Can’t stop thinking about #PitchWars

I haven’t been able to concentrate on much since hitting submit on my PitchWars entry. There’s been work to distract me, and the Olympics have helped a bit. I love getting to watch swimming on TV because I’m a swimmer. Swimming only gets this kind of love and National attention for about a week every four years. This year, it feels like the USA swimmers are getting even more love than usual. It’s fantastic. But it’s still not keeping my mind off PitchWars.

I’ve probably started about 3 books and 2 movies since hitting submit, but I keep stopping halfway through, worried that there is something more I should be doing. But at this point it’s completely out of my hands. I just have to be patient and wait. I also need to trust all the work I put into this novel.

Just for fun, and in the interest of documenting my process, I suppose I could tell you a little about all that work. You see, by day, I’m a program manager, which is just a kinda fancy name for a project manager who manages a lot of projects—usually similar ones that can be grouped together and called a program. In my case, that program is called “Inventory Management” (I know, unless you’re a supply chain geek, that probably sounds incredibly dull, but a girl’s gotta pay the bills…). But, I mention this only to note that project planning is VERY IMPORTANT and it’s something I’m good at. So, when it came time to prep for this year’s PitchWars contest, I put those skills to use.

I also entered this contest last year. And, after the PW mentees were announced, I was disappointed (but not terribly surprised) that I didn’t make the cut. I nursed my wounded ego with my new “Pitch Pals” — an absolutely amazing group of new writing friends I met during the contest that have been (and continue to be) a source of support, inspiration, and excellent critique partner feedback. Then, I started to dream of 2016. At first, I had only a vague goal: Get in to PitchWars 2016 if I didn’t already have an agent by then. (This “already have an agent” thing was a bit of fanciful dreaming on my part because, at the time, I hadn’t even started querying yet. I was such a naive little beginning writer…. Sigh.)

But goals are key. I love goals. They focus me. Goals give me superpowers. Once I have a goal, I know what I need to do and I just start making things happen. After voicing my vague goal, I knew that the first thing I had to do was make it more specific if I wanted to have any chance at succeeding. That’s when I put my project management skills to work.

First, marked the date of this year’s contest on my calendar: August 2016.

Then, I made a list of what needed to be done by then. I knew I would need three things: a finished and polished MS (duh), a query, and a synopsis. (In project manager speak, we call these the “deliverables.”) All these deliverables needed to be written, edited, revised, critiqued, and polished some more before they would be ready to go.

Working backwards from the PW entry window, I knew I wanted to have everything done and ready to go at least a month before the entry date. I planned it this way for two reasons. First, as any experienced project manager will tell you, everything takes longer than you think it will. So, I wanted some “buffer time” in my plan. Second, my goal was to get in, and, if I got in, I didn’t want to be completely sick of my MS before the mentoring period even got started. I wanted that month off (almost two months, really, if you count the mentor selection time) to relax, read other books, stalk twitter, and generally recharge and refill my creative brain so I would be ready to go if I was selected.

So, I set my deadline. I wanted to have everything complete by the end of June 2016. Next, I started estimating what steps I’d need to complete each and about how long each step would take me. Then I made myself a schedule.

I’ll use the MS as an example. I already knew that I wanted to enter with a *new* MS because, in addition to prepping for PitchWars 2016, I wanted to revise my unsuccessful 2015 entry and start querying it. My plan was to write the first draft of my new novel during NaNoWriMo 2015. I know, (from previous experience) that I can write 50k words in a month, but the novel isn’t done at 50k. This meant that I’d need more than November to finish my new novel. I also knew that after a month of averaging 1700 words per day, I’m spent. Between NaNoWriMo, the holidays, travel, and family time, I needed to factor in taking most of December off. Giving myself a lot of buffer, I targeted completion of the first draft by end of January 2016. Then I penciled in time for beta readers and revisions (about two months). I also really wanted to get a professional MS critique. So, I planned to do that in the spring (April). That would leave me two months for final revisions (May and June).

