What Do Your Readers See When They Read Your Book?

I work for a small publisher in Oregon. It’s located on the second floor of a community-style building whose ground floor features (among other things) a pizza place, a concert venue, and a coffee shop. As I walk through these areas every morning and head to the stairs at the back, I pass walls on both sides which feature elaborate murals depicting scenes of people enjoying various activities out in nature (we’re like that in Oregon). I’ve been working here for almost a year now, but it took me until about two months ago to notice I was looking at one particular image on one of the walls all wrong.

There is a long table with a number of people sitting at it in various states of enjoyment. People are laughing, someone is standing and gesticulating as though in the midst of a great story, and off to the far right is a woman sitting with her elbows on the table, her hands at her temples. For the longest time I thought this was the artist’s representation of someone who was, for some reason, embarrassed by the spectacle taking place at the other end of the table. She looks like she wants to crawl into a hole and die, so I thought she was actually the butt of some joke.

But she isn’t.

In looking more closely at the painting completely by accident the other month, I paid more attention to the man sitting in the chair in the foreground with his back to us. Between him and the woman is a chess board. It appears to be her turn and she is concentrating on her next move. I stopped in my tracks when I saw this because somehow it had escaped my notice all the other times I had looked at it.

Art of any sort–music, writing, painting–offers myriad opportunities for realizations like this to occur. You can hear a song dozens of times before accidentally discovering a very subtle instrumental layer that’s buried beneath the more overt sounds and vocals. You can see a painting plenty of times, as I did, before something new pops out at you. And similarly, you can read a book or story multiple times and have a completely different reaction each time, or learn/see something new, whether because you are paying more attention to the minutiae of the book or your life experiences have made you more able to process certain elements now that maybe you couldn’t earlier.

But you need to be aware of this as you’re writing. Try and make your work as deep as it can be, because you never know who’s going to pick up on those details, or when, and you have no idea how much that little detail might help shape the way they view the reading experience; and if they are writers themselves, who knows but that your extra effort might give them a wild spark of imagination for something they can try in their own work. Readers are rarely–if ever–going to view your work exactly the same way you do, so you might as well make it so deep that people can pick up new things with each time they (hopefully) reread your work.

If nothing else, consider this movie poster which appeared in advance of the release of the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys:

If you’ve seen the movie (and you should), or if you’re paying close attention to the poster’s various details, you know that Michael Douglas is the star of this film. Having said that, when my boss was walking past me a while back while I was reading this, he stopped and said, “Hey, is that Michael J. Fox?” I had never ever considered this previously because I’d never had a reason to; however, once my boss asked the question, and I started to look more closely, I could see why he would ask this in passing. Douglas does look rather like Fox here, and rather like my experience with seeing the picture of the woman in the mural from a new angle, I’m reminded of just how many different things someone can pick up fro a picture, a song, a story.

Your readers have the opportunity to see and experience many things with your work. What are you giving them?


Pitch Wars Post #3 – The Second Revision is Complete!

It’s hard not to get excited when you complete a revision and send it off to your mentor, but I’m excited. We’ll see what Holly thinks once she’s had a chance to give it a read. Fingers crossed!

So in the meantime, I’m going to start working on the pitch itself. We’re allowed 300 words between the pitch and however many words from the first page of our novel we can fit in (40-word pitch + the first 260 words of your novel, for example, and any other combination you can think of), so I’ll be working to tighten up that first page as much as possible, while allowing myself enough leftover words to create an effective pitch. This should be fun!

There also remains work to be done (probably) on the query and synopsis, and I continue to come up with a list of agents outside of PW to query once November 6 rolls around and the Agent Round has ended, so I am not finished yet, not by a long shot.

The pitch needs to be done and sent off to Holly by October 31st so she can submit it to Pitch Wars by November 1st.

*Cracks knuckles and pops neck*

Let’s do this.

