Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNoWriMo: How do you get started?

Tomorrow's the day: the official start of NaNoWriMo 2011. All over the country (really, the world!), writers are sharpening their pencils... or charging their laptops, hoping to start tomorrow with a bang.

NaNoWriMo, as you no doubt already know, has all kinds of "rules" about how far into a work you can be before it's "cheating" to use it as your NaNoWriMo project. Fair enough. The idea is not to end the month of November with something super-polished (ha, ha), but to get some words-- a LOT of words!-- on the page.

The official NaNoWriMo organization website says that the only things you're allowed to have done before beginning your novel on November 1 are outlines, character sketches, and research. All well and good.

But here's the thing: I know a lot of you don't work from outlines, maybe CAN'T work from outlines. I know because I've seen the look on your face when I ask you to write an outline or a synopsis. Even when you've already written the manuscript, outlining the plot feels incredibly daunting and unpleasant.

I had the privilege of attending a terrific breakfast panel at the RWA Nationals convention in New York back in late June. The speakers were Steve Berry, Diana Gabaldon, and Tess Gerritsen: incredibly successful, incredibly prolific writers all. And guess what: none of them really write from outlines. Diana Gabaldon, I seem to recall, doesn't use them at all. (She is just as funny as you think she's going to be, by the way.) Tess Gerritsen, who seems extremely organized and "together," doesn't use them either. She wrote an interesting post about her process here, if you want to take a look. But it was Steve Berry's remarks about using outlines that really stuck with me: he said he's used outlines in the past, and it's an effective way of making sure you've got your structure in place from the first draft, but it really sucks all the joy out of the writing. Working on the book became a task to be dreaded, rather than something to look forward to.

This is the opposite of the way I'd always figured I would try to write a novel myself (which might serve in part to explain why I've never actually "gotten around to" it)-- but for all three writers, surprising themselves with what comes next is an important part of the writing process.

Maybe this all comes down to a question of what you're more scared of: a creativity-squelching outline or the ominous and terrifying blank page.

But basically, either way you go about putting your manuscript together, you have my blessing.

Here's a little pre-NaNo reading for you, though, so (regardless of your stance on outlining) you can be mindful of some key points in creating a successful and satisfying novel. I expect you're already familiar with Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine Books; here's a talk she wrote a few years ago called "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Getting Started

The response on the last post was pretty overwhelming-- yay!-- it sounds like a TON of people are gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

So let's do this! From now until the end of November, I'll theme my posts here around NaNoWriMo. I'd love to hear from newbies and from past NaNo participants alike: what sorts of information would you like to see here? Basic cheerleading, writing prompts, stories of NaNo successes, useful links? Funny, unrelated YouTube videos?

I'll be back here soon with lots of good NaNo stuff-- but in the meantime, have you completed your official sign-up yet?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NaNoWriMo: a quick survey

According to the countdown clock on the official website, the start of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is only five days away!

I've written about NaNoWriMo before, here, but I'm curious: how many of you reading this plan to participate this year?

Let's do a quick survey in comments. Here's the rundown on what I'd like to know:

1) Are you planning to do NaNoWriMo this year?

2) Have you done NaNoWriMo before? If yes, how many times?

3) What genre would you say best fits your planned NaNoWriMo project?

Provided we've got a good number of people participating, I'm thinking of "theming" the November posts on the blog. I'll do a combination of my own advice and a lot of helpful links from around the internet.

I'm going to spend this NaNoWriMo on the sidelines (alas), but would love to cheer the rest of you on in the process!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bio Critique #3: Jo Eberhardt

My apologies to all for disappearing! I’ve just gotten back from a week of traveling on business—and I was swamped for several days before that with trip-related details. I hate it when bloggers go on about the “guys, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while,” but I felt I owed a bit of explanation for leaving our third contest winner, Jo Eberhardt, waiting on her bio critique for so long!

Without further ado, let’s jump in. Here’s Jo’s original bio paragraph:

I live on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia with my husband and two young sons. My greatest ambition as a child was to grow up to be the lead singer of a heavy metal band. Sadly, by the time I was ten, the whole neighbourhood knew I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. So I took my love of entertaining and inspiring people, and turned to storytelling instead. Earlier this year I had a story shortlisted for the Stringybark Speculative Fiction Award and subsequently published in the anthology A Visit From the Duchess. Over the last two months, I've won two of Chuck Wendig's weekly Flash Fiction competitions, as well as this competition on your blog. I'm a member of the local Writer's Group, am an Emily contest judge for the West Houston RWA in the Futuristic, Fantasy and Paranormal category, and blog about life, the universe and everything at

Overall, Jo, I really like this one—the “I’ve always wanted to be a writer” bit is kind of clich├ęd, but you’ve nicely turned it on its head a bit with the joke about wanting to be the singer in a heavy metal band (especially because it’s often unclear whether a metal singer can, in fact, sing!).

