Where does the time go?

Today is the last day of NaNoWriMo and I'm sure many of you are asking yourself "where did the month go?". I swear Halloween was just last week.

With so many obligations that fill our days it's easy to lose track of time and realize we aren't as far along with projects as we'd like to be. Between work, school, families, household chores, community obligations, church, and heaven forbid any other hobbies, writing can sometimes become the task that gets pushed to the side or saved for another day.

Back in my days of working the corporate 9-5 (ha!) I took a time management class that was actually really helpful to me. One of the things we were challenged to do as homework was a time chart. Basically, we wrote down every activity we did on a given day along with the start and end time.

For example, the start of your day might look like this:

6:00-6:30 Get ready for work
6:30-6:45 Breakfast
6:45-7:15 Drive to work
7:15-8:00 Check and respond to email
8:00 - 8:05 Get more coffee
and so on...

The idea was to help us realize exactly where the hours went every day. It was eye opening. When I did this for work, I realized I was spending a lot of time during the day on little tasks that I should have asked our admin assistant to do. In my mind, they were no big deal and not worth bothering her with. However, on paper I realized I was spending around an hour every day scheduling meetings or shipping packages, none of which had anything to do with the marketing plans I was supposed to be working on.

Another aspect of the chart was to make a check mark next to the item every time we were interrupted during the task. Another big eye opening here. Interruptions, even small questions I could answer without thinking, adding lots of time to whatever I was working on. On average, every interruption cost an additional 5 minutes to get back into whatever task I had been working on. Five minutes might not sound like a lot until you think about the number of times every day someone interrupts you.

So how does this apply to writing? I don't know about you, but I'd love to find more time in my day for writing. I would suggest everyone complete a time chart like this. Charting a week would be best, but even a single day should show you ways that you could improve your productivity.

I would also suggest setting aside designated writing time that is interruption free. I know first hand that this can be difficult, especially with little ones. But you'll be surprised how much more you can get done in 30 minutes of dedicated writing time than in 2 hours of time that is shared with answering the phone, switching the laundry, changing a diaper or any of the other "quick tasks" we try to get done with writing.

In the end, we all want to be more productive. Until we each have a personal Tardis, we're stuck with 24 hours a day. Knowing how each of those hours is spent is only going to help you in getting the most out of them.

If you do a time chart, I'd love to hear about it. Share what you learned in the comments below.

Contest Awesomeness

Today is short and sweet because I am a busy lady this week. We have a leak in our bathroom, my car died last night (fingers crossed for an easy fix), I have tons to do for the internship, I'm working on a read through, a bright shiny new idea flooded my brain yesterday, and I'm getting my submission ready for #PitchWars.

If you are an un-agented writer with a completed (read polished till it shines) manuscript, you need to check this out.

The contest is hosted by the fabulous Brenda Drake who comes up with the best ideas ever for contests. Over 30 mentors (agented writers, interns and editors) will pick one writer based on their query and first five. Together they will shine those puppies up and then present them to a team of agents.

The team with the most requests gets gift cards, but  honestly, no one cares about the gift cards. This is all about getting some insider help and hopefully snagging an agent.

The twitter feed for this contest is hilarious and the good news is you still have plenty of time to enter. Entries are due by December 5th. Plenty of time. So head over to Brenda's blog and tell her I sent you.

Agency Lessons

The agency I intern for closed for queries this week until the new year (pending the end of the world in December). As anticipated, we were flooded with queries this week. The downside of this is that I have a lot of work to do. The upside is that reading that many queries in a short amount of time leads to the awareness of several trends. Here are a few I've noticed lately to help you in your querying efforts.

Query Tips

1. Don't forget the hook.
I've seen tons of queries lately that focus on the premise or the characters only. And while this is interesting, it doesn't really tell me what the story is about. So the woman who was raised by her aunt has just discovered the mother she thought was dead is still alive. Great. This is the premise. Now what? What is the central conflict of the story? Maybe the main character needs to track down her mother to see if she knows the cause of the strange dreams she's been having. Maybe the mother wants to reconcile and the daughter has to figure out how she feels about this. A description of your characters and their world is not enough. Your query, just like your novel, needs good conflict.

2. Don't trash other stuff.
This should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't. Don't talk bad about types of stories, genres, character tropes or anything else in the world of books. This doesn't just mean outright meanness. Lately, I've seen lots of queries that go out of their way to lay out all the things the novel being queried doesn't have. Things like, "this novel doesn't include vampires, werewolves, faeries or any other more common creatures." On the surface, this doesn't sound negative. But what if the agent you are querying loves faeries? What if they are writing their own fairy novel? You've just completely alienated them and probably turned them off from your story. As a rule, don't talk about the elements of a story that aren't in your novel.

