The Quest for a Critique Partner

NB: this was originally posted on There And Draft Again in August 2013, but I have tweaked it slightly to share with you again today.

Hello gentle reader,

Today I’d like to share a few tips about finding the right Critique Partner(s).

frodosam

What is a Critique Partner?

A writer working alone always gets to a point where he needs another set of eyes to let him know how he can make his Work In Progress better. Beta readers can help by pointing out what they liked or disliked in the story’s plot, structure and characters. But their advice can only take the writer so far, because they are only readers, as their designation points out. Enter the Critique Partner. A Critique Partner is a writer, who can help another writer with all the aspects of his story, from plot holes to grammar mistakes.

Where can you find a Critique Partner?

If you’re lucky enough to have a local critique group, start there. But if you don’t have anyone in real life you feel can fill this role, look online.

– Social media is a good place to start, especially Twitter.

– Specialised websites also offer to help writers get in touch: Ladies Who Critique, How About We CP, CP Seek, She Writes, PublishingCrawl.

– Online writing conferences and writing contests are also a great way to find people who write your genre: WriteOnCon, PitchMadness, PitchMas, PitchWars, etc.

– For those of you writing MG/YA Fantasy, do check out the SCBWI forums and YA Writers Reddit.

– The National Novel Writing Months (NaNoWriMo, JuNoWriMo and CampNaNo) are also a good way to find writers in your genre.

– And don’t forget forums like Absolutewrite and Agent Query Connect.

How do I know I’ve found the right Critique Partner?

A CP’s feedback needs to be honest, constructive and helpful. But this works both ways: your feedback on your CP’s manuscript also needs to be honest, constructive and helpful. You need to agree on time frames, manuscript length and genre.

Most partnerships start with a casual conversation, then a first chapters swap. If you’re happy with the feedback received/given, you can move on to full manuscripts, and hopefully a long-term friendship!

How can you make it work?

Finding a good match isn’t easy: don’t be afraid to say ‘this isn’t working for me’ if you feel your CP’s feedback isn’t what you expect. Chances are you are going to be reading A LOT of each other’s writing in the next few years, so you need to be happy with each other’s schedules and comments. Balance is key: this is a partnership, and ideally both writers are at the same stage in their writing.

You know you’ve found the right CP if you feel this balance is there, and if you think your partnership works both ways. Hopefully this partnership turns into friendship, and your CP becomes the first person you turn to for anything related to your writing career, whether you’ve jut received a request for your manuscript or hit rock bottom while drafting your Work In Progress.

So tell me: do you have a hard time finding a CP? If you have a CP, where did you find each other? Let me know in the comments below!

How to plot your Fantasy novel

NB: this was originally posted on There And Draft Again in May 2013, but I have tweaked it slightly to share with you again today.

Hello gentle reader,

Today I’d like to share with you a few tips to plot your Fantasy novel effectively. Whether you use this template for your first draft or your tenth one, I believe it’s always useful to keep in mind your novel’s important milestones. It helps with the pace of the story and it enables you to keep the reader engaged.

one-does-not-simply-write-a-book

There are dozens of templates out there (the most famous being the Save The Cat Beat Sheet by Blake Snyder). I’ve come up with the one below by taking bits and pieces from here and there. I have found it works well for a Fantasy novel. Feel free to reuse and adapt it to your needs…

Plot Point 1 Opening/Protagonist intro (1% in)

Plot Point 2 Inciting Incident (5%)

Plot Point 3 First Turning Point (10%)

Plot Point 4 First Big Twist (40%)

Plot Point 5 Middle Turning Point (50%)

Plot Point 6 Second Big Twist (70%)

Plot Point 7 Climax (85%)

Plot Point 8 Resolution (95%)

Plot Point 9 Finale (100%)

So what do you think? Do you use a plot spreadsheet to outline or revise your novel? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

Novel Writing and Themes

Hello gentle reader,

Let’s say you’ve written a novel. You’ve developed its plot, fleshed out its characters, worked hard on its world-building  and polished it for submission. You’ve sent it off to CPs, or agents, or editors. And the feedback you’re getting is something along the lines of “I didn’t care much/enough about the story.” This might mean your manuscript wasn’t this CP’s/agent’s/editor’s cup of tea. Or it might mean there’s an issue with themes in your story.

What are themes?

Every story has a PLOT and a THEME. Your plot is what happens to your characters and the problems they have to resolve. Your theme is what your story means, its relevance to the reader’s life.

For example in The Hunger Games, the plot is about Katniss taking part in the games and surviving them with Peeta. However the themes of the story are social inequalities, and life and death offered as entertainment, among others.

Do you need a theme in your novel?

This is my opinion, but I tend to say: yes, yes you do, very much. Some books focus on plot so much that they forget about themes. The result can be entertaining, but it’s also easily forgettable and quite frankly, hollow. Great books, which stay with the reader long after they’ve read it, offer a balance of plot and theme. They are both entertaining (=with a good plot) and they make the reader question his/her convictions (=with its themes).

How do I choose my themes?