Generally speaking, you’re covering all my usual points here: where you live, your professional (writing) credits, your professional (writing) affiliations, a link to your blog, and a funny detail that gives me a stronger sense of your voice… and proof that there’s a real person behind the sometimes-dry details. This is a solid start.

Now, then, where to improve?

When I get a bio like yours, I often find myself doing a lot of googling to learn more about the credits the writer lists. It pains me a little bit to admit this so publicly, but I am definitely guilty of assuming that if a credit doesn’t have an Internet presence (no Google hits whatsoever), I, um, assume it’s fictional.

However, that’s not the case with yours! Here are links to Jo’s credits, for anyone who is less…what’s the word? DILIGENT, I’m sure that’s what you were thinking, right?, than I am. (the anthology, on Smashwords) (Chuck Wendig’s blog-- I leave it up to you whether to point the link to a specific post announcing your contest wins.)

To sum up this point, which has gotten a little ramble-y, if you were querying me and included the links in parentheses after the description in your bio paragraph, I'd be grateful, and your chances of my giving your sample pages a thorough and careful read would go up.

The “life, the universe, and everything” moment: My geek cred is often called into question, with good reason, but I can certainly recognize this as an homage to Douglas Adams. Given your involvement with FF&P RWA, even without any details about the project about which you are querying, I’m guessing that any agents and editors reading your query are also supposed to “get” the reference here.

I have some concerns, though, about leaving this phrase in. It’s cute and it’s clever, but it also means that you’re encouraging any and all readers of the query to directly compare your work to that of Douglas Adams, who has more or less achieved nerd sainthood at this point, I’m pretty sure. The publishing industry’s full of direct comparisons to other people’s work, but we usually phrase it as “This Famous Book meets That Other Famous Book” or “will appeal to fans of This Famous Book and The Other Famous Book,” so that you’re never inviting a situation where you’re asking someone to decide whether your work is better or worse than the work to which you’re comparing it.

Your work may well be as good as Douglas Adams’s—and far be it from me to say otherwise!—but it should be the work itself which encourages this comparison, not the query letter. Yours is a very mild version of this phenomenon, but I can’t tell you how many query letters I’ve seen which asserted that the novel in question was better than Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Da Vinci Code. Seriously. I’m not paraphrasing here.

My best advice on how to fix? Swap out “life, the universe, and everything” for a line elsewhere in the query that says “my novel TITLE will appeal to fans of Douglas Adams and [this is my geek cred failing me again, because I cannot think of another example of humorous SF that’s not Doctor Who, which just seems like too obvious of a reference].”

Otherwise, if the novel is half as good as the bio paragraph, I think you’re in very good shape here.

Thanks for your patience, and thanks again for playing along with the contest!

I’m open to ideas for a new contest—should we do another writing contest (in these waning days before NaNoWriMo begins)? A randomly selected winner from comments? What should the prize be?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bio Critique #2: Christi Corbett

I'm delighted today to offer my critique of the bio of our second contest winner, Christi Corbett.

Christi actually sent me two pieces: the bio paragraph that appears in her current query letter, in which she seeks to emphasize her "business and marketing" side:

I spent three years as the head writer for a weekly television show and have written over three hundred broadcast television commercials. My connections in the television industry will be helpful in publicity and marketing efforts for my work: I currently have interview agreements with thirteen television stations and thirty-two radio stations with a total combined audience reach of over five million.

And here's the bio she wrote for her blog:

From a young age, writing was an integral part of Christi Corbett’s life. It was a skill she further developed during her career as a television writer. Now, Christi continues to broaden her writing horizons with the completion of Along the Way Home, a historical fiction about the Oregon Trail.

After graduating from Western Washington University with a degree in Communications, Christi took a job with a CBS affiliate in the Creative Services Department. Over the years her lifelong love of writing was put to good use; in addition to writing over three hundred television commercials, she earned the position as head writer for a weekly television show. Furthermore, she was responsible for writing over one hundred press releases detailing the station’s various special events, community programs, and news department awards.