3. Know your genre.
Here's a safe rule of thumb: if you can't find the genre on Amazon, don't put it in your query. YA is not a genre; it's a category. Your YA could be a mystery, a fantasy, a contemporary romance. Anything. Don't make agents guess. Don't assume your query makes the genre clear in the description. Spell out your genre and make sure it's a real one.

4. You're not first; You're not unique.
Yes, your story is the only one just like it. Or, at least, it better be. But it is not the first book of it's kind or the only book on the market to (fill in the blank). It's not. No, I promise. It's not. Saying that it is only makes you look conceited or at the minimum as if you don't read enough.

5. You're in a critique group. Bully for you.
Agents are going to assume you belong to a critique group of some kind. Please don't send a query before at least one other pair of eyes has seen your manuscript. Please don't include a list of all the good folks who think your book is amazing. This is not impressive and makes you look like an amateur. Now, if you have great feedback from a professional (an acquisitions editor or a well-published author) please include this. 

6. Words matter.
I've been most surprised by a recent wave of writers who mention their book is 'recently completed' or 'lightly edited'. This is not good. When I see this I immediately think you've said 'I just finished writing the first draft and after running a quick spell check I've sent this query to you'. If this is what recently completed and lightly edited mean, don't query. You're not ready yet. Be aware that with so few words in a query, each one has meaning. Make sure your words really say what you want them to.

Do you have any great query tips? Feel free to share in the comments. Next week, I'll be sharing things I've picked up in the sample pages.

Cover Reveal: Edge of Truth by Natash Hanova

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving with all kinds of fun, food, family, and...frolicking. Sorry, I ran out of f's. One of the things I'm thankful for is the great online community of writers that I get to be a part of. Part of the joy in that community is celebrating the success of others and that's what I'm doing today.

I'm super excited to be part of the cover reveal for Natasha Hanova's new release EDGE OF TRUTH. Without any more blathering, here it is!

Edge of Truth

Citizens who report to work on time, obey the Overlord’s laws, and stay off the Synbot’s radar, live long lives. Long, dull, monotonous lives.

It’s not a bad plan for someone with a hidden, emotion-based ability to trigger earthquakes. In a world pitted against her, sixteen-year-old Rena Moon strives for a life beyond working herself to death at the factory. Seeing an alternative, she risks selling relics from the forbidden lands at Market. It becomes the worst decision she ever made. Someone kidnaps her best friend in exchange for the one thing that would end her oppression.

Driven by loyalty, Rena and seventeen-year-old Nevan Jelani, soulful composer, green thumb extraordinaire, and the secret love of her life, plot to rescue her friend and reclaim her salvage. Still, the thought lingers whether Nevan is a true hero or another thief waiting for his chance at her loot. Events spin wildly, deepening Rena’s suspicions and pushing her limit of control. With more than her chance for freedom at stake, she must decide if she’s willing to kill to protect what’s precious to her. For once, the Overlord isn’t holding all the power, but can Rena live with being reduced to what she’s trying so hard to escape?

I love how much information the cover gives. The beauty of a world Rena isn't really a part of, the harsh reality of the outside, and the hint of her earthquake power. It's a win in my book.

If you want to learn more about Natasha, she has a billion places on line where you can find her. Seriously, Natasha, when do you have time to write? I hope you'll check her out and don't forget to add Edge of  Truth to your TBR list on Goodreads.
Where to find Natasha:
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/natashahanova
Goodreads Author Page: http://www.goodreads.com/NatashaHanova

Thankful for Craft Books

I am knee deep in edits with my current manuscript and I'm loving every minute. I just finished my first round and sent it off to a few beta readers to get impressions before I keep going. I'm trying something new this time so I thought I'd share.

When I was preparing to start edits for this manuscript (RoR) one of my CPs started raving about a new book she was using for her current edits. If you follow this blog, you know I love craft books. So off I went to the bookstore and picked up my own copy of WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK by Donald Maas.

Buy it on Amazon

I had seen this book before and in the interest of full disclosure I didn't buy it on purpose. For one, I already have several great books about how to write a novel and I wasn't really interested in a new one at the time. Also, the idea that a Breakout novel can be formulated turned me off a bit.

