Writing Resources

The Great Critique Partner Match-up!

CPMatchUpSo I know that a lot of you out there are searching for The One–that person who makes your heart sing. Whose emails make your stomach flip. Who just gets you.

I don’t mean The Romantic One (duh!). I mean The Critique Partner One!

For me, critique partners and beta readers are invaluable. Basically, I am the writer that I am today ONLY because of my CPs. Getting their feedback and giving them my own feedback has taught me more about writing than ANYTHING else. Period.

To help YOU meet your own magical someone, I thought I’d revive the CP Match-up Forum. You guys can share your info, read about other potential CPs’ projects, and then go from there.

Here’s what you can share (keep in mind that you’ll need a forum account to leave a message):

Name: This should be straightforward enough. 😉 Feel free to  use an online handle if you’d rather not share your name.

Genre you like to write/read in: Also, pretty straightforward. If you need help pinpointing a genre, feel free to ask me!

Project and a short blurb: Give us a 1-2 paragraph summary–or even 1-2 sentences is okay.

What you are looking for in a CP/Buddy: Do you want someone to give you surface, big picture feedback? Do you want someone to get down to the nitty-gritty line level? Are you looking for an alpha reader who will read chapters as you write them? Or do you want a beta reader who reads an entire manuscript once it’s all revised? Get specific about what sort of partnership you’re seeking and how LONG a relationship (i.e. you only need feedback for one novel or you’d like this partnership to continue onto future projects).

Contact information: Give us your email/twitter handle/whatever–just make sure you’re reachable!

 If a project sounds interesting to you, then contact the writer! I suggest exchanging a 5-10 pages to start–just to make sure you both like the other person’s writing AND like/appreciate the person’s style of critiquing.

**ADDED: One reader suggested posting your pages in a google doc or blog post and simply linking to those pages in the forum. That way you can go ahead and skim each other’s pages for The One. I think this is a great idea!

Keep in mind, that it might take a few tries, so feel free to reach out to more than one person. 🙂 If you’re only sharing a few chapters, you can pretty quickly get a vibe for what you do/don’t connect with.

If the style of critique (or manuscript) doesn’t feel right for you, then simply say something along the lines of:

I really appreciate your feedback, but I’m not totally sure our visions for storytelling align. I think you’ve made some great points about X and Y, but I’m not totally sure I see myself going in that direction with this story. Rather than waste your time, I will probably try to find a different reader. Thank you SO much!

To wrap up this post, here are links to all the posts I’ve done on critique partners and first readers in the past:

Now off you go!! Shoo, shoo! Get ye to the forum and start meeting fellow writers!!

Oh, and feel free to tweet about this so we can spread the word and draw in more potential CPs!

Speak up:

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Pub(lishing) Crawl: Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline

I received an awesome question post in my forum last week, and I thought I’d answer it today. 🙂

I thought my first novel was done except for proofreading, after being through many CPs and two passes with a professional editor I hired. Now that I’m about 25% into its sequel, I keep discovering new things about my characters that I’d like to go back and put in the first one as a connecting detail or foreshadowing. This is for characters, but for places too, because my trilogy is fantasy and I get more awesome ideas about the various cultures and places as I write more.

The problem is when can I “stop” world building? Should I write and edit the entire trilogy before self publishing the first one or just publish the first one now because it’s ready. When I’m working on the other two, I’ll just have to delete some of my new ideas I guess? Because the first one will already be out in the world, unchangeable.

How do you deal with this when you have a traditional contract for only one book, not knowing if your editor will want to buy or publish the rest of the series as you envision it?

Okay, let’s break this down into two separate questions.

When to Stop Adding Ideas

It’s funny that this question–When can I stop world-building?–came RIGHT at a time when I’m struggling with a similar issue. I have so many new ideas! I want to squeeze them all in HERE and NOW and into THIS WORLD…

Well, there is a breaking point and there is such a thing as too much. And in all honesty, a tight book that gets complex without getting unwieldy and that wraps up in a great big AHA! of meeting threads–those are the books that readers love most. (An excellent example is the Harry Potter series: lots of threads and characters and world details, but it never bogs down the reader. Best of all, everything comes together for a truly spectacular ending.)

So how do you know if you’re only complicating things by adding more?

For world-building: If you have extraneous details that don’t actually add to the story or need to be there for the plot’s sake, then you might want to cut out some histories and details. A few subtle elements can absolutely enhance the story–little details make a world feel real. But if you worry you have too many details or so many settings that the reader is getting whiplash…Well, you might want to take a look at the world-building.

For characters: If you’re having a hard time incorporating characters into a scene, then maybe they don’t need to be there. I totally made this mistake with Strange & Ever After–I wanted to have Laure join Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters in Marseille and Egypt. But it got so unwieldy! Having to find ways/reasons for every character to speak and act in group scenes? I just kept forgetting characters were even there. Obviously, I solved this problem by leaving Laure in Paris and then trying to keep each scene focused on only a 1-3 characters at a time.

For plot threads: If, at any point, you have to start writing a really complicated, info-dumpy type scenes in order to wrap up and connect all the threads, then you might have too many plots twining through your book. I am SO guilty of this in Strange & Ever After, and I’ll talk more about that below. 🙂

The key is, in my opinion, to getting a streamlined book is to:

1. Work with what you already have when trying to connect scenes, characters, places, and events. Sometimes little throwaway comments from earlier chapters or books can become AWESOME plot points or props.

2. If you can’t work with what you already have, try to instead to TAKE AWAY. Maybe some detail or thread is actually clogging you up rather than giving you the freedom to move forward. Thought it sometimes requires rewriting, it’s often better to simplify than to complicate–unless, of course, the book is already super simple. Then you might want to…

3. Add in those new ideas and see/feel how it works. If you can tell that it’s just opening up too many new story questions or story directions, then maybe you shouldn’t add it. But you can always weave it in, try it out for a few chapters, and then decide.

Writing an Entire Series Upfront

Now, onto the other part of this question: If self-publishing, should you write and edit the entire trilogy before publishing the first? If traditional publishing, how do you deal with new ideas and being confined to what’s already in the world?

