Characterization-More Than Paper Dolls+A peptalk for #Pitchwars

I have the worst time with characters in my rough drafts. They’re always too SOMETHING- Too heartless, too timid, too something. It’s not until I get the feedback from my beta readers that I usually see it. But then the fun begins: How do you take these characters who are one or two dimensional and make them leap off the page?

Think about why this story is THEIR story. This is, I think, the foremost key. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz had to be a farm girl with a stubborn streak and a soft spot for her dog. Anyone else would have quailed from the Wicked Witch’s anger. Imagine a pampered city girl and her cat in the same position! Without making them a Chosen One, what is it about your MC that makes them able to rise to the occasion? It’s not enough to just say, “Well, all the action happens to them.” Well, yes, but why doesn’t it happen to the girl down the street, or her brother?

How do you avoid that dreaded Chosen One angle? Your MC shouldn’t be the only person in the world with that Specialness. But… wait, didn’t you just say, this story needs to be for them? Exactly. There’s a middle ground here. This is especially a problem in SF/F because you have all these powers to use. They can fly, they can shoot lasers, they can save the universe from the powers of Evil. But… Why? What is it about them that drives them to push themselves to be good enough/powerful enough/WANT IT BAD ENOUGH to face what seems like certain doom, no matter the scale? What drives them? It has to be internal reactions/decisions derived from the external situation.

It’s two sides of the same coin. Every time I go to edit my novels, or someone else’s, I’m looking at what drives the characters. Not just the MC, though they’re my main focus; but the love interest and the antagonist too. For example, I was helping a CP with her outline recently, and the antagonist was coming across as a bit of a one dimensional villain. She was stuck. We had to dig into the story’s bones, to the backstory, to the protagonist’s core, to find out WHY. Because ultimately, you want your antagonist to be a foil to your protagonist, but not in an obvious way. If they always go right when your MC goes left, that’s boring. I adore worlds where morality isn’t cut and dry, where the choice isn’t right/wrong, save the day or doom the world. But to make us care about the stakes, we HAVE to care about the character. We need to fear they’ll lose, even as we know the narrative structure always has them win. We have to care when those they care about are lost, and to do that, we have to feel the cost TO the main character. Swat a fly, we don’t care. Crush their support system, and we care, a lot. But it’s too simple if the antagonist is predictable and unrelatable. We need to understand the motive for both, even if we don’t agree with them.

Because then, when it’s just the MC vs the antagonist? We hold our breath, and we bite our nails. The pages fly. Because either one is set up to win, and they both want it badly enough to make it happen.

Real talk, #pitchwars: Later this week, picks will be up. A tenth of you, roughly, will be ecstatic. The other 90% of you will be disappointed, even crushed. You know, the very first convention I ever went to, there were some writers from Star Trek: Next Generation, a series I adored as a kid. When they were asked “What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring writer?”, they responded “Run, run now. Get out while you still can, because if you can do anything other than this, you should.” I was completely pissed. How dare these people crush hopes?

Yet we crush hopes every time, because we can’t avoid it. We can only pick one. Last year, some of us were lucky enough to get a bonus pick and get 2. But either way, that’s nothing compared to how many we’d want to help. But wanting to help doesn’t make it so. I can’t realign the plasma conduits to give me more free time to give every entry feedback (Even the feedback for the fulls I requested that don’t get picked may happen in November rather than September because of my dayjob, client work, and the rest of life has to come first. This is why Chimera Editing exists. It allows me to prioritize giving people feedback and help far more than I’d be able to otherwise.)

What, I suspect, those script writers meant was: This is a hard industry. If you are going to be dissuaded so easily, then you won’t make it. You’ll go sell real estate, get a call center job, do anything else but chase this dream.

Here’s the secret: You have what it takes to prove them wrong. Do what you need to, but channel that anger, that disappointment, that “I’ll show them” into growing. Because we’re in an industry where we are never, ever masters of our craft. This isn’t chemistry. We can’t just take Reagent A and combine it with Reagent B and get Particulate C and Solution D. At best, we’re taking experience, often years of it, and based on what other, similar projects have had as results, saying, “This has a better shot.” That’s it.

You can chase the market or ignore it. You can add romance or keep it out with a thorny wall. Whatever you do, FOLLOW YOUR PASSION, then temper it with your head. Much like you wouldn’t run a marathon without finding the right shoes, or wearing jeans, take the time to build the skills, to read widely, and in depth. Read bad novels, read amazing ones, and see if you can figure out why they’re considered bad or amazing. What is it that makes them tick? Write book reports, reviews, intern for an agent or publisher if you get a chance. Not because the traditional publishing side is the only way to go (It’s not!), but because you learn a lot about how the book world works from it. Get reinforcement from fans, even if they’re just your friends who think you’re amazing. Get criticism from your editors, from CPs, from anywhere you can.

Because someday? If you keep at it and keep at it and keep at it, and never let anyone convince you to give up, even if that anyone is sometimes yourself? You’ll get there. You’re not there yet, but tomorrow’s always another day.❤ For whatever it helps, I’m rooting for you all.

#Pitchwars THE END!

