Summer Writing Roundup

I’ve been at Harvard for a week and a half, and by this point summer feels like a distant, golden memory. So maybe I’m a little late with this post, but I still wanted to quickly talk about the goals I set for myself this summer and whether I actually achieved them. (Cue awkward laughter.)

 

back in June, I set out a bunch of writing goals for the summer. I wanted to outline the hypothetical sequels for my small child magician novel. I wanted to have complete first drafts of all the short stories in the story cycle in my Phoenix Song universe I’m working on. I wanted to finish the fanfiction I was writing. And finally I wanted to get back to revising my memory wiping academy novel.

 

And… I accomplished none of that.

 

Okay, that’s not fair. I finished the outline for the second small child magician novel and started work on outlining the third. I revised three of the Phoenix Song Stories I’d already written and finished a rough draft of the fourth—which I’d been struggling with since December. I made a lot of progress on the fanfiction. And I got back to the memory wiping academy novel.

 

I also did a lot of other things this summer. I attended the NFB’s national convention, which was huge for me. I learned Unified English Braille (the updated Braille code which I hope to talk about in more detail in the future). ]. I got a new BrailleNote, which is more like a Braille tablet (also hope to post about that later). Then the new BrailleNote broke—apparently it had a defective motherboard—and had to go back in for repairs right before I started here at Harvard (luckily I got it back on the first day of classes). I learned the Harvard Law School campus and the T system, which was also huge, and there’s still more to learn. Finally, I had fun. I learned to play cribbage. I biked and kayaked and swam and went to the beach. I went to the midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, my first HP midnight release party, and the party was the best part about that book (but the less said about that the better). I read a lot, and I wrote a lot.

 

Maybe I didn’t accomplish my writing goals as entirely as I’d intended, but the important thing I’m remembering is the goal behind the goals. I wanted to get myself to a place where I felt like I was at a different stage with each project so I could make progress on all of them without feeling like I was detracting from the others. I’ve now started my 1L year, and my writing time has been significantly cut down. In fact, my time for everything but reading and class has been significantly cut down. I’m hoping this will get better as I get used to what I’m reading for class, but in the meantime, it’s really nice to have projects at different stages so that, if I have a few minutes to squeeze in some writing (which has only happened once so far), I have choices about what kind of writing I’m doing and where in the process of the story I am. Right now, I have one project I’m outlining (the third small child magician novel), one project I’m in the first draft stage (the Phoenix Song stories), and one project I’m revising (the memory wiping academy novel). I feel like, with my crazy schedule and complete lack of free time, having the ability to choose what to write will actually work better for me, because it means I’ll be more productive rather than forcing it.

 

As I’ve already said, this summer was probably the last summer I will have entirely free. My goal, at its heart, was to make the most of it, and I definitely did that. So here’s to the summer, and here’s to a productive first year of law school to come.

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Summer Writing Goals

Since I’ve finished my internship at the Disabilities Rights Center as well as my grand road trip of visiting law schools and the grand tour of the northeast with Stefania and Bruno, I’m taking summer off before law school. With the exception of a trip to Florida for the National Federation of the Blind’s annual national convention this week and the changes to the Braille code I need to learn (more on both those things later), I’m staying home, playing, and writing. After this year, I won’t have another full summer off again for who knows how long. So why not?

 

On the other hand, I don’t do well with no goals or deadlines. I just sort of flop around. In fact, writing-wise at least, I’ve been feeling like I’ve been flopping around a bit for a while. In college, I was part of a writing group that met every week and shared pages from continuing stories. There was pressure—not a ton of pressure because we were pretty laid back about it—but there was pressure to keep writing on the same project and to make progress on that project, because everyone wanted to know how things turned out. It was lots of fun, but it was also great for keeping me focused. And since college, I’ve been finding that I’m missing that focus. I’ve been having a hard time staying focused long enough to actually accomplish anything—or even to feel like I’m accomplishing anything. I feel so scattered, working on so many projects.

 

Here’s the thing. I probably have been making progress on all these projects. It just doesn’t feel like it. And it’s too easy, with so many projects, to avoid any problems I’m having with any of them, because the minute I get stuck, I can switch to something else and not actually address the reason I’m stuck.

