Just Write Cat

One Writer, One Journey

The First Fifty… July 27, 2010

Filed under: Editing,Writing — justwritecat @ 3:28 am
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Whew!  Two weeks of cold/allergies/who knows what else and I’m wiped out.  I didn’t write for an entire week.  Okay, three days but it seemed like for-ev-er.  I did a bit of revision work, but quickly realized that what one writes in an allergy-drug-induced state doesn’t always make sense the next day.  Non-drowsy, my a–.

So, the past three days have proven a bit more productive.  I’m off “my meds’ (hmmm, not sure that sounded right), and my mind’s clear and ready to get back to revision work.  My next session with Lisa is this week, so I’m excited.  To prep for the next call, I spent the last couple of days thinking about ‘the first fifty pages’.  My first fifty, to be exact.  Fifty pages seems to be the typical number of pages asked for in partial requests.  I’m not exactly sure why, but enough agents ask for that so there must be a good reason.  Just enough to get a solid idea on what’s going on, who the protagonist is, is this something I want to keep reading…that sort of thing, I guess.

So, to better consider if my first fifty have what it takes, I read (and reread) the first fifty pages of several urban fantasy books and took notes.  Here’s what I found out:

When I read the first fifty pages of several books, one of two things happened – either I found, on page fifty, that time had flown by and I didn’t want to stop reading.  OR, I held the book in my hand, trying to figure out just how much more I’d have to slug through based on the width of the book.  If it was an especially thick book, say 450 pages thick, I promptly placed the book in my ‘return to library’ bag.  If the book was oh, 250 pages thick…I gave it another twenty pages…and then put the book in the bag.  There really was no in between.  No, ‘well, it’s not that bad so I’ll keep reading because my other books are downstairs and it’s late and what if I get out of bed to go downstairs and I hear a sound and it’s a ghost or something’.  See how my mind works?  I either wanted to keep reading or I didn’t.  So – those pages either grab a reader and refuse to let go.  Or they don’t.  Of the half dozen or so books involved in this ‘test’, only two made the cut. 

Jim Butcher’s Changes (latest in the Dresden Files) and Joe Gores’ Spade & Archer, the Prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know if you read The Dresden Files, but this last one is a doozy.  No spoilers, don’t worry.  I hate spoilers.  The series is about a wizard living in Chicago.  This guy – Harry Dresden  – has really, really bad luck much of the time.  He’s a good guy, a great guy – but crap is always happening to him.  Of course, that’s what makes the stories so fun to read.  You get to watch Harry deal with the crap in some very creative ways.  First fifty pages of Changes – no less than four major crap things happen to Harry.  Again, no spoilers – but as I took notes, I realized that there was more action in Butcher’s first fifty pages than I read in some entire books.  Lesson learned – things have to happen to your character!  Maybe not quite so much so soon, but enough.  Enough to keep you turning the pages all the way to the last one.  The author Piled. It. On.

You also learn some things about Harry and the larger plot early on, some things that Make You Care about the character enough that you want him to win whatever it takes. 

I reread my first fifty.  First couple of chapters, hey – whaddya know, you do learn some things about Joe.  Things that pre-revision with Lisa, you didn’t learn until – drum roll – AFTER page fifty.  Egads.  Important things, things that matter.  Things that Make You Care.  But, too late.  Again, that was pre-revision, so I do feel good about my revised opening chapters.  There’s more tension, more going on – not just action, but things going on with Joe, with where he’s at when the story starts and where he seems to be headed.  Not nearly as much happens in my first fifty as does in Changes – but, Changes is like book twelve or something in the series (I think).  So there’s been a tremendous amount of set-up, enough that you can bring back characters from previous books, have things happen to them or because of them, and the reader easily follows the plot.  Set ‘Em Up, Joe is the first in a (hopefully) series – so I might need to set things up more before all sorts of stuff happens to characters.  Not sure, will have to ask Lisa during our next session!

Gores’ Spade & Archer.  As one reviewer on the back cover stated – this book is ‘pitch perfect’.  The voice, oh my goodness, the voice.  And the language – this author clearly studied Hammett, read him, read other noir books – maybe all noir books – and then put his own spin on things.  From the first page, nay the first word, I am hooked.  I want to keep reading.  I’m having fun! 

Now, it’s not quite fair to say I learned so much about the character of Sam Spade in the first fifty because I already knew the character from Hammett’s books – and some of the films.  BUT…Gores presents a totally possible explanation for why Sam is the way he is.  You buy it, you see it playing out in your head, you are convinced Gores channeled Hammett somehow.  Not to undermine Gores’ talent….but it’s so darn…darn….pitch perfect that channeling had to have occurred.  First fifty – you understand Spade.  You get him.