Endings

For this, I’m talking about right after that GREAT climax your novel just had. The main conflict is resolved, with costs, and now you want to get off the stage as smoothly as possible, and wrap it up quick.  ALSO: ***SPOILER AHEAD: If you haven’t read SCORPIO RACES, stop what you’re doing, GO do so, then come back when you’ve recovered!***

  1. Depending on your genre, your MC has gone through the worst days of their lives and succeeded, found amazing love, escaped the maniac for good, etc. This should cause some kind of feeling in the character, matching the feeling the reader should have. If you’ve done your characterization well, and your plot is tight, you’ve given your reader all the feels, and now’s the time that pays off. But the tension is now gone, so you’re working on borrowed time, and it’s easy to bore readers at this stage if you go on too long. But you don’t want to end right as they stab the necromancer or something. You need to go a touch beyond that to let the character react and show the conflict is really over.
  2. Most times, you want the first book to be able to stand alone. You can (and should) have unresolved plot threads, and if it’s intended as a series, it needs to have places to grow. Don’t tie a bow on the end, going over every result. That just ends up feeling like a list of “And then this happened”, which is both boring and unrealistic. They may only be safe/happy for now, but they have breathing room. If book 2 isn’t bought, usually because it didn’t meet sales goals, it wouldn’t cause readers to not pick up your next book because ZOMG you didn’t finish this one! It happens, even to fairly big name authors, especially in their first few books. (Maggie Stiefvater and Victoria Schwab have both had stories that were planned as trilogies and had to be truncated to duologies!) There are a few ways to do this, but my favorite is to make sure that all the main plot threads combine together to CAUSE the climax, so you don’t have much after left to resolve.I hear you screaming, “What if I really, really need to show everything that happens after it?” Then your climax wasn’t actually the climax of your novel. It might be a fantastic battle, but your climax should cause an emotional resolution, not just explosions. But if you did that and still really need to keep going, add a VERY short epilogue from AFTER the fallout, so it can get wrapped up together with something new beginning. There’s a reason Harry Potter has their kids going off to start their own adventures, after all. Or, for example, take Scorpio Races again (yes, I did go back and sneak a reread in!) Sean tries to let Corr go, but the horse chooses him over the water. That works, and is powerful, because the entire novel it’s been a fact that these horses want nothing more than to return to the sea. But note too: There are, from the time the race ends, 11 pages on my kindle (I’d estimate this to be around 3-4k words tops.) left of story. All of them are direct fallout from the story- Puck trying to figure out if she should buy her house or Corr for Sean, until her brother’s winnings solve that dilemma. Then Puck securing her future and demanding Malvern sell Corr to Sean, and Sean trying to release him. All the threads leading up to the race resolved in the race, except for 2: Corr’s future, and Sean’s, and they resolve together as a direct result of the race.
  1. You can, if you’re crafty, weave the results in with the problems themselves and set the reader up to put the pieces together. If we know that group A gets to go home when Big Bad is destroyed, we don’t need to see them packing and going. But, say that lets our MC have an emotional reunion with her love interest/family member who is key to the story (we don’t care about long lost uncle Joe) then use that. Which brings me to…
  2. Emotional fulfillment. You know when you finish reading a book and can’t stand the thought of picking up another, because you’re still in that book’s world?That moment when you finish a book, look around, and realize that everyone is just carrying on with their lives, as though you didn't just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback
    For those of you who are musically inclined, think of it as a chord. Throughout the novel, there are unresolved chords and suspensions. We should finish it off with a major, tonal chord that is in the same key. For those that makes no sense to, think about the ending of Men In Black. The galaxy is found, the world is safe, and Jay is confident in his new role. Kay can leave the defense of the planet to him, and retire (at least for now). The characters’ emotional journey is done, at least for now. Jay and Laurel going off to more adventures just adds a quick hook for future movies (again, depending on sales. Obviously, since it has sequels, it did very well.) We don’t see more of their missions, or antics from HQ. We know they’re happening. In Scorpio Races, We don’t need to see Puck tell Sean he can have his horse, or the walk to the beach. We understand those things must have happened, but the ones we see are the pieces that have the most emotional impact to bring those remaining threads to a close.

It sounds far, far simpler on paper than it works in a manuscript, ever. I don’t think anyone ever gets it right on their first try either. Good endings have to be edited in, pared down, and the emotional threads have to be developed throughout the book to make the ending work. So when you’re editing, and working on the end, ask yourself these things:

  1. What are the emotions I want the reader to have at the end?
  2. What actions are the characters taking to provoke those emotions?How can I make those actions carry the weight of those emotions?
  3. Are there plot threads here that I can wrap up just before the climax or in the climax itself, instead of after? How can I make those elements increase the tension there?
  4. What is the least amount after the climax that I can show without the reader feeling shorted?

Chances are good you’ll end up with a stronger, tighter ending. Leave the reader sighing in contentment and you’ll be golden.

 

Also, housekeeping: More craft related blog posts will go up next week! If you’d tried to send a form in through the Chimera Editing site, sorry, it was broken (We’d changed forms due to an upgrade breaking our old one, and didn’t realize the field ID in the forms couldn’t have spaces like the old one could.) so we didn’t get them and you were getting an error about needing to enter information in all fields. It’s now fixed, and I tested it a couple time just to make sure! Thank you for your patience!

Middles- Or how Point A gets to Point Z #Pitchwars

So obviously, for this post, I couldn’t go line by line on a novel. That’s too much, for you to read or for me to critique with everything else I have going on (In addition to Pitchwars stuff, I had client work and was helping a CP with her outline, and I have another CP’s novel waiting in my inbox for a hole in my schedule!). So I decided instead to share the method I use, in hopes it might help you think about what to look for, then some solutions to common problems.