I'm so glad I was able to get past my hangups because this book is great. First off, it's not a how to write your novel book. In fact, Maass states this works best if you work through the book with an already completed draft in hand. Second, it isn't trying to pawn off some formula for writing a best-seller. Rather, it gives concrete examples from books that did top the charts on ways to jazz up what you already have.

What I love the most about this book is that it isn't a list of things other people did we are then supposed to copy. It is a clear guidebook full of hands on exercises that I was able to use in my manuscript.

One of my favorite sections was on characters. Writing characters is one of my strengths, while I tend to struggle with maintaining external conflict. I almost skipped the character section, but I'm so glad I didn't. Maass asked readers to write out a list of things such as what is something your character would never say, never think, never do. Now think of a situation in which they would do that. This exercise alone was well worth the price of the book. I was able to add a level of depth to the story that before only existed in my head. Now, I hope, it comes through on the pages as well.

I really enjoyed working through this book and I plan to use it with all my manuscripts moving forward. Will RoR be my breakout novel? Who knows. Either way, I know I have a manuscript that is much improved by the suggestions from Maass's book.

Have you read this one? What did you think? Do you have another editing book that is your go-to resource? Let me know.

Agency Lessons

Do you know what you want?

I've been seeing a trend in the ol' query inbox lately, and it's making me sad.

This trend has nothing to do with hot genres, overdone tropes or poor formatting. It has everything to do with writers who really aren't sure what they want. Or really, writers who have a fuzzy picture of what they want and no idea how to get there.

Lately, I've come across more and more writers who are querying their project after already self-publishing the book on Amazon or another site. They often site a lack of time to promote their book or a desire to reach a broader audience. And while I can appreciate this, I can't help but think, isn't this something these authors should have thought of before publishing the book.

There are a lot of pros and cons to both self-publishing and going the traditional route of an agent/publisher. That's not what this is about. This is about learning everything you can about all the options available to you, making a choice about what you want, and going for it.

If you want to be in charge of your own writing career and control all the cards, then by all means publish away. I know lots of people who've put out their own books and couldn't be happy with their decision. But all those people knew going in that it would mean they were on their own for promotion. They also knew that getting their books into brick and mortar stores probably wasn't going to happen.

Finding out that you don't have the time to promote your own book or realizing you won't be happy until you see it at your local Barnes and Noble is something you need to discover before you hit publish. Because once your book is out there, it's done.

I'm wondering if writers are getting bad information somewhere telling them that self-publishing their book and racking up a couple hundred sales on their own is the way to impress agents and get your career moving. If this is being promoted somewhere on the vastness of the interwebs, please listen to me when I say this is not a good move.

Sure, a handful of rockstars have self-published their way to great book deals. However, know that those authors were courted by the publishing houses, not the other way around. And, those books all had stellar sales records well before any of the big 6 even looked their way.

Now, if you want to publish one book and then query agents with another, knock your socks off. It probably isn't going to make a difference in gaining representation unless your sales record is phenomenal, but it isn't going to hurt your chances either.

The main point I want to make here is that self-publishing is a decision that should be made with a lot of consideration. It isn't the first step in getting an agent and it isn't the warm up to a traditional publishing deal. It is publishing your book.

If you're goal is a publishing contract from a traditional publishing house, the best course of action is to write an amazing book and query the goodness out of it.

What are your thoughts? Do you think the recent flux of self-pub to contract writers such as Amanda Hocking is giving new writers an unrealistic picture of the path to publication?

Why I love YA

My gut reaction to the question of why do I love YA is "what's not to love?".

But when I give it a bit more thought I realize that the one thing that all YA books have in common is the thread of possibility. As a teen, there are so many different paths your life can take. In YA anything can, and often does, happen.

The other aspect of YA that makes it so accessible is that we've all been there. I've never been a CIA agent, ER doctor, or any number of things that occupy the time of adult novel characters. But everyone over the age of 12 knows what it's like to be a teen.

And even if you were miss popularity, prom queen and the quarterback's girlfriend (which I was not) you know what insecurity feels like. And you may have been the kid that ate lunch in the bathroom, but you know what it's like to have a sense that there is something bigger out there waiting for you. It doesn't matter what the details of your own teen years were. We can all relate to the ever changing and often times overwhelming emotions that drive so much of the teen experience.

Reading YA lets me go back to a time when life was simpler, but my problems didn't feel any less life altering. And now that I'm an adult (that's why my driver's license says), I can appreciate how much impact perspective has on dealing with the trial of my own daily life.

If you love YA then you need to check out the massive book giveaway going on right now on Beth Revis's blog. Check our her site for details on how you can win a library of 50 signed YA novels!

