The Importance of a Strong Opening

As writers we know how important it is to have a strong opening. Our goal is to grab a reader on the very first page and never let them go. This is often compounded in writing contests where only the first 250 words of a story is often seen, forcing us to make those opening pages as strong as they can possibly be. And it doesn’t stop there, as querying and submitting also require that strong start.

Writers talk a lot about starting a story in the right spot, often the inciting incident, and not going too heavy on back story. Or clichés like first days of school or looking in the mirror. There are a ton of rules out there, they all aim to help newer writers create an opening that pops.

Sometimes we need the reminder of why.

I brought a book home from the library to read to my young son. It had a subject matter I thought would resonate with him. The book has no pictures, even though he prefers them, so I was a little worried how he would respond.

I brought the book to bedtime and told him this was what we were reading. Now, this is a kid who is strong willed, he likes what he likes and he wants to do what he wants, but he sat nearby as I started to read.

This story opened with the main character doodling on a piece of paper during school. My kid is an avid doodler and he instantly perked up. By the time I finished the very first paragraph he was sitting next to me, leaning on my arm, and said, “This is cool!”

I read one chapter to him that night. He read a second (slightly above his reading level, mind you) on his own after I left.

All because that first paragraph grabbed him.

This is what we want as writers. No matter what category or genre we write, we want our readers hooked by the first page and eager to keep reading and devouring the story. If this book hadn’t started with the main character doodling, if it had started with the life history up to now, my kid might have listened, played with a toy, and not picked it back up on his own. Some stories do need a slower build up, but regardless of buildup you need to make the reader care.

The next time you’re struggling with your opening, think of this story. Will the first paragraph snag a potentially reluctant reader? In all truth, it won’t grab everyone, that’s life in the reading world. But will it grab the one who needs it?

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Is This Manuscript Ready? Some Pitch Wars Thoughts

I’ve been seeing this question pop up on the hashtag, with hopefuls pondering if they are ready and if they will be ready in time. I have thoughts on this so I decided to dedicate a blog post to it.

First and foremost: you can’t win if you don’t try. Yes, the mentors do not want a first draft—and we can spot a first draft, we’ve written enough of them! But if you are wondering if you need yet another round of edits first or not? Stop. Pitch Wars is a mentor contest. We’re not looking for perfect. If you are chosen you’ve got a LOT of work ahead of you. Take a few deep breaths, do what you can, and enter.

If you are not sure if a part of your novel is working, then you are a prime candidate for this contest. Mentors are looking for something to love, yes, but we are equally looking for something we can fix. We want to fall in love with your stories and see its weaknesses. More importantly, we want to have the inspiration on how to fix said weaknesses.

Now, story time. In 2015 I entered for the second year as a hopeful. I was working hard at finishing up a major revision. I didn’t know if it worked. I felt like there was still some major flaw left in it. I’d lost my way in the revision process and was floundering, as many of us do during the course of writing a novel.

I ended up with requests from all but one of the mentors I subbed to, which was thrilling! I wasn’t chosen to be a mentee. And let me tell you something, even though I still worried there were major flaws, the manuscript didn’t need the contest. A month later I signed with my agent and did minor alterations before going on sub. That book sold not too long after that and my editor’s edits were not the rip it apart kind.

The novel was ready. Some of you out there are biting your nails, fighting this gut deep feeling that there is something wrong with your novels. Some of you don’t have major problems left to address. Some of you are there. You are ready. You just don’t know it yet. Because this business is subjective. It drags you down, knocks you out, and forces you to pull yourself back up again. If I hadn’t subbed to my agent, if my agent hadn’t subbed to my editor, I might still be in the trenches with all of you. It’s part talent, part luck, and a whole hell lot of perseverance.

But back to the contest: Do you have a finished novel? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Have you edited it, hunting for easy fixes? Have you had other eyes providing feedback? (If not, reach out on the hashtag or join the Facebook group!) Have you done what you think you can for the novel? If you are at least close, enter. The only thing you have to lose is a quick pass (not a rejection, it’s not a rejection when we can only pick one) with potential feedback (some of us do, some of us don’t, check with your mentors). And in the meanwhile you’ll make friends and learn from others. Which is a win-win.