 

I think it’s probably okay to be working on multiple projects at once, but I think I would be more productive if I was at different stages in each story—the planning stage in one and the writing stage in another, for example, or writing one and revising another. But when I have three or four things going, and I’m in the beginning of writing all of them, it’s hard to feel like I’m moving forward on any of them, even if I am.

 

Complicating all of this, I’m starting law school in the fall. Everything I’ve heard about the first year of law school is that you have no time to do anything ever. I don’t know how true this is, or how true it will be for me, because I’ve always found time for writing no matter what else I’m doing. But if I’m going to get any writing done in law school, I need to be organized about it. More than that, I need to feel like I’m moving forward, or I won’t be motivated to do anything.

 

So this summer, my goal is to clean up my writing desk—figuratively speaking. Right now, I’m in the middle of four pretty major projects. By the end of the summer, I want to be done with or at a different stage in three of them.

 

The first is a set of seven linked short stories set in my Phoenix Song universe—what I’m calling the world where “Dissonance” is set. I’ve written and revised three of these stories, and I’m partway through a draft of the fourth. By the end of the summer, I want to have a rough draft of all seven.

 

Second is a fan fiction novel I’ve been working on for fun. I’ve never written fan fiction before this. I don’t have anything against fan fiction, I just have so many story ideas of my own that I never had time for it. But I had this great idea and my friends really wanted to read it, and I was sort of blocked on everything I was writing last year, so I thought I’d give it a spin. It’s been a lot of fun, but I still have a ton of my own stories that have been taking a backseat to this, and if I have limited writing time in law school, I want to use it to work on my own original stuff. So by the end of the summer, I want to have completely finished that and gotten it off my plate.

 

Next, I came up with an idea for a sequel to my upper middle grade fantasy novel—the one I’m querying agents about. Actually, if I go ahead with the sequel idea I have, it will be a trilogy. Friends who have been published have advised me that it’s not always a good idea to write a sequel for a book that hasn’t been published, because there’s no guaranteeing that a publisher will want to publish a sequel, and you will have put a whole bunch of work into something that will go nowhere when you could have been working on something else. And again, upcoming limited writing time. My novel could definitely stand on its own, but I have an idea for a sequel that I love. So I started an outline to clarify my idea and make sure it is in fact a viable story—and assuming I get that far, I’ll need to pitch the idea to people with a reasonable amount of coherency. I don’t have any intention of writing the sequel yet, but I want to finish the outline and then outline the third book by the end of the summer.

 

This leaves my memory-wiping academy novel, which I decided earlier this year that I want to expand and split into four books. The first draft, which I finished just before I graduated college, was designed as a test to see if I could write the plot of a young adult trilogy into one book. The answer is yes, I could, but the book was one hundred sixty thousand words—which is way too long if you didn’t know that—and that’s when I glossed over a lot that I wanted to explore deeper. Plus I had a lot of extra plot I left out because I started panicking about the length. And also there were a bunch of plot holes that come from being one of my first drafts. So I started on that around Christmas but didn’t get very far (because of all the other stuff I’ve been working on). This revision will be my project in law school.

 

It’s a lot to get done this summer, but I write fast, and I’m pretty sure I can accomplish most of it. But I better stop talking about it and get writing.

What I Learned From a Twitter Pitch Slam

Last week, I participated in #DVpit, the Twitter pitch slam for diverse writers, set up by the literary agent Beth Phelan at The Bent Agency. It was one of the craziest twelve hours of my life—I literally was running the whole day on adrenaline—and it’s taken me more than a week to decompress enough to write about it coherently.

 

For those who don’t know, a Twitter pitch slam is an event where authors pitch their novel in 140 characters or less. Those 140 characters include hashtags for the name of the event (in this case #DVpit) and for the genre and category of the book. I also learned that spaces are part of that character count. Agents and editors keep an eye on the feed all day (this is why the hashtags are important: you want them to be able to find your book). If an agent or editor favorites your tweet, you’re invited to submit your project to them, with the advantage of a leg-up out of the huge pile of submissions already on their desks (the slush pile).