Goodness, I can tell you from experience that writing a sequel once the earlier books are published/unchangeable is REALLY HARD. Holy crow, it’s hard. You write yourself into unforeseen corners and you can’t go back to tweak things in earlier books.

Or, you’ll have the AWESOME ideas that you just love and that resonate so much with you…but that you can’t introduce because they really should have been introduced in the already-on-shelves book 1.

Or, if you’ll discover in your third book (as I did) that everything you’d kinda-sorta thought would tie up DOESN’T–at least not in a way that resonates with you. Now you’re stuck adding all sorts of little details and backstories that you really wish you’d dropped into earlier books. For example, in Strange & Ever After, I introduce the idea of gods and other creatures from the spirit realm. I REALLY wish I could go back to Something Strange & Deadly and weave in just a few hints that gods are coming up…But alas, the first books were already published.

So if you can (and if you intend to definitely self-publish the whole trilogy), I actually think you can benefit from writing all the books at once. Not only does this allow you to really build your story and streamline it, but it also allows you to publish the entire series at once (which works very well in the self-publishing world).

However, if you ARE confined to writing only one book at a time, I urge you to follow the steps I list above: work with what you already have, take away aspects, or add new ideas with heaps of caution. Will you be stuck scratching your head and screaming at the already-in-stores book for not being changeable? Probably, but that doesn’t mean writing sequels after earlier books are finished is impossible. (And perhaps my post on planning a series will help!)
Ask Sooz a Question

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Publishing in an English-Speaking Country When You Don’t Live There

Ask Sooz a QuestionI sent out a call last week for writing questions, and I thought I’d answer 2 today. (Thank you to everyone who sent questions!!)

…the problem is, I actually live in another country, and I’d be trying to get published in an English speaking country. Can this happen? Have you ever heard of it? Will agents only accept manuscripts that come from people who speak english as their first language?

Awesome question, and one I’m sure many of you are wondering about.

Short answer: Yes, you can most definitely do this! 🙂

Long answer:  You can publish in an English-speaking country, no matter where you’re from/live. While it can make things difficult when it comes time to promote a book, having an author live in a different country is NOT a deal-breaker for agents or publishers.

Consider that I lived in Germany when I sold my trilogy! I also have a close friend who lives in Australia, but her agent is American and her first book sold initially in the US (and later on, it also sold in Australia). I have another close friend who got her agent while living in Japan, and another friend who was living in Romania when her books released.

As for your next question, agents will definitely accept manuscripts from non-native English speakers (as long as your English is very, very strong). And yes, I have heard of this happening. 🙂 I knew a German girl who sold her book in the UK, and her first language was German.

THAT SAID, I’m not sure you should mention in a query letter that English isn’t your native language. It might end up biasing an agent against you simply because–despite an impeccably written letter–the agent may assume your English isn’t strong.

Let your letter and sample pages stand strong, and then–if you want–you can tell an agent/editor AFTER signing/selling that English isn’t your first language.

I hope that helps, and feel free to ask more questions in the comments or in the forum!

Speak up:

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Writing 3-Dimensional Characters

Character3DRecently, I received this question from Kaila in my inbox:

I was wondering, could you please do a post on your “For Writer’s” page about creating 3-dimensional characters?

At first, I was totally afraid to even TRY to tackle this question. I mean…gosh, are my characters 3D? Am I even talented enough or aware enough to talk about something so important?

But then I wrote in my newsletter last week about motivations and consequences, and I realized that–at least for ME–there are 3 things that make a character feel REAL when I’m reading.

#1: Motivation

Character motivation is the WHY of a character’s actions. It’s the WHY behind her goal, the WHY behind her inner and outer needs, and it’s even the WHY behind her short temper and her inability to commit.

But no, you say, that’s backstory! Backstory and history explain her short temper and inability to commit.

Ah, but not entirely. Yes, she’s been burned by men before, so it’s left her wary. But WHY does she  use sarcasm and shouts to make her point? She could just as easily be closed-off and cold. What motivates her to behave the way she does? What does she subconsciously (or in full awareness) hope to achieve by behaving the way that she does?

If you don’t understand these WHYS, then you’ll have characters do things for the sake of the plot…Which means characters will act out of character–and readers will spot that stuff. I promise.

An example: In Truthwitch (which comes out next fall from Tor), I had one of my heroines keep a giant secret from her best friend. I mean, for the plot’s sake, it worked to have her stay quiet, but on a motivation level, it just didn’t make sense. These girls are the CLOSEST FRIENDS you can ever imagine–why would Noelle EVER keep a secret from Safi? Well, a few savvy critique partners asked that very question, and so I finally examined Noe’s motivation for silence…

And it turned out she didn’t have one. I was making Noe stay silent for the sake of the plot. And although changing the story so that there was no secret would require major revisions, I realized that it had to be done. Otherwise, there would always be that lingering question in the reader’s mind of why Noelle did what she did. There would always be the nagging awareness that the character wasn’t behaving quite right.

#2: Emotional Dominoes

In order for me to revise the book with this new awareness–the awareness that Noe wasn’t motivated to keep secrets from Safi–I had to go back to the book’s very first scene and work through every emotional beat in the book. All over again.

Now, I’ve talked about emotional dominoes before, and I will often write in my notes, What are my emotional dominoes?, and then go through each emotion scene by scene. I find this method is incredibly helpful for unsticking my plot, and I also find it INVALUABLE for revising my characters and building real people.

In the Truthwitch example, I had to look at what it meant for Noelle to have told Safi her secret. If Safi knows this bit of history about Noelle, how does it change their interactions? How does it change how they view each other? How they behave in each scene?

And, once I had adjusted one scene to reflect this “new normal”, how did that effect the emotions in the next scene…and the next and the next?

Remember: every scene is linked. What happened before affects what’s happening now, and it will also dictate what happens next. If you try to force emotions to fit a plot, well…You end up with a book that feels forced! And as I mentioned above: readers WILL notice!

#3: Consequences

Consequences are hard. These are very much linked to emotional dominoes–in fact, you could say that “consequences” are just a form of emotional domino. Cause and effect, right?

