The best writing advice

About a month ago, a couple of days after I signed the contract for my three-book deal with Astraea Press, I wrote a hand-written letter to one of my high school teachers. She’s still at the school, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d be retiring soon, so I considered myself lucky to be able to reach out to her and thank her for the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

But first, a little backstory.

Like a lot of other writers I’ve met, reading and writing came easily to me from an early age. I’ve been reading for longer than I can remember, and I was told I had a way with words when I was very young. I received awards for writing all throughout elementary school, was praised by my 5th grade and 7th grade language arts teachers for my ability to write dialogue, and won the award for Exceptional Performance in Literature in 8th grade.

But writing came easily to me, which meant I could skate by in all my English classes without even needing to try. And because I didn’t bother to try, I wasn’t included in the Honors English classes that some of my friends were in. Basically, if I tried harder, if I applied myself more, I would have been in those classes. (I learned all of this my senior year after talking to my guidance counselor, who was also my English teacher that year.) But whatever.

My junior year, I was allowed to take an Advanced Writing class. This was separate from English; this was strictly creative writing. The teacher was my sister’s former AP English teacher, and I genuinely liked her. She had us do a lot of fun writing and journaling exercises, and I had fun with it. We read and discussed different styles of writing and practiced writing in those styles, and it was probably one of my favorite classes that year.

But, again, I didn’t really try.

At the end of the semester, one of our final projects was a short story that would ultimately be published in the school literary magazine. I wrote something (I couldn’t even tell you what anymore), submitted it, and got like a B-minus on it. She didn’t mark up my pages like she did on some of my classmates’ work, and the only note I remember seeing was three little words on the very last page:

Know your audience.

Well, sixteen-year-old me was incensed. I threw it away. (That’s probably why I don’t remember what I submitted.) I pitched a hissy fit. My masterpiece, the story I had worked on for hours was better than a B-minus. And I knew my audience. She didn’t know what she was talking about.

Fast-forward *cough* years, and in retrospect, that was the best writing advice anyone had ever given me. And really, up to that point in my life, the only writing advice I’d ever received.

You see, the mechanics of writing came easily to me. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, whatever. Dialogue was easy peasy. Plot? Meh, I could have used some extra work to hone it, but I had the basics down. So those markers that teachers check off before you get to move to the next level? I’d mastered them, and I knew it. And no teacher before her gave me anything less than glowing marks on anything I submitted.

But she was the first teacher to treat me like a writer. Her feedback was the equivalent of the common “It’s not for me” rejection so many writers have received from literary agents and editors. No one had ever rejected my work, though, and that’s why sixteen-year-old me was so angry and infuriated. “How dare she tell me to ‘know my audience!’” I thought she didn’t understand me as a writer, my message, my sheer brilliance.

She wasn’t the one who didn’t understand. I was. And if I’d just swallowed my pride and allowed her to teach me, I would have figured that out a lot earlier than I did.

Aside from being hopelessly amateurish, I realize now whatever I wrote wasn’t suitable for the literary magazine. (I ended up submitting some poetry I’d thrown together.) So no, I didn’t know my audience back then the way I thought I did. I wrote for me—which is always the best thing to do—but in those three little words, she let me know that sometimes, we’re actually writing for other people.

Know your audience.

And write for them.

The Tw(itter P)itch is just the beginning

I’ve received some lovely emails these last few days from writers whose pitches I reviewed and workshopped until I thought they were strong and unique enough to catch an agent’s or editor’s attention in the mad #PitchMAS feed last week. I noticed with undeniably smug satisfaction that some of the pitches I said were winners received requests. Not all of the pitches I critiqued got starred, which made me a bit sad, but out of twenty-something writers, it looked like about 14 received requests.

Those aren’t bad odds. It kind of makes me feel like a fairy godmother, except I know I’m not.

Disney’s Fairy Godmother, circa 1950 Yeah, this is so not me.

