*Long post ahoy.*
First, I'd like to share some important news about this blog. During WriteOnCon 2018, one idea that came up a few times is that the social media you use should always be something that you enjoy. If you don't enjoy it, you should feel free to pull back and do it less, or not at all. After hearing that, I've decided to pull back a little more on this blog.
For the first few years, I really enjoyed blogging here. But as my illnesses got worse, I began running out of both ideas and energy. I've been trying a lot of different blogging schedules and tags to try and make up for that, but I'm not getting the interaction that I like, and I really do feel like I've already written the bulk of the blog posts that I wanted to. I don't want to stop blogging entirely, because I do really like sharing my thoughts when I have them, but I'm not interested in doing it on the same basis that I have been.
So I'm going to change my schedule again and blog once a week, on Saturdays. I may put up bonus posts on Wednesdays--like this one!--if I have something extra to talk about, but for the most part, it'll be four posts a month. That means no more "Waiting On" Wednesdays or Top Ten Tuesdays. But I will post seasonal lists of the books on my top TBR, and I'm sure some of the ideas from Top Ten Tuesday will show up in future posts. Monthly humor posts are also going to change to seasonal humor posts, with my favorite twenty-five funny posts from Tumblr and Pinterest for each three month block. Additionally this means that my weekly email newsletters will change to monthly newsletters.
I intend to be just as present on my other social media profiles as ever, and I hope that people will look through this blog and see what I've talked about in the past if they're looking for specific information--or just ask me! The Recommended Posts page is still up, and I've added an archive to the sidebar so you can browse through my old posts a little more easily.
With that out of the way, now it's time to review what I learned this year at WriteOnCon! (For those of you who don't know, WriteOnCon is a cheap, entirely online conference for children's/YA writers. I've been "attending" since 2012, and it is fantastic.)
As always, the forums were the majority of my experience. I got a lot of great feedback from people, and by the end, I felt like my story opening and my query were both really good--which isn't something I've experienced before! My queries always improve across the course of WriteOnCon, but usually I come away feeling more uncertain than ever. Queries are hard, friends! But this time, I really like what I've come away with, and I'm quite confident about it. We'll see how confident I am after getting rejected another hundred times, haha, but for now, I'm feeling good.
WriteOnCon in general this year has also been really good for me just in inspiring me to get back into the writing world. The last book I wrote was CUCUY (originally titled SAMMI, then COCA), and that was in 2014. After that, I became too sick to work on my projects, which is something I'd never experienced before. After all, writing is at the core of who I am. But I have been very, very sick, which means I was out of the writing world for a while. I didn't leave entirely. I've kept reading, I've kept an eye on social media, I wrote my first ever fanfic while I was sick because it was lower pressure than original content--and I learned a lot from it. But I stopped querying, stopped editing, stopped writing original content. My beta readers have been waiting for CUCUY for over three years now.
Today, I'm much better than I used to be. I'm still very sick, and very limited, but I'm able to work on my books again almost to the same level as before (though I have to push harder to get through the Jello-level brain fog I've developed). Still, I've been approaching the writing world sort of sideways, nervous that I won't be able to do it properly. And I'm still worried about that. But WriteOnCon really brought back my excitement and my joy in writing and publishing, and it reminded me why I want this so much. Being chronically exhausted, excitement and joy are not easy to feel. They take more energy than I have a lot of the time. But they are there, and I know that they are even when I'm not actively feeling it.
So I'm editing CUCUY right now, and I think it'll be ready for my betas, finally, sometime next month. After that it'll be more editing, and eventually, I'll start sending out again. And I look forward to that. Before I took this long, undesired break, I was feeling pretty worn down from all the rejections. I know I haven't had the same amount of rejections as many others--during WriteOnCon, Beth Revis told us she'd recieved over 1,000 rejections before Across the Universe got published, and Gail Carson Levine said she was rejected by the whole publishing world before Ella Enchanted was accepted--but crossing the 100 mark did hurt. I was discouraged.
Now, I'm a lot more hopeful. I don't know what's going to happen. Writing is a tough career, (and I do want it to be a career). Even once I get an agent, there will be lots of rejection. I might even lose that agent. I might have to try a few different novels with my agent before a publisher picks it up. My novels might not sell well, or I might do something wrong that sets off a controversy, and my publisher might drop me, and a hundred other things could happen. Not to mention all the creative difficulties that come with writing and editing. But I want to be there for all of it. I want to be an author, and everything I do in that sphere will be a step in the right direction, in the sense that I'm learning from it.