The same caveat applies here-This advice is a tool, not a prescription. I fully believe writing is a process you have to learn in your own way and at your own speed. Much like math, sometimes pieces won’t fall into place for you until you understand other pieces better, or have a better grasp on the basics, and that’s OK. I literally couldn’t stand outlining at all when I first started writing (Way back over 15 years ago!), much less look at it from this angle. We’re always growing, take what works for you, and combine it with anything that helps you. (I also assume if any term is unfamiliar here, you know how to google it. This does get a bit on the technical side.)

The TL;DR version-Outline events, find your major plot points, make your character’s emotional/mental progression change by each of these points, then topple each point to make sure the combination causes the next.

First,  if you have an outline that reflects the final novel, great, you’ve got the tool you need. If not, read through and just list what happens as simply as possible (This is a good guide for that). If you have a synopsis, use that. Whichever method you choose,  you need a list of some form of your main events.

Got that? Good. Now identify at least 3 major plot points: Places where your character can no longer go backwards, emotionally or mentally, from where they are. Some novels have 5 or more, particularly longer ones, few have less (It’s possible, but if so, it probably is very episodic feeling. If you can hit the reset button between chapters, that might need taken back to the drawing board.) Physical only changes are less useful without the emotional ones that come with them; Destroying the safety represented by their childhood home is very different than burning down their workplace. But if, in destroying their office, they’re setting themselves free of their fear, that can work. Include the ending in this as well. If you’re using the three act structure, these usually fall at about  25%, 50%, 75%. They’re the separation points for the acts, typically.

Once you have those, bold them in the summary/synopsis/outline. Take your beginning, whatever the status quo is for your MC when you start, and look at where they are, emotionally, at each of these points versus the start. These should, each time, change how the’re acting/reacting to the world. Focus on your character’s growth here. They need to first react to the change in their life. Second act-Act instead of reacting. Third act-They’ve screwed everything up by acting, and become determined to fix it, acting more cautiously/with more information. At the end, they’ve won, with costs, and are finding a way forward into a new normal.

We’ll go over the last one more in detail later this week, but for now, I want to focus on acting and reacting and the pacing between them, because it’s the biggest problem I’ve seen in manuscripts. Not just in pitchwars, but in my internships. Most of the time, your inciting incident isn’t something your character has chosen, or at least, what they thought they were choosing is something different. They spend the next act trying frantically to figure out what’s going on, who they can trust, whether that guy really likes him or if he’s imagining it. Most of the time, characters are overwhelmed, and to a certain extent, the reader is too. I often, in my own writing, deviate from the above formula to move the character from reacting to acting somewhat sooner, making the pacing on the first chunk faster.

Why? Because I want to get to the character making choices and acting on them sooner, rather than later. Then it’s a matter of making sure each plot point falls like dominoes, one into the next, each choice causing another, each action causing the situation to get seemingly better or worse, before the whole thing comes tumbling down, and it forces the third plot point. The tension throughout this part needs to increase. Your character needs to be forced to their limits so they can break at the next act. Your stakes need to be defined by this point, and well. If we don’t know what they have to lose, we don’t care if they lose it all.

In most cases, the third plot point is where the proverbial Darkest Moment comes in. Everything’s so broken, so hopeless, that they feel like they have no way to succeed, and they have to dig deep. It’s the moment where everything they’ve done up until this point means THEY ARE THE ONLY ONE who can push through this. I’ll do a post later about characterization and growth, but for now, keep in mind, your main character should not be able to replaced by their beginning self here, or anyone else. Whatever strength they need here, whatever reserves of belief, love, or intelligence, has to be built BY the previous events.

This directly cascades into the ending… which I’ll save for next week.

Now, there’s a LOT of problems middles can have. Most common are meandering/soft middles. Your characters need to shift from reacting to acting faster, and then they need to have pressure on them from the stakes to propel them into making those choices. Sometimes this is also the result of not setting up your characters properly. Here’s the thing: Despite pulling these elements all out separately, they lean on each other like a house of cards. If one part is out of place or built in a way that is unstable, the whole story can collapse into a mess. This is where I really recommend finding good critique partners or freelance editors who can see where your pieces don’t line up and what you can do to solve it.

Some things to look for:

  • Do you really need all those points of view?
  • Is that red herring or subplot adding to the tension or distracting from the core story?
  • What is driving your character here? We’ll get into this more on the characterization post, but think about character motives and intentions for your plot points. If they could be swapped for any other person, or the beginning version of themselves, then you have some major work to do to make them a full protaganist.
  • Look for spots your character thinks to themselves too much. Internal monologues can be just as bad as external ones.

The opposite problem is rushing them. If you go through your plot points and are still well below your word count, that’s easily fixed. Writing short, to me, is easier to fix.

  • Add sensory, especially in the first half and on action scenes. I always, always have to add sensory after I’ve finished the first draft and decided what details are important in the story.
  • Look for places your dialogue is too on the nose, and find ways to make it more diagonal without losing the reader.
  • Is your plot too simple? If at each plot step, you can think of a way the story could stop there and it would be resolved, your story is too simple and your stakes aren’t high enough. Revisit both.
  • Always think: How can I make this harder on the characters? How can I push them to maximize their growth.