My first fifty – yes, a tentative yes, but yes…I think you get Joe.  Get what makes his blood boil, what makes him react.  I believe you can see things playing out.  I’ve been told yes to these things by readers, but it’s hard to see it for yourself sometimes. 

So first fifty – give the reader something to care about, have your protag doing something that is worth caring about.  Make your character(s) real, find a way to connect to the reader.  Make bad things happen to your characters (conflict).  Don’t let up, don’t ease off.  Pile. It. On.  

The books that made the bag rather than the cut?  Nothing was going on, or at least nothing that mattered to me.  In one case – things were happening, but none of it made sense.  It was as if the author tried to throw in every UF plot twist just to keep the reader’s attention.  It lacked focus.  One other book – I actually sort of read it through because I wanted to know how it ended.  I read the first fifty, uh, the skipped around.  Quite a bit.  Like to the end.  I know, I know – I hate doing that, but that was the book in my hands that night when I was suddenly afraid of the downstairs.  So, I read the end.  Um, and in the morning I took the sequel out of my library queue.

Working on your first fifty?  Read other books in your genre, take notes – then apply to your own work. 

Happy Writing!


Some Things I’ve Realized… July 11, 2010

After three intense sessions with independent editor (and character therapist) Lisa Rector-Maass, I’ve realized a few things.

Some of my scenes, a few, are pretty decent.  The rest suck.  Not suck bigtime – well, maybe some.  More like suck, with potential.  Which is better than suck without any redeeming qualities.  So, I have hope.  And no, Lisa did not imply said suckage in any way.  It’s more of a personal realization.  She’s been nothing but encouraging and positive, which is really quite wonderful.

You can always push your characters more than you have.  Raise the stakes – both internal and external, turn the conflict and the tension up to high, push them to their breaking point.  Sometimes, it’s more interesting to see what happens if they actually break. 

You don’t know your characters as well as you think you do.  Lisa asks questions about their motivations, history, goals, desires, fears – and even though I have answers for most of her questions (though not for all of my characters), I learn something new each time we discuss my novel.  I’m struggling with my antagonist.  I can’t seem to get a handle on her past, which makes it difficult to know her motivations.  Lisa offered up this challenge:  Look at the first fifty or one hundred pages from the antagonist’s point of view.  My first novel is in first person, so that was something I never considered (or would have).  She provided several questions and things to consider while I tackle this challenge – which I’m working on over the next several days.

When you revise, it can help to do so in layers.  Read your scene and/or chapter several times – each time looking for or working on specific things.  Tension, pacing, inner conflict, story development – whatever needs attention.  Everything’s connected, but if you try to tackle it all at once – you’ll get overwhelmed.  Or maybe you won’t, but I did. 

When you find someone who gets your writing – an editor, a writing buddy, someone from a crit group – it may help to work only with that person for some time.  Otherwise, if you get feedback from several different people at once – it can make it hard to know what you should or shouldn’t change.  I’m not saying getting input from several readers is a bad idea – it’s not.  But there’s a point when you’re either doing deep revision or even polishing a scene – and if there’s too much feedback or suggestions coming from all different directions, you don’t know who to listen to.  Too much noise, and you can’t hear the one person you really need to  – yourself.  Yes, get feedback and be open to it – but it’s okay to go with your own instinct.  Oh, but you can listen to your characters.  They usually know best.

One other thing I’ve realized – what matters is writing the best damn story you can.  Being true to your characters, to their story.  Heck yes, I hope to have an agent some day soon.  And to see my book(s) at Borders 🙂  But right now – I’ve put those things out of my mind (as much as possible) and I’m focusing on my writing.  There’s a freedom in that.  And that freedom seems to…well, free me up to improve my craft.

And so the revisions continue.  More on working with Lisa after the next session (I’ve got several more to go)!


You Need Help – Working with a Freelance Editor September 18, 2009

Filed under: Writing,You Can't Do It Alone — justwritecat @ 5:22 am
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So I’m writing this novel…

…and I figured I could use some help.

