Write Something Cool

In my last post I told you to just write it. Easy for me to say, you say. But writing, unlike breaking up and lots of other things in life, really is easy to do. Writing something cool, though, something beyond a rough draft, something finished and polished, something that other people (besides your mom) will want to read, that’s not so easy. If that’s the kind of thing you want to write, there’s stuff you should do before you get started on your novel and during the writing and especially after that first draft.

Want to write for young adults or middle readers? Read! Read what’s been successful in the past five or ten years. You’re unlikely to find the kinds of books you remember from your childhood, even if your childhood wasn’t so long ago (in your opinion). There’s still some sweet stuff being written, but much of what’s winning awards and getting starred reviews and earning big sales figures nowadays is edgy and profane and dark and smart and irreverent and unconventional. None of it was written to convey a “message” or “lesson” to young people who simply need a good talking to by an adult who’s been around and knows pretty much everything.

So read.

And while you’re reading, study how the writer does what she does. Sentences, paragraphs, scenes, sequels, exposition, narration, transition, dialogue, VOICE. Do you like the characters? Why? Does the story engage you? Why? Did you keep thinking about it after you finished reading the last page? Why? What was the point of view? The tense?

If you have an opportunity to listen to an author talk about his books, GO. Maybe he’ll talk about his process, or marketing, or getting an agent, or finding a publisher. If you get a chance to sign up for a novel writing workshop or class, DO IT. The teaching might not be great (or maybe it will be), but you’ll learn something, and what’s more important, you’ll get some motivation to write. If at all possible, find yourself a critique group. A good critique group can be beyond helpful for letting you look beyond what you intended to what you accomplished. Get people who are experienced and current readers, who are kind but not timid, and who have your best interests at heart.

Then come up with a plan for your own project. Every writer has her own process, but mine starts off (after the initial idea building), with a page or two of synopsis. This tells me I have an interesting story with a beginning, middle, and end. Something worth spending years on. Then it’s a scene outline–a series of several dozens scenes that I envision occurring in my story. Just two or three sentences each. They may or may not correspond to eventual chapters. Then I jump in with the first scene of the novel, the beginning of my first (rough) draft. And go from there, heeding but not feeling tied to the outline. It’s very conceivable that I’ll come up with a better idea once the writing begins. If you find a different process that works for you, go for it.

Elmore Leonard said the secret to writing is leaving out the parts that readers don’t want to read. This leaving-out thing happens, usually, after you’ve written your rough draft, when you go back in and hunt down and execute the stuff that doesn’t belong and make everything that does belong better. I go through my manuscript literally dozens of times, both before and after I give it to my critique group. Why? Because there’s that competition thing out there, baby. If you want to be published, you gotta be as good as or better than however many manuscripts the publisher you submit to or the agent you query is planning on accepting that year. They get thousands of manuscripts and queries in a year. A good-sized publisher might publish only a couple dozen books. An agent may take on only a handful of new clients. So if what you’ve written isn’t in the top two or three percent (in their opinion, mind you, but in the end that’s what counts) of what they get, you’re not gonna make it.

The good new is, despite the apparent odds, the submission process isn’t a lottery. The agent or publisher isn’t going to reach into a giant barrel or teetering slush pile and pull out the manuscripts for that year. Instead, the selection is based on quality. So sure, you’re gonna be competing against some excellent projects. But you’ll also be competing against manuscripts that are too short or too long or full of grammatical errors or didactic or boring or have no discernible point of view or an adult point of view or a wandering tense or single spaced or printed on perfumed paper. Some of the other manuscripts will feature angels or vampires or werewolves or zombies or dystopian themes or rhyming cat poetry even though the agent or publisher stated specifically in their guidelines that they don’t want any of that crap. So as long as you don’t find yourself in one or more of those no-no categories and write something really engaging and special and unique and cool, you’re gonna have a fighting chance to get where you want to go with your story.

So think about it. But don’t think too long. Time passes. And in some ways this business seems to change by the hour.

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