Friday 19 July 2019

Making things up: going out of order

by Teri Terry

Part 6 in Marking Things up: a blog series about the creative process
When you are writing, do you start at the beginning and carry on until you get to the end, or do you write scenes out of order? 

Back years ago when I was still learning to write novels, I had a problem. I'd come a long way and could say I had these three elements pretty much in hand: 

1. Idea for the story: one that was big enough to take a whole novel to explore.
2. The beginning: one to drag readers into the world and story
3. The ending: a satisfying end to the character's - dare I say it? - journey. The sort you don't necessarily see coming but once you have it gives you that feeling that says it always had to be that way.

What's missing? the pesky middle

I loved - still do! - writing beginnings and endings. Then I'd rush as quick as I could from one to the other. I didn't have saggy middles; it's more that they were missing. I'd put in the essentials to lead from beginning to end but no more. There were no pauses or beats in the story, no subplots, no breaks for the reader - just a breathless rush from one to the other.

It took me a while to understand this, but once I did, I still struggled to understand what needed to be there. 

When I wrote the Slated trilogy, it was originally going to be a single novel, not a trilogy. I wrote the part of it that would have been the first third if it was a standalone, and realised there was too much of a rush through it, that it needed more, and made the decision to change it to a trilogy. So, I had something less than 20,000 words that needed to grow.

I think this is the first time I made a chapter table: first column, chapter number/word count; second column, a paragraph saying what happened in the chapter; third column blank. The important third column is where I'd add notes of things that were missing, needed to change etc. Doing this helped me see what was missing and where to put it, and is still something I do today, not so much as an initial plotting tool but further along in the process when I'm getting stressed about the missing middle.

Because of the way Slated evolved, I'd written the beginning and ending before I filled in the middle. To be fair I wrote the ending before I'd finished even the shorter version of the novel that I had to begin with. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I did this: write the ending early on in the process.
If I save a scene that is in my head, clear in my thoughts, and don't allow myself to write it until I get there in the plot, once I'm there it's lost what it had before - that urgency the words need to have, that delight in writing it also. 
Writing out of order is something I've done since then whenever I had a scene in my head that won't leave me alone. It might have to change - even drastically - when I get there, but that's ok. I need to get it out when it wants out.

Somewhere along the way I stopped writing out of order: multiple viewpoints tripped me up. Book of Lies, the Dark Matter trilogy (Contagion, Deception, Evolution) and Fated all have multiple viewpoints. I tried different ways of approaching this but I found that writing out of order to any extent didn't work when I was alternating chapters between different character's points of view. I still occasionally would write a few critical scenes - the key scenes that define the character &/or move the plot along - that were niggling at me even though the point of view would end up changing later on once I got there. 

Now I'm writing a Shiny New Thing: I can't tell you much about it yet, but it has a single point of view. I think somewhere along the way I'd forgotten how much fun it can be to do things out of order, and how useful it is to my writing process. 

Writing takes a lot of self-discipline, particularly when you add in deadlines. I used to really push myself to hit word counts or hour counts of how many hours a day I was writing, and it was taking the fun out of it. Being able to daydream my characters and think ahead and backwards and ahead again makes it more fun, but beyond that:
Writing critical scenes first cements the story and key elements in my mind. It makes it obvious what is needed to link these scenes together - and there is my missing middle. 
I still use tables to keep me on track when I need to. At the moment I'm at the stage where I'm approaching the finish line, and there are gaps here and there in my table - missing chapters that need to be written still - that get me from one critical scene to another.

There are no rules on the best way to write a novel: every writer and every story will work in a different way.
But if you've ever felt it is inherently wrong to jump ahead to the fun stuff in your plot, don't punish your muse! They like a bit of freedom.

Making Things Up: previous blogs in this series on the creative process

Part 5: Finding the place for your story
Part 4: The Care and Feeding of Plot Bunnies
Part 3: Writing all the right words: but not necessarily in the right order
Part 2: Getting Started
Part 1: Because I'm a writer, and that's what I do

Friday 5 July 2019

Good News!

By Nick Cross

Image by freepik

I have SO much to write in this blog post - please do excuse me if it goes on a bit. But with that in mind, I won't make you read through the whole thing for the headline news. I (and my illustrated YA novel Riot Boyyy) have an agent! A real live agent, and not just someone who I have conversations with in my head. I’m delighted to introduce Heather Cashman.

Heather is an associate agent with Storm Literary Agency, living in Kansas (yes, in the US of A). Although she has only been a full-time agent since January, Heather is far from inexperienced. She’s been a professional editor for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy, interned at various agents and publishers, and is the former Managing Director of mentoring programme Pitch Wars. She’s also really nice (this is important, folks!)

Heather has a small list of clients at the moment, and that’s definitely a bonus for me - as an aspiring debut writer/illustrator I know that my career will need more attention than someone who’s better established. We also have the infrastructure of an established agency to back us up.

Five years ago, I wouldn't have considered looking for a US agent. Now that I've signed with one, the whole process seems very straightforward. All of the tools for remote working (email, Skype, Dropbox) are there to assist us, and even the time difference isn't a big problem. Given that I have a full-time job, the fact that Heather is mostly online during my afternoon and evening is actually pretty convenient.