But what I mean when I say “consequences” is going all the way. I mean digging deep into emotions that scare you and writing raw, honest stuff.

There is nothing I hate more than a character dying and then everyone just sort of moving on! Or a character who commits a truly horrible act (perhaps the heroine keeps a secret which thereby causes the death of her love interest’s family) and everyone just glosses over it–or worse, forgives her right away!

If an act is irredeemable in real life, it will also be irredeemable in fiction.

And if an act causes deep emotional response in real life, then it needs to cause deep emotional response in fiction.

So, as frightening as it may be to face the dark stuff in your heart, you’ve got to if you want your consequences to feel REAL.

If I return once more to the Truthwitch example, I realized as I was revising the book to incorporate Noe’s secret that the reason I’d failed to have it in the first place was because I’d been scared of facing the consequences. I hadn’t wanted to “go there” because “there” was a very scary place, and now that I had Noe’s traumatic childhood secret out in the open, I was going to have to build those consequences and emotions into every single scene.

It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not sure I got it right (thank goodness for multiple rounds of revision!). But I now understand Noelle’s–and Safi’s–characters so much better. I feel way more connected to them as people, and that in turn makes me care about and love the story even more.

Now, obviously we aren’t ALL writing dark characters with twisted backstories. But even books that are funny and “fluffy” have loads of heart and can hit us right in the gut. I remember reading Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married as a teenager and suddenly bursting into tears at the airport. I felt what Lucy felt (oh, Gus! You bastard!), and she was as real to me as if she were sitting next to me, waiting for her flight too.

The reason I connected to Lucy–the reason she felt 3-dimensional–was because I understood WHY she wanted love in her life. I understood why she made the often hilarious and often DUMB choices that she did. I totally understood why her failures brought her low, and every scene toppled neatly into the next. And, above all, when Lucy was faced with the final, really tough decisions, I FELT all the emotional weight that those decisions were due. (If you haven’t read that book, I highly recommend it!! Romantic comedy at its finest!)

So there you have it: motivation, emotional dominoes, and consequences. Those are the 3 dimensions that make a real character for me.

What about you? How do you write 3-D characters?

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How to Write Romance, Part 2: From Character Springs Love

Romance2As I mentioned in the first blog in this series, romance is all about characters growing.

More specifically, romance springs from a character overcoming a fatal flaw. A character’s fatal flaw is her (or his) largest weakness. It is what holds your character back and keeps her from achieving her goals.

For example, in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View, Lucy Honeychurch is meek, easily persuaded, and lives life in a dull, uninspired way.

She also isn’t happy, and we (the readers) quickly see that if Lucy tried to think more widely, feel more deeply, and take charge of her own life, she would be able to find the love and contentment she desires.

As Mr. Beebe declares after hearing Lucy passionately play Beethoven on the piano:

“If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting–both for us and for her.”

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Note: Oftentimes, a character is usually blind to his (or her) fatal flaw. If a character knows his weakness, then consider that:

  1. It’s harder for the reader to sympathize when the fatal flaw continues to hold him back from his goals.
  2. It’s harder to convincingly prolong the character’s growth (since realizing the flaw exists is the first step toward personal growth).

Note: A character–particularly our protagonist–will have multiple flaws in addition to the fatal flaw. The fatal flaw simply refers to the “worst” one. Think of Zuko from Avatar: the Last Airbender. He has tons of flaws (short temper, a mean streak, no gratitude or appreciation), but it’s his fatal flaw (his need for love/validation from his own father) that continues to hold him back.

Complimentary Strengths & Fatal Flaws

Now here’s where the romance really extends from character: it’s our the love interest’s strength that pushes our protagonist toward growth.

In other words, our love interest’s strength perfectly compliments our protagonist’s fatal flaw. And, it’s quite possible that, in turn, our protagonist’s strength perfectly compliments our love interest’s fatal flaw. Thus, when the two characters are together, they force each other to grow (not necessarily on purpose, but as an extension of who they are).

So back to A Room With a View, George Emerson lives exactly like we know Lucy Honeychurch should live: he’s a philosopher who asks big questions, he seeks contentment in his life, he explores the world around him, and he lives passionately in the present moment.

Basically, George makes Lucy miserably uncomfortable and shocks all of her snobby sensibilities…yet he also makes her think. Every time George walks off the page, Lucy has changed just a little bit from being around him.

Lucy was puzzled. She was again conscious of some new idea, and was not sure whither it would lead her.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Love Triangles

Though I see a lot of blog reviewers complain about love triangles, the fact is that a love triangle done well is really hard to hate. But to do a love triangle well, our two potential lovers must offer two very different outcomes.

In other words, the love interests have different strengths, both of which will push our protagonist to grow–but that will push the protagonist in different directions. She WILL grow, but depending on which lover she chooses dictates which possible person she will become.

Back to A Room With a View: Cecil is Lucy’s fiancé. He’s not a bad guy. In fact, I rather adore him. But he’s a snob, he has little interest beyond himself and high society, and when Lucy is with him, she backslides into a more uninspired, more thoughtless, and more blah version of herself.

With Cecil she most certainly grows, it’s just in the wrong direction (or what we, the reader, know is wrong because we know Lucy won’t be happy with Cecil).

“Come this way immediately,” commanded Cecil, who always felt that he must lead women, though he knew not whither, and protect them, though he knew not against what.

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

If you’re looking for a more modern example of a love triangle, I’ll point you to Erica O’Rourke’s Torn, Tangled, and Bound. This series has an INCREDIBLY well-done love triangle that never feels forced and that  offers two good options for the heroine. No matter if she goes with Lover A or Lover B, she will become a better person–just in two very different ways. Thus, as she grows through the plot events and her own personal choices, she must decide which “better version of herself” she wants to become.

Putting It All Together

Personally, I often find it easier to logically break apart all of this stuff after I’ve written my first draft and I’m revising. If I try too hard to fit the characters into these Fatal Flaw + Strength boxes, my writing feels forced. It’s when I’m revising that I really break apart who I have and how to better push the characters toward growth.

