Thursday, May 23, 2013

The One Where My Book Had Surgery

You may remember me mentioning a while back that I had a one hour conversation with an agent. (If not, go back to the post before last - aptly titled One Hour With an Agent - and catch up with the rest of the class)
For those of you who didn't go back and read, I'll review:
I was advised to make my 95,000 word MS into a 70,000 word MS, based on the fact that my two MC's were thirteen years old thus making the book Middle Grade.
Traditionally acceptable length of a debut Middle Grade novel is 70,000 words.
I immediately told the agent, "I can do that." As in "I can take off 25,000 words."
I said it without batting an eye.
Some of you may have wondered "WHY? Why would you do that?!"
Because as much as writing professionally is an artform, it is also a business. Agents are not the writers. Agents are business-people. They live, eat, and breathe their business (at least the good ones do) so when an agent tells me that my book is Middle Grade, and my Middle Grade book needs to be 70,000 words - I listen. Because as intimately as I know the world I've created these people know the writing business.

However, before my re-write could begin. I had to hear back from my Critique Partners. You see, CP's are invaluable (especially the ones I've lucked into finding). Tragically (for me) the same week that I had this conversation with the agent was the same week my CP's and I traded work. Which means, I wouldn't have their feedback for...two weeks?...three weeks?....a month?...TWO Months?!
I had no idea, but as soon as I knew to cut down my work my brain found several scenes to delete, a character to discard, and a few scenes to shorten. It would have been foolhardy to begin making those changes without a fresh pair of eyes to tell me what changes they thought I should make.
So...I did what any smart person would do...I waited.

First thing my Re-Write taught me: Time is actually on your side (believe it or not)
My CP's (Alex Pierce and Phalia Kester) are brilliant, awesome, and wonderful - not to mention very talented.
Alex and I actually got to chat at length about one another's work. Phalia's mark-up was thorough and made me feel terrible about some of the chapters and paragraphs I made her trudge through - I loved it!
I learned that I had a chapter that was action-packed but didn't advance the overall plot in any way or shed any new light on my characters. Despite being with me since draft one (almost completely unchanged) that chapter was removed.
A positive, offhanded note by one of my CP's led me to a completely different ending that I may not have discovered without them expressing their opinion.
If I hadn't waited for their feedback, and ran full-speed ahead I would have missed out on what my readers think makes my story great, and not so great. In fact, I had plans to focus on an aspect of the story that neither of my CP's particularly cared for in the writing.
Allow me to quote Sondheim: "Easy now, hush love hush, don't distress yourself what's your rush?"

So 28 days ago, my Re-Write began.
To be clear this didn't start as a re-write. I started out by removing the character that didn't fit anymore in the story. I also removed certain aspects of the world that needed to be omitted for the sake of word-count, and certain "fun things" that I included to make the story more enjoyable for me.
*Note: let your story be "fun" first before you add "fun things" it will make the revision process significantly easier.*

After removing all of those things, and I strictly mean Removing. As in: highlight the text that mentions ______, and press delete. After that...I had 72,000 words. I was still over the mark and I hadn't even patched the disparate pieces of the manuscript together. I hadn't found new ways to convey the information that the character that was removed provided.
That was when I knew...We were at Defcon 12...I had a full scale Re-Write on my hands.

Funny story: I write each chapter in a separate Word document. It keeps things from running together for me, and allows me to focus on the specific goals within that chapter.
Funny story #2: I can't write without knowing exactly where the chapter is going. I need a beginning sentence, and an ending scene or I just pace around my apartment aimlessly until one comes to me.
Funny Story #3: Word documents have file sizes. Oddly enough similar file sizes have similar word counts. I discovered I could track myself as I was writing so I didn't have to go back later and begin trimming all over again.