I decided that I would work on the other deliverables during the downtime I had in my MS schedule. As an example, while beta readers and CPs were reading my MS (in February and March), I could work on the query and the synopsis. Then I could get feedback on those and revise while I was waiting for my MS critique.

Of course, nothing ever goes as planned. Many factors had me constantly revising my schedule. But, the biggest disrupter also happened to be an amazing opportunity. I entered my revised 2015 PW novel into P2P16, and I got in! I still find it hard to believe, and I am SO very very grateful for that experience. Participating in P2P16 meant that for several months my entire focus shifted from my shiney new MS back to the MS I’d thought I was ready to query.

Another factor that messed with my schedule in a big way was one of the things I learned during P2P16. I thought I knew what “revision” meant, but during P2P16 I began to realize that I’d previously only scratched the surface. I learned an entirely new level of scrubbing and polishing my entire MS, and especially my query and first chapter.

I also learned that beginnings are not my strong suit. I’m great at plot and world-building. But my beginnings always need a TON of work. I don’t necessarily suffer from the “starting in the wrong place” problem. Instead, I have a tendency to “write my way into” a story. The result is that, left untouched, I have this murky scene in the beginning that may technically be the right place to start, but definitely is not using the right words. It’s unfocused and rambley and suffers from a lot of filtering because I haven’t really got into my characters’ heads yet.

I know this about me now. Unfortunately, I definitely didn’t realize this when I made my original project plan. In my PitchWars 2016 project plan, I totally didn’t leave enough time for polishing my first chapter and query. And, with the time crunch from the P2P revisions, I’d already used up most of my buffer.

I ran into another problem after I sent my precious baby novel off to get professional feedback (miraculously on schedule, in April). I received some extremely insightful and extraordinarily helpful notes (thanks, Naomi!). There were several suggestions I wanted to work on in revisions, but the most important thing was developing my heroine’s character arc. The only problem was, I found myself massively stuck on how to do that. I needed time just to digest the feedback and figure out how to implement it, and I definitely hadn’t worked that into my schedule.

So, what do you do when your plan falls off track? You re-prioritize your deliverables and you look for ways to crunch your schedule. For me, that meant not stressing too much about my query and synopsis in favor of fixing my heroine’s character arc (to the best of my ability) and polishing the crap out of my first chapter.

The bottom line is, I learned a TON over the course of the past year. Even if I don’t make the cut this year, I’m feeling good about my revisions, my writing community, and the skills I’ve gained while working toward this goal.

I love this story. I’ve done everything I can to make it as good as I’m able to at this moment. Now I’m hoping a mentor will take a chance on me and help me take my novel baby to the next level.

But know this: even if I don’t get in, I won’t give up. I’ll take whatever feedback I get and make one more round of revisions. Then I’ll start querying and create my project plan for next year’s PitchWars. And, based on what I learned this year, my next novel project plan is going to include a LOT more time for revisions.

I have 2 more weeks until mentees are announced. Please cross your fingers for me and think good thoughts, etc. And, if you also entered PitchWars, come say hi on Twitter. I love making new writing friends and want to cheer for you.

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Top 5 Most Recent Additions to Your #Reading Wishlist

Sorry I haven’t been posting much this month, blog fans. I was out of town and I’ve been swamped with work and PitchWars prep. But, I have two posts planned for next week that you can look forward to… one is my usual month-end summary post for July, and the other is a summary of my PitchWars prep process for anyone out there who’s curious about my writing process and/or how much work goes into preparing for a contest like PitchWars.

In the meantime, I thought I’d do a fun “top five” list from the “Top 5 Wednesday” prompts for this month.

I’ve been doing a lot of book browsing lately. While I was “back East,” I got to visit an amazing bookstore in Ann Arbor that is owned by a swimmer and his wife (Literati). I highly recommend stopping in if you’re in the area. It’s super cute and they have an excellent selection of books. Plus they have a sweet espresso bar upstairs. I could have spent the entire day there.