However, I know many writers (particularly in adult, where character growth is SO critical) who analyze and develop all of these aspects prior to writing. It’s really all about what makes you, the writer, comfortable. It certainly can’t HURT you to think about these aspects prior to drafting (or during a first draft), so why not give it a try? Simply scribble down whatever comes to mind for the follow questions.

1. What is your protagonist’s fatal flaw?
2. Why does this flaw keep him/her from getting what he/she wants?
3. What is your love interest’s biggest strength?
4. How does this strength push the protagonist to grow?
5. What is your love interest’s fatal flaw?
6. What is your protagonist’s biggest strength?
7. How does this strength push the love interest to grow?

 

And stay tuned for next week’s post, in which I break down romantic tension on a scene level. 🙂

You tell me: Can you think of any favorite romances in which the characters’ strengths + flaws clearly align? Or, how do you approach writing a romance prior to starting your draft?

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How to Write Romance, Part 1: Do you actually need this?

Romance, part 1A month or so back, someone asked me (in the forums) about writing romance. This is no easy topic to tackle, and it’s something that every author approaches differently. But, I thought I could share a few general rules and also share how I approach romantic elements in my own stories.

Romance as a Genre

I want to preface this series by saying that romance as a genre is a totally different animal from romantic elements in a story.

The romance genre typically adheres to a certain structure and a certain outcome. In romance, the love story MUST be the primary plot, meaning all your other story threads are secondary. So for example, if a book is a paranormal romance following a werewolf as she tries to take charge of her pack while also dealing with that sexy alpha across the way, the pack conflict (of her taking charge) will be a subplot to the romance between the werewolf and the sexy alpha. The love story will take up more page time than the pack conflicts.

If the book were just a paranormal, however,then the primary conflict would be how the werewolf comes into her own and takes charge of her pack–and the majority of the page space would be devoted to her pack-leadership. The romance with the sexy alpha would be a subplot to that.

Additionally, the romance genre demands an “emotionally satisfying ending”–often times called a HEA, or Happily Ever After. The hero and the heroine must come together in the end, and it must be a “happy” ending.If you’re writing a book in the romance genre, be sure you stick to these genre requirements! I’ll link you to this excellent post in case you’re hoping to learn more.

A story with romantic elements, on the other hand, does not require any sort of happy resolution for our lovers. One character might die, they might already be together when the book opens, they might not end up together, or they might decide they hate each other after all.

What is Romance in Fiction?

In fiction, romance is always going to be linked to character arcs. Always. Whether your story be the primary plot or a subplot, the coming together of two characters must be linked to who they are now, who they are as the story progresses, and who they are when the story ends.

I’ll get into this more deeply next week, but for now remember this: Romance is all about characters growing. If the romance does not push a character to change (for good or worse), then the romance doesn’t need to be there.

And that leads me to my next point…

Does the Romance Add to the Story?

Have you ever seen a movie or TV show that opened with a sex scene that felt totally gratuitous? Like the poor actors were just having to show skin or touch lips because someone in some office somewhere said, “Sex sells.”

Well, we do NOT want that in our stories. When our romantic leads interact (this can be with or without touching), it needs to mean something. It needs to affect the plot, affect the characters, and affect everything that comes after.

If you can remove the love interest character or remove the love scenes without anything in the overall story being affected, then you do NOT need your romance.

I have totally been guilty of this. In the very first book I ever wrote, I spent ages honing the sexual tension between my MC and the love interest. Whenever the two characters were together, I thought sparks just had to be flying. Surely everyone who read would love Finn as much as I did!

Nope. Finn might’ve been sexy in my head, but on the page, his scenes added nothing. He didn’t connect to my MC’s primary plot, and he certainly didn’t push my MC to grow or change in anyway. I could have easily cut him and all of his scenes from the story without affecting the plot or my MC’s character arc at all.

So remember: If you can cut the romantic scenes without affecting the story, then you don’t need that romance.

Of course, let’s say you have a pair of lovers planned that you just KNOW will influence the trajectory of your story and force each other to change, now comes the most important question of all: are you actually excited about them?

You Gotta Love your Lovers

I am the MASTER of coming up with great plot solutions that seem so easy in a synopsis, but when I actually sit down to write said plot solution, I find myself bored. Or at a loss for how to translate a one-sentence solution into a full chapter. Or I’ll be faced with characters who wouldn’t actually do what I had brainstormed for them.

This same problem of “good in theory, not so good in action” happens often with my romances. I’ll be imagining this epic romance between a sexy pirate lord and a fiery duchess, but when I actually put the two characters on the page, they have totally different partners in mind. Or the love/hate relationship I thought they’d share just doesn’t interest me.

Well, that’sno good.If you’re not into the relationship, your readers sure as hell won’t be. You need to be as madly in love with your characters (or as passionately hateful) as they are with each other. The romantic scenes should make your gut flip exactly like theirs. If you’re not into love or not feeling the feels, then it’s time to find a new romance–maybe even rewrite your characters completely.

When these situations strike, I always head back to my notebook for some more brainstorming and some intense question/answer time (more on that later in this series).

For now, just remember: If you don’t love your romance and love interest, then you either 1) don’t need to write a romance at all, or 2) need to find the romance/love interest that does ignite a spark.

Next week, I’ll get into the basics of actually crafting a romance–from understanding character flaws to building characters that challenge each other to grow.

I’ll also be on the NaNoWriMo blog discussing the “hate-to-love” trope (or defending it, rather), so look for me there!

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6 Tips for a Successful Con

It’s CONVENTION TIME!! This month marks the beginning of what I consider “con season”. With RT starting tomorrow (see my schedule here) and then many more cons to follow (BEA, RWA, Comic Con, World Con, Dragon*Con, etc.), I have to get myself in The Convention Zone.

In other words, I have to make myself look less like a hobo who hasn’t groomed since last summer and more like a presentable human being.

As an experienced and enthusiastic con-goer–both as a fan and as an author–I’ve compiled a few broad tips for those of you who might be new to conventions.