 

I learned all of this in the last month as I frantically attempted to write pitches for the young adult fantasy novel for which I’ve been querying agents for about two months. As can be attested by my New Year’s resolutions for the past several years, I am absolutely terrible at Twitter. Seriously, I’m the worst. But I saw an announcement for #DVpit, and I thought it couldn’t hurt to try—if nothing else it would be a crash course in how to use Twitter—and it actually went way better than I expected.

 

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I had a ton of help. Huge thanks to Julie Sadler, Kristen Ciccarelli, Kayla Whaley, Mark O’Brien, and Natasha Razi for their incredible critiques of my pitches, and thanks also to all my writing group friends who cheered me on all last Tuesday. I couldn’t have done it without all your support and help.

 

I believe that it’s easier to talk about how you do something or what you learned from it with examples, rather than in the abstract. So without further ado, here are the three pitches I used throughout the day.

 

  1. 13 yo Jael’s magic gets her a new family, but only if she survives the antimagic rebellion her murdered parents started. #DVPit #YA #F

 

Though a couple writers favorited this pitch, and I’m grateful for the compliment, no agents or editors favorited it. I was honestly surprised, because I’ve heard from a few editors that the bit about Jael’s parents starting the rebellion is the most compelling and unique part of my query letter. On the other hand, this is a 140 character pitch, not a 250 word letter. I’ve crammed a lot in here, and I can see how it could be confusing, and if you’re reading it quickly, how it could come off a little like gibberish. I certainly saw several pitches scrolling through the feed that made zero sense to me but probably made lots of sense to the author. Finally, there’s always the possibility that it just got buried under all the other pitches. I swear, the rate of pitches being tweeted was like one per second, which contributed a lot to how stressed I was about the whole thing.

 

2. 13 yo Jael must face her murdered parents’ past and master her magic to save her new family from the antimagic rebellion. #DVPit #YA #F

 

An editor favorited this pitch. Yay! I think what works here is that it doesn’t try to cram everything in. We know her parents are murdered and something happened in their past that is related to the antimagic rebellion, but we don’t know exactly what, so it’s intriguing. We also know that since she has magic, she’s naturally on the wrong side of the rebellion, or the right side in terms of stopping it, depending on how you look at it. Finally, I more clearly defined the stakes of the novel, why she has to master her magic and untangle her parents’ past.

 

3. 13 yo foster home survivor Jael must learn to use her magic or she’ll be taken away from the family she’s desperate to keep. #DVPit #YA #F

 

Three agents favorited this pitch. Yay! Yay! Yay! And this actually turned out to be my favorite of the pitches I used. It comes at the story from a different angle, a more emotional angle than the first two pitches. It’s not as cluttered with information that could be confusing in such a short format. But it does clearly set up stakes and introduce us to a relatable character.

 

The important aspects of a Twitter pitch come down to as much specificity as possible, without being confusing, and a sense of the stakes of the book. I learned that it’s important to use the character’s name. In my original pitches, I just said “13 yo orphan.” But readers, editors and agents too, relate to people. If I give her a name, she becomes a person. And actually, since I say that her parents have been murdered, I don’t even need to call her an orphan, since it’s implied (you can show and not tell in a Twitter pitch too, apparently).

 

You can repeat pitches, or use multiple pitches that approach the book from different angles. It’s a full-length book, so odds are there are lots of ways to approach the book in an intriguing way. My first two pitches take the same approach, while my third takes a different. I probably could have come up with one or two other approaches to my story, but writing a 140 character pitch for a 90,000 word novel is really hard guys. So I contented myself with the pitches I had and just repeated them all.

 

It’s small, but I feel like it’s important to use as few abreviations and acronyms as possible. It makes the pitch easier to read. The only abbreviation I used is “yo” for “year old,” because “year old” is a lot of characters. Also, though you probably don’t have to include the final period, I am a strong believer in correct grammar and punctuation, even on Twitter, so I did. Finally, since it was a pitch slam specifically for diverse writers, I could have included a hashtag indicating that I’m a writer with a disability, but since I don’t have any disabled characters in this particular book, I decided it would probably just confuse the issue, so I left it out.