Much like choosing the events that will make up your plot, choosing your themes is up to you, really. You need to ask yourself the question: which topics matter to me in life? You also need to make sure your theme matches the genre you’re writing in. With Historical fiction, I find it’s easy to think of themes just by researching the concerns of the time period I chose for my setting. They usually resonate a lot more with our modern lives than we could expect.

How do I weave my themes into my plot?

That’s the tricky part. You don’t want your themes to be impossible to get, but you don’t want to bang your reader on the head with them either. You need to strike a balance between plot and theme, and never preach or feel the need to make your theme obvious, EVEN IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS. If you manage to do that, then…

Any thoughts on themes? Any advice to mix plot and themes efficiently? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

Writing and How To Create A Vivid Setting

Hello gentle reader,

I haven’t been writing or blogging a lot lately, but I have been reading. And I’ve been disappointed by a couple of books, because of their setting. Or lack thereof.

If you’re a writer trying to get published, you may have received rejections that stated your world building needed work, or your setting wasn’t vivid enough.

Today I’m giving a few pointers to create a well-realised setting, one that will draw your readers in and bring the places you describe to life.

Step 1: Identify your setting’s weaknesses

–          Your book suffers from the “We could be anywhere” syndrome

I read this book that was set in Chicago. Halfway through it, I had to go back to the beginning, because I couldn’t remember if it took place in Chicago or New York City. That’s how vague the setting was. In your own manuscript, ask yourself if your story could take place anywhere else. If the answer is yes, it means that your plot and your story aren’t interwoven enough: there needs to be a reason why this story happens in this specific place (whether it is a small town in rural America or London).

 Welcome_to_Sunnydale_(Buffy_screenshot)

–          Your descriptions are clichéd

I recently read another book, which was set in Paris. To my dismay, the author seemed to think that mentioning the Eiffel Tower here and having a character talk about Montmartre there was enough to set the scene. With your story, ask yourself if you’ve researched your setting enough to avoid describing what everyone already knows about that place.

 Gossip Girl Paris

–          Your descriptions are boring

I read another book, which was set in a US high school. This is a tricky setting, because, well, we’ve all been to school and watched countless films/TV shows about teenagers at school. What you want to avoid here is a bland description: classrooms, bleachers, bathroom… If your story takes place in a very familiar place, ask yourself if you’ve described what makes it special in the eyes of your characters (whether good or bad). Ask yourself if your setting has personality.

Teen_Wolf_Meeting_at_school

Step 2: Create a great setting

–          Avoid setting each scene in “anonymous” places such as hotel rooms, random streets, nameless restaurants, etc. This is especially important if you’ve chosen to set your story in an exciting big city. As a reader, there’s nothing more frustrating than being sold a book “set in Tokyo” and have the characters spend all their time in a non-descript apartment, for example.

–          Do your research. Do A LOT of research. Your book will have two types of readers: the ones who have been to the place you describe, and therefore expect an accurate description, and the ones who haven’t been there, who deserve a description that will give them the chance to explore a place where they might never go. If you’re choosing to set your story in a well-know place, I tend to think that you should visit it yourself, to avoid clichés and to give your descriptions your own flavour. When it’s not possible, read widely about your setting, and make sure you write about what makes it unique and what makes it come alive.

–          Make your setting come alive by using all the senses: help you reader experience the whole of your setting. Help him see it, but also smell it, hear it, touch it and even taste it.

–          Avoid long descriptions: better focus on a few specific and striking details than write a boring one-page paragraph. Give the places’ names, and point out what makes them unforgettable.

deadwood

Reading recommendations:

–          For a great example of a setting and a plot that blend together: THE DIVINERS by Libba Bray

–          For a great example of a book set in Paris that avoids all the clichés: DIE FOR ME by Amy Plum

What about you? Do you have trouble writing vivid settings? Do you have examples of setting done well in literature? Make sure to share your thoughts below!

Querying, dream agents and the right agent for you

Hello gentle reader,

This post was inspired by some FizzyWisdom I read yesterday, aka a blog post by the amazing Summer Heacock about what you should and shouldn’t share on social media while you’re querying your manuscript. In her post, Summer explains how oversharing online can hinder your chances of finding an agent. She also mentions the term “Dream Agent”, which is the topic I want to discuss today.

What is a “Dream Agent”?

If you’re a querying writer, a Dream Agent is the agent you really, really want to sign with. This agent is whoever you think will be the perfect match for you and your writing.

Does everyone have a Dream Agent?

Sometimes, it sounds like everyone is talking about their Dream Agent, or asking who your Dream Agent is. I’m going to be very honest here and say I don’t have a Dream Agent. I have maybe 12 Dream Agents. Why? Because I want to keep my options open. Because a Dream Agent, an agent you *think* will be a perfect match, isn’t necessarily the Right Agent for you, that is, an agent who *will be* your perfect match.

How do I go about finding the Right Agent for me, then?