During her time with the television station, Christi was awarded with multiple American Advertising Awards (ADDY) and recognized by the March of Dimes with an award for providing “Outstanding Communications Support”.

Sharing the power of television has always been important to Christi, both professionally and personally. Through television station partnerships, Christi repeatedly managed advertising and publicity for large scale events with agencies such as The Salvation Army, the United Way, the American Cancer Society, and the March of Dimes.

Nowadays, Christi looks forward to putting her experience in public speaking and marketing to use during the promotion process of her novel,Along the Way Home.

Christi is a member of Willamette Writers, and also participates in a critique group.

Currently, Christi lives in a small town in Oregon with her husband, and twin children. The location of the home holds a special place in Christi’s writing life; it stands just 600 feet from the original Applegate Trail and the view from her back door is a hill travelers looked upon years ago as they explored the Oregon Territory and beyond.

This is a lot to take in, so let me say first of all, Christi, that I think you're right: the first one is too dry and the second one is too wordy.

Since you've given me so much to work with, and since I went into such detail about my "rules for bio paragraphs" in the previous post, I'm going to try a judicious cut-and-past effort here, to give you a sense of where I'd go with this.

I spent three years as the head writer for a weekly television show [CMC: name the show and the network! Local or national, this is a nice credit to have.] and have written over three hundred broadcast television commercials, for which I received multiple American Advertising Awards (ADDYs) and was recognized by the March of Dimes with an award for providing “Outstanding Communications Support.” I’m an accomplished public speaker, and my connections in the television industry will be helpful in publicity and marketing efforts for my work. I’m a member of Willamette Writers and a critique group, and I live with my husband and our twins in a small town in Oregon, in a house just 600 feet from the original Applegate Trail.

This final detail is a nice touch, don't you think? I love knowing about people's personal connection to their writing (Christi's novel is a historical about the Oregon Trail).

Christi, because you've already got a lot of other information in your bio paragraph (at least as rewritten by me), you can probably safely leave out the blog and Twitter-type info-- but make sure it's in your contact information at the end of your letter.

But to make some more general, sweeping comments about hypothetical situations:

Shoshanna (hi, Shoshanna!) asked in comments what I would consider a "good number" for Twitter follower purposes. I've been thinking about this a lot, because I hadn't tried to put an actual numerical figure on what I meant by that. But here are some of my theories:

-A thousand Twitter followers is a lot for someone who's never published before, or has "only" self-published, or published with smaller houses where they've never been assigned a publicist. I assume that with 1,000 Twitter followers, you've proven that you've got an interesting voice online, and that you "get" this particular social media venue.

-A LOT of bestselling genre fiction authors have between three and five thousand followers. If you're tweeting to an audience of this size, and a decent percentage (please don't make me define "decent percentage!") of your followers will buy your book, you are in great, great shape.

-If you have 10,000 Twitter followers or more, chances are you are a household name at least in certain spheres.

-The most Twitter-popular author I could find in my ~ ten minutes' searching was Neil Gaiman, with well over a million followers. Margaret Atwood has about 260,000. Joe Hill has about 120,000. Jodi Picoult has about 38,000.

Regarding your blog, if your blog is important or fairly well-known in one of the following situations, be sure to mention it in your bio:

1) you are a book blogger, who regularly writes book reviews or discussions about the publishing industry on your blog. You know you fall into this category if publishers contact you offering to send you books (via NetGalley or otherwise), or if your posts get picked up in industry link-roundups from time to time.

2) your blog has become an authority on a topic that's related to the book you're querying on.

Note: this is true even if you don't have academic credentials in the topic. If other people have come to consider you an authority on the topic because of your website, that is itself a kind of credential. If you're writing Jane Austen sequels and you're a webmistress on the Republic of Pemberley, for example, that detail is going to help sell your book. So mention it!

One more bio critique to go. Any questions or thoughts? Leave 'em in the comments!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bio Critique #1: Ms. Snip

image (c) Kevin Connors. url:
I'm experimenting with using images more frequently in my blog posts-- okay, ever. I'd love your feedback. Do you like blog posts to have a picture, always, or do you care? Is it worth the few extra minutes on my part?

Today, I'm delighted to say, we begin our three-part series of bio paragraph critiques, from the winners of last week's writing prompt contest. I'm going in the order in which I received these, so first up is Ms. Snip.

I've edited out some of the personal information, mostly for privacy reasons, but I hope it's still legible enough to be useful to everyone.

Without further ado.