Now that the #PitchMAS Twitter party is over, it’s really just the start for these authors. A request from a pitch party is nothing more than an opportunity to move your query to the top of the pile. It’s not a guarantee of an offer of representation or publication. Yes, agents and editors have shown interest in the general concept, but you can only get so much across in 140 characters. A pitch is like a teaser promise: It’s supposed to hook the reader into the story. So now that an agent or editor is intrigued, it’s time for the writer to deliver on that promise.

To carry the Cinderella metaphor further, the pitch gets you to the ball. Whether or not Prince Charming falls in love with you is entirely on you.

I lucked out with my first Twitter pitch party event. My pitch not only caught an agent’s eye—it caught the agent’s eye, the agent I knew I wanted to represent me while I was still researching her. But here’s the thing: Not every story lends itself to 140 characters. Some stories require that full three- to five-paragraph query letter to grab an agent’s attention. And all stories require a well-written text.

So I hope each of the writers whose pitches I reviewed finds a good home for their manuscripts. I hope they find agents—and ultimately editors—who love their novels and are as passionate about them as their respective authors are.

And when the next pitch party rolls around, I’ll show up beforehand to offer help to anyone who asks.

Let’s (Twitter pitch) party!

Those following me on Twitter (or stumbled upon my blog or this post via Twitter), know I’ve extended an offer to review people’s Twitter pitches (which I prefer calling “Twitches”) before Twitter pitch parties. The fabulous ladies behind #PitchMAS, a contest in which unagented writers are invited to pitch finished and polished manuscripts, have organized a Twitter pitch party for Friday, December 20, and I’m eager to help others hone their Twitches.

But why me? What makes me so qualified to critique pitches and tell people how to make their Twitches stand out?

Well, that’s kind of a fun(ny) story.

At the end of January, I stumbled upon #PitMad, a Twitter pitch party organized by author Brenda Drake to coincide with her Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness competitions.

Keep in mind, I was still new to the whole book scene. (Who am I kidding? I still am.) I had just finished writing my first novel at the end of November. I painstakingly revised it, carefully listening to feedback from friends and early readers, but I knew very little about querying and even less about pitch contests. I was still honing my elevator pitch and was proud of myself for managing to condense my concept into a 140-character tweet.

Twitter, by the way, is not the place to pitch to agents or editors. Unless there is a specific call for it or a Twitter Pitch Party (like #PitchMAS or #PitMad), it is not the way to present your idea to agents and editors. Twitter is for engaging, for getting to know people, for demonstrating that you’re an interesting person. It’s not for pitching (or, later, for constantly advertising your book).

Anyway, back to #PitMad. As I mentioned, I stumbled upon it. I had no idea it was happening or what it was. I just saw a number of agents I followed were tweeting about it, and when I checked it out, I realized it was something I could do. I had a completed manuscript. I had a query letter written. (It wasn’t very good and my writing group hadn’t had a chance to look at it, but it was done.) And just the night before, I squeezed my pitch into 140 characters.

So I bit the metaphorical bullet and tweeted it.

https://twitter.com/EMCaines/statuses/294833692159909888

And the rest, as they say, is history.

To pay it forward, I’m reviewing Twitches for anyone who emails me (emcaines {at} outlook {dot} com) for Friday’s upcoming #PitchMAS Twitter Pitch Party. I’ll review them for other pitch parties, too, for as long as they’re in vogue because it’s a simple way to help my fellow writers stand out a bit.

The irony, of course, is my own pitch above doesn’t exactly follow the advice I’m dispensing to help others’ pitches stand out. My pitch was for a fairy tale retelling with almost universally familiar characters; I merely had to explain how mine was different. Most of the pitches I’ve seen so far don’t have that same luxury.