 

There was so much advice out there on the internet, and I read a lot of it as I prepared for DVpit. I also had lots of help with my pitches, as I’ve said. I probably did a few things wrong (in fact, I’m almost certain of it, because I’m still awful at Twitter), and after all this, I can say with confidence that I’m not a huge fan of the Twitter pitch as a format for pitching your book. There’s just too much information to cram into too little space. But I got four favorites, four people whom I can submit my book to, and that awesome feeling that my novel appeals to someone. And that was way more than I expected (when I saw how many people were participating, I was positive no one would even find my pitch, let alone like it).

 

I really enjoyed #DVpit. It was great to see so many awesome stories pitched, and it was great to be a part of all that excitement. Getting more diverse voices into fiction is very important to me: We read to discover, and we can’t discover if we’re always reading books written by people with the same point of view. I really hope I get to read some of these books someday soon.

Writing a Synopsis at the Last Minute

A few weeks ago, I wrote about beginning to query agents for my novel. All very exciting stuff, and it’s getting more exciting. When I left you, I said all I had to do was polish my query letter and finish up my synopsis and I’d be set to go. Well, the synopsis wasn’t going so well, but I didn’t want to lose all the momentum I had going, so I said, I’ll pick five agents who don’t require a synopsis for my first round of submissions, and once I query them, I’ll really get down to editing the synopsis. So that’s what I did.

 

Except for the synopsis part.

 

Before I submitted my queries, I had written a five page double-spaced synopsis that took a reader through the entire book, blow by blow. I had then edited it down to three pages. Most agents want a one-two page synopsis, and this was where I was struggling. If you’ve never tried it, describing a 330-page manuscript from start to finish in one page is really hard. Really, really hard. Throw in the fact that this 330-page manuscript has two storylines—one from the protagonist’s point of view in the present and one from her parents’ points of view in the past—and it gets even harder. So yeah, I was pretty stuck, and I was pretty much ignoring it. I figured I had until I was rejected by all five agents before I needed a synopsis for the next batch, and that was plenty of time.

 

Until one of the agents didn’t reject me and instead requested sample chapters and, you guessed it, a one-page synopsis. It was a moment of great excitement—my query works!—but also sheer terror. Now I needed a working synopsis—a working, one-page synopsis—and I needed it now. Actually, I really needed it yesterday so I could be submitting it now. And, oh yeah, I still didn’t know how to do that.

 

The good news was I wasn’t starting from scratch. The bad news was I felt completely overwhelmed. I had a three-page synopsis that was split into the past and present storylines, similar to how the book is set up, but it was awkward and clunky and way too long, and even I—with my expert cutting skills—was having trouble making it shorter. I started to panic. I wanted to get these sample chapters and synopsis off to the agent as soon as possible, but I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t know how to make myself ready to do that. And did I mention I should have had this done yesterday?

 

Once upon a time, I was crazy organized and on top of things. I had homework done a week in advance—that sort of crazy. Then I went to college, discovered television and a social life, and learned to procrastinate. And as I remembered after the fact, this is not the first time I’ve been caught off guard and had to produce something at light speed. And it worked out really well then, too (I got into Alpha). But this wasn’t a short story. This was a whole book boiled down to a page.

 

I panicked for about half an hour all over my skype writing group and some people from Alpha who’d helped me with my query. Finally, they managed to get me calmed down enough to think straight. They reminded me that the synopsis isn’t really that important. It’s not something to blow off, certainly, but many agents view it as a formality, a way to tell that your story has a beginning, middle, and end, and nothing whacky flying out of left field in the last sentence. My sample chapters were good, they reminded me. I just had to calm down, finish the synopsis, and get it out the door.

 

And that was all well and good, but I still didn’t know how to fix the synopsis. A couple people suggested that, since the parents’ storyline really is a subplot, it didn’t need to take up nearly as much room in the synopsis. I could just include a quick paragraph about it when the protagonist finds out the relevant information. I went back and forth on this. The parents’ storyline is really important to me. In earlier drafts of this novel, I had people insist that I cut it all together, but I really felt like it added a whole other layer of complexity to the novel and to my protagonist’s motivations, so I stuck with it. So I didn’t want to just eliminate the parents from the synopsis, because I reasoned, if they aren’t important enough to include in the synopsis, why are they so important to the novel? And I couldn’t say something along the lines of “The novel is told in three points of view,” because according to all my research on how to write a synopsis, you aren’t supposed to get that meta—no themes or motifs or even discussions of writing or point of view—just the plot and characters and some stuff about the setting. But this idea of boiling down the parents’ storyline into a short paragraph and then inserting it at a critical point in the synopsis clicked with me. Best of all, it allowed me to focus my wildly scattered panic into motivation and energy and get to work.

