Tags: experience

What You Get from the Analysis of First Pages

by Amber Keyser
Published on: July 10, 2015
Comments: No Comments

When I was first getting started in this business, I thought it was terribly unfair to get a conference critique or agent feedback on just a chapter or two. After all, how could they know what I’ve done with the rest of the story?

Now, I’ve been doing this long enough to understand that issues which occur early in the story are almost always carried throughout. That’s why it is possible to give feedback on a few chapters. If the author can carry the changes throughout, they are usually end up with a much much better product at the end.

Most of these large scale issues are things like narrative voice, consistent POV, realistic dialogue, and showing vs. telling. When the Scrivas do critiques (for each other or through our paid critique services), we point out issues and try to offer ways to strengthen the manuscript. Ideally, these suggestions are things that the writer can implement on their own in the rest of the manuscript.

After a few thorough revisions, we Scrivas turn our eyes and little red pens to line edits, parsing through each sentence for word choice and phrasing. This is the stage at which the writer has the opportunity to make every line sing.

And when the book sells, launches, finds readers… when the book itself soars… then we celebrate this amazing process that begins, as all true stories do, with a blank page and ends with the creation of a new world we can all inhabit.

It turns out that it is true: first pages are the key to everything!

Gas and Brakes

How long does it take you to write a book? How fast do you work? I get asked these questions a lot, especially the first one by school-aged kids.  The answer is that it varies – dramatically.

My fastest book was a school library title on tennis (draft in a month, final in a few months) because that was how long the publisher gave me.  Next fastest was The Planet Hunter: The Story behind What Happened to Pluto which went from proposal to final approved manuscript ready to be illustrated in a handful of months. (My editor and I wanted to get that book out as fast as possible to explain the fascinating story behind why Pluto was no longer considered a planet.)

Typically, my books take much longer. I am working on a book now called Mario and the Hole in the Sky that will be published by Charlesbridge in 2016. I started working on it in 2007. That’s nine years for a picture book.  My graphic novel Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek which comes out this year (YAY!) began as a middle grade novel in 2006. That’s eight years. My book The Mighty Mars Rovers took a similar amount of time. I’m working on picture book now that I literally started a decade ago.

The reasons for these long periods of time can vary. Many times, I am writing multiple, completely different drafts of the same book – and that takes a long time. (Thank you Scrivas, for reading version after version after version!) Other times I get discouraged after submitting something that doesn’t sell and I put it aside for a while.

In fact, it would be misleading to suggest that I was working on all these projects all the time in those years. What is much more typical is that there are times in the life of project when I put on the gas and other times I put on the brakes.

A current project in development on the inventor of the piano is a good example. When I got the idea in 2010, I start researching furiously (gas). I worked on it off and on through summer of 2012 (little pumps of gas), when I took a research trip to Florence, Italy (gas, gas, gas). When I got back, I did some writing and thinking (gas). Then I got stuck and I got busy with some other deadlines (SCREEECH! Brakes).

I have to be careful because brakes are easier to sustain than gas (things at rest like to stay at rest.) I didn’t touch this project for almost a year. And that really bothered me because I really loved the idea. So I started to put on the gas – writing, rewriting, problem-solving, polishing. I heard that an editor I wanted to share it with would be going on maternity leave. So I put on the gas big time, getting the book ready to submit.

Alas, she turned it down.

I was disappointed but also a little relieved. I just felt like I need a little more time with the project – to do a few more drafts and try to get it just right. So instead of submitting it elsewhere, I put on the brakes. But only gently. I want to slow down but not stop.

In driving you’re not supposed to put your foot on the gas and brakes at the same time. But for writing, I’m going to try it. I need the gas to keep momentum. But I need the brakes, too, to give me time to get it right.

Elizabeth Rusch

What you need to know about the BIG, BAD market

by Amber Keyser
Published on: March 12, 2013
Categories: Business of Writing
Comments: 2 Comments
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Old father Wolf eyes up Little Red Riding Hood. Illustration: Tyler Garrison

Once upon a time…

We writers love diving deep into our stories.  We create worlds and characters.  We prefer to live in fairytale lands.  But sadly, our stories eventually crash headlong into the BIG, BAD market.

Mine just did.

Here’s what you need to know:

The market is slow.  The books that you see being released today were drafts 3-4 years ago and were acquired by editors 2-3 years ago.  Right now thrillers are hot, but if you think you can start writing one now and catch the wave, think again.