I completed the first draft of my novel this summer.   Two revisions later, and I figure it’s a good time to bring in a freelance editor.  Some might argue a freelance editor is unnecessary.  Write the best novel you can, then send out your queries.  Okay.  But I’m struggling with demons of insecurity – so I figure getting the eyes of a pro to take a look is not a bad thing.  This pro is an uber-helpful kind of gal.  Experienced, patient and just plain nice.  She edits by the page, or you can go for the first one hundred pages or the full deal.  I opted for the first two chapters for monetary reasons, though a further investment is still on the table.  I emailed the chapters, along with my query so she could get an idea of the plot.  Quick turnaround on the feedback–slightly over a week.  And her edits and feedback were more than helpful.  I learned a couple of things about those pesky grammar rules that cover topics such as when to use em dashes and that sort of thing.  Minor details, perhaps – but clearly ones I needed to learn. 

The overall experience:  She provided thoughts on my characters, writing style, voice, dialoge, pacing and tension/foreshadowing.  Per her comments, some areas were right on track, while others could use a tweak or two (tension, foreshadowing).  Sure, it was nice not to read my work was destined for the shredder, but what really helped were her line edits.  Suggestions on cutting out a word here or there, making things tighter and more POW-ish. (Yep, another made up word.  You can do that on your own blog, you know.  Give it a try, have some fun.)

The details:  She used the comments feature to make note of any changes, while she offered thoughts and suggestions within the text (in red).  And not just things that needed attention, but things that were good.  Funny, powerful, nice, great – words I liked to see.  When reviewing her comments, I kept an open mind and tried to look at things from a reader’s perspective.  Then, I opened my working draft and went through each edit, making changes along the way. 

There were a couple of sentences she either deleted or changed that I kept as is – which I felt was acceptable.  Suggestions are just that.  I may change my mind down the road – ahem, perhaps if/when an agent and another editor mirror the suggestion.  But for now, the lines/words stayed.  

One of my problem areas–and I knew it, but didn’t know how to fix it–using to be verbs.  Was, is–that sort of thing.  She pointed it out, made some changes–and now I am confident I can go through the rest of the manuscript and exorcise those weaklings.  Fortunately, passive voice didn’t creep in too much so the changes are do-able. 

Survey says:  If you can swing it, give a freelance editor a try.  Especially if the work in question is your first.  You can read all the books on writing you want, work on your craft and send our your chapters to a writing group or to a few friends.  But nothing quite compares to getting that set of experienced eyes looking at your work.  And after what you’ve put into your manuscript, why not take that extra step before sending it (or part of it) out to an agent?


Revision Central September 2, 2009

Filed under: Baby Steps, Baby Steps,Writing — justwritecat @ 5:13 pm

I’ve set up a command central of sorts in a downstairs room.   I prefer to write in my office, but the room isn’t big enough for current purposes.  So this is what I’m doing…my hubby set up a large table so I can spread out my manuscript by chapter.  The editor I am working with suggested I send him a brief synopsis – just a couple of lines per chapter.  I’m in the process of doing just that – going chapter by chapter.  By having each chapter in its own little pile, I can get a birds eye view of the entire story.  See where the holes are…which is harder to do when  you are reading the entire manuscript in one sitting.  I’ve done a read-through of the manuscript, making notes in the margins/changing words/whatever else is needed.  I will go back and make the changes on the file later.

By working in another room I think I may get a different perspective – a change of scenery and what not – which is always helpful when doing revision work.  Plus, the doors are almost soundproof – another plus when you have two energetic boys running around.

The read-through proved incredibly helpful.  I found several spots where my voice slipped – or rather, the voice of my main character.  I would not have noticed that (obviously I didn’t when I wrote those parts) had I not printed out the manuscript and done a solid read-through.  Printing out 300 plus pages (I set the margins to 1″) was quite the experience.  I felt like I was back working on my Master’s, but this time I was enjoying the work – ha!

So today- setting up the chapters on the table and looking at the big picture, also working on a chapter by chapter synopsis for the editor.  This should also help when I work on the synopsis to send the agent.

Have a fantastic day…enjoy the remaining days of summer!


Revision, revision, re-vision July 19, 2009

Filed under: Baby Steps, Baby Steps — justwritecat @ 11:58 pm
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Worked on revising first chaper today.  I plan on submitting the first three pages of chapter one at the upcoming PNWA conference.  Figured I should stop working on current chapter (12) and work on line by line revision of work already completed.  I submitted my first chapter to an online critique group – http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/ and received two reviews.  Both were helpful.  One suggested I cut back on the verbiage in places, which mirrored feedback from someone at the local writers’ support group.  Hard to delete some of those lines…you start to feel like they are a part of you.  But they’re not, your character is – and if he needs to say less to get the point across, then he says less.  Very happy with the revision.  Have to see what others say of the “new, tighter lines”.  Happy writing, everyone!