PHEW! I know that was a LOT of info, so ask away! Moderation’s always on for your first comment here, but once you’ve had it approved, the rest of yours will show up automatically. I’ll be at the dayjob for a chunk of the day, but I’ll answer as I can.

 

More good resources on plot:

 

Beat sheets for romance

Connecting actions in your plot (Though imo: Doing it for every single moment of a story would get obnoxious REALLY fast. Keep your head out of the weeds, but this can be helpful for those major plot points/key scenes.)

A simplified story structure– If you find all this too overwhelming, start here first, then drill down into this.

Stakes– The best explanation I’ve found for keeping stakes relateable as the tension increases

Once Upon a Time… Opening with a BANG! #Pitchwars

Openings are hard. Plain and simple. In that first page, you have a lot to juggle. Bear in mind: My expertise is adult romance and Adult/YA SF/F, so if you write another genre/age, you may have to adjust any advice here for those. (MG? Yeah, I suspect much of this would apply, but I don’t do it. That’s KT’s territory, and she’s welcome to it.)

So let’s break this down: What do we NEED in that first page?

  1. A sense of whose story this is-We need to have someone immediately we can connect with and care about, and a reason to care about them.
  2. Some kind of tension-I don’t mean blow up stuff. I mean there needs to be some reason why you’re starting in that spot and not later/earlier.
  3. A hook-There’s almost always some first line that stands out, that lays the frame for the chapter.
  4. A feel for the world (Especially important for SF/F)-You should be able to pick it up and, in the first page, know what genre the book is. I’d suggest picking 10+ books in your specific subgenre and just reading the first page to best see this in action.

So I’m going to highlight each of these using a book: In this case, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, because I adore it and I think it does this VERY well. (Note: This is 259 words, 9 words over a proper “First page”, but I was finishing off the sentence.)

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

This is your hook and tension in one. We immediately have a feel that the stakes here are fatal, and it makes us want to know WHY. What is it about the first of November that means someone will die, and WHO will it be?

Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: Dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever –changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

This is entirely description, but it’s active description. The word choices here combine with the rhythm-Dark blue and black and brown, rather than Dark blue, black, and brown makes a difference. The rhythm of the words mimics a horse’s trot. There’s contrasts here as well. Brightest sun/colors of the night.

They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.

More contrasts, and reiteration of the stakes. NOTE: To here, we’re getting the descriptions through the eyes of a character we haven’t been introduced to yet. This lens effect is HARD to pull off without the transition being jarring. This is advanced craft. We know it’s from Sean’s POV only from the SEAN label up top.

This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.

Now we start meeting Sean in earnest. Note the immediate sensory grounding: My cheeks, my thighs, my arms- all once again using rhythm and repetition to create this feeling of movement. We also, from the sense of him being an incredible hard worker, have a reason here to care about him. He wants this, whatever this is, badly.

I am so, so alive.

Setting this line apart, in it’s own paragraph, contrasts it with the first line. Someone is going to die, and Sean is so, so alive, we immediately fear it will be him.

As I head down to the cliffs with my father, one of the race officials stops me. He says, “Sean Kendrick, you are ten years old. You haven’t discovered it yet, but there are more interesting ways to die than on this beach.”

This reinforces the idea that Sean may die, and gives us more context. We now know he’s 10, with his father, and about to ride in a race that has a good chance of killing him.

My father doubles back and takes the official’s upper arm as if the man were a restless horse. They share a brief exchange about age restrictions during the race. My father wins.

This gives a small sense of how Sean views his father, still relating it to the horses. You might be tempted here to show more of the argument, I mean, it is an argument, after all! But sometimes, it’s more powerful to use a broad stroke to keep the pacing tight.

“If your son is killed,” the official says, “the only fault is yours.”

Now, maybe it’s because I used to work with kids, but it shows a certain callous disregard here. Perhaps the people on this beach are not altruistic. This makes us wonder WHY, again. This is clearly not a contemporary fiction novel, no fluffy romance. Again, we wonder if Sean is going to die when we’ve just met him.

My father doesn’t even answer him, just leads his uisce stallion away.

 

Uisce? Too many vowels for most kinds of horses I know of, short of Appaloosa. The unfamiliar term underscores the fantastic element here.

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OK so obviously, a NY Times best selling author is a hard one to compare yourself to. This has also been edited to get it to the spit shine you see here.

So you want something that’s not, but does the same thing? This is a rough draft of my own, (note: ROUGH draft. I’ve done a couple light passes to try to get the voice on it, but don’t judge me too harshly on this one. This is a draft I JUST finished a couple weeks before #Pitchwars started, and I haven’t had time to edit it properly).

Whispers wake me in the morning, just as the sun begins to glow against the horizon.

Hook. We want to know who is whispering. (And no, you shouldn’t start a story with a character waking up, but that’s something I’ll be fixing in edits. I tend to word vomit my first scenes when the idea for the story hits, before I’ve even outlined.)