I'm a freak about details. What a character reads (or doesn't read), how they dress, what music they listen to, what city they grew up in, what city they moved to when they were ten, what their parents/children/relatives do for a living - all of those (and everything else) are important to me.
I've told you before that my story started out at 113,000 words...well that was the Fourth draft.
The second this this draft taught me: Trust the reader.
You see I learned that I need those things - the reader doesn't. I can't explain it any clearer, but I can tell you that if you know those things, they'll come across in the writing even if you don't mention it
*Note: my favorite way to learn about a new character is to find a top 10 list of their favorite songs. Trust me, it works wonders*
**but don't share that list with your readers!**

The 95,000 word draft that my CP's read...both of them mentioned how my MS could have been split into two books.
That threw me for a loop.
It also told me I was doing something wrong. It told me that I was allowing sub-plots to become as important as the primary storyline. No way Josephine!
Third thing the re-write taught me: Know the heart of your story.
It sounds simple, and you may think you do (I know I did!), but art is subjective, and there comes a point when the audience's perception matters more than the artist's intent.
113,000 could not have become 95,000 which could not have become 71,000 if I didn't take a step back (a day off writing) to find out Not what my characters wanted, Not where the storyline was headed, Not who my characters were, Not what the subliminal theme of the story was...I needed to recognize the roots of my story.
Bianca and Scarlett's story is based off a lesser-known Fairytale. I think the full length version is maybe seven pages.
Seven pages written in the long ago and far away was the root of my story. It was the adventure I expounded upon that gave birth to a thousand plotlines and over a bajillion major and minor characters. (those figures are a rough estimate)
Reading the 95,000 word draft I could see where and how I had fallen off track. I found the heart of the story and focused on that, and restrained myself from extravagance. (Not an easy task for me)

Fourth thing I learned during my re-write: Less is More.
Do I worry that too much has been removed? Yes.
Do I worry that my characters will read flat because my readers don't know what they're wearing everytime they change clothes? Yes!
Do I worry that my world-building will seem lax because I didn't have enough words to tell you about the social hierarchy of my Faerie society? Yes.

But at the end of the day am I proud of what does exist on the page? Yes!
And that's the key.
You see, just like no one is promised tomorrow, an author writing what he/she believes to be a Middle Grade Epic Fantasy series isn't promised a book two.
Just like eating healthy, quitting bad habits, etc increases the probability of a tomorrow for all the men, women, and children crawling across the face of the earth; a well written Book One increases the probability of a Book Two.
An easy example: If J.K. Rowling tried teaching us the in's-and-out's of Wandlore in Sorceror's Stone some of us may have fallen off the Harry Potter train. If we learned about Patronuses before Harry could cast one, or if we casually heard about Dementors before they became relevant we would have been bored with the actual adventure searching for the Sorceror's Stone, or discovering the Chamber of Secrets.
Too much of the right thing at the wrong time is just as bad as a terrible ending.
No info-dumps, nothing extraneous to the here and now of the story should exist in any MS. If "here and now" is fantastic then that will make us excited and surprised for when Later arrives.

The last thing that I'm comfortable sharing with you about what I learned during my Re-Write: You need a break.

I'm hasty. I'm all or nothing. I'm one hundred miles an hour. We'll stop and smell the roses as soon as we get to where we're going!
That's not the way to write a book (or to live your life, but it's easier for me to apply it to writing. I'm still working on the slow-down-life thing).
There were days - especially in my final 6 chapter stretch where I knew exactly what needed to be put on the page. I knew where the story was headed, I knew every scene, and who did what...but I couldn't write it.
My battery died. My well ran dry.
(I distinctly remember singing "The River Won't Flow" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World in my kitchen)
This happens. You'll survive. It's terribly frustrating, but it's your Muse telling you that you're missing something, and until you shut up and let him/her work it out you guys are just going to fight....and you'll never win a fight with a Muse.
Now, I have to stay away from all things fantasy when I'm writing. Movies, books, tv Muse is easily confused, and she'll start to focus on the story I'm watching/reading instead of the one I'm writing.
Bad News Bears.
So I started watching Friends AKA the How I Met Your Mother of the 90's.
A) I could write an entire blog post about the amazingness of a show I never watched while it was on the air.
B) Find your Friends. Find something completely unrelated to your writing that you enjoy. Be it tap-dancing, yodeling, Julia Roberts RomComs, or listening to old country music as you drive around the neighborhoods you can't afford to live in. Find the thing that distracts you and allows your Muse to do its thing.
When you get back to the pages you'll find that the better part of you has been hard at work, and your little day off was worth it's weight in gold.
C) The title of this blog is a nod to Friends

Alright guys, that's all I've got for tonight.
Forgive the helter-skelter nature of this entry. It's been a while since I've blogged, and without a thorough outline I tend to ramble. I promise more frequent posts in the days to come (and hopefully more cohesive). I've missed you guys, and until my next mad-dash at revisions I'll be here expelling my thoughts onto the walls of my little corner in cyberspace.