Agency Lessons

Why querying is a lot like sorority recruitment!

So I'm coming at this from a bit of experience having been a sorority girl. Yep. I was even the recruitment chair.

It's true! And I can't help but notice the similarities between trying to join a sorority and the search for your dream agent. When I was the one going through recruitment I thought all the pressure was on me to be the coolest girl ever. Once I joined, I figured all the pressure was over, but I was wrong. Truth is, while I was outside hoping they'd think I was good enough to get in, they were inside hoping I would think they were good enough to want to join.

So, how does that relate to querying? You send off your bright and shiny manuscript to your favorite agents, and running through your head is "Please let them see how awesome this is! Puh-lease let them like it!"

Though probably with more clothes on.

And you think that on the inside of the agency everyone is just waiting to give you and your manuscript the big thumbs down.

But the truth is, behind the agency door, the agents are just as nervous! They read an awesome manuscript and think "Pick me, Pick me".

So you sit around waiting for "the call"...

and when the agent of your dreams offers representation, you do a happy dance...
Meanwhile, your dream agent is in her office chugging down copious amounts of coffee (or other liquid fuel), praying that you call her back to accept the offer.

So when you call and say in your most professional voice ever, "Holy Crap, I'd love to be your client", there really is celebration on both sides of the fence.

Agency Lessons

As writers we often hear about the "Don't" list when it comes to querying. Don't get too personal, Don't ignore submission guidelines, Don't send gifts with your query (well, some agents disagree with that one). :)

So today's lesson is a "Do". As in, Do stalk the agents you want to query. Now before you go all crazy on me, I am not suggesting you head out to your local Army Surplus store and stock up on camouflage gear and binoculars. That is still creepy.

I'm talking about the safe kind of stalking done from your computer. When it comes time to write up your query list, don't stop at the submission guidelines posted on their website.

At a minimum, I would suggest following all the agents on your list on Twitter. I'll confess, the first time I did this, I felt like a big time stalker writer lady. I was more than a little concerned that agents would see that I followed them, then sent a query a month later and think I was lame, lame, lame.

I was wrong, wrong, wrong. For starters, with the quantity of queries coming in, it's unlikely an agent will recognize you from simply following them on Twitter. And even if they do, this can be a good thing.

There are so many folks out there who go to sites like QueryTracker and collect the email address of every agent out there. They send query letters like they're going out of style without any discrimination at all. Following an agent's Twitter feed (and paying attention to what they say they are looking for) shows that you are serious about your writing career.

But don't limit yourself to Twitter. A quick Google search will show if your list of agents maintain a blog. If they do, follow it. You should also check to see if the agents have given any recent interviews. Read them. You can also check out Facebook, but be careful here. Some agents keep FB personal. Look to see if the agent you want to query (or their agency) has a fan page. This will be a better source of information.

Use the information gathered to personalize your queries and hone in on which agents will be the best match for your work. No matter how you go about it, stalking agents is a good idea.

Stupid Synopsis Part 2

Congratulations to our Hollow Blog Hop winners!

Nely Cab - 30 page critique from yours truly
Beth Fred - Query Critique from Stacey
Adrianne Russell -Synopsis Critique from Stacey
Jennifer Chow -  Your pick query or synopsis critique from Jamie

On Wednesday we talked about the need for a good synopsis and my general rules for what it should and should not include. (Go back to Synopsis Part 1)As promised, today I'm going to share my tips to for writing your synopsis in five easy steps. To help, I'm going to use Hunger Games as an example. If you haven't read HG...I got nothing for you. Let's get to stepping!

Step One: Know thy problem!
The synopsis is all about the core plot/problem of your story. If you don't know it, you can't write a synopsis and more importantly, you probably have a wobbly novel. Figure out what the key issue is for your protagonist and write it down. As you add things to your synopsis, check them up against this problem. If what you just wrote has nothing to do with this key problem, Delete It.

HG example: Katniss has to play in the Hunger Games and doesn't want to die.

Step Two: Start with conflict
Sure, you have to give us a little lead up to the key problem in your novel. It's what introduces us to your characters and makes us care about them when it hits the fan. Your synopsis isn't held to the same level. No one is going to care about your character after a two page summary of your story. So skip all the frontage and start with the key conflict. You should give ONE sentence to introduce your character, setting, etc., but don't overdo it. Fill out this first paragraph with the essential details of the core conflict. Notice in the example below I only mention three characters despite the presence of a ton more in the first chapter.