Tip #1: Hydrate!!

Seriously, drink LOTS OF WATER. You’re going to endure a lot of walking, possibly a lot of standing, and definitely a lot of waiting. Keeping your body hydrated is critical.

Even if you have to pee constantly, there is nothing to ruin a convention like a dehydration headache–or worse, a hangover the next day. I know that tend to indulge in all sorts of dehydrating treats at cons (extra dessert! salty fries! beer! sugary coffees!), and I wind up bloating like a manatee and stumbling through the day with a raging headache.

BUT, if I keep a bottle of water with me at all times, I find I can get through the day with a much happier body. Yeah, it’s a pain to lug the water around all day, but it’s so worth it. Especially if you’re at a con somewhere hot or in the middle of summer.

I recommend bringing a reusable bottle with you or else buying a bottled water as soon as you arrive. You can then refill the bottle at water fountains as often as needed.

Tip #2: Nourish!!

Same with the tip for drinking water, don’t forget to EAT. It’s easy to get so caught up in panels and workshops and parties that you skip meals. That’s fine–skip a meal or two–so long as you have lots of nourishing snacks to tide over your poor body.

Personally, I’m a fan of trail mix and meal bars (which are never enough food for a full meal–those companies are crazy!). With all the waking/standing/waiting needed, I find I need way more calories than normal to get through the day.

Also, having snacks lets you make those awesome panels or events that are right when you would normally be craving lunch or dinner. Pop a granola bar, enjoy the show, and then snag a real meal once you have a spare moment.

I recommend loading up on meal/granola bars, trail mix, nut medleys, apples/bananas before you go to the con. I even buy all that stuff before I leave town, so it’s easy to pluck from my suitcase and dropp into my satchel for the day.

Tip #3: Plan your schedule ahead of time.

There will likely be LOTS of awesome panels you’ll want to attend. Perhaps there’ll be signing events or parties, special meals or afternoon teas. Whatever the occasion, figure it all out ahead of time, and make sure you’re planning in travel time. Some of these cons span multiple buildings and multiple street blocks, so getting from one event to the next is no short trip.

Also, plan for CROWDS and for possibly not being able to attend the events you want to attend. You might find that the panel on erotica you were dying to go to is all full, but hey! You’ve already picked out a back-up panel on historical research, and you know exactly where to go for that.

So be sure you pick the events you want to attend, compile them in a master list, and print the list out ahead of time. In the past few years, I’ve seen most cons move to a phone app schedule, and personally, those SUCK. They’re great in theory, but usually conventions get SO crowded that there’s no phone service! No one can even get on the dang internet to check what time X-panel starts or in what room X-workshop is.

I recommend printing your schedule before you go to the convention (or saving it in a file on your phone). You’ll be so glad you have that handy-dandy schedule all folded and easy-to-reach in your pocket. No waiting on 3G for you!

Tip #4: Keep a signing pen with you.

Whether you’re an author or a reader, having a nice permanent marker in your pocket might just “save the day.” Maybe you’ll spot an author you adore in the hall, but without a pen, how will the author sign something for you? Or, maybe you’ll get stopped by a kind fan on the street, and you gotta have a pen handy if you want to keep that reader happy! 🙂

I recommend having a silver permanent marker for signing bookmarks or glossy things + a simple black marker/pen for signing books. If you’re an author or aspiring author, always have some business cards and swag within easy reach!

Tip #5: Respect a person’s space.

This should probably go without saying, but I’m still surprised at how often I see people jump celebrities in the coffee line or popular agents who are clearly just waiting on a taxi. I once saw an agent washing her hands in the bathroom while an overly earnest writer gave an elevator pitch to the sound of hand-dryers. I’m sure that aspiring author made an impression on the agent, but I’m not sure it was a good one.

Heck, I’ll admit to having once mobbed an author I adore at a coffee shop, and in hindsight, I’m so ashamed I did that! I would HATE to have my coffee with friends interrupted by a blubbering, hysterically excited Sooz!!

I recommend keeping your fan freak-out moments or agent/editor pitches to appropriate settings like signings, events, or panels.

Tip #6: Back each other up in harassment situations.

There have been a lot–a LOT–of issues with con harassment in the past few years (the issues have always been there, but only in the past few years have they finally started to receive attention). I wish I could say this was only an issue at fan/cosplay conventions, but the fact is that it’s also a BIG issue at industry and reading conventions. As much as I adore cons, I am harassed EVERY year without fail. One time it got so bad that Sarah J. Maas practically threw down with a man who wouldn’t let go of my arm. She was screeching in his face while I tried to yank free and he continued to insist that I wanted him to take my picture. That wasn’t my first incident (or Sarah’s), and I doubt it will be the last.

Enter the Back Up Project whose goal is to empower women (and men) to step in and back each other up when we see signs of harassment. If Sarah hadn’t been with me when that guy pushed and pushed and pushed me for a picture before physically grabbing me and yanking me toward his friends, who knows what would have happened to me? Despite my protests and resistance, no one else was stepping in to stop this guy, who was not only way stronger and way bigger than I, but was also calling me a “bi***” over and over again for not being more compliant. Yes, picture-taking is a part of cosplaying conventions, but I wasn’t even in costume!

So yeah. That behavior happens all the time, and its our job as con-goers to help each other out. To step in when we see signs of harassment. To ask conventions to establish sexual harassment policies and to also ask cons to enforce those policies.

I recommend that if you see a girl (or a guy) in trouble, back her/him up. It IS okay for you to step in, and it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

So there you have it! Those are my top 6 tips for a successful convention this 2014!

You tell me: what tips do you have for convention newbies?

Speak up:

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First Readers and Critique Partners

Today’s post is sort of a catch-all post on critique partners. Links, terms, and advice (hopefully good advice!) follow, but to start, I’ll share the question that prompted today’s post:

Okay, so I was wondering how you set up your critique partnerships and if you have any general rules for who first reads your manuscript, or parts of it… So, how to safely navigate the ‘finding your first readers’ stage? Are there stages within that stage? [Read the entire question here.]

