can trigger in a reader!

Obviously, this isn’t the end-all-be-all way to name characters, and all readers might not pick up on the cues you were going for in designing your characters’ names, but it’s kind of a fun perspective to consider.

Even as writers, there is no end to where typography can take us!