As for me, do I still bite my nails and wonder if my work is ready or not? Yes and no. I have my close CP (Critique Partner) cheerleaders who talk me off ledges constantly, but a perk to being published, and having reviews, is learning my own weaknesses. I spot them in my own work, I self edit with my agent and editor in my head. I’ve seen my work go from creation to completion. It helps let me know when I’m ready and when I’m not. It comes from experience and not giving up. We are all always learning and we will all always have edits to do.

The real question isn’t if your manuscript is ready. The question is: are you ready to work?

The Importance of Diversity in Publishing

Diversity is a hot topic in publishing these days, as it should be. But, like any hot topic, it’s misunderstood by some. Let me take a moment to break it down:

Yes. We need more diversity in publishing. In the people behind the scenes, in the authors given deals, in the books being published.

No, it’s not up to you to represent diverse attributes that are not part of who you are.

Yes, it would be great if your novels represented a more realistic version of the world, but unless you are willing to do research and treat these characters with respect, you need to tread very carefully.

Why? It seems some people can’t understand this. Some people have always seen themselves in print and film and never had a lack of material to relate to. So, let’s play a little game. Let’s say that you like pizza, but most other people don’t. So every food critic you read has someone mentioning pizza with disgust, or staying clear of mentioning pizza at all.

But pizza is important to you. Then, one day, you find a restaurant, and it specializes in pizza! So exciting! But, the pizza is presented without any sauce at all, and that’s not pizza to you, pizza has to have some form of sauce.

You feel disgruntled, left out, alone. You feel not worthy because of your love for pizza. Then you find another restaurant specializing in pizza. You tread carefully, remembering the last experience. However, this chef is a fellow pizza enthusiast! You enter the establishment and there is nothing but love for pizza, with appropriate sauce. Finally, you have a restaurant you can connect with.

That’s what the diversity movement wants. That’s why we want own voices, writers writing about their own diverse traits. This isn’t about you, it’s about us.

Now, gather around, a little story time from yours truly. I wrote a novel where one of the main characters was of a different race than my own. I did it during a time when I really noticed the lack of diversity in novels. I did it because I write characters with hearing loss. Hearing loss spans all races, genders, sexualities, religions, disabilities, etc. I wanted to show some of that variety in my novel.

I researched. I talked with others. I had sensitivity readers. And, still, I listened to authors of color talk. I worried. Not because I didn’t do my work. But because I know how I feel when I pick up a book with a deaf/hard of hearing character written by a hearing person. I know how I feel when I find all these little details that are not accurate.

I don’t want to do this to someone else.

And yet, this character was as I saw her, each time I tried to see her in a different light, she lost something. She was diverse, in more ways than her ears.

In talking with a friend a suggestion dropped on the table: make her Jewish. Now, this isn’t another thing I had to research, this is who I am. And yet, most of my characters are not Jewish. I’ll write a hundred deaf characters before I write a Jewish one. But, more on that later.

The Jewish aspect clicked. The character took shape. Writing her became easier. I no longer worried I messed something up. The character shifted, because when you change part of an identity, other personality traits follow. Parts of the character that remained unchanged were now viewed in a different light, based on societal impressions.

The experience was a learning and telling one for me.

And then, antisemitism explodes on twitter, targeting Jewish writers. Reminding me why I hesitate to write about my faith. Simply put, I’ve been taught not to. You don’t grow up Jewish without knowing most of your ancestors have been killed for being who they are. You don’t grow up Jewish without knowing that at times it’s best to keep this part of you hidden. You know there are risks.

Those risks make me proud I’m taking this step. Because while my non-white character was important and underrepresented, so is my Jewish character. And like when I write about hearing loss, I can take a part of myself that most people don’t know about, and shed some light on it.

But I’ve never worried someone would attack me for writing Deaf and Hard of Hearing characters. I do have to worry about writing Jewish.

So, that’s me, where I’m at, exploring my own diverse traits in my main characters, while ensuring my supporting characters represent the world larger than myself. I’m supporting my fellow diverse writers. And hope that the non-diverse ones can either join in on the support, or take an honest minute to see why. This is only a fight because of lack of representation.

If you want to meet the character mentioned in this post, her name is Jasmine, and she’ll be out in the world on June 27.

What Writers Can Learn From Fandoms

I recently fell head over heels into fan-mode with a television drama (Once Upon A Time if you must know, and yes, I’m happy to chat about it). As such, I ventured into hashtag fan territory on twitter, as an observer, and walked away realizing how valuable an experience this was for me as a writer.