I’ve also been getting quite a few recommendations from friends–especially my best two reader friends who I got to spend time with recently. And, in my prep for PitchWars, I’ve been introduced to a ton of really great looking books written by the PitchWars mentors.

Since it seems like all I’ve been doing lately is adding books to my wishlist, I thought I’d do the “Top 5 Most Recent Additions to Your Wishlist” prompt. I’ve limited this to books that I currently do not own, but would really like to buy (or borrow from the library). Here are my five picks:

Top5-Wishlist

  1. Gena/Finn by Hannah Moskowitz – This one came highly recommended by my two best bookish friends and I’ve learned that if they both like something, I better add it to my TBR immediately and reserve a copy at the library because there is a high likelihood that I will love it.
  2. Zero K by Don DeLillo – I think that one of my very first ever purchases from Amazon was his book Americana. Or maybe it was White Noise. I can’t remember. I could look this up, but I’m too lazy to log in to Amazon. It doesn’t really matter. I only bring it up to point out that I really like his writing style and when I saw he had a new book, I freaked out. The only problem is, something about his writing makes me want to read this in paper instead of on my Kindle. So, I may have to wait for it to come out in paperback…
  3. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith – I heard one of the Book Riot folks talking about this book on their podcast and I started bouncing in my seat. My first intended major was marine biology (later changed to something much more practical and boring: operations management). But, ever since reading The Arm of the Starfish in my formative years, I REALLY wanted to be a marine biologist like Mr. Murray (aka Calvin from A Wrinkle in Time, aka Polly’s dad). This one doesn’t come out until December. I may have to pre-order the hardcover. That’s how badly I want to read this book.
  4. Girl Underwater by Claire Kells – This one came recommended from a PitchWars mentor who found out about my love of swimming / swimmers. The blurb reads a little like a cross between a high school “swimcest” novel and the TV show Lost. Of course, I’ve never watched Lost, but there’s a plane crash and survival at stake, so that’s immediately what I thought of…
  5. Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration of the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel by Michio Kaku — This was one I saw someone I follow on Twitter talking about. Maybe another PitchWars mentor? It’s pop science that sounds like it would really help me with world building for a novel I’ve wanted to write but is more sci-fi than fantasy. But again, this is one of those books that I think I might enjoy more in paperback. Lucky for me, there appear to be many reasonably priced used copies available.

So, how about you? What’s on your wishlist? Do you have any recommendations for me?

Prepping for #PitchWars: how I revise, a twelve step process

I’ve been reflecting on the revision process I’ve used on the last two novels I’ve finished, and I thought I might summarize what I’ve done and what I’ve learned in a blog post. I decided to share my reflections with others in case it might be helpful, or just in case my non-writer friends are curious what happens after I finish that first draft. So, here goes…

So far, I’ve finished a novel first draft three times. The first time was back in November 2007 on what I like to think of as my “starter novel.” That novel was the result of my first NaNoWriMo and was a total mess. It will likely never see the light of day. Hell, it didn’t even make it to a revision process. It’s just hanging out on a hard drive somewhere, chilling.

The second and third novels that I finished both went through slightly different rounds of revision, and that’s what I’ve been reflecting on recently. I’ve been comparing and contrasting what I did on each and thinking a little about what I might do with future novels. In my day job, I create and optimize processes. So, I guess I’ve been subconsciously trying to build myself a high-level revision process. What follows is what’s worked best for me. Everyone is different, so this may be a terrible process for someone else, but it might give you some ideas if you’re also a writer and working on finishing and/or revising a novel.

First step: Finish the first draft.