Another more general idea I got from a lot of posts this year is to remember that agents and editors are human. They want to interact and discuss and cooperate, not push people down. When you're seeking out an agent especially, you want to look at how you'll mesh with them as a person, not just at their sales or genre interests. That's something I really didn't get when I was querying before. Possibly because I was younger, I saw agents as these unreachable, almost inhuman figures whom I was seeking the favor of. Now I'm able to recognize them as people who I might want to have a real partnership with, which is what an agent/author relationship should be. Hopefully this will help me going forward with querying.
Now. Specific stuff that I learned from the blog posts, videos, and live events at WriteOnCon. I didn't participate in pitch events because CUCUY is not ready to actually send out yet, but I did look at everything else.
On Day One, there was a live event with Kendra Levin, a top editor at Viking's Children's Books. She was discussing life/writing balance, and I asked her how to cope with a writing career as someone with chronic illnesses. I do worry about that a lot, especially with marketing. Her response was encouraging: she said that publishers will work with you, that most editors are very understanding, and to just prioritize things the way that chronically ill people always do in their lives. Figure out what the most important tasks are, and throw away the rest.
With that in mind, I later asked Beth Revis during her live event, where she was discussing being a bestselling author, about what marketing techniques were most successful for her. She said that the best thing she did was team up with her local bookstore for pre-order campaigns and the like. (I don't have one of those, unfortunately, but I'm sure I can find something similar in a nearby city. Or, you know. I could just move.) The best thing her publisher did was send her on a book tour. I worry that I won't be able to handle that kind of trip, but since Beth emphasized that, I know for the future to prioritize it and make the best of such an opportunity if it comes my way.
Beth also said that one good way to approach querying is to start with some agents you really like who have reputations for fast response times. That way, you can get the initial response quickly, and if they all reject you without any page requests, you know you need to make some revisions on your query.
I'd also like to note, for the record, that Beth seems like someone I would like to be BFFs with. She's great.
Another good event that day was a live event with Maggie Hall, another YA author. She talked about outlining, which is something I never used to pay much attention to, as a pantser. But I realized during my Screenwriting class, way back whenever it was I took that class, that pantsing does not exclude outlining. Plotters outline before they write a draft, which is more the "standard" method. But people like me, pantsers, we end up outlining and organizing things once we've got the first draft down.
I really prefer it that way, and so far (19 novels) it's worked for me. But then, once I actually get published and have deadlines, maybe that'll change. Maybe. It did for Beth Revis. But don't count on it, haha. I really like jumping into the story with things unplanned and seeing how it plays out. I'm not a 100% pantser, as I've learned from listening to other writers talk. I do always want to have a chosen ending and/or climax to work towards, and often I'll have other ideas for the story depending on how much time has passed between me getting the idea and me actually writing it (aka NaNoWriMo). But it's all super flexible. I don't look at plot structure and all of that until afterwards, once I actually have something to put it to.
On Day Two, there was even more helpful information. Agent Caitie Flum mentioned that hooks in queries are important. I've been thinking of hooks as campy and that it's best just to jump right into the story, but she disagreed. YA author and sensitivity reader Kosoko Jackson pointed out that in fantasy worlds, it's unrealistic to have different races and not also have racism of some form. Prejudice is a natural part of being human, so it's always going to be there when there are differences. YA author Bree Barton wrote a post about how every author hates their work sometimes, and how when this happens, you need to take a step back, think about the good areas, and maybe hand it over to someone else for a less biased opinion.
Mary Kole, who used to work as a literary agent and is now a freelance editor, had a really helpful live session about dialogue and description. Dialogue is one of my strengths, but description is one of my biggest weaknesses, because I personally just don't like it. When I'm reading, I tend to skip over paragraphs of description, just because my brain rejects detailed stuff. I'm definitely a global thinker. Mary talked a lot about pacing, and one really interesting piece of advice she had was to read your book without editing anything and just mark off the places where your mind starts to wander. This obviously is going to vary between people--I would get distracted very easily in some ways, because I hate description and I have major brain fog, but I'm also the kind of person who wants to do everything in one go and not put it down until I'm done, so in that way I might be more engaged than others. It also depends on where you are as an author--whether you're in a hating your writing stage or a loving it stage, which changes all the time. But it's a really good idea, and one I might try sometime.
