The Waiting Game

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If there’s one thing writers know about, it’s waiting. Waiting on feedback from critique partners, waiting on submissions to agents and editors, and even waiting for a book to come out. So today I thought I’d post about ten constructive things you can do while you’re waiting.

1. Relax – That’s right, take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back for your accomplishments, and enjoy a piece of chocolate (or whatever your reward of choice is). Then…

2. Network – You should probably be doing this already, but if not, get active on social media, start up a blog or a website (or both), go to author events, conferences, meet-ups, leave comments on the blogs you follow, make friends, do guest posts on other people’s blogs, participate in list-serves, etc. Basically, get yourself out there (in person and/or virtually).

3. Read, read, read – Books in your genre/age category, books not in your genre/category. Keep an eye on what’s getting published today. If something really pulls you in, step back and figure out why it works and how the author did it.

4. Refill the creative well – Get out and get inspired. Head to a museum, or take a walk in nature. Or stay in and get inspired. Watch an awesome tv show or movie. Whatever gets your creative juices flowing.

5. Get creative – Not in the mood for writing? Do something else creative. Draw, sketch, sing, dance, bake fun cakes…

6. Seek out inspiration – Writing for kids? Spend the day playing with yours, or offer to babysit a friend’s. You might be surprised by how many ideas they give you.

7. Do something your character would do – Let’s face it, whether you’re on submission with an agent or an editor, chances are there’s more revision ahead of you. Why not jump into one of your character’s skins? Does your MC love to Cosplay? Make yourself a kickin’ costume and head out to the nearest comic convention. Did you create a fabulous new food for your fantasy world? See if you can make it in real life.

8. Critique other people’s work – Critiquing is a great way to learn. Even if you don’t have work to put up for critique yourself, volunteer to critique or beta read for a friend. Or find a book you like and review it on Amazon or Goodreads (after all, with any luck you’ll be looking for people to do the same in a few years…)

9. Plan the sequel – Start making an outline for what could/should/will happen in the next book. (I’d resist the urge to start writing, though, just in case Book 1 never makes it to print.)

10. Write something else – Start on a new book. That way, whether your current story succeeds or not, you have another to move forward with.

Hopefully I’ve given you some ideas to help while away the many hours of waiting a writer endures. How do you pass your waiting time? Let me know in the comments.

Leave ’em Wanting More

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about queries, giving the tips and tricks I learned from the 3+ years of querying that led to signing with my agent (yes, from a cold query!). Today, I thought I’d post about what I find to be the hardest part of the query: the synopsis.

(Most of what I’m going to write here applies to novels – boiling down 40,000 – 100,000 words to around 150 is no easy feat – but the core of this can apply to a story-based PB as well. For more info on writing PB query synopses, check out this post by Mary Kole, over on her kidlit blog.)

Let’s start by stating the basics. Your query synopsis should be written in the third person, present tense – no matter what tense/POV your ms is written in. The query synopsis should NOT give away the ending of the story because the whole point is to hook the editor or agent into wanting to read more. Think of it as a movie trailer: if the ad gave away the end, what would be the point of watching the film? (Note: the query synopsis is different from a story synopsis, sometimes requested by agents, in which you do detail the entire story, including the end – I may write a post on that in the near future.)

You also want to keep your query synopsis to two to three paragraphs, maximum.* And, the major query synopsis rule: NO rhetorical questions! (1. Because agents get them a lot. 2. Because their answer to your question might not be what you want them to say. ie. “What would you do if giant spiders ate your brother and took over your school?” “Bake them a cake.” “Faint.”)

I also suggest when you’re finished your synopsis, to get a friend or CP who isn’t familiar with your story to read it and see if it makes sense.

But most of all, I think every good query synopsis should contain the 4 Cs: Character, Conflict, Consequences, and Choice.

Character: The essential part of every story. In a query synopsis for a MG or YA book, you typically introduce your main character (MC) by listing their age, and a detail or two about them. Listing their age up front helps the agent or editor know what age group your book is for (especially if you’re putting your book title, genre, word count, etc after the synopsis, which seems to be the preferred method these days*). When it comes to describing your MC, make sure you’re not falling back into clichés, or generic information. You want your character to stand out. Saying “Sixteen-year-old Madison is the most popular girl at school” or even worse that “Carol Liu is just an average twelve-year-old” does nothing to make your character unique. But saying “sixteen-year-old Madison is a shoo-in for prom queen, but she’d rather spend the night playing video games” or “Twelve-year-old Carol Liu spends her time day-dreaming about horses while pretending to do her homework” creates a much deeper impression.