The very first thing I realized? You can’t please everybody. For every person who loves an episode, character, or plot arc, someone else does not. Nothing quite shows this like a trip down hashtag fandom lane. One tweet loves what the next tweet doesn’t and there are quite a few that, frankly, I’m not sure why they continue to be involved in the first place!

The second thing? Fans take their fandom in a deathly serious grip. Fans have invested in the characters, which makes it even harder to please everyone when a particular story idea might not mesh with what someone had envisioned for a character.

A third is the very strong and very real alternative universe that lives separately from the work of fiction and is a living and breathing being. Pretty cool, honestly, how creative works can and do take on a life of their own.

Writers talk a lot about not reading reviews (spoiler, most of us do)—hashtag fandom land shows exactly why. For every compliment there is a criticism, and some of those critics are harsh. For me it put things into perspective and really drove home a point I’ve already mentioned: you can’t please everyone.

The next time you worry about a review, or how your book will be received, visit a fandom you enjoy and read. And read. And read. It’s reason enough to step away from reviews entirely. But more importantly, it puts those reviews into perspective.

Not everyone will love your book. And that’s okay. In fact, in many ways, it means you’ve made it if someone hates it. Keep in mind, humans are a wide and vast people. We don’t all agree and we like different things.

Oh, and some us just like to complain.

Writing, Stress, and Self-Care

The end of 2016 was a very stressful period for a lot of people, and 2017 isn’t shaping up to be much better. This means that many of us are trying to get through our regular stressful days, squeeze in time for our writing, and deal with many new outside stressors. Many of us are struggling to find our words, to embrace our voices, to cultivate the creativity we thrive on for our passion.

I’m one of them. My 2016 ended with me very sick with a nasty virus for over two months, and I’m still struggling to get back to normal. During this time, I was working on my writing and trying to keep my words flowing. When I managed to arrive at a breaking point I pretty much crashed into a mindless haze. It has been one of the most challenging periods of my writing career thus far.

This is why self-care is so important. I tend to mostly read for pleasure, with very little TV watching. In my mindless haze I started binge watching shows on Netflix. At first, when I was really sick, I did so with very little enjoyment for myself. Then it grew into habit. In fact, a lot of non-productive behavior has grown into habit, and some of this is truly for the better.

Be kind to yourselves, writers. If the words take longer to appear on the page, let them take longer. If you need to turn off the internet and play a game or watch a movie, do it. We can’t create if we continue to maximize ourselves.

Prioritize your time. If you’re on a non-self-imposed deadline, do your best. If the deadline is yours? Let it slag if you need it to. But most importantly, know yourself. If you need that deadline to stay focused, then hold on. But keep your self-care in mind. Nights off, no matter who imposed the deadline, can be the best creative tool.

Above all, keep moving forward. Be proud of the words put on the page, even if they are only 100. Let yourself fall back into your words, or bleed them out.

Find your path. Find what works for you. Lean on your friends. The creative juices will come back, I promise you. They may need time, or pressure, or force. They may look and feel different than normal. But they are still there. They are still a part of you.

Be kind to yourself, I can’t stress that enough. And find a new normal that allows you to continue forward amidst the stress. I know you can do it. I believe in you.

The Most Important Part About Writing

The world of a writer is a complex one. There is so much to worry about, from craft to getting an agent, or publisher, sales, or reviews. There are ups and down, valleys and droughts, and so many, many highs.

It’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind of it all. To chase that next great thing, be it another deal or review or kind word. There are doubts and insecurities and days where words just will not come.

And in the end, none of that matters. Whether or not you land an agent or publisher, whether or not you produce a best seller, or get a starred review, none of that matters except for one important part:

Enjoy writing.

There is nothing like that moment when a plot clicks and comes together. Nothing like that phrase that flows effortlessly onto the page. Nothing like working on a single paragraph for a week and finally, finally making it sing.

Those are the reasons why we write. I know, I have heard some people don’t write for the thrill of it, and I honestly can’t relate. Writing is a need for me, like breathing or eating. It doesn’t come daily, but it fills me inside.

It’s the creativity of it, creating characters and a world and making it come alive on the page. Yes, I’m a feedback junkie, there’s nothing better than getting good reports from my CPs (Critique Partners). But if I don’t first make myself smile, then what’s the point?