HG example: Katniss Everdeen and her sister Prim are preparing for the annual reaping of District 13 where one boy and one girl are chosen to play in the Hunger Games, a winner takes all battle to the death held in the Capital. Against all odds, Prim is selected as this year's tribute. Determined to save her sister, Katniss volunteers as tribute in her sister's place and is sent to the Capital with Peeta, this year's male tribute. Despite her hunting skills Katniss is certain she will never see her family again.

Step Three: How does it end
I'm skipping around here so stick with me. Writing your end now will help you avoid including details that aren't directly related to this ending. Think about the very last scene of your book. Who's there? Unless you've killed of the rest of your characters, chances are you'll have more people in this ending scene than need to be in your synopsis so be sure to pare this down. What are these character's doing? Think about specific actions that bring about resolution to the key problem you identified earlier. Katniss's problem is that she wants to live. How does she resolve that problem? Note that the ending is clear though the details are slightly vague. If I go into using the berries here, I have to mention them in an earlier section and that scene isn't crucial to the core plot. How they would commit suicide is less relevant than the fact that they threaten it.

HG example: Katniss and Peeta outlast all the other tributes and prepare to leave the Hunger Games. Despite an earlier rule amendment that would allow them both to live, the rules have changed again and now there can only be one winner. Katniss refused to kill Peeta and tricks the game makers into thinking that they will both commit suicide instead. In order to ensure a champion is named, the rules are hastily changed back to allow for two winners. Katniss and Peeta are declared champions and allowed to go home, but both know nothing will ever be the same again.

Step Four: Bare your Midriff
Go to the middle of your story. What is going on? If you've paced your novel well, this should be a big swing in your story. Your main character is either experiencing a fake victory that lulls her into a sense of complacency or a false defeat, that makes her think it's all over. This is the place where  your character has to make hard and fast decisions that impact everything in the rest of the story. This is the place where true character is revealed. Your paragraph for this section needs to show what's changed and how your main character intends to deal with it.

HG example: After weeks of preparation the Hunger Games begins and Katniss realizes just how alone she is. Her show of strength has made her a target for this year's favorites. She expected to be hunted, but she didn't anticipate Peeta would help them. With her hunting skills and a little unexpected help from another tribute, Katniss is able to drive off her pursuers, including Peeta.

Step Five: Fill in the Blanks
You need two more paragraphs. One to tie the intro to the middle and another to tie the middle to the end. Think carefully about what core pieces of information are essential to bring these paragraphs together. Lots of stuff goes on here, but you don't have room for lots. Go back to the key problem and only include those elements that matter.

HG example (1): In the Capitol, Katniss has an entire team to prepare her for the games. She has to avoid showing her strengths to the other tributes to avoid becoming a target. At the same time, she needs to impress the game makers if she has any hope of earning sponsors that can help her once the game starts. At first, Katniss and Peeta work as a team, but as the game draws near, Peeta pulls away leaving Katniss alone in her fight to survive.

HG example (2): As the number of surviving tributes dwindles, everything changes when the game makers change the rules to allow for two champions as long as they both come from the same district. Determined to get home and save Peeta, Katniss takes a calculated risk to find Peeta and join forces. She finds him injured and hardly the asset she had hoped for. Thanks to medicine received from her sponsors, Katniss is able to nurse Peeta back to health and together they work to survive the other tributes and avoid deadly obstacles created by the game makers.

So that's it. Put your paragraphs in order and you have the makings of a fine synopsis. Once you see all the sections together, you'll want to tweak your wording and adjust things for clarification. This is an important part of the editing process, but be sure that editing doesn't become adding. Unless the detail is essential in getting your character from key problem to resolution, leave it out.

There are tons of details that I left out of this synopsis. Almost all the characters are left out, including Rue (a personal favorite). It would be tempting to add her in, but don't. She isn't an essential part of the key problem so she doesn't belong here. I mention her only as "another tribute" to show that Katniss does get help, but avoid details so there isn't a need to explain more of the story.

Even though there is a ton of stuff not included, I hope you can see that the key story is there. By avoiding all the other plot lines, I can focus primarily on what makes this story. As the agent is (hopefully) reading your story, they will be pleasantly surprised with all the extra details that weren't in your synopsis.

**Special Note**
Most of the synopsis requests I've seen on agent submission pages are in the 1-2 page range. There are some who ask for longer. In order to flesh this out, go to the places in your story that lie directly in the middle of what you already have until you reach the desired length. So the next extension would add four additional paragraphs and so on. While this does allow you to provide more detail, it is important that you stick to the key problem. A longer synopsis is not permission to explain every plot layer in your story.