Do your research and find out:

  • if the agent represents your genre and is in contact with publishers interested in your genre.
  • what’s the agent’s style: editorial or non-editorial? Happy to communicate with you often or preferring to get in touch only when necessary? This info is usually available on the agent’s website or blog.
  • the agent’s sales record (how many books they sold, to whom and when): this info is available on Publishers Marketplace.
  • if the agent is an AAR (Association of Author Representatives) member. Sometimes new agents aren’t AAR members but they should work for an agency with AAR members (aka an established agency with a sales record). You can find this info on Query Tracker.
  • where the agent lives:  with Internet, whether the agent lives in London, New York or Los Angeles shouldn’t be an issue for your book to sell. However do check where the agent lives to consider if her/his location will have an impact on your relationship (time difference anyone?)
  • what’s the agent’s personality: this is where things get a bit subjective, but checking an agent’s online presence can help you determine whether she/he is the right agent for you. Twitter is a good resource for this, or agents’ blogs and Tumblr.

But the final decision about whether an agent is right for you or not will be during The Call: when an agent makes an offer of representation. This is when you will be able to judge if the agent’s vision of your book and your career matches your dream. Then hopefully, you’ll decide this agent is the Right one, aka your Dream Agent.

What about you? Do you have a Dream Agent? How do you go about finding out if an agent is the right one for you? Make sure to leave me your comments and questions below!

Querying a book during the summer: a few tips

Hello gentle reader,

Yesterday on Twitter the very talented Heather Marie ‏(@xHeatherxMariex) and DahliaAdler ‏(@MissDahlELama) had a discussion on whether or not it was a good idea to query a book during the summer. You can read it here if you’re interested (and you should also follow these two amazing ladies!).

I’ve often heard it’s better to forget querying from mid-June to mid-August, and this was Heather’s opinion: her point was that when agents and editors are out-of-office for various reasons, writers are less likely to get replies and they should therefore wait until September to contact them.

But what if your manuscript is ready now? Aren’t you wasting precious time if you wait two months to query it? As Heather pointed out at the end of the Twitter conversation: the decision to query –or not query – during the summer is up to you in the end.

As some of you may know, I made the decision to start querying Lily In The Shadows at the end of June. So here are my tips to make the most of the querying process during the summer.

1) Make sure your manuscript is completed and polished.

This is true whatever the season you choose to query it. Ask yourself if you could spend these summer months making your story the best it can be. My friend Kate is doing this right now. She badly wanted to query her book this summer, but she realised it was best to polish it first, and query it in the fall.

2) Follow agents on Twitter

It is likely agents will mention on Twitter when they are out of their office this summer. When they do, make a note of it: it will save you the anxious wait for a reply during this time.

3) Enter online contests

Some agents are still here, and some of them are generous enough to make requests during online contests. This month 3 contests are in full swing: Like A Virgin, Christmas In July, PitchMas. And there are more to come!

4) Attend conferences

Many agents won’t be in their office this summer because they will be attending writers’ conferences. Go and meet them there! And if you can’t attend a conference, make a note of the dates of the most important ones (in July: Romance Writers of America’s Annual Conference, San Diego Comic Con, Midwest Writer Workshop, etc.).

That’s it for my tips to query during the summer! Do you have other ideas to make the most of the querying process in July-August? Make sure to leave me your thoughts and questions below!

Foreshadowing with Buffy

Hello gentle reader,

Today I’d like to discuss a writing device that is both well-known and troublesome to use: foreshadowing.

What is foreshadowing?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “a warning or indication of a future event”. In literature, it is a way to “prepare readers for what will happen later in the story” (K.M. Weiland) by planting a clue (an image, an idea, a character, an event) that will only turn out to be important or make sense later in the narrative.

Buffy Dawn

Why should a writer use foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing gives depth to a story and helps make it plausible. When every part of your narrative falls into place at the end (as they should), the reader should have a “ha!” moment when he thinks: “I should have seen this coming!” And because he didn’t, he will marvel at your writing, and possibly re-read the book to find all the clues he missed the first time.

Buffy Death Season 5

How to use foreshadowing?

This is the hard part. If your clues are too blatant, the reader will quickly put two and two together and all suspense will be ruined. If the clues are too subtle, the reader won’t even remember them when he reaches the end. So the key here is to find the right balance. As for anything else when it comes to writing a good story, critique partners and beta readers will help you in finding this balance. They’ll be able to tell you: “this was too obvious”, or “what do you mean, you left clues?!”

Buffy_Doppelgangland

Any great examples of foreshadowing?

In literature, my favourite example of well-done foreshadowing is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. But because only a few of you have read it, I’ll take my examples from Buffy instead. Joss Whedon is a MASTER at foreshadowing, and here is the proof…

Dark_Willow

Willow’s story arc: In season 3, Willow meets her vampire doppelgänger and says “I’m so evil and skanky. And I think I’m kinda gay.” In season 4 she will become openly gay and in season 6 she will turn evil and try to destroy the world.

Dawn’s arrival: from the beginning of season 4, there are clues in the dialogues to Dawn’s arrival in season 5.

Buffy’s death at the end of season 5 is predicted by Faith at the end of season 3 (two years in advance!) when she says: “Oh yeah. Miles to go. Little Miss Muffet counting down from seven three oh.” When she says this, Buffy will die in 730 days.

Do you use foreshadowing in your stories? How difficult are you finding it? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

And happy writing…