[TITLE] is a 77,000-word YA Paranormal set in [Really evocative town name], Ohio and my debut novel. A native Ohioan, I grew up not far from [Really evocative town name] and the setting is largely based on my childhood hometown. I started out writing Appalachian ghost stories in high school, and was the editor of the school's literary journal. I now live in [City], Texas, where I work for a small, private university as a Residence Hall Director. I am a member of several critique groups and online writing communites, such as the [professional writers' group, details relevant to the novel but not to my critique].

Courtney's critique: You're doing a lot of things right here. I like that you open the "bio paragraph" with the novel's specs, rather than jumping right into the personal details. Based on the rest of your query (which I haven't included here, obviously), it's clear that you've got the genre right-- a plus. The length is also appropriate for the category.

From there, you launch into your personal connection to the story (good), a bit about your writing history (mostly good-- on which more below), and a bit about your non-writerly life (which I always like to see).

My main concern about this as a bio is that it's a little bit bland, and given the way you've structured the rest of the query letter (this is basically the final paragraph), that's not really the impression you want to leave me with.

Caveat: most of what I'm about to say applies only to novels.

I think there are as many "right" ways to write a query letter as there are agents to read them (we are a rather, ahem, opinionated bunch), but when I'm reading a query from a would-be client, I want the query letter to convince me of several things:
1. This is a book I want to read.
2. This is a book I'd like to sell.
3. This is an author who's got a great career ahead of her.
4. This is a person I'll enjoy getting to know.

I think you can tell from my list that the bio paragraph carries a lot of weight. So let's concentrate, for now, on #3 and #4, as they specifically apply to your bio paragraph.

#3 is covered mostly by your professional (writing) credentials: those critique groups and that online professional writer's group. These are good, but you can go further. Even if you're really, really new to blogging and Twitter and Google + and all those other ways of avoiding your WIP, mention that you do them in your query. I'm still a total n00b at all that stuff, but it's clear to me that if I kept at it diligently for a year (about the period of time it's likely to take a publisher to publish your book), I could raise my platform considerably, particularly on Twitter. So don't worry about your blog's clout or your number of Twitter followers or any of that stuff (unless it's good news, in which case YES MENTION IT).

You're not telling me that you blog or tweet in order to brag; you're telling me that because it's a shorthand for "I understand that I, as a 21st-century writer, will be expected to participate heavily in my publisher's marketing and publicity plans. I intend to be a Team Player in this regard, and I'm doing what I can to educate myself about social media marketing even before a contract is signed."

So that's #3. We know you have a blog, or you wouldn't have been able to participate in the writing prompt contest-- so go ahead and mention it even if you generally only post pictures of your cats. Because we all know how the internet feels about pictures of cats.

On, then, to #4. This is where I would put the detail about your adolescent interest in Appalachian ghost stories. (Can we talk sometime about how messed-up it is that "adolescent" is a derogatory term in American English? Because it is, it's messed up. I of course don't mean it in a derogatory sense here.) Ms. Snip, I think you've successfully walked a fine line here, offering evidence that you've been interested in writing (and in the paranormal) for a long time, without making the mistake I once saw in a real query, where the author told me he/she was 29 years old and had been writing for 24 years. Um...

I haven't read the manuscript, obviously, but one way I would tweak this is to say something like "Parts of the novel stem from a lifelong interest in Appalachian ghost stories, which I've been playing with in my writing since my days as editor of the high school literary magazine." (I ran the lit mag too! Nerd girl high five.) This statement, if accurate, is the kind of thing that would show up in professional reviews of your novel (Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal), and interviews with you after the book is published. It also hints at a body of source material that you can draw on for your future books (aha! we're back to number 3!).

I'd also try to work in one more detail about yourself. I can't tell you what this should be, because of course I don't really know you yet-- but if this were my query letter, I'd be trying to recapture the quirky, humorous tone you've used in the plot summary paragraphs of the query. (Which I haven't included here. Sorry, everybody.) You don't need big achievements or crazy hobbies, either. Something that ties it back a little bit to the novel would be nice. If I wrote a sports novel, for example, I'd note in my bio paragraph that the only "athletic" trophy I won in childhood was for a beanbag toss in the Brownie Girl Scouts. (True story. And don't think I didn't display that trophy proudly in my room for years afterward, too.)

It's not always about the "wow factor," in other words. Sometimes it's just about impressing me with the quality of your writerly voice.

If I get to the end of your query impressed with both you and with the pitch for the book you're querying me about, you've done everything right.

Up tomorrow, schedule permitting: Christi Corbett's bio critique. See you then!