For the last 6 or 7 years, I’ve had a bottle of vintage champagne in a box. Every so often, I would slide open the box, look at it and then slide the box closed again. Because, you see, I was saving that champagne for something really special - signing with an agent. And yet despite my best efforts, year after year that didn’t happen. After a while, that champagne started to weigh me down, it became another reason to feel bad about myself, that I had somehow failed by not making the (seemingly) impossible happen.

Last weekend, I opened the bottle and my family toasted my success. But although the champagne tasted absolutely fine (in no way guaranteed after 7 years in the bottle) it wasn’t worth waiting that long for. I resolved in future to celebrate the smaller successes along with the larger ones, to ride the ups and downs of the writer’s life with equanimity.

And let me tell you, there have been plenty of ups and downs over the last few months. If you read my earlier post The Thrill of the Chase - My Quest for the Perfect Agent, you’ll know that I hadn’t initially intended to send out Riot Boyyy to agents at all. But when I did, I really went for it. Here are the stats:
  • Agents submitted to: 45
  • Rejections Received (to date): 28
  • Full Manuscript Reads: 4

Despite the large number of submissions, my process was actually highly selective. I leaned heavily on the Manuscript Wish List site, looking for agents who represented YA books as well as:
  • Representing illustrators/graphic novels
  • Looking for books about feminism

Pro tip: The Manuscript Wish List search can be a bit limited, so for better coverage you can use a Google site search. For instance, searching for “feminism” on returns 10 results. But typing “feminism” into Google returns 90 results!

I can’t honestly say that I looked at Heather’s profile on Manuscript Wish List and cried “She’s the one!” I remember that she looked kind from her photo (some agents’ photos are mildly terrifying), and that her interests aligned with mine. But honestly, I had also sent to lots of other agents who seemed perfect, to no avail. When you are a writer submitting to agents, you have to be careful where you spend your emotional energy, because it’s very easy to burn out - especially when you’re sending a lot of submissions. Of course, I’m an emotional person, so it’s hard for me to stay detached all the time. Although each individual rejection hurt less than it has in the past, there was a period at the beginning of March when I was receiving rejections every day. That was really tough.

I had some notable misses with agents. One rejected me after 42 minutes (with feedback to boot). I found another on Twitter #MSWL, asking for boys’ books set in the 1990s. I thought that one was a slam dunk, but I got rejected after just 5 hours. Both of these were evidence that my pitch was really working, encouraging agents to read my chapters as soon as they received them. I scored a hit with an agent who responded to my initial submission with effusive praise, after less than a day. With great excitement, I immediately sent my full manuscript, but the agent then proceeded to sit on it for five months. This was the very definition of a mixed message (though the message I finally took was that they were too busy to be my agent!)

When you are searching for representation, the whole process is partly one of judgement. The agent is judging whether your writing excites them and has market potential. They are also judging your pitch and your ability to be professional - are you the kind of person they can have a working relationship with? The same should be true of the writer, however much the temptation is to jump up and down waving a banner saying “Like me! Like me!” Signing with an agent is not something to be entered into lightly (believe me, I have history with this), so I unavoidably found myself assessing Heather’s potential to represent me. After I sent her the full manuscript, she replied saying that it would take her three months to read it. Fair enough, I thought - it was good to have a timescale. When she replied a week and a half later, I knew I might be onto something. But then she did something really smart - she asked me to put together a document containing extracts of four to six other projects that I had written. She wanted to look beyond the book that I was submitting, to other potential projects that we might work on.

What an opportunity! Like a lot of unpublished writers, I have a bulging bottom drawer full of projects that never quite made it to market. It was honestly such a delight that someone wanted to read all this stuff, the words that I thought might remain undiscovered forever.

Throughout this post, I’ve been talking more from the perspective of a writer than a writer/illustrator. And part of the reason for that is the way that the submission process is set up. Nine times out of ten, an agent will ask to see the words first and the illustrations later (if they ask at all). Perhaps for picture books this is different, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to submit older illustrated fiction.

So, right up to the point I had my first Skype call with Heather, I didn’t know if she wanted to represent me as a writer, or an illustrator, or what. I didn’t know, because I hadn’t dared to ask earlier in the process! I tentatively broached the subject of whether she would be pitching the novel as an illustrated book, and she said something like: “Of course I want to present this with your illustrations.” Cue a massive sigh of relief from me! Later, when I received the agency contract, I got very emotional when it said I would be represented as a writer/illustrator. This is an incredible milestone for me, and I truly I believe that the authentic voice of Riot Boyyy comes from the synthesis of words, pictures and presentation.

OK, I need to stop now, before this blog post ends up being longer than the novel it’s celebrating. But I can’t end without a quick round of thank yous:
  • To Heather and the team at Storm Literary for their belief in me
  • To the Notes from the Slushpile crew, for their moral support through difficult times
  • To Sara O'Connor, whose enthusiasm for Riot Boyyy was instrumental in me deciding to approach agents rather than self-publish
  • To Terri Trimble, my "authenticity consultant" who read the whole novel and corrected my slip-ups in language and setting
  • And to all the Scoobies who cheered me on at The Hook. As ever, you rock!

Honestly, I'm still pinching myself about this. But if you go to the Storm Literary website, you can see my author profile, so it must be true!


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

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