I lay in my hammock just a moment more, wrapped in my blanket, trying to decide if the whispers are part of my dream or just my brother Barung trying to wheedle an early breakfast. Definitely dreams, as they fade the moment I open my eyes. I yawn and slip from one net to another down onto the nearly silent deck, the only sounds seventy people breathing overhead, 2 of them snoring, and the soft calls of the watch. The bamboo deck is cold against my feet, but I’m used to that. There must have been fog overnight, the glow lamps are still lit. I glance at the rest of the ships strung like beads by the giant nets that trawl between us, catching shark and fish alike. Their watches wave at me, used to my early risings. I wave back, slipping down the rope ladder over the edge. I grab a rope line and hang on as I slide into the ocean. The water is warm against my skin and for a moment there’s nothing but me and the sea’s voice in my ears, echoing my dream-whispers.

I still need to polish the tone here (Definitely sticks out to me as out of place,) but this sets the world solidly as fantasy, with enough sensory to make you feel like you’re on a boat, but not a boat like any you may have taken. You should get a sense of the size of these ships, and that this is her normal. The whispers too add an element of tension-We want to know what is talking to her-Voices in her head, telepathy, gods? Who knows at this point, but it is important that they are here, and now. Word choice wise, I can be more specific here-giant is vague, for example, maybe I can figure out something useful to use for scale, like the ships themselves. Referencing her brother here is deliberate, as a lot of her choices are driven by her urge to protect her brother and sister. We’ll meet him properly in the next scene. But again, gives us a reason to relate to her. She’s also isolated here, though clearly not by anger or fear. Alone but accepted, basically.

Something is coming. It lurks out of reach, but I reach on the wind and waves to try to grasp it.

Tension is reiterated here. You should get a feel that there’s some sort of magic or other paranormal element going on by now.

“Are you insane? You should have waited for me!” Makir’s voice breaks me from my trance, and I wince. She’s my best friend, but she’s always the reasonable one. She could be Hawhna someday and lead the Natha fleets, if she doesn’t nag everyone to death first.

I deliberately ended here, because it contrasts with the above, jolting it out of that smoother lyricism it had slipped into. It’s a bit telling, I’ll have to find a better way to explain who Makir is to the MC (which, note-You don’t get her name in this part, but a couple paragraphs later. Probably by the time I finish editing, she’ll have her name in the first 250 ish words). There’s unfamiliar terms here too, but you should be able to use context clues to figure out Hawhna is a leader type roll, and with the reference earlier to the ships, that these people are called the Natha.

Now, armed with that, and hopefully not laughing too hard at my rough draft, take a look at your first 250-300 words. Can you break out the same kinds of patterns in yours? If not, look for ways to use word choice, rhythm, and flow to GROUND the opening, SHOW a character, and give us a reason to CARE about what is happening to them. HOOK us on the TENSION and let us FEEL the world.

More craft-focused posts will be coming up next week.😉

Book Release: Greed & Jealousy by @TinaEllery

Ooh, I know what I’m devouring after I finish reading #pitchwars entries!

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Greed & Jealousy -By Tina Ellery-Book CoverThe grass is greener on the other side…

Tova Hudson is getting by—just barely. With a crumbling marriage, all she longs for is her husband to make an effort—one small, simple gesture. When she meets Neil Hamilton, a strong, demanding, private investigator, she’s appalled at the pull she has for him. After all, she’s a married woman—even though it’s far from the fairytale she always dreamed of. Luckily, Neil has no interest in a woman who belongs to someone else.

But when peril sets in and Tova’s life is jeopardized, her husband’s absence endangers her even more. This time, greed and envy just might be the deadliest sins of all. It’s up to Neil to protect the one woman he can’t have—or shouldn’t have. But somebody won’t stop until Tova is silenced. Can Neil find a way to save Tova while protecting his heart too?

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After a successful twenty-four-year career as a business owner, Tina Ellery, is now an Indie author writing the type of romantic fiction she wants to read. A little mysterious and a lot sexy.

Ellery lives in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two children. She’ll tell you her writing started because of her son, Salty, and her daughter, Sweetie, and one too many cartons.

When she’s not clicking on the keys, she’s holding some caffeinated beverage. She’s a freelancer with her hoard of recipes and in her free time a jewelry designer.

Writing became her obsession in 2013 when she filled six yellow legal pads and decided to “type the darn thing up.” Be careful when talking to her, though, she’s bound to find you interesting, and you could end up as material, or one of the characters in her next book.

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#Pitchwars: What I saw in the submissions

So I know you’ve got to be burning with curiosity: NOW WHAT? How do mentors pick between all these entries?!

Well, every mentor works differently, even within a team. Some mentors are requesting a lot at once. Some are spreading them out. Some are doing batches. There is no rule book, except we have to have our picks in by a certain time on the 24th so the wars can sort out before the announcement post on the 25th. Up to then? Well, that’s top secret.😉

Keep in mind, this is my opinion only, and this is an incredibly subjective process-Much like the rest of publishing. And NONE of this is meant to call anyone out (I’m deliberately NOT mentioning anything only one person did.). Remember: All the good stuff is about YOUR MS. The bad stuff is about someone you don’t like’s.

**EDITED TO ADD: Note: I’m not answering comments  that seem to relate to individual #pitchwars entries. Those are OVERALL generalizations, there may be exceptions made if something blows us away!***

So this year, KT and I got ~113 entries, ignoring duplicate submissions. This made me happy, as I was expecting around 100.

3 of those were genres we weren’t looking for (I suspect either they looked at LAST YEAR’s wishlist when I wanted romance/WF, or hit the wrong mentor’s name. Consider it like submitting to the wrong agent at an agency-Yes, it’s a little detail, but it’s an important detail. This is why I always suggest looking at the most up to date information you can find when researching agents, and check it against their personal site, if they have one listed. Things change in publishing all the time, you have to make sure you’re getting the most accurate information you can.