Conflict: What is it your character is trying to do, and what exactly is stopping him/her? The conflict could be anything from an evil wizard bent on killing him/her, to crippling self-doubt. Whatever it is, we need to know in the query.

Consequences: What happens if the MC doesn’t succeed? Will the world end? Will your MC be laughed out of school? Again, be specific, and try not to devolve into clichés. Don’t say “it will set off a chain of events that could spell the end of life as Arun knows it” – that could mean anything from him getting kicked off the soccer team to him being turned into a hamster. Be specific. “If Arun can’t figure out who’s sabotaging his dad’s bakery, his dad will lose the business, and they’ll have to move in with Stinky Uncle Om two hundred miles away from all his friends.”

Choice: Okay, this is probably an optional one, and not every story is going to lend itself to this structure, but if you can include a choice  your MC has to make, where both options are equally bad, you’ll definitely make the agent/editor want to keep reading to find out what happens. For instance, “Chantra has two choices: trade her life for Elon’s, and become the Emperor’s latest concubine, or walk away to live alone in freedom, knowing she doomed her true love to an early death in the mines.” (Okay, these are kind of cheesy examples, but you get the idea.)

So, there you have it, my tips for a query synopsis that will leave ’em wanting more.

Still not sure what to write? Check out the QQQE, Query Shark, and Evil Editor for tons of examples of what works and what doesn’t.

 

*Of course, every agent/editor is different. If the one you’re sending to has a preference, definitely customize your query to their standards.

Balancing Act

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As you may have seen in my previous post, I had a busy week last week. Between getting ready for my daughter’s birthday, fulfilling my critiquing responsibilities, finishing up my MG revision, plus staying in the social media loop, my plate was pretty full.

Balancing life as a stay-at-home mom and aspiring author isn’t easy, especially on crazy weeks like this past one, so I thought I’d let you in my secret: staying organized. I first learned the importance of organization when the twins were born. I had three kids under two, and between the lack of sleep and general chaos, if I didn’t stay organized things spiralled out of control pretty quickly.

If you follow this blog, you know how much I love lists (in case you haven’t already noticed, I’m a serious Type-A personality), and I find lists within lists are the best way to keep organized.

When I have a busy week, I start by making a basic list of things I need to do. For instance, last week’s read:

  • make cake pops for school
  • make birthday cake
  • clean house for party
  • critique query & chapters
  • work on MG
  • blog post & social media

Then I break that list down further. As an example, making cake pops broke down like this (I had pre-baked and frozen them):

  • defrost cake balls
  • insert sticks and re-freeze
  • 1st dip
  • 2nd dip
  • paint final details

Then I figure out when the final step has to be finished by, and work backwards from there, assigning each task to a day. Eventually I have a to-do list for each day:

Monday:

  • defrost cake balls
  • critique chapters
  • clean kitchen
  • work on blog post

I also make a side list of things that don’t have a particular to-do day, but which can be worked on when I finish my other chores (or when I’m taking a break from other chores)

Other Priorities:

  • query critique
  • MG revision
  • social media

Most of you are probably shaking your heads at this insane level of planning, but it works for me. Somehow, when I see my week all laid out, it doesn’t seem as daunting. Also, it helps me from getting sidetracked by other fun things (like writing this blog post – which I wanted to do last Wednesday, but put off until this week so I could complete my more pressing priorities first).

But lists aren’t my only secret to a balanced life.

The other secret is knowing (and accepting) when things have to go undone. For instance, I knew I didn’t have enough time to make our house spotless for the party, so I focussed on cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms, and accepted that a group of six-year-olds weren’t going to notice or care if the living room floor was covered with toys (and maybe some dust bunnies).

Sometimes, though, even my best planning falls apart. Thursday I started feeling sick, but still managed to tick off all the tasks on my to-do list for the day. But Friday I was so ill I couldn’t get out of bed. Luckily, my parents were in town for the party, so they could watch the kids, but (gasp!) I just did not have the energy to decorate the Girl’s cake.

There it was, my beautiful cake, all assembled and filled, but naked.

So we worked out a compromise. Husband took the Girl out to buy an ice cream cake (which turned out to be delicious) and I froze the cake I’d baked, with the promise to bring it out and decorate it later this week when I’ve recovered. Yeah, I felt guilty (especially since I had to this for her the year her brothers were born, after I ended up hospitalized with double mastitis), but sometimes the only way to achieve balance is by letting things go.

So there you have it, my secrets to achieving a work-life balance on even the busiest weeks. If you’re curious about how I fit writing into my schedule on a regular week, you can check out this post.

What about you? How do you find ways to balance writing and life?