 

I cut out all the stuff about the parents, getting the synopsis down to just over a page. Then I wrote my short paragraph about the parents and stuck it in where I thought it should go. Now, instead of a three-page synopsis, I had a page and a half. Much more manageable. I went through sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, restructuring and trimming until, at last, it fit on one page. I was victorious! And best of all, when all was said and done, I was actually pretty proud of my work. It didn’t feel like something I’d thrown together in a few adrenaline-fueled hours, it felt strong and polished, like it might stand a chance at convincing an agent that I know how to tell a story.

 

There’s a lesson here. If I had finished the synopsis earlier like I’d meant to, I could have avoided losing my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that lesson. But here’s the thing, all that time that I was “procrastinating” on the synopsis, it was still stewing in the back of my mind. That’s why the new take on how to handle the parents’ chapters clicked with me so quickly—my subconscious was probably already halfway there. So when someone lit a fire under me, I had everything I needed to get it done and get it done well. And now, if anyone else asks for a synopsis, I have it.

 

And now that it’s done and I’ve caught my breath, I can take the time to really savor how exciting all this is. It may turn out that this particular agent isn’t the right fit, but maybe she is, and anyway it’s great to know that my query has grabbed someone’s attention and that I’m on to the next step. So keep your fingers crossed for me.

 

The Good Guys

As I’m working on my query and synopsis for my small child magician novel, I have found myself feeling very reflective. The query and the synopsis feel like a summation of all I have done for this novel, and since this novel was the novel I just couldn’t give up on, the novel that has grown and changed as I have grown and changed—as a person and as a writer—it feels pretty significant. I wrote the first draft of this novel almost twelve years ago, when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have taken enormous strides in my writing. For one thing, I learned about plot—what it is, how to do it, how to do it well. But at the same time, I also learned a lot about characters, and how characters are the key to moving a good story forward, just as much—if not more—than the plot. Also, I talked all throughout last November about plot, so I’ve decided it’s time I ramble about characters.

 

When I was in high school, I thought that the trick to strong characters was knowing every single possible detail about them that I could. I created a questionaire of 199 questions to make my characters real (in no particular order), and I answered every single question for every single character. Now, I laugh at my younger self a little bit. It’s not that this stuff isn’t important. It is. It helps you grasp what kind of person your character is. But you do not have to be as anal about it as I was. Beyond useless trivia, it probably isn’t essential that you know what your main character’s best friend’s older brother’s favorite color is. Unless it’s a significant part of the story—like he will only wear bright orange shirts, so the main character can always see him coming from a mile away—then really, no one is going to care that you know that particular fact. What I came to understand in college is that it’s much more important to know the big things than the small things. What does your character want? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? What is their plan to get it? What do they care most about in the world? What are they most afraid of? What are they insecure about? It is these big questions and big ideas that shape who a person is—not their favorite pizza topping or least favorite hairstyle.

 

But there’s something even bigger that I’ve learned about characters as I’ve worked on my small child magician novel. A strong character is not only a well-rounded character. A strong character is an active character.

 

I’m going to talk specifically about protagonists right now. (In the next few weeks, I plan to discuss antagonists and side characters and how they influence the story in their own right, so stay tuned.) The protagonist is the main character of the story. They’re the character who—we hope—the reader is rooting for in the story (unless you’re writing an antihero (which I have never successfully done and don’t particularly like to read about, except when I do and then find myself totally baffled). In short, the protagonist is the good guy.

 

I think I’ve said before that the stories I most like to read and consequently aim to write are driven pretty equally by both plot and character. That means that while the story is pushed forward by outside influences—the plot—it is also moved along by the actions of the characters. A strong protagonist has agency—they are an active agent in their own plot.

 

It seems obvious, but it took me absolutely forever to get a grip on this. For the longest time, my protagonist was just flipflopping all over the story, being pushed around by the other forces in her life rather than standing up and making her own decisions. I learned that protagonists need to have agency, but it just didn’t sink in. Countless critiquers told me this was a problem, but either they didn’t say so in exact terms, or again I just didn’t get it. Then, at the end of my first year of college, it finally clicked into place. That it took this long for me to get it means that this lesson is really important for me. I think it is hands down the number one most important writing lesson I have ever learned.