So I suggest treating pitches as news headlines to help determine the most important facets of the story. What’s the absolute most important thing you want a prospective agent or editor to know about your story? If you only had 10 seconds to talk to Agent Extraordinaire, what would you say to her? If you were in an elevator with Editor Awesome for one floor, how would you pitch your story?

I was thinking about other books I like and how I’d pitch them on Twitter if I had to. Let me know your thoughts.

Geneticist manages to breed dinosaurs for an island tourist spot, but dinos aren’t easy to manage when natural instincts take over. A/SF (136 characters)

Awkward & bullied telekinetic teen girl w ultraconservative mom has enough & wreaks havoc on Prom Night. YA/Thrill (114 characters)

Trojans v Spartans on the football field in a YA contemporary retelling of THE ILIAD. (85 characters)

As you can see, less is often more when you’re just trying to grab someone’s attention. If you have comp titles or if it’s a retelling of something, use that. Grab attention any way you can.

Oh, and while you strategize your Twitter pitch party appearances, take heed of agent extraordinaire Julia A. Weber’s fantastic Dos and Don’ts for pitch contests.

Best of luck!

ONE MORE DAY (Blog) Tour Stop!

I’m super excited about this.

A few months ago, not long after I signed with my agent, I bought and read Reaper by L.S. Murphy, one of my agent-sisters. We got to know each other via Twitter, met in real life, and have become (I think) pretty good friends.

So when she asked me if she could stop by for the (blog) tour of her latest work, a new anthology called One More Day, I immediately agreed.

image

The premise of One More Day is pretty interesting: What if today never ended? What if tomorrow never came?

L.S. Murphy headlines the anthology with her contribution, “The 13th Month.” She answered a few questions for me to include in this stop of her blog tour.

5 Questions with L.S. Murphy

1. What was the spark of inspiration for “The 13th Month”?

Actually, Nixon drove the story. I had the theme and his character popped into my head instantly. Even though I had a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go, I let Nixon show me the way. It’s a rare moment where I didn’t plot out the entire thing from beginning to end.

2. Which character(s) most resemble you?

Nixon does a little. He’s a bit of a smart aleck.

3. If you could travel anywhere at any time, where and when would you go?

London during Victorian times. I’m simply fascinated with that time period. Actually, I’d go to London pretty much any time except The Blitz. :)

4. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Never give up. If this is what you want to do, then keep striding toward that goal.

5. Finally, Beatles or Rolling Stones?

*snorts* Duh, Beatles.

Dusting off the Blog… Again

Ugh. I’ve been absolutely terrible at keeping up my blog. To the handful of devoted readers I may have, I apologize. I will do my best to step it up and try to post at least once a week, but, well, let’s face it: every word on my blog is one not in my novel. And these days, just getting any words down in my works in progress has been painful.

There are a few reasons I feel it’s imperative to dust off my blog. One, I’ve been lucky enough to have been hand-picked to participate in a blog tour for an anthology that came out last week. My tour stop is actually this coming Friday. (Gasp!)

Another reason to dust off the blog is that I’ve decided to make 2014 the year I will make things happen. Yes, I finished a novel in 2012. And yes, I signed with an amazing agent, made some invaluable friendships with fellow writers, and signed on as a columnist for a fabulous online magazine in 2013. But I’ve also fought with a story, developed and fought with another one, and felt like my writing mojo has trickled out of me.

So, with any luck, there ought to be some new witticisms popping up from me every month or so. But just remember: I’m a novelist first and a blogger way, way down on the list of job titles I’ve taken on. =)

On authors and brands

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sitting in meetings discussing what it means to have a meaningful brand. If you stop and think about familiar brands, brands you know and trust, you have an immediate sense, without seeing a product or service proposition, of what you can expect of that brand.

You know what Coke is supposed to taste like.

You know an Apple product is (mostly) plug-and-play.

You know JetBlue has TVs on their planes for every seat.

You know what to expect.