P.S. – On a different note, NaNoWriMo is just around the corner. I’m toying with the idea of entering so I can work on my next novel idea while all of this agent round/querying stuff is going on. I’m told agents are always asking, “What else have you got?” so if I manage to get the attention of some agents in the coming weeks and months, I hope to have something else to tell them about. I’m either thinking ahead and being smart about this, or I’m certifiably insane, especially considering all the work I’ve put it into Pitch Wars-related things the past couple months, not to mention the amount of sleep I’ve lost. 🙂

Pitch Wars Post #1

Wow, I really thought I would post about my Pitch Wars experience much sooner than this. Sorry for anyone who’s been waiting and wondering. Some thoughts:

–My mentor, Holly Faur, is a flippin’ genius! Not only is she helping me correct errors and habits I didn’t even notice, she’s also showing me how to give scenes extra punch.
–On a related note, the ideas she has given me have led to my coming up with other ideas on my own for added scenes, character beats, etc.
–Including today, when I had an “A-ha!” moment related to the climax and the ending which is going to make those areas even stronger.
–It is difficult to kill your darlings, but a number of the movie and pop culture references I make (to an excessive degree, admittedly) have had to go, and my story’s better for it.
–As every writer and writing teacher under the sun will tell you: Less is more.
–Holly is encouraging without sugarcoating facts–if something doesn’t work, she lets you know and tells you why–and is forever cheering me on whether my emails and tweets to her are full of confidence or frustration, but my fellow mentees are also an outstanding support system. I was commenting on Twitter yesterday about how on the mentees’ private FB group it’s become something of an Encouragement Food Fight in there.

Oh, and I finally figured out who my female protagonist looks like, which has been really helpful!

The first few weeks of this process have been enormously illuminating and fun. I’m aiming to get my first full-on revision done and off to Holly by October 1st, so we’ll see if I can make it!

My Novel has made it to the Next Round of Pitch Wars!

Okay, so a big thing happened the other day–my latest novel was selected as a finalist for Pitch Wars! What does this mean?

First, out of the almost 1,600 entrants in the contest, my novel was one of 125 selected.

Second, I get to spend the next two months with a mentor–Holly Faur, who is an agented writer!–working like crazy on making my novel, synopsis, and query letter shine because…

Third, dozens of agents have agreed to look at all the entrants’ work at the end of this period of time, and who knows but that one of these people might end up being “The One?”

Other cool things which have resulted from this experience so far:
–One of the prospective mentors I initially submitted to told me my synopsis made her cry. The synopsis. As in, the part that is often the most boring and difficult to write simply because it involves the facts with none of the emotion, etc. So that was gratifying (Sorry, Brighton! #SorryNotSorry).
–I have made a lot of great friends in the writing community these past few weeks as the submission period has gone on, which is something I have been lacking for ages outside of a couple people.
–Holly is already showing me a number of ways we can make this novel better, and I’m excited to jump in and get to it, rather than being petrified by the prospect of hacking and slashing and having to remake my baby here. This is growth on my part, BELIEVE ME!

Anyhow, for those of you who were fellow Pitch Wars entrants, thanks for being there so far, even if you didn’t get selected by a mentor. If you are reading this and still have no idea what Pitch Wars is or why this is a big deal, check out my Pitch Wars Bio blog post.

I will try to keep people posted on the goings on from my end over the next two months. I’ve taken care of what freelancing I can in advance so I can have nothing but this novel to work on for the next two months, so we’ll see what happens!

Red-Inkulous: Or, Why I Love Editing

So I’m dutifully–if inconsistently thanks to the busyness of my schedule–making my way through the first edit of my novel, and I am enjoying the experience. I always do, nowadays, but that wasn’t the case the first time around.

My first novel was a wretched Dawson’s Creek-style high school drama that will never, EVER, see the light of day (mostly because a chunk of the physical copy went missing at some point and I no longer have a saved copy of the original doc), and I can recall wanting nothing to do with the editing process because my goal had been more about seeing if I could actually complete the massive undertaking of completing a draft of a novel for the first time. I hadn’t really considered the editing side of things. Eventually I slogged through it and did some editing, but I didn’t exactly dive into it with any excitement.