Because it takes a lot of hours, blood, sweat, and tears, to get the words just so on the page. And after all that work, I need those moments where the words make me giddy. Where if no one else ever sees them, ever meets my characters, I still revel in their lives, in what I’ve created.

It’s so easy to get caught up in everything else, especially as a career moves forward. To keep progressing, one needs to step back to the creating stage to create more. Deadlines, real life, ups and downs, it all comes into play.

At the end of the day, it’s just words, and it’s for us, the writers, to enjoy first and foremost. Everyone else comes later.

Final PitchWars Slush Thoughts

A few overall comments on things I saw in my inbox that might help others. The first is the most important part: inciting incident. Make sure your novel starts where it needs to start. That means that whatever the catalyst for the story is, this starts on page one. Not the main character going to work (unless the work day is the turning point). Not the main character waking up. Not hanging with friends, or combing their hair, or whatever. First page, boom, what happens? Why is this a story in the first place? Show the reader.

Because if you don’t, and the reader has to keep reading and searching for whatever the main plot is, they are going to lose interest. They are going to stop reading, put your book down, and not pick it back up. And that’s exactly what you don’t want!

Backstory. Be wary, every so wary of backstory, especially in the beginning. One of the things I loved about my mentee’s novel is that she interwove important facts effortlessly into conversation. It was there because it needed to be there. It wasn’t forced, or a long, drawn out paragraph that made me yawn. It had power. And, yet, I still am suggesting to cut some of this and interweave it in later. Because backstory clogs down a novel. Keep the reader in the present and let them know what they need to know when they need to know it.

Chapter two. I hadn’t realized up until now just how potent chapter two could be. I know I only saw a few, but chapter two gave me a gut reaction in two direction: yes! Mine! Or not for me. It was the difference between pulling the story immediately along, upping the tension and plot and excitement, or continuing at a slow pace to build up to a point where we should already be at.

Now, that may be harsh, but as a new author you have to hook the reader and keep them hooked. You don’t have a track record, you don’t have anyone saying: “Oh, it starts off slow, but Jane Doe really picks up!” No one’s going to know that. You have to put your best foot forward, and that means attacking your novel from all angles until it bleeds.

And, yes, this is a mentor contest. I’m not looking for a completely polished work. But with 50 subs to read, I needed something, anything to hold my interest. In some cases that was all about the illusive voice, the writer’s personal touch that they bring to the page. In other cases it was the plot presented in the query letter.

More honesty: the two that I fell in love with both had large diverse casts. This is my jam, as anyone can tell. This caused me to sit up and be excited. The rest was about the voice. If the writing wasn’t there, even that initial interest would have sagged. But the writing was there, the concept was there, and I literally squealed while reading. I had others high up on my list that had no diverse elements, so this wasn’t an “only diverse entries allowed” thing. I actually found it really interesting to see that these two entries shared something so special to me.

Another thing: queries. I actually didn’t pay too much attention to them, I used them to get a feel of the novel and focused my energy on the pages. But I saw a trend that I asked the other mentors about, and they noticed it, too. Some people are writing two paragraph queries, where both paragraphs sum up the novel. So the second paragraph may give different details, but doesn’t further along the story. As far as we can tell, this is not something being requested by agents. Use your query to tell a story. You can use a log line, but one line, and then expand on it in the rest of the query. You have 250 words, don’t waste words repeating what has already been introduced.

If your goal is to find an agent, query agents, not editors. Agents prefer you don’t send your ms to editors because that’s their job. There are exceptions, where an author lands a publisher and then an agent. Ultimately you don’t want to spoil your chances.

Find critique partners. I’m blown away by some of the subs I’ve read, where I was one of the first to see these words. I’m so happy these authors are stepping out and sharing their words, ready and willing to grow and learn. And I really hope they now are searching for critique partners (CPs). A writer needs them. My agent expects me to use my CPs before sending her work, so I can send her the best I’ve got. My CPs are my friends, they hold my hand through the ups and downs of this business, and work hard at adding and removing commas in my novels.

I want to take a moment and thank all my subs, for sharing their words with me, and all the cool people hanging out on the #PitchWars feed. You all are amazing and talented, and I can’t wait to cheer on your successes!