There’s been some hoopla about the slip by one of J.K. Rowling’s attorneys that revealed her identity behind an otherwise closely guarded pseudonym. She’s not pleased. I don’t blame her. But more telling is that a news story my husband watched the other night cited the Robert Galbraith novel as “Rowling’s first adult novel.”

Did they conveniently forget A Casual Vacancy?

Here’s the thing: I totally get why J.K. Rowling used a pseudonym. Her name, her brand, is synonymous with Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Anyone picking up a novel by J.K. Rowling would automatically expect another glimpse into the wizarding world. And can you really blame them?

There’s a reason Jayne Ann Krentz used the pseudonym Amanda Quick to pen her Regency romances.

There’s a reason Nora Roberts used the pseudonym J.D. Robb for her suspense novels.

There’s a reason we, as readers, pick up something by Ally Carter or John Green or Danielle Steele and have an idea of what to expect. Their bylines are synonymous with their style of writing. If I want something about snarky teenage girls, I’ll pick up something by Lisi Harrison. If I want to read a story rooted in mythology, I’ll pick up Rick Riordan. Why?

Because I know what to expect.

That’s what a brand does for consumers: It tells them, without being overt or blatant, exactly what to expect by purchasing something. It’s true of retail and consumer brands, and it’s just as true for musicians, artists, and authors.

I may be talking out of my ears because I’ve yet to sell my book, but these are the kinds of things I’m already contemplating, stuff I’m ready to ask about the moment my agent calls and says, “We’ve got an offer.” It’s why I repeatedly practice signing my pseudonym like a 14-year-old girl dating her first boyfriend, why I think of how an idea should be marketed before I even write the first sentence, why I obsess over marketing case studies as if I was still in business school.

A great product will bring a consumer in.

A great brand will keep them for life.

Out of the Revision Cave (for now)

April was a brutal month. Not only was I involved in what felt like a million and three projects at work, I also gave myself an end-of-month deadline to get WTRPCPSU in as-perfect-as-I-could-make-it shape and returned to Julia.

Yeah, no pressure or anything.

As I feared suspected, I needed to do two passes to get my novel right. In the process, though, I’ve identified three fantastic ladies who served as beta readers and whom I’ve elevated to alpha status. (I don’t know if Alpha Readers are even a thing; if they weren’t, they are now.) While I valued all the feedback I got from everyone who read it, their feedback was amazingly beneficial. One day, I hope to return the favor to them, but these are ladies I want to keep close to me for as long as I can.

The month has taken its toll on me, as evidenced by the extra pounds the scale is adding to my weight and the occasional nightmare that floods my brain. But it’s over, my revisions are done, Julia has the shiny new-and-improved manuscript, and I can turn my attention back to the work-in-progress, which is now tentatively titled ILHILHN.

But a writer’s work is never truly done, and I’ve given myself a goal to get a first draft of ILHILHN finished by the end of the month. (Of course, I’m blogging instead of writing, so I’m not exactly off to a great start.) And this particular month includes The Boy’s graduation from Kindergarten, an entire week he’ll be off from school (summer camp doesn’t begin until the first week of June), and a possible trip to New York to meet Julia in person. Add to that a frighteningly full workload at the office, and you’ve got my crazy schedule.

So if I’m sparse, please forgive me. I’ll try to check in at least once a week. But if I’m writing, there’s a high probability it will be on ILHILHN and not the blog.

What to write? (Write what you…)

Write about what you know and care deeply about. When one puts one’s self on paper — that is what is called good writing. -Joel Chandler Harris

There are so many different philosophies on what people should write:

  • Write what you know!
  • Write what you feel!
  • Write what you love!
  • Write what you’re passionate about!
  • Write to fill a void in the market!
  • Write anything – just write!

These are absolutely valid – every single one of them. But if I may, when contemplating a novel you’d like to write, I offer this suggestion:

WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO READ.

I cannot stress this enough. I’ve been seriously trapped in the revision cave for the last two weeks, and I’ve reread my manuscript at least seven more times in just the past 2 weeks.