Now I do. I’ll admit it’s a tricky balance, trying to remain as objective as possible while evaluating work you have created (Side note: It is hilarious to me when I have one of those moments where I read a section of a story I have written and realize that I have absolutely ZERO recollection of writing that part!), and editing without getting so wrapped up in reliving each scene that you forget to keep your critical eye sharp and ready, but editing is something I’m up for now. I’m using Track Changes as I go through and delete spaces, switch words around, add sentences, or otherwise slash entire paragraphs until there is more red on the page than a Korean action flick, and I find it to be a good help to me. It keeps me honest.

You can’t be afraid to critique your own work. I know, you have that really cool phrase you desperately wanted to slip into the story and can’t bear to delete now, or some gorgeous detail-heavy description you know you could have written in five words, but instead wrote in 55 (guilty…many times over), but you have to let those things go. Serve the story, not yourself.

I’m finding I’m having to change details to eliminate inconsistencies, get rid of clunky or unnecessary dialogue, and otherwise make sure the story doesn’t start unraveling like Professor Tripp’s never-ending, 2,600-plus page opus in Wonder Boys, and I like that. Hopefully one of the reasons you write is because you enjoy it, but when it comes to editing and perfecting your story, it’s important to remember that it isn’t about you. I didn’t get that at first, but now I do and this allows me to enjoy the editing process more than I could have dreamed I would be able to when I first started writing novels.

NaNoWriMo? More like NaNoRightNow!

Years ago, a friend of mine innocently asked if I had heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I told him I had, and that I thought the idea was pretty ludicrous because it encouraged people to believe that they could write a ready-to-go novel in 30 days, without giving much thought to craft, research, editing, or any number of crucial aspects of the writing process I assumed were being ignored. I would love to be able to take that reply back because I completely missed the point of NaNoWriMo then. Thankfully I have a better head on my shoulders now and can see the benefits of this annual contest which takes place every November.

So why on earth am I bringing this up in now in the middle of January? Because despite the creative kick in the butt it can give you, the invaluable practice it affords, and the time management skills it allows you to hone, there is one thing about NaNoWriMo which still doesn’t work for me: the idea that you have to wait until November to take the bull by the horns and get to work on your novel. If you want to do this, do it now!

Full disclosure: I tried to do NaNoWriMo two years ago, got sick at the start of the month, then became swamped with “life” after I got better, and by the time the dust had settled, it was halfway through the month and I hadn’t written a single word. So I didn’t try. I quit. I wish I hadn’t because I was in a creative malaise at the time and probably could have used that experience to simply get my creative streak out of neutral.

Fast forward to this past July and I was talking with my wife about writing and how I just wanted to be able to take a month to work on my WIP, even if it was just for a couple hours a day. Come August 1, that is exactly what I did. I was splitting time between doing temporary work and freelance writing, so we chose to cut back on the freelance writing for that whole month so I could have time to work on the novel, and it was a glorious month. The novel was somewhere in the low 50,000s by the time the month came to an end, and that was with taking Sundays off. I was ecstatic!

It took me almost four more months to get to the end of the first draft just because my life is far busier and more hectic than I would like, and I can’t always write for large chunks of time in one sitting. I am about to start round one of the editing process and I have a sneaking suspicion that this 50,000-word or so stretch of the story is going to be the most cohesive part because I lived and breathed it consistently, deeply, for a month straight. There is something to be said for that. The more time you spend in your story, with your characters, in their world, the better your writing is going to become because you will become more familiar with your characters’ habits, their “voices,” their circumstances, to the point that your writing will flow more naturally simply because you are immersing yourself in the life of your story. No one knows the story better than you, and after you’ve spent some concentrated time there, you will gleefully own this fact.

I know it’s obvious that you don’t have to wait until November to do something like this, but it’s worth a reminder that you can start tackling your story anytime, and you should do it now, and do it again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after. Don’t wait for an excuse to get creative in the dead of fall when it’s cold and gloomy outside and you have nothing better to do; buckle down and get started now because you want to and because you can’t wait to get started!