For me, this is possibly the hardest part. I’ve found that I have a hard time writing endings. I usually know how I want the story to end. But I tend to write very plot-driven novels and tying up all the various threads into a nice, satisfying ending is hard. My perfectionist tendencies make me feel like I must stick the landing perfectly on the first try. So, somewhere, in the middle of that final crisis / climax scene, my brain just puts the brakes on. In these situations, I’ve found that it really helps to send the first third of your book to some CPs or beta readers who love you a lot and will not strangle you when they are begging for the final third of your book and it’s taking you weeks and weeks longer than you promised them to finish it. Having “fans” that are waiting for me to finish has definitely been the secret sauce to pull me through those final chapters. Let me tell you more about them and what they do…

Second step: Send your draft to your favorite, trusted “Alpha” readers.

I like to post sections of my novel into Google Docs for this step, and let my Alpha readers comment in the doc. This way, they can all see each other’s comments, and I can see their reaction as they read, which is really motivating for me. Plus it make me feel a little less nervous about sending my novel out into the world for the first time because this way I’m not freaking out while I wait, wondering if they like it or they hate it (because obviously I’m going to assume they hate it and just can’t figure out how to break it to me…). For both The Lost Empire and Godda’s War, I’ve had the same three trusted “Alpha” readers. They are: my mom, my cousin Kaitlin, and a friend who is practically family, Linden. However, I didn’t pick these folks just because of their relation to me. I picked them because they are all avid readers and they read (critically) in the genre I write in. I trust their bookish opinions (and their other opinions, but right now I’m only considering the ones related to books). They know their tropes, they know their plot holes, and they are exactly the type of readers who I want to love my books. I have other people who I feel this way about, but these three have been my “Alphas” because they are in my trusted inner circle. It’s super scary sending your little novel-baby out for people to read. These three strike an excellent balance between caring about me a lot (my mom is seriously my biggest, and admittedly completely biased fan), and being excellent readers. They find all my plot holes, tell me where things don’t make sense, and tell me if my romance is feeling too much like the dreaded “insta-love.” They also forgive my horrible, rushed first endings (or at least, I hope they do).

Step three: Revise based on your “Alpha” feedback.

Your Alphas are going to point out your plot holes, the things they like and don’t like about your characters, and maybe some obvious grammar errors. Fix these things. And, if you’re me, you probably also need to re-write that sloppy, rushed ending. Then, move on to step four.

Step four: Get a professional “reader report.”

Initially, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put this as step four or step six, but I’ve ultimately decided that it’s most valuable as step four. Last year, while following the PitchWars feed on Twitter, I kept noticing all this great writing advice being Tweeted by one of the previous PitchWars mentors (she’d taken the year off, but she’s back this year, guys!). Naomi Hughes caught my eye and I started paying closer attention. I followed her on Twitter. I checked out her webpage. I did some math. Then, after much deliberation, I decided to spring for what these freelance editors call a “reader report.” Basically, Naomi read an early draft of The Lost Empire and wrote up a several page summary of her thoughts and suggestions for areas of revision. It’s not quite a full edit letter, and there are no in-doc comments. But, I’ve come to believe that this sort of thing at this stage in the process is exactly what I need. For me, having a professional opinion to help guide the next steps of my revision is key, and Naomi is exceptional at pinpointing the thing, or handful of things, that, if you change them, will fix all the little stuff that isn’t working in your novel. Maybe you have a critique partner that can do this for you, but I didn’t at the time, and I can’t tell you how much this helped. For Godda’s War, I worked with Kaitlyn Johnson because I’d already planned to have Naomi do a full critique for me on that novel. She’s also really good. I think it’s helpful to have more than one editor you trust because the one you like to work with may be all booked up at the time you need. So, research freelance editors. Contest mentors are a great place to start for finding these folks. I recommend both of these ladies, plus a third, who you’ll hear more about in step eight, below.

Step five: Revise based on the reader report.

If possible, take some time to think about the feedback you received. I’ve found that this report can be a little shocking at first. This is going to maybe be the first time you’ve had very critical and objective eyes on your novel-baby, and whichever editor you use, they are going to point out the flaws. But this is what you need right now. So listen, absorb, contemplate, and consider how you might go about making changes. My writer friend Shanna wrote a great twopart post about how she implements revision feedback. Go check that out if you want some great ideas.