Until we meet again!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

(Spoiler Free) Review: CODA by Emma Trevayne

CODA Back cover summary:

"Deep in an abandoned basement, Athem sings of a truth and freedom with his illegal underground band. Yet on the surface and under watchful eyes, Anthem is unable to resist the call of the Corporation's addictive, mind-altering music tracks, even as he knows they are used to control him and his fellow citizens.
When tragedy strikes close to home, Anthem realizes that defying the Corp comes at a deadly price...and the stakes of preventing his brother and sister from being claimed by the government drug are worth every heart-pounding second. The key to the revolution might lie with the girl Anthem loves, but will he trust her enough to let her join the fight?"

Let me begin by saying that the best part about this novel is that the story itself is so much more than this summary would have you believe.
So often I've read books that merely live up to the story on the back cover or inside flap; CODA surpasses all expectations to create a rare, rich, dystopian fantasy that will leave you breathless every step of the way.

It's hard for me to get behind a protagonist. I never really fall in love with them as much as the world built around them, or the supporting characters.
Anthem is the first protagonist I've loved in recent memory. The story is told in first person, and Ms. Trevayne is so talented that every positive and negative raw human emotion is succinctly but effortlessly conveyed so by the time you finish the book there is a distinct feeling of loss once you realize that Anthem isn't a real person out there making music just for us. The narration is so intimate but doesn't feel contrived, or as if it is pandering to the reader. The honesty in Anthem's voice is a testament to the magic inherent in a writer's craft; something that Ms. Trevayne has mastered in her debut novel. It isn't that you sympathize with the character, it's that you empathize with him; if you were in his shoes you would think his thoughts and feel his feelings.

As for the story itself, you're thrust into this strange and disconcerting world where music is used as a crowd-control drug by a tyrannical government. Surprises and tricksy sleights of hand abound from one chapter to another. These surprises don't lose the reader or make it seem like Ms. Trevayne was trying to trick us. They are as natural as Anthem's emotions, and like all well-timed reveals lend a considerable measure of excitement to the story. The shocking moments are just that - shocking - no lead in, no heavy-handed foreshadowing; the story simply moves along then BAM! something you took for granted or didn't give a second thought to hits you like a runaway train.

The world is our own. That is to say Ms. Trevayne has somehow accomplished crafting a terrifically complex, futuristic society without losing the reader in jargon, unfamiliar gadgets, or the idiosyncracies of an almost completely foreign culture.  Though the world and plot are as intricately woven as the loveliest tapestry we never lose sight of the big picture because of a loose thread. The pacing is tight, and after what seems like an hour you've finished CODA, and yearn for its sequel (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there will be a sequel!)

The most surprising, pleasant, and laudable aspect of CODA is its sheer uniqueness. I've never read anything like it, and I can't identify the literary roots of its inspiration.
We've all been there. We're reading a book and we see something that makes us think of ____ in that book we loved from years ago. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, World War Z, Game of Thrones, and Twilight were the springboards for many bestsellers and Book Club selections out there right now. There's certainly nothing wrong with a source of inspiration, or finding a new facet on one of those brilliant gems. However, CODA, reminds us of what a breath of fresh air feels like.
Because it is labeled "Dystopian fantasy" CODA will inevitably be compared to Divergent, but that's like comparing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to The Chronicles of Narnia (hint for the uninitiated - the similarity for those two stops at being Portal Fantasy for kids)
CODA has no peer; it is an astonishing combination of plot, high-concept world building, and characterization that hasn't been seen in teen fiction for quite sometime. It is my sincerest hope that it gets the recognition it deserves, and becomes the new source of inspiration that guides us toward the next trend in YA literature.
CODA delivers daunting complexity with the all style and grace of a ballet. Ms. Trevayne is the Prima Ballerina that makes the dance look elegant yet simple.

So for all of you looking for something that will bend your mind, make your heart race, and keep your fingers turning pages long into the night then without reservation I recommend CODA.  Let me know how much you enjoyed it...more importantly, let Emma Trevayne know! You can find her here on Twitter.

Happy Reading!