Of that 110 remaining, I read through all of them over the weekend, starting with the pages, then reading over the query. Why start with pages? Because a lot of these queries were not good. I’d suggest almost all of you read Query Shark and look at what works on there, then follow her advice. Take heart- the quality of the query didn’t determine your sorting. I almost always toss out the query and redo it once I read the full anyway.

I divided entries into 3 categories-WANT MORE, Maybe, and Probably Not. Most of the ones in the Probably Not tag are ones where the writing didn’t resonate with me. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, but some common problems:

  • They had plot elements integral to the story we had SPECIFICALLY said we didn’t want. It’s one thing if it’s a side mention, we can fix that. It’s another if that’s a central part of your story/character line.
  • The writing involved a lot of telling, or “As you know, Bob,” conversations.
  • The concept wasn’t something we connected to. (Alas, no way for you to know this.)
  • It was too far out of debut range on word count-low or high! Generally, for Adult SF/fantasy=90-110k, MAYBE 120k if you’ve got a really complex storyline and can keep the pacing tight. We have 2 months to fix the story, so this isn’t a disqualifier as such. But realistically, adjusting by more than 20k would have SEVERE effects on the whole, along with whatever else we wanted to change, and it’d be hard to pull off in the time we have.

The maybes were ones where:

  • The writing was only good (as opposed to amazing!) but the concept was something I wasn’t super excited about.
  • I loved the concept but the writing was good, not great, and I wasn’t entirely connecting with the voice.
  • It was something I wasn’t sure on, so I left it in the maybe rather than no until I had a chance to chat with KT about it.

The WANT MORE is obvious. Strong writing, strong, marketable concepts where I get to the end of the chapter and go “Crap, why’d it stop? I want more!!!”

So then once KT did the same, we looked for overlap. No, you don’t get numbers on this part yet, because we’re still sorting some of them.

There are a lot with amazing diversity and some really fantastic concepts in here. It comes down to the writing+marketability. As far as feedback: I’ll definitely be sending feedback to any ones we request more on that don’t get picked by someone in the contest. I might also send feedback to some of the others as well, if I have time. BIG if, because October promises to be very busy. Maybe I’ll put the ones I’d want to give feedback to in a hat and pull them? Maybe I’ll have people comment here. We’ll see. I’m sure even if the feedback happened in November, no one would argue, right?😉

Now what happens? We’re reading the fulls we’ve already requested, and will likely request more of others. I’ve had a REALLY busy weekend (Coffee with my aunt/uncle and housework on Saturday, Museum of Art and an amazing dinner with Owen’s parents for his birthday took up almost all of Sunday.) so I’m just sitting down to these fulls so far.  I’ll be taking notes using the synopsis (I’ll print them all out and just scribble thoughts on them. It’s not fancy, but it works!!).

Anything else you guys want to know, in general?

 

#Pitchwars: Quick thoughts before you submit

No, not that way, you dirty minds! Before the #Pitchwars submission window opens, I have a few thoughts that might help.

  1. Take your time-Make sure you’ve got your full ready, your synopsis set (At least have one. They’re good practice and can help you find plot holes/spaces that need more development. I do mine after finishing the rough draft, if that gives you any idea of how useful a tool it can be for revising!), and your query shows the character, stakes, and the primary plot thread clearly.
  2. Don’t wait until the very last minute-Seriously. Every year, there are people who miscalculate the time zones, and people who have tech issues, etc. Don’t wait until the last hours. It’s risky. (Submissions received then get just the same attention, though!)
  3. Make friends-Chat on the hashtag even while mentors pick, and after as well! Pitchwars, much like Nanowrimo, has a set time, but people can chatter whenever on it, and it’s all welcome.
  4. Realize it’s not personal- It’s hard to put your work out there. I’ve only actually gotten the confidence once to submit a short story (It was bought by the first place I sent it to, granted, but that anthology did terrible and I shouldn’t have wasted first print rights on it because I never actually got a single dime from it due to their “The check’s in the mail” line until I finally asked for it pulled.) It’s your manuscript, you’ve worked incredibly hard on it, and it’s scary to put it out there to be judged. But remember: We’re judging the manuscript, not you. It’s about voice, marketability, plot, pacing, characterization, how much we connect with it… I fully expect that there will be at least 5 MSs I could gladly pick, and it’ll come down to what the other mentors are picking and which KT and I feel strongest about.
  5. It’s all subjective-We don’t have any sort of rule book that says “Use this method to pick your mentee!” We have chats in the secret mentor group where newer mentors can ask “What did you do?” and get advice, and all mentors tend to talk about issues when we encounter them and aren’t sure what to do. But like agents, readers, editors,etc, everyone’s tastes are different, and there’s rarely one “right” answer. People follow their guts, and sometimes those guts are led by industry knowledge and experience, and sometimes they’re simply led by pleasure. There is no wrong answer here.

Watch the live chats, (I’m on the 8pm one tonight, you should say hi!), read the bios, check their twitter feed. Make your choices as best you can, and then take a breath and DO IT. I can’t wait to see what you’ve written.