I know I’ve touched on critique partners before, but it’s always worth refreshing and perhaps delving into more deeply. Plus, I know sharing one’s work is always hard and is probably on many of YOUR minds.

CPs

Sharing Your Writing Is a Must

I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it until I die: having a critique partner is hands down the most effective way to become a better writer.

Period.

I ended up with a book deal in <1 year BECAUSE I worked with other writers. I am a better and faster writer with each new book BECAUSE I work with other writers. On top of that, one of the main ways I maintain passion for a story is by…*drum roll*…working with other writers. 😉

A Note on Terms

There are many ways to share your work and earn feedback, and I’ll explain a few more common terms below.

Disclaimer: I’ve heard people use those terms to mean all sorts of things, but below is how I differentiate.

An alpha reader is someone who reads your first drafts, perhaps AS you’re drafting. Sarah J. Maas and I alpha read for each other. We find this method keeps us from veering off-course with character arcs and it ALSO helps us maintain excitement for the story.

beta reader is someone who reads your whole manuscript once it’s finished and revised. He/she looks at the story as a whole. I have a few go-to beta readers for once my book is finished and I need high-level feedback. They are invaluable to me for when I want a final gut-check before turning in a book to my editor.

A critique group is a group of fellow writers with whom you meet/exchange work on a regular basis. Maybe you meet face-to-face or maybe you  share your writing online. The point here is that you’re critiquing multiple things at a time and you’re also receiving multiple critiques. I don’t do critique groups, but I know loads of authors who do (and who love them).

critique partner (abbreviated as CP) is someone with whom you exchange chapters, scenes, entire manuscripts, etc. You critique his/her work (be it a first draft or revised) and he/she returns the favor by critiquing your work. Sarah and I are critique partners. I’m also critique partners with Erin Bowman, and sometimes with other people (a lot of my partnerships depend on who has time/deadlines!).

I seriously cannot stress enough to you guys how important and incredibly life-changing a good critique partner/group/alpha/beta can be. THAT SAID, it’s not easy to find The One. I’ve likened finding a good CP to dating, and honestly, the process is VERY similar. You’ll go out with (a.k.a. exchange scenes with) a few duds–or maybe a lot of duds–before you’ll eventually meet someone with whom you click.

Now, rather than reinvent the wheel on WHERE to find a CP, I’ll just direct you to this fabulous overview from Erin Bowman. Once you’ve found your “date”, take a look at these guidelines to see how best to approach this possible partnership.

A Few Guidelines for “First Dates”

1. Always start off with just a few chapters. If you hate the person’s writing, you do NOT want to be committed to reading an entire novel. For that matter, if you hate the person’s style of critiquing, you don’t want to waste his/her time by making him/her critique the whole darn book. So only exchange 10-50 pages to begin with.

2. Agree on a turn-around time. Nothing sucks more than waiting and wondering and slowly freaking out because a reader is taking forever. We all have busy lives, so if you don’t have time to critique, then don’t agree to do it. If you do have time, agree on a reasonable return date–and stick to that date!

3. Make your critique sandwich DELICIOUS! A “critique sandwich” is a method I learned from Sarah in which you frame your critique (the issues) within positive points. In other words, you open your email/doc/critique letter with what you LOVED. Then you offer the issues you spotted. Then, you wrap up with more of what you loved. This way, you really emphasize that, despite problems, there’s still a lot of potential and wonderfulness in the manuscript, AND you leave the poor writer with a good taste in his/her mouth. Make sense? Good feedback + issues + good feedback = a delicious critique sandwich!

4. Know that your skin will get tougher. If you’re new to criticism, then I’m going to send you to this ooooold post from me for dealing with it. Just know that the more you receive criticism and the more comfortable you become with your CPs, the easier hearing negative stuff gets. After all, your CPs are just trying to help you! We’re all in this together. 🙂

5. If someone who IS NOT A WRITER offers to read your book, I urge you to SAY NO. Many people will offer to read your book for you, but as a rule, only fellow writers will have the proper knowledge to help you pinpoint issues. My husband and my mother mean well (and my mom is AWESOME at spotting grammar/punctuation problems), but they can’t verbalize what’s wrong on a larger scale. They might sense the setting is wonky, but they won’t be able to tell me there’s a confusing infodump in scene 2. For that matter, they can’t even spot issues that an experienced writer might see (like character inconsistencies, plot devices, wonky emotional dominoes, etc.), and they definitely can’t help me find solutions to my issues.

How I Get Feedback

Since the questioner specifically asked who reads my manuscripts, I thought I’d share a basic timeline for how I seek feedback and from whom.

First, as I write the book, I will usually send chunks to Sarah J. Maas (and she will send me chunks of what she’s writing in exchange). We tend to chat on the phone to discuss issues–it’s just easier than typing out thoughts. PLUS, since so much of our books are “collaboratively inspired”, chatting on the phone allows us to brainstorm/snowball/bounce ideas.

Sometimes, we might spend 1-2 hours a day on the phone. For a while, Sarah was drafting her fourth Throne of Glass book at the same time that I was drafting Truthwitch. We would exchange scenes and then chat the next day about what we liked/didn’t like in each other’s work. We have SO MUCH FUN doing this. I’m not gonna lie. It’s why we love coauthoring The Starkillers Cycle–exploring ideas and characters together is so, so, so exciting. Even if I don’t always agree with Sarah’s suggestions/ideas (and vice versa), her comments ALWAYS help me snowball into what does feel right.

As I draft this way, I will make notes of the issues Sarah points out, and then I will address those issues when I revise.

Second, once I have a finished manuscript, I will revise based on Sarah’s feedback. Once I have a revised book, I tend to break it up into 3 parts. I send part 1 to Erin Bowman (unless she’s busy, then I have a few other dear CPs I turn to). Once I have her feedback on part 1, I’ll revise part 2 based on that feedback. That way, I can send Erin a modified part 2 without making her read an entire manuscript with some gaping plot hole or broken character arc.

After I have Erin’s feedback on part 2, I revise part 3 according to that feedback and send that along to her. 🙂 Then, while she’s reading part 3, I go back and revise parts 1 and 2 to line up.