 

For a story to work, your protagonist has to want something. That can be as simple as wanting to stop the antagonist, but your protagonist can have their own agenda entirely separate from the antagonist, until the antagonist gets in the way, of course. But the point is, your protagonist has to want something. Once your protagonist wants something, they have to take action to get it. This action drives the plot forward, and it also spurs character development. Because of course, it can’t be easy for your protagonist to get what they want. There has to be something standing in their way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read. It is when a protagonist takes action to surmount seemingly insurmountable odds, to tackle impossible challenges, and to come out the other side changed, even if they are not victorious (though victory is always an added bonus), that we find stories we love.

 

You can have an incredible, twisting, turning, thrilling plot, but it isn’t going to work if your protagonist is just being dragged around by that plot. Your protagonist needs to stand up and say, “No, this is my story, and I’m going to play a part in it.”

This Time for Sure

Almost six years ago, before I graduated from high school, I thought I had a completed manuscript for my small child magician novel. I was wrong on so many levels—like it is embarrassing to even think of how wrong I was—but I didn’t know it then. I got a subscription to Writer’s Market and started querying agents. At first, it didn’t go all that well. But then a friend offered to put me in touch with their friend, who was a writer. This friend of a friend offered to take a look at my query letter, by which he meant ppass the query letter on to his agent, who not only gave me some good advice on the query itself, but also requested my manuscript and gave me advice that changed my book forever.

 

I revised throughout my first year of college, and then I resubmitted to her. Ultimately, she rejected the book, but she did say she would be happy to hear from me down the line. So I continued to revise. And revise. And revise.

 

Just before I graduated from college, my thesis advisor put me in touch with her agent for my thesis novella. This agent gave me some good feedback on that project, but we also talked a lot about how I only get one debut novel. In some ways, this was an obvious point. But in other ways, it was a question I really needed to consider. At the time, I had my thesis novel, my small child magician novel, and the first draft of my memory-wiping academy novel. In my opinion, none of them were ready to be submitted yet, but I’d been given this opportunity, so I thought I should take advantage of it. But the more I thought of it, the more I leaned towards the small child magician novel. It was the novel I’d been working on the longest. It was closest to being really done. And it was the first novel I was proud of. So I decided: it would be my debut novel.

 

I finished my revisions in Italy, and last spring, I sent it to the agent my creative writing professor had put me in touch with. And I put off doing anything else to prepare to submit it. A few weeks ago, though, I heard back from the agent. She gave me lots of good feedback, and she said she would be willing to look at a final draft, but she also said that ultimately she wasn’t sure this was the right project for her. Honestly, I’d suspected this would be the case for a while, but I was also studying for the LSAT and applying for law school and starting work at the Disabilities Rights Center, so I was fine letting it sit until I heard back from her. But then I heard back from her, and I kicked into gear.

 

I went through the book one more time, putting some of her comments into a revision. Then I read all the archives on Query Shark and drafted my own query. And rewrote it. And rewrote it. Seven drafts later, I have something I’m really happy with. I bought a copy of the 2016 Guide to Literary Agents and read it cover to cover. I took notes on over a hundred agents who I wanted to research further. I am really, really hoping I don’t need that many. Now I am delving deeper into these agents, narrowing my list, and ranking them based on some criteria I established and also my trusty gut feeling. I’ve found a bunch that look like really good options, and a few I am super excited about. I’m also working on writing my synopsis. In case you didn’t know, summarizing your entire 90,000 word novel, start to finish, in only 500 words, is really, really hard. But I wrote a draft today, and I shouldn’t have too much trouble condensing it so that it’s one quarter it’s current size. I’ve gotten really good at this. Finally, I have a couple more nitpicky edits for the manuscript itself, and then it’s ready to go.

 

It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been a lot of fun, and the more I do, the more excited I get. I am doing this! My goal is to be ready to query starting in the beginning of March. I’ve had a couple false starts on this before, but I’m confident that this time, I’m ready.

 

So wish me luck, because here I go.