To put this into perspective, the only book I recall reading more than three times was S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which I think I read about five or six times. That means WTRPCPSU is now, by far, my most-often read book. Oh yeah. And I’m not even done with my revisions yet.

Before I even send WTRPCPSU back to my agent, I expect to read it at least another three times. After she sells it to a publishing house, I expect to be working closely with an editor and will probably read it another seven or eight times. Then I’ll get an Advanced Review Copy and read it again. And once it’s released to the public as a real book, I’ll read it yet again.

This is a manuscript based on characters in my head who reside in a world that I created. I know them better than anyone else does, and because of this, I should be the one to read it the most.

Now, just imagine what this would be like if I wrote something I really didn’t want to read?

“But why would you write something you don’t want to read?” I hear you ask.

Fine. You got me.

I like to read what I write. I like glossing over old blog posts from time to time. When I was in high school, I kept fairly detailed daily journals that I remember flipping through from time to time, just to see how much I’d changed as a person.

But these aren’t things I necessarily want to read over and over and over again.

It’s writing, though. It’s writing what I knew. It’s writing what I felt. It’s writing what I loved. It’s writing about whatever drove me to pick up a pen and put it to paper!

It is NOT, however, writing what I want to read.

I came across my high school journals about three years ago, nearly 20 years after writing them, and flipped through them. Bad idea. Horrifically bad idea. Not only were many entries whiny and horribly written, they were just silly. Maybe some random person would have enjoyed reading about my angst, but I opted to toss them into the recycling bin instead of saving them for posterity. Why?

Because I don’t want to read it.

Look, when you’re writing a novel, you’re essentially expecting people to spend money to read your work. (When you write a blog post, you have no idea if it will even reach any eyeballs. And since there’s no exchange of money, there’s no expectation of the writing being any good.) And if you’re going to write a novel, it had better be something you want to read if you’re expecting others to love it. Moreover, as an author, I want someone to read my book over and over again.

But how can I justly expecting someone to want to read my book several times if I can’t even stand the sight of its pixels on the screen?

So by all means, write what you know. Write what you love. Write with reckless abandon about anything you want. But when it comes to sitting down to write a novel, save your sanity and write what you want to read.

Why?

Because you’re going to be reading it an awful lot.

The Bechdel Test

The Rule: The Origin of the Bechdel Test

As I’ve been rereading WTRPCPSU during this revision process, I’ve been thinking a bit about the Bechdel Test.

If you’re not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it was based on a comic strip by Alison Bechdel nearly 30 years ago and has since been used to point out gender inequality in movies. Well, it began with movies, but it can just as easily be applied to television shows and literary works.

The criteria for passing the Bechdel Test is as follows:

There are at least two named female characters…

who talk to each other…

about something besides a man.

Now, I can’t speak for other women in this world, but I know that my real life would easily pass the Bechdel Test. Even if you discount the writing-centric conversations I have, I talk to my female friends about myriad topics ranging from politics to economics to petty gossip (I’ll admit to that) to sports to entertainment. Yes, we may talk about our husbands and our children, but those conversations don’t make up the bulk of our communication.

Since the main character of WTRPCPSU is a 15-year-old female, it should be a given that my novel would pass the Bechdel Test, right? Well, I’d hope so, but just because you have a female lead doesn’t mean you’d automatically pass. I mean, look at Pretty in Pink. I’ve watched that movie several dozen times, and I can’t think of a single conversation Andie has with her friends that don’t involve a guy. And that’s unfortunate.

(If anyone reading this disagrees or can prove me wrong, by the way, please let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to help myself to a heaping plate of crow if I’ve missed it.)