Book Release: MACHINATIONS, by #Pitchwars Mentor @Hayley_Stone

I might regret this later, if we both fall in love with the same manuscript in #Pitchwars, but this looks so fun! It kinda reminds me of the premise of KT Hanna’s The Domino Project, but with clones instead of super powers. Picking this up, while we wait for the submission window to open…

Machinations_Stone (1)

 

Perfect for fans of Robopocalypse, this action-packed science-fiction debut introduces a chilling future and an unforgettable heroine with a powerful role to play in the battle for humanity’s survival.

 

The machines have risen, but not out of malice. They were simply following a command: to stop the endless wars that have plagued the world throughout history. Their solution was perfectly logical. To end the fighting, they decided to end the human race.

 

A potent symbol of the resistance, Rhona Long has served on the front lines of the conflict since the first Machinations began—until she is killed during a rescue mission gone wrong. Now Rhona awakens to find herself transported to a new body, complete with her DNA, her personality, even her memories. She is a clone . . . of herself.

 

Trapped in the shadow of the life she once knew, the reincarnated Rhona must find her place among old friends and newfound enemies—and quickly. For the machines are inching closer to exterminating humans for good. And only Rhona, whoever she is now, can save them.

 

Praise for Machinations:

 

“A tension-filled story of loss, loyalty, and forgiveness, with abundant Terminator-style shoot-em-up scenes and a snarky, kickass female warrior. I inhaled it!”

Jennifer Foehner Wells, bestselling author of Fluency

 

“This violent, bloody, romantic tale is full of awesome mechanical foes and authentic characters you love or hate, like real people . . . The nuances of the title promise more than meets the eye, and the prose delivers.”

Perihelion

 

“An SF techno-thriller with heart and soul.”

Alex Bledsoe, author of The Hum and the Shiver

 

Machinations is an action-packed SF thriller loaded with fantastic characters and gut-wrenching emotional twists. [. . .] The prose is stunning, the action is non-stop.”

Linnea Sinclair, RITA Award-winning author of Gabriel’s Ghost

 

Machinations is a thrilling fusion of action and heartbreak, with quick pacing, rich characters, and a one-of-a-kind story. A great debut.”

G.T. Almasi, author of Blades of Winter

 

Order your copy of Machinations today!

 

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

 

And don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Hayley Stone_author photo_2_resize (1)

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Tumblr | Pinterest

 

Hayley Stone has lived her entire life in sunny California, where the weather is usually perfect and nothing as exciting as a robot apocalypse ever happens. When not reading or writing, she freelances as a graphic designer, falls in love with videogame characters, and analyzes buildings for velociraptor entry points. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a minor in German from California State University, Sacramento.

Machinations is her debut novel from Hydra/Random House. Its sequel, Counterpart, releases October 11th, 2016.

#Pitchwars: More books I’ve loved

Since people were asking a lot about specific SF/F books/if I liked such and such:

This list isn’t exhaustive, and I know I’ve still probably left some off, especially ones I read prior to 2011 when I started tracking my reading. This doesn’t reflect KT’s tastes either, as we often like different things (and outright disagree on some of these!). But here’s a list of some of the big names I’ve loved, as well as some underappreciated diverse authors I’ve loved:

 

*Maggie Stiefvater-Scorpio Races, particularly.

*Victoria Schwab-Pretty much everything. Her MG stuff didn’t appeal to me enough to read more than the first book, but I’m INSANELY picky on MG.

*Kate Elliot-Black Wolves and Court of Fives both.

*CE Murphy-Pretty much all her stuff, but especially her Old Races and Walker Papers series.

*Zac Brewer-Cemetery Boys particularly, I’m still working on his backlist though.

*Douglas Adams-Because the answer is always 42.

*Lewis Carroll-Alice in Wonderland.

*Erin Morgenstern-The Night Circus.

*Marion Zimmer Bradley-The Firebrand was the first book I read as a teenager that showed the kind of strong women characters I wanted. It has a lot of problems as an adult, but I still think fondly of it.

*Seanan Mcguire- Particularly her Toby Daye series, though I don’t think Fey stories are strong enough right now that I’d pick something like it. Every Heart a Doorway also hit me in the feels, as I have a deep love for Alice in Wonderland (as does KT!)

*Catherynne M Valente-Particularly The Oprhan’s Tales duology and Palimpsest. I know most people don’t like that one, but I loved how it handled the complexity of sexuality.

*Julia Ember-Unicorn Tracks- It’s such a sweet, fun F/F romance, and the adorable unicorn baby had me from coo.

*Kurt Vonnegut-Breakfast of Champions. Just saying.

*Marie Rutoski-The Winner’s Curse trilogy

*Emmie Mears-Still working on her backlist too, because I’m saving them for times where I need a book I know I will like. But come on, canonically bi lead? YES PLEASE!

*Chrysoula Tzavelas-Matchbox Girls, particularly.

*Lynn Flewelling-The Bone Dolls Twin especially, but her Nightrunner series is good as well.

*Tanya Huff-Her vampires so wouldn’t work today, but back when I read it, they weren’t burnt out either.

*Octavia Butler-Xeogenesis, particularly. Wasn’t so fond of Wild Seed, so never finished that series.

*Corinne Duyvis-Otherbound had me devouring it so fast, I didn’t even put my kindle down to get food (I took it with me!).

*Neil Gaiman- Though I’m hit and miss on his. I adored Ocean at the End of the Lane.