She also talked about the issue many authors have with focusing too much on people's eyes. (I am definitely one of these!) She said that it's natural to focus on eyes and mouths and tones of voice, because that's the body language we read most in real life, but it doesn't work well for storytelling. She recommended not only trying to branch out to other body parts and movements, but also to put more weight on the dialogue--let the dialogue do the heavy lifting. This also helps with bad dialogue tags and excessive adverb use. (And also excessive adjective use: MG author Cindy Baldwin confirmed that this can be just as big of a problem in her post on Day 3.) If the character speaks in a way that indicates their feelings, you won't need those things. Your main character's internal reaction to the other characters also helps reveal emotion and tone.
Mary further discussed how stories need to have peaks and valleys because of the law of diminishing returns. If you're doing the same thing over and over (action action action), the reader becomes numb. Variety helps them stay engaged. Finally, she said that all description should have an emotional layer, i.e. it should be influenced by your character's POV. As a non-detail oriented person, this was helpful advice. Looking at worldbuilding and details through the eyes of the main character, the way they react to them, is a much more manageable approach for me. I connect pretty well with characters and their emotions, even though I'm not good at details. (Which apparently is the opposite of how YA author Sara Raasch operates!)
Later, there was a live panel where authors Charlie N. Holmberg and Lisa Maxwell as well as Natascha Morris, a literary agent, and Celia Lee, a Scholastic picture book editor, talked about characterization. One thing Charlie said that I really liked was that in friendships and relationships, characters should have needs and abilities that match to each other. You should ask, "What does this character have that this other character needs, and vice versa?" This helps especially to round out secondary characters.
Another person on the panel (I can't remember exactly who) mentioned "saving the cat," which was a phrase I'd never heard before. It turns out that's a term for when you take an antagonist or other negative character and humanize them by having them do one nice thing--saving a cat, for example. One thing it does is helps ease the tension so that people don't get too overwhelmed when focusing on this character. I use this technique a lot with CUCUY, for obvious reasons, so it's cool to have a term for it.
YA author Rosalyn Eves later talked in a live workshop about "the objective correlative," or the concept that the way you describe certain objects or settings can indicate and evoke the emotions of the main character (rather than directly describing what the character feels). As a non-detail person, that's definitely something I've never thought about before, and I'll have to look into using it in my writing more. It's a cool idea! And it makes it a little clearer to me why description is important. She also had a good quote from Richard Price: "The bigger the issue, the smaller you write," or, basically, the bigger the trauma or the horror of the moment, the more important it is to focus in on a small detail that brings across the impact of that.
Day 3 of WriteOnCon was a Sunday, so, being a good little Mormon, I didn't participate live. Instead, I watched all the recordings afterwards. But I enjoyed them very much! During her live workshop on openings, author Alyssa Hollingsworth recommended that authors start their books ten minutes before the catalyst of the story. I'm not 100% sure I agree with her--but then, I'm pretty terrible at knowing where to begin, myself. Also, the concept of "ten minutes" did seem a bit flexible, based on her examples. After that workshop, I cut down my opening on CUCUY some. A lot of people on the boards said that for a book as unusual as mine, a longer opening might be necessary, so we'll see if my CPs/potential agents agree.
Then Gail Carson Levine herself gave a live Q+A in which she was delightful and quirky and creative and lovely, and I also want her to be my new writing BFF. She is a pantser, as it turns out, and that made me so happy I squeed aloud. It seems like pantsers are getting more and more of a bad rap these days, and I'm so glad to hear that a great, classic, fantasy author stands with me on that! Also, she uses YouTube for research when writing swordplay and the like, which is a good idea. She talked a lot about ignoring the reader and other such anxieties while you're writing and just writing the story you want to write. All of it made me so happy. I don't know, friends, I just adore her.
YA author Alexa Donne talked about how authors very rarely see royalties, so advances tend to be the important part of the publishing contract moneywise. She also highly recommended the services of an agent in negotiating, which is something that I've heard a lot--and that I'm grateful for! I don't think I'd be very good at contract negotiation. The only thing I know is that audio books rights are important to me, because I care a lot about accessibility.
And one final thing I learned this year: my Internet is the worst for live events. Like, it was very stressful. No bueno.
All right! Thanks for reading this post, thanks for all your support throughout the years, HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY, and I will see you again Saturday.
Images via writeoncon.org, rajashreebhagwat.com, rainydaybooks.com, blog.knetbooks.com, itunes.apple.com, and lds.org.
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