 

Conference Recap

This year's button. Not sure who the illustrator is. Anyone know?
This year’s button. Not sure who the illustrator is. Anyone know?

As you probably know, I spent last weekend in Montreal attending the SCBWI Canada East Conference. And it was amazing. In fact, I think it was my favorite conference yet (although the Niagara Conference and Retreat from two years ago comes a close second).

What made it so great? Well, it was a combination of things.

1. The Speakers – There were three tracks at the conference: a novel intensive, a PB writer track, and an illustrator track. It was a tough call, but I chose the PB writing track, mostly because I wasn’t sure my concussed head could take an intensive workshop (I was right, it wouldn’t have). And I wasn’t disappointed. Lily Malcolm (Art Director, Dial Books) and Heather Alexander (Agent, Pippin Properties) gave a great talk on how a PB goes from a manuscript to a finished book, including tips on how to marry illustrations and prose (which I struggle with). Then Heather talked alone about voice in PBs*.

After that, Kari-Lynn Winters (author of about a bazillion kids’ books) gave two talks – one on PB sins and techniques (I gave myself a migraine jotting down all the amazing info), and another on the performative aspect of PBs. This one blew my mind. I’m not at the point of doing school visits yet, but I always thought an author would just come in, read their book and maybe offer some writing tips (depending on/tailored to the age of the class) but she taught us how to add drama to the presentation and really involve the kids. Coming from a drama background myself, I’m excited to get something published so I can start using some of her techniques.

Then Allyn Johnston (Publisher, Beach Lane Books) illustrated (no pun intended) various PB writing methods and styles by reading aloud from her favorite PBs.

I’m told the Novel Intensive was just as amazing and informative, and I wish I could have split myself in two, and attended both tracks. However, I’m doing the next best thing, and trading notes with someone who did attend the Novel track.

2. The Social Aspect – I rode to Montreal with some other Ottawa writers, and we spent most of the weekend hanging out, going to dinner together, etc. It was nice to not eat alone, to get adult, writerly interactions (although perhaps not quite enough sleep). The next conference is back in Ottawa, and we’ve already planned to go for dinner, and hang out together, even though we’ll be in our own town.

Also, this was my fifth conference with mostly the same people, so I’m starting to recognize (and be recognized by) other attendees, which made me feel more like I was in a room of friends, than a room full of intimidating author-types.

3. Having an Agent – There are two reasons this one made the conference better. One was the lack of stress – I didn’t feel like I had to find a way to introduce myself to the agent, let alone try and sell her on my book. And my one-on-one critique (which I had with agent Heather) was much more relaxed because I wasn’t pinning all my hopes on it. Instead, I can take her criticism and use it to make my book better with no hard feelings.

Having an agent also gave me a feeling of accomplishment and legitimacy. When other writers asked how my journey’s going, I had an answer that wasn’t just “still querying/waiting.” And everyone was so nice! People celebrated for me with genuine excitement, and their lovely comments made me blush more than once. (In case you’re wondering, it’s not like I went around screaming “I have an agent!” – even if I may have been tempted – just that I answered with it when people asked what I’d been up to recently.)

So, that’s what made this conference such a good one.

I also promised to let you in on how my critiques went (based on this post), and I think I mostly made the right decisions. The one-on-one critique of my YA with agent Heather showed me where my ms was getting cliché, and where I need to freshen it up to create a truly unique story. I’ve already got a few ideas buzzing at the back of my mind. She also recommended a number of authors to read, and I’ve added them to my list.

I didn’t end up sending anything in for first pages, and I’m fine with that – not having one of my babies torn apart in front of a room full of people definitely helped keep my stress levels low.

My group critique also went okay. I ended up dragging out and shining up an old PB (one of the first I ever drafted), and in doing so I finally figured out the twist ending the piece was missing. It ended up being a little more polished than I was aiming for, but my critiquers were able to point out the few places that my meter was off – which was a huge help. (I’m pretty good at rhyme, but sometimes I can’t hear when I’ve got the stresses wrong, or I’ve skipped a syllable.) This ms has now gone from my “trunked” file to my “needs revising” file – which makes me very happy.

Basically I came home brimming with fresh ideas and inspiration, which I’m going to let percolate in the background while I deal with more pressing things. Like, getting ready for the Girl’s birthday party this weekend, finishing this draft of my MG Historical Fantasy, starting in on the edits Bri requested for my PB, and critiquing Rae’s query (I haven’t forgotten you, I promise).

 

*You might notice I’m not giving details about what I learned at the conference – this is because it wouldn’t be fair to all the people who paid to take the workshops, or the presenters who earn money from teaching them.