The market is conformist.  Once something (say vampires, for example) hits.  Most houses want a vampire book on their list–but just one.  I got a very nice rejection letter from an editor who said, “I love your manuscript but I just bought a book on this topic.”

The market is fickle.  Paranormal is out.  Thrillers are in.  YA was hot, hot, hot.  Now middle grade is the thing.  For years, nonfiction has been a nonstarter.  Suddenly (and thanks to the new Common Core standards) every editor wants narrative nonfiction.  Don’t even get me started on the rumored death of the picture book.

What does this mean for Little, Red Writing Hood?

Get to know the wolf, I mean, market.  One great way to do this is to join Publishers Marketplace.  The price seems steep, but I know of no better way to get your finger on the pulse of what is selling right now.  Daily deal emails will show you that we’ve run out of steam on ghost stories and teens solving murders but there are hints that Westerns and animal stories might be the next big thing.  Follow #tenqueries and #askagent on Twitter.  You’ll get a sneak peek into the slush piles.

Don’t try to game it.  Unless you are an established writer who can call up her agent and say, “Let’s pitch a Western.  Here’s a four page proposal” (which, by the way, is how The Hunger Games was sold), you can’t game it.  New writers need finished, polished manuscripts.  That takes too much time to write to a trend.

Learn from the editors who march to their own drummers.  These are the trend-makers.  These are the people who ferret out innovative writing and create the fads.  Publishers Marketplace allows you to search deals done by specific agents and manuscripts purchased by specific editors.  Explore.  Who is a free-thinker?

Remember that the market cycles.  Your time WILL come if you are crafting compelling stories that fit the appropriate genre guidelines (no 20,000 word YAs, no sex in MG, no 5,000 word picture books, etc).  There will ALWAYS be a market for good writing.

Going back to our fairytales…

I want you to write stories you love.  I don’t want you to be paralyzed by the big, bad market.  But promise me… please… that when you delve into that deep, dark forest you will take the time to get to know the landscape.

Concrete Ways To Suss Out Potential Critique Group Members

by Amber Keyser
Published on: June 4, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments

OR:  HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN SCRIVAS

Our readers often ask how they can find a group like ours.  In the FAQ section of this blog, we offer general suggestions for how to connect with other writers, but that is only the first step.  Once you’ve identified a list of people that all want a great critique group, how do you make it happen?

FIRST, ask questions up front to try and assess fit.

How long have you been writing?
How much time do you have for writing?
What are your writing goals?
How often would you like to meet?
How often will you have a piece to critique?
What is your writing/publishing experience?

There are all sorts of reasons we write, and there needs to be a match in terms of purpose.

I was in a group once where one woman was a visual artist who was writing to keep her creativity alive  until her kids were old enough for her to go back to oil painting.  I was trying to build a career as a professional writer.  Mismatch!

Another time I was with a group of women where everyone but me was primarily interested in writing stories for their own kids.  Again, mismatch!

Finally, I exchanged writing with one superbly, talented writer, who had a very demanding full-time job.  She and I could not keep the same pace. Mismatch!

SECOND, ask potential critique group members to participate in a book round table.  It would work like this.  I’ll use a picture book group as an example but this will work with any genre.  Ask each participant to bring in 2-4 picture books (published by strangers) and be prepared to point out what works and what does work about each one.  This is a non-threatening way to see what kind of a critique that person might give.  Plus it is a fun way to practice analyzing manuscripts.

THIRD, do a test drive manuscript exchange — a clean version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”  Read each other’s work.  This will enable you to assess whether you can get behind that person’s writing.  One key to Scriva mojo is that we have an immense amount of respect for the writing of the other Scrivas.  You’ll know quickly whether your potential critique partner is doing work that you can believe in.

The EXPERIENCE question.  A fit on the “experience” level is the trickiest.  The truth is that new writers benefit most from being with experienced writers.  Experienced writers tend to need each other while a group of new writers may not have the expertise to proceed effectively.  There is an obvious problem here.

What is a new writer to do?

Remember that many unpublished writers are very good writers and may be very good critiquers as well. The missing piece is knowledge about the business and professional connections.  A group of new writers can divvy up tasks and take steps to educate themselves.  (Wondering how to do this?  I’ll have to do a blog post!)  You can also invite more established, local writers to come as a guest to your critique group.  Many may be flattered by the opportunity to share their knowledge.

And you experience writing professionals out there…  consider taking a flyer on a newbie.  It just might be the best thing you ever did!

 

 

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