Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pre-Query Woes, Ctd.

(Yay, pretty layout! I swear I won't change it again for awhile.)

Let me first define the terms of our discussion:

Query Itch: the premature desire to query a work you are in the process of revising. This condition is often exacerbated by having other writers around you who are querying (and, in severe cases, getting buttloads of requests from said queries).

Query Salve: an imaginary cure for query itch that bears remarkable similarity to Burt's Bees Hand Salve (a farmer's friend).

Basically, here's the story: after Thanksgiving I started to write Divergent. I wrote Divergent until my hands almost fell off. Then I finished Divergent. I reread it. I made structural changes. I took the axe to it. I drafted a query letter. I sent my MS to betas.

(This timeline is INSANE for me, by the way. It took me a year to write TM. A YEAR. 40 days? What the HECK is that? Say it with me: This. Never. Happens.)

This post will be my official cure for the Query Itch.

Item 1: Betas

Let's say you just revised. You picked the writing apart. You picked the plot apart. You put everything back together again, as neatly as possible. Now when you look at your MS, you get a surge of pride and you think, "this is rather good. I think this is in tip-top shape." (I don't know why you've become a stuffy old British man from a Dickens film. Let's move on.) I have breaking news for you: you're wrong.

Maybe you're right that your MS is rather good, but it is not in tip-top shape, because you are wearing Post-Revision Blinders. When I stare at D right now, I wonder what on earth my critiques will be, because I see no problems. Well, of course I see no problems. If I had seen problems, I would have fixed them before I sent the MS to betas. But one thing I've learned is: the problems are there.

It's sort of like when you get a cold. The day before you have symptoms, the germs are still floating around your body, unseen and about to attack. When you get your beta comments back, that's called "getting symptoms." The betas will help you see the problems. And instead of fearing them, we must all learn to love them. They are making your MS stronger.

Item 2: Rumination

Writing is like preparing a steak. Believe it. You decide you want to marinate your steak. You put it in a marinade. The Query Itch is when you decide to remove your steak from the marinade after 3 minutes. Do you think the juices have sunk in? No! 3 minutes is not enough time!

Same thing with the MS. It needs to sit there in your brain for awhile. And no amount of re-reading it or scrutinizing it will speed up the process. You just have to wait until you have re-acquired your ability to be semi-objective about your own work again. I don't know how long that takes, but it's longer than two days, which is about the length of my writing attention span.

I read somewhere that after you write your query letter, you should let it sit for two weeks, because when you look at it again after that time, you'll realize things about it that you wouldn't have if you had just sent it right away. And you can't take a bad query letter back. Believe me, I know.

Item 3: Research

Finding an agent is like picking out grapefruit. (Everything at my blog is related to food, by the way.) At first glance, they all look pretty much the same. Maybe some are bigger or smaller than others, some are reddish and some are just yellow, some have weird brown spots that seem suspicious...but basically, it's a big pile of grapefruit. Now, do you just start shoving grapefruit into a bag and hauling it toward the checkout counter? Not if you're me, you don't. You stand there in the Whole Foods with a grapefruit in each hand, trying to figure out which one is heavier (because the heavier the grapefruit, the more juice it contains. My mother taught me that, I think).

And by "heavier," I mean "which one is right for you?" Because this isn't just someone who magically transforms your manuscript into a book. This person has to be compatible with you. They have to share your vision for your work. So, to stave off query itch: research. Find people you think you want to work with. Make a list. It will make you feel like you're getting ready, rather than developing a strange rash.

---

So, there you have it. My personal cure for Query Itch.

Side Note: yesterday students at Northwestern organized a Conan O'Brien day that involved a bunch of people dressed as Conan gathering to do The String Dance. How hilarious is that?

Side Note: there is a cicada on my balcony. A dead one, but still: ew.

Side Note: Guess who's going to Backspace Writer's Conference in May? YES!

Have a lovely day, itchers.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Things I've Learned: The Backpack

Let me start by saying that I'm no expert. I'm 21. I'm not a published author. When I sit down at my computer I do not spin pure gold with my prose and awe people with my fantastic skill. But there are a few things I've learned along the way, and I thought it might be fun to talk about them, on the off chance that they help someone else as much as they've helped me.

Pretty much the most important one for the purposes of revising is...The Backpack.

I learned about The Backpack from my writing professor (the brilliant Shauna Seliy). And it goes like this: imagine that you are about to embark upon a twenty mile hike through the wilderness, and you have to fit everything you need into one backpack. Do you want to bring your hair dryer? Uh, no. First of all, because there aren't any plugs. Second of all, because no one's going to see you. And third, and most importantly, because it will take up space in your already cramped backpack, and it's completely unnecessary.

The core of this: only take what you absolutely need to make it to the end of the hike. And it's the same in writing. Do we need to know what your character eats at a given meal? Not unless someone chokes on a cherry pit or has an allergic reaction to the shellfish. Do we need to know what she dreamed about the night before? Not unless it has some critical bearing on her mental or emotional condition.

(But what if I--

No.)

If it does not contribute to character development, world building, or plot, take it out.

This is the tough conversation I have with myself every time I revise something. I stare at the sections of my draft that I love the most, the little moments at the breakfast table and the long stares in the hallway and the interludes about the merits of root beer, and I sigh, and I think, this is good writing, is there some way I can keep this? And then my internal editor swings in from above and says: NO. TAKE IT OUT.

(What about this little--

No!

But it's so sweet, and it really does contribute to her character--

NO!)

The same professor said that if there's a gun in a scene, it is going to go off at some point, and if it doesn't, it shouldn't be there. You don't introduce an interesting element like that to a scene if it doesn't ultimately serve a purpose, and you don't introduce characters or events if they don't serve a purpose. I have to get really brutal with my drafts because of this. I love to expand and I love to explore interesting places and people with my writing, and that's fine...for the first draft. But in draft two, those things have to go. Period.

I'm having this problem right now, actually. I introduced a character in the first fifty pages of my draft who never ended up coming back. I thought he might, but that was when I didn't have the plot fully fleshed out, so he didn't. Now I have to go back and remove him. And I really liked James. He had an attitude. He had pizazz. But I'm cutting him. Sorry, James. You're a little useless.

This attitude, by the way, is how TM went from 110,000 words to 58,000 words in revisions. I get a little merciless with the axe sometimes. I had help, also.

My general rule is: if I can lift a character/scene/concept from my story without damaging it in some crucial way, that character/scene/concept shouldn't be there.

So, my number 1 tool. The Backpack.

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