Step six: Send your novel to your “Beta” readers.

At this point, I’m still working out the story kinks, so I’m not ready to pull out the big guns (critique partners), yet. But we’re almost there. For Beta readers, I hit up my next round of reader friends who read widely and critically in my genre. I might also ask a few of my writing friends who also are also avid readers of my genre. I’ve always tried for least two, ideally three readers for this step. If you can get more, do it, and definitely try to get as diverse a group as possible. Tell them what you want them to comment on (usually general story/character feedback, what they liked and didn’t like, etc.). If they are unfamiliar with the beta reading process, send them this video about how to be a good Beta reader. And while they’re watching that video, you should watch this video about how to get the most out of your Beta readers. Side note #1: I love Jenna Moreci’s videos about writing. Side note #2: this is also the step where I will finally let my husband read my novel. He reads a lot of science fiction, but he doesn’t (usually) read romance or YA. So, for me, he doesn’t count as a true “Beta” reader. But I take his opinion very seriously in terms of the elusive “cross-over appeal” factor.

Step seven: Revise based on your “Beta” reader feedback.

For those of you paying attention (or even just still reading…), we’re up to revision three at this point. Did I mention that writing a novel is a lot of work? Similar to step three and five, you’re going to make some tweaks based on what you’re hearing from your readers. Hopefully, this is a smaller edit than the previous two edits.

Step eight: Get a professional opinion.

Did I mention that professional editors are awesome? Do yourself a favor and find one that you want to work with, especially if you don’t have an agent yet or don’t plan to get one. I already mentioned Naomi and Kaitlyn, above. So here I will recommend Elizabeth Buege. She’s the editor I worked on The Lost Empire with during the Pitch to Publication contest. She helped me so much, and you should definitely consider her if you’re looking for an editor. Go check out her website, follow her on Twitter, and say hi. She’s super nice, and she’s a grammar wizard.

Step nine: Another revision.

This will be your fourth revision. Similar to step three, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed with the feedback from your editor. Once again I advise taking a small break, listening, re-reading, absorbing, and doing a lot of thinking. I find long drives and road trips are really helpful for figuring out sticky revision issues. You may also want to read some other books in your genre and pay closer attention to how your favorite authors are doing some of the things you need to do in your revision. After you have a plan, you’ll be able to tear through your revision. Wait for it, then go for it. Once you’re done with this step, you’re probably going to feel really good about your book. You probably think you can skip the next step. I encourage you to keep going.

Step ten: Send that novel-baby to your critique partners.

These will be your writer buddies. Finding critique partners you click with is really hard. I know. I had a great critique group for several years. But eventually we all went our separate ways. Some went into MFA programs, another moved, some weren’t a great fit for genre and style reasons. This happens. Keep cultivating your resources here, and hold tight to the ones who get you and your writing. They will save your butt and be there for you through every step of the process, including that last one that we’ve nearly reached.

Step eleven: The final revision.

Your critique partners will inevitably find some stuff for you to tweak. This will hopefully be nothing compared to step nine. You’ve got this. Consider their feedback and revise as needed.

Step twelve: You may now query.

What? You didn’t already write your query letter? You don’t know what agents you want to query? You haven’t been following them and their #MSWL on Twitter? What were you doing while all those people were reading your novel? You’ve had plenty of time to do all that and write a synopsis while you were waiting. And, just like your novel, be sure to get feedback on both your query and your synopsis, and maybe a Twitter pitch, too, while you’re at it. Believe me, you’ll want to have this done long before you attempt to enter the query trenches. So, find your most experienced writer friends for help on this — the ones who’ve already waded into the query trenches and are starting to get requests and rejections. And best of luck to you! May the odds be ever in your favor.

I hope this post has been helpful, or at least enlightening. If you have questions or things you’d like me to talk about more in future posts, please leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!