Well, I’m happy to report that WTRPCPSU passes the Bechdel Test. Despite the fact that it’s Teen Chick Lit (hey – I’m being honest), there are more than a handful of conversations among the girls that don’t involve a guy. (Of course, as Teen Chick Lit, there are plenty of conversations that discuss guys, too.) Moreover, I think I’ve done an adequate job of representing both genders, meaning that I include conversations between guys that discuss something other than girls.

That the Bechdel Test should be applied in reverse seems kind of unfair when you consider the initial purpose of the test, but I think it’s possible to swing too much in a single direction. And that’s part of the problem.

Gender equality is about equality. Female characters should get at least as much screen time as male characters. We absolutely need more strong female characters on the screen and in books who interact with each other and talk about real-life issues, not just boys. I’m not denying that. It happens in real life; it should happen in fictional works, too.

But I do worry, as a writer of a female-centric work, that I might not afford my male characters the same consideration that the Bechdel Test demands for female characters. It could be, as author Jeff Fecke suggests, that novels with female leading characters might not pass a Reverse Bechdel Test because the main character wouldn’t necessarily be privy to male conversation. (This would help explain why so many movies fail the Bechdel Test, if for no other reason than the main characters are often male.)

It’s a lot to consider, I’ve discovered, if an author wants to ensure gender equality in his work. But if you take the time to watch how people interact with each other on any given day, I think you’ll find that if you focus on portraying your characters in realistic situations as accurately as possible, you’ll inevitably pass the Bechdel Test – and its reverse – quite organically.

On voice

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. – Ernest Hemingway

Voice is one of those things that’s hard to define, but you can recognize a good voice when you read it. As such, I think it’s a hard concept to learn. I mean, the voice is either good or it’s not. But how do you really identify what makes a voice good? (Or worse, great?)

I was a voracious reader as a kid. I haven’t changed much as an adult. I never gave much thought to voice, to be truthful, until I started seriously pursuing the traditional publishing path for WTRPCPSU, and only then because article after article discussed the importance of voice. And then I started paying attention to the books I liked. What did I like about them? What drew me in and held my attention? It isn’t necessarily the story itself that compels me to finish reading. It’s that something, the way the story is told, that makes me want to keep reading.

It’s the author’s voice.

I read an interview with an author who talked about how she developed her voice. She used to mimic other writers she’d read, and as she expanded her reading library, she discovered other voices to mimic until she finally developed her own. I really wish I could remember who the author was and where I read the interview because it’s one I would love to share, if for no other reason than to stress the importance of reading to learn the writing craft.

A few years ago, my sister gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It was (and still is) one of the best presents I’ve ever received. I love that device, and I mean I truly love it. The very first book I read on it was Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I downloaded several dozen books within a week of receiving it. One of those was a novel I had wanted to read for some time now but had always intimidated me by its sheer size: Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Before you think that I was only reading classics, I’ll have to interject that that definitely was not the case. But I mixed things up quite a bit. I read War and Peace, yes, but I also began Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series right after it. I mixed up the genres, authors, and time periods. I mixed up subject matter. I read both self-published and traditionally published work.

A crazy thing happens when you read all over the map like that: You start recognizing voices and identifying with them. You subconsciously make notes of what deliveries you liked and what you would do differently. You start to rewrite entire paragraphs while you read – and that is when you are establishing your voice.

I dare you to try it. Pick a book off the shelf (preferably one you know pretty well), turn to a random page, and rewrite a couple of (non-dialogue) paragraphs. Note how you might say things differently. Note how you might use a different vocabulary. Note how you may emphasize different things than the author did.

Those differences? Those make up your voice.

Me? I write the same way I talk. You can read this post and know that if you and I were having a conversation about voice, whatever I’d say would sound a lot like this post does.

That’s my voice.

When I’m writing business communications at work, I write the same way I talk. It’s a bit more formal, and I tend to use industry-specific terms, but whatever I would say in person sounds a lot like my emails.

That’s my voice.

But when I’m writing, I assume someone else’s identity, and I write the same way I imagine that character would talk.

Because that’s her voice.