Third, I EITHER send my revised book to my editor now. Or, if I changed a lot based on Erin’s feedback, I’ll try to find 1-2 beta readers. I will give the WHOLE book to these people (*waves at Meredith McCardle and Vanessa DiGregorio*), and then await their feedback. 🙂 After receiving and revising according to their comments, the book is usually strong enough to give to my editor…So I do!

A Whole Bunch of Links on Critiquing and CPs

To wrap up this post, I have some links from my blog and Pub(lishing) Crawl about critiquing. Also, if you guys want, there’s still this forum for CP-matching from 2013’s NaNo. We can revamp it/restart it if any of YOU are in the market for The One. 😉

Now, you tell me: How do you meet readers for your writing? How do you like to critique/receive feedback?

Speak up:

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Balancing Description and Avoiding Infodump

InfodumpAhhhhh, the dreaded infodump. It’s so easy for any writer to accidentally do, and it’s also so easy for any reader to lose patience with. 😉

But there are ways to weave in description and setting and backstory WITHOUT bogging down a scene. It all has to do with timing and what feels natural.

Now, I should mention that when it comes to first drafts, I am ALL FOR infodumps. Why? Because you’re figuring things out! Those infodumps are how you, the writer, get familiar with the world and the history and the characters. Infodump AWAY. I know my first drafts are riddled with that stuff.

Once you’re actually at a point where you want to make sure your infodumps are broken into something more palatable for the reader, then it’s time to break apart your book by scene. This is where timing comes into play.

Timing your Information Reveals

So step one: break apart your book by scene. If you’re not using Scrivener, start (every writer should be using Scrivener. Period.). It allows you to very easily look at your book scene by scene. Another option is to sketch out a quick outline or handwrite scene index cards.

Once you’ve got your book divided, what you need to next is figure out: what information in this scene is CRITICAL for the story? Like, a scene simply won’t make sense without X-information in it…so what is that X? Once you know your X, you weave in that information and only that information. The rest of the stuff? Cut it out for later inserting.

Now you move to the next scene and you ask the same question. If the info isn’t necessary to the plot, character arc, or setting, then don’t mention it here. Save it for when it is necessary.

Here’s an example: recently I had this MASSIVE chunk of backstory in my 3rd scene of Truthwitch. A savvy critique partner mentioned that the story felt slow when my heroine started thinking about her BFF’s nasty uncle. Since that uncle isn’t actually introduced for another 10 scenes, then knowing all about him wasn’t necessary yet.

So I cut out that backstory and saved it for a later scene in which the uncle’s history became critical to the plot.

Note: as I go through my book scene by scene, I’ll often find that I’m actually missing critical information. So then, I’ll not only weave in my chopped-up infodumps, but other necessary backstory or description.

Okay, so now you know WHERE information needs to go on a macro level, but what about on a smaller, more micro level?

Where Information Feels Natural

So let’s say you’ve cut your infodump and found the perfect scene to reveal it in…but where within that scene?

Well, now you ask the question: when would a character naturally think of this backstory or notice this setting description? Maybe there is a point in which the dialogue brushes against your X topic. Great! Plop that information in there!

Like, let’s say your character is discussing X, so it would be natural for them to also think of X (and thereby relay that backstory).

Or maybe your character is walking through a city (hopefully with a goal in mind and something happening that’s a bit more active than simply walking), and as he/she encounters X piece of setting, you can naturally drop in the description/history.

Now back to my personal example, I combed through my Truthwitch scene for an instance in which my character was talking about the uncle. Et voilá! I found such an instant, and inserted the backstory right there. It was natural for my character to think of the nasty uncle since she was talking about him in her conversation.

Of course, I still have to break the infodump into bite-sized pieces…

Make It NOT an Infodump

To avoid having your readers’ eyes glaze over or having them commit the dreaded “skim”, I am a big proponent of short paragraphs. I write that way and I read that way. Paragraphs longer than a few sentences get skimmed, and I know I’m not the only reader like that. It’s just human nature in this busy modern day. 🙂

To keep your readers engaged and to keep the information/backstory/description from slowing down a passage (and thereby becoming an infodump), you need to weave the information across several dialogue exchanges or several actions. Basically, you’re taking your giant block of text, cutting it into paragraph (or smaller) chunks, and then returning those smaller pieces  to the narrative.

Or, better yet, introduce information in dialogue! If you can make the information feel natural in dialogue, then you can weave your backstory into both dialogue and thought.

Warning about dialogue: do NOT commit the dreaded As you know, Bob. This is when you have a character say something he/she already knows to someone who also already knows. It’s clear that you are ONLY doing this for sake of sharing information, and it feels forced, unnatural, and all-around bad.

To show you what I mean about “weaving”, here’s my passage from Truthwitch. It’s HIDEOUSLY unpolished and will no doubt change before this book actually releases in 2015, BUT I want you guys to see what I’ve done. In this scene, my heroines are trying to come up with a plan for their immediate future–and if they don’t scrabble a plan together, they could wind up dead. (All the critical info/backstory is in red.)

Noelle gnawed her lip. Scratched her collarbone. Then a new idea hit. “Didn’t we hear last week that Emperor Henrick is gathering Aetherwitches in Praga? He said it was for diplomatic training…”

But my witchery said that was a lie,” Safi finished, drumming her fingers on the counter. Safi’s magic was aligned with the Aether element—as was Noelle’s—so her power was linked to the spirit and the mind.

“Maybe,” Noelle mused aloud, “Henrick is actually gathering witches for the resuming Great War. Maybe Henrick actually wants military officers and your uncle wants you to join. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s threatened you with the Officer’s Academy.”

Again, I’m not saying I’ve done a great job here (rough draft!), but because the characters are trying to come up with a plan (that’s the scene’s goal), then it works for them to relay certain kinds of information through dialogue. This is what they’d naturally be thinking of!

Here’s another spot in that same scene where I share info through thought (in red) as well as character motivations/insight (in blue):

Her fingers worked fast to untie her scarf…and her sweat-soaked hair toppled down.