*N.K. Jemisin- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms-Haven’t read the sequels yet, but loved this one. I have to be in a very particular mood for epic fantasy though.

*Malinda Lo-Adaptation particularly.

*M.R. Carey-The Girl with All the Gifts-The only zombie book I’ve actually loved.

*Erin Bow-Scorpion Rules and Sorrow’s Knot both. Deft worldbuilding here.

*Marie Lu-Legend

*Emma Trevayne-Coda.

* Ayala Dawn Johnson-I liked The Summer Prince better than Love is the Drug, but I enjoyed them both well enough that I’ll read more of hers.

*Swu Charman-Anderson- Queen of the May.

*Tamora Pierce-I had high expectations going into her books (having heard many stories of how awesome she is as a person from friends who knew her. Having met her, I agree with their assessments), and they actually lived up to them! Rare indeed!

*Tahereh Mafi-Shatter Me

*Suzanne van Rooyen- Obscura Burning. The Other Me looks AWESOME, but I haven’t gotten to reading it yet.

 

Of course, I also adore Brenda Drake’s, KT Hanna’s, Rissa Watkins, and most of the Pitchwars Mentors books that I’ve read (In the middle of Pintip Dunn‘s Forget Tomorrow right now, loving it!), but I might be a touch biased on those!

 

There’s a bunch more on my TBR list I want to read, but haven’t gotten to yet. This doesn’t even count the Contemporary fiction where I mainly read about GLBT relationships (Abigail Haas, Tess Sharpe, etc.) and my romance reads! Before working in publishing, I routinely read 150 books a year. Now, I still do, but most of those aren’t published yet!

 

Any recommendations? Leave them in the comments or @ me on Twitter.  :D

 

#Pitchwars Mentor–Wishlist part 2

If you haven’t read Kt’s post, read that first. If you’re not already familiar with us, you can check out bios out at Chimera Editing, along with some awesome testimonials, including one from my 2015 mentee!

Some editing advice, for those about to go into the trenches, before you get to the scavenger hunt letter.

Grab a glass of wine
1. Put the MS down. If you haven’t read your novel for more than a week, do not read it now. The distance will help you in your revisions. Alternately, if you’ve just finished up other edits on it, or are working on edits now: It’s in your best interest to finish and put it down while the mentors pick. I just finished a MS myself, and made notes of what I already knew while writing it the next steps were going to be for editing it. But I’m putting it down until after #pitchwars (Unless I end up with free time in September while KT works on it.) because when you’re too close, it’s hard to figure out how to fix it.

2. We’re here to guide you, not to fix all your problems for you. Depending on what your specific novel’s problems are, we’ll have different approaches to solving them. But most of the time, we’re highlighting what works, what doesn’t, and giving ideas for how to fix those things that don’t. That doesn’t mean you need to do exactly what we suggest, if you think something else would work better for your vision of the story. I was editing a novel recently where it’s plot important that she interacts with her parents. They’re visiting, and it’s a paragraph of, essentially,”And I love my parents because of these things they’ve gone through with me.” That makes a very distant scene, right? We don’t get to see how they interact, we don’t get that love up close. You can solve issues like that by putting in a scene where you SEE them interacting together. Whether it’s having dinner, going shopping, celebrating a holiday, it doesn’t matter exactly. What matters is it accomplishes a specific thing for the story, be it on the emotional tone, character development, plot, or pacing. In an ideal world, the same scene will help on all those aspects. If I suggest dinner and you’d rather have them celebrating a holiday, great, just make sure you follow the ripple effects in the rest of the story, or you’ll have them celebrating Christmas and admiring fall leaves in the same week.

3. Your novel will end up different. Things like plot, pacing, and character development are REALLY important. You have to know, going into this, what the core of your story, the parts you’re never willing to change, are. The MS I just finished has a bi MC, and that’s important. I wouldn’t make her a lesbian, because that’s part of the core. On an objective level, could it be changed? Yes. It would have a lot of ripple effects and I’d have to change several key factors about the world building of her culture to make it work, but it could be done. But I want more good bi representation in the world, and it fits the character and story to be bi, so it’s one of the things I wouldn’t change. Know what those things are, and make sure everything else works with them as we make changes.

Belle and Beast sighing over books

4. The community in #Pitchwars is just as important as the contest itself. When your book is released (I’m eternally an optimist, I assume you’ve all written fantastic, amazing books that I’ll see on my shelves someday!), all the friends you make now will be in positions to help you. It’s why I do cover reveals whenever I can for people. Word of mouth is the best way to get people interested. Most of our editing clients come from other clients recommending us, or people seeing us on twitter or in contests. That’s exactly the way it should be.

 

5. Don’t stress about the small stuff. Every year, people gnash their teeth and wail because they sent an entry with a typo. We don’t care. Obviously, if your MS is unreadable because it’s written in 1337, that would be an issue. Make sure you’ve got it as polished as you can, but if you find an extra comma in there, relax. It’s fixable.
Shrugs

This is a crazy, awesome contest. So many authors have books out as a result of it, and more have learned skills and methods from it that they’re putting to work in new projects. I donate my time and services every year, because I love helping writers, and I adore the community in it. It’s grown so much, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. I hope it can get enough raised in donations to cover the costs and get it moving towards the future. Awesome things are at work behind the scenes, I can tell you that much.

I've got a dream

I can also tell you the letter:

 

L for the scavenger hunt

 

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