Air washed over her forehead, her scalp—cool and wonderful. When she and Safi reached the Hundred Isles, Noelle would never need a scarf again. There were no laws against Nomatsis in Nubrevna. She could wake up each morning and let her hair simply be.

She could let herself simply be too, though that feeling was harder to imagine. Still, her heart beat hungrily every time she thought of it, and when she crossed to the wall of Mustef’s copper pots, that same excited thump took hold.

Last example. This excerpt (same scene again!) shows how to weave in setting (the characters are interacting with it–and it’s in green) while also weaving in more information through dialogue (they’re still planning!):

Noelle felt her face sink into an un-Threadwitch-like frown. “I wasn’t expecting there to be so many guards at the wharf.” Her hand jerked through empty space—the entrance to the shop. If she kept going straight through the hall, she’d hit the stairs to Habim’s and Mustef’s bedroom overhead. Instead, she swerved left and whispered the spell-triggering word, “Alight,” as she walked in.

At once, twenty-six bewitched wicks guttered to life, revealing bright, curly Marstoki designs on the walls, the ceiling, the floor. It was overdone—too many rugs of clashing patterns leapt at Noelle—but like the coffee, westerners had a certain idea about how a Marstoki shop ought to look.

With a sigh, Safi staggered past Noelle to the nearest pile of pillows and sank down. “There are a lot more guards than usual. Do you think they’re expanding their ranks for the end of the Truce?” Safi’s head cocked. Then she gave a decisive nod. “They are. My witchery says it’s true.”

Again, please don’t judge the first-drafy-ness of those excerpts. 😛 The point is to show you how you can weave things in for a natural conveyance of information. As long as your characters interact with the setting you describe and discuss/ponder things that feel natural to the plot’s progression, then you should be good to go!

So there you have it! (I hope that helps some, Emmy. 😉 Thanks for asking the question!) You guys tell me: how do you deal with the dreaded infodump?

Speak up:

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Pub(lishing) Crawl: Planning a Series

A few weeks ago, I got this question in my inbox:

How would you go about outlining [a trilogy]? Would you outline it as a whole or each book individually?

Awesome question! And obviously, everyone outlines/plans series differently, so I can only tell you how I plan a series. Hopefully that information is still helpful, though.

Step 1: Plan the first book.

If you want to see how I do that, you can read my series on it here. As your planning this book, decide if you can tell the whole story in a single book or if the story will need multiple books.

If you’re starting to realize that you’re definitely going to need multiple books, then it’s time for…

Step 2: How many books will you need?

To answer this question, we first need to figure out why  you even think you’ll need multiple books. What is it about the story that makes you think you can’t contain it in a single volume? Write these reasons down.

So for example, I knew as soon as my WIP Screechers morphed into an epic fantasy series that I would need >1 book to tell the story. These were my reasons why:

  • Lots of POVs (like 8 in the first book alone), each with their own goals/motivations/growth.
  • Lots of places to visit. 2 continents + tons of cities/landscapes in each.
  • At least 3 romances, and romance always takes time to develop (I like slow burns!).
  • Lots of plots/subplots. There’s a missing sister, the screechers threat + origin mystery, an occupying army, a rebellion, a corrupt church, an ancient evil villain, and more. It all intertwines and will clearly take a lot of page space to wrap up…

Clearly I was going to need a ton of pages to cover all that! Now I just needed to decide how many books it might all add up to. To estimate HOW MANY books you’ll need, write down any sort of big events you have in mind. Where do those events naturally feel like happening? Or, where do certain character arcs or romances naturally feel like wrapping up?

While you’re doing that, take a look at other series in your genre. Do they tend to be trilogies? Do they tend to be long, interconnected series (e.g. Game of Thrones) or maybe long, standalone series (e.g. Hercule Poirot)? You can use the comparison titles as a guide for your own story.

Another important reason for looking at comp titles is because you want to make sure your series has structure. Consider how a trilogy follows a 3-act structure on a series-scale (e.g. Star Wars) while longer series tend to have less strict structure (though each book would have a strict structure, of course!). The key, of course, is to follow the well-known rising action scale, but to do it over the course of the whole series as well as in each book.

I ended up estimating 5 books for Screechers, and even though I only have a VERY hazy idea of what happens in those last 2 books (erm, war?), I’ve also read enough fantasy series to naturally know that 5 books feels like the right number to cover the scale of the story.

Step 3: Start a special/file notebook for ideas.

I personally plan my series in the same way I plan an individual book: I write down ideas and snowball from there.

For a series, though, I tend to snowball WHILE I’m drafting the first book. Ideas will thunderbolt in the middle of a sentence, so I’ll scrolls down to my special Scrivener page and write down the idea while I have it. Those ideas might then grow into something more or just get cut as new ideas unfurl, but the point is that I take note of EVERYTHING.

So here’s an example of the ideas that I’ve been snowballing for book 2 in the Screecher series. This is a screencap of my Scrivener file:

Planning a series, 1

Question marks denote I’m not feeling SUPER good about an idea…

This is just the beginning of the ideas for book 2–this list continues on for 6 pages. 🙂 I have a TON of pretty specific ideas and snippets of dialogue since book 2 is in the nearby future in terms of plot, and it’s often on my mind while drafting.

Book 3, on the other hand…

Planning a series, 2

Notice: shorter ideas that are also more vague.

My ideas for book 3 only continue for 2 pages, and they’re definitely skimpier than my book 2 ideas. BUT, they’re still more flushed-out than my books 4 & 5 ideas:

Planning a Series, 3

Notice these are SUPER vague and mostly questions.

As you can see, I don’t really know how everything will connect in book 4, but I DO have a general idea of some big plot points. As I write books 2 and 3, then my  list for books  4 and 5 will get meatier.

And, by the time I finish book 1, I’ll have a very detailed/solid idea of what needs to happen in book 2. In fact, I’ll likely have a full outline all ready to go that will allow me to dive write in to drafting.

So there you have it: that’s how I plan a series! It’s very much like how I plan a book, just on a much larger, more general scale. 🙂

You tell me: how do YOU plan series?

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