Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is now gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Find her on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Taking Your Sentences From Good To Great

There are lots of things to love about books: Sweeping plots, great characterizations, relationships that make your heart pound a little bit faster. And I do love those things—but there’s another thing that I particularly love, which is always something I look for in books I read and in books I write:

Lush, gorgeous sentence-level writing.

Poetic writing is one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s always the standard I strive for in my own books. Sometimes, finding just the right turn of phrase is something that happens in revisions; particularly when I was a newer writer, trying to focus too much on the sentence level while I drafted only led to feeling paralyzed by a need for perfection and losing momentum to finish the story. As I’ve grown and matured as a writer, though, I’ve learned to focus more and more on line-level writing while I draft as well as when I revise—and over time, it’s come to be instinctual in a way that still allows me to draft fairly quickly and efficiently, but also means that my first drafts tend to be cleaner.

Sentence-level drafting isn’t for everyone. The #1 most important thing in a first draft is just to get the story down, however rough it might be; you can always revise later and strengthen things then! But if you’re interested in taking your first drafts up a notch, here are some of the tricks I’ve taught myself to be aware of in order to make my sentences stronger as I write, rather than only strengthening them during revisions!

1. I take some time to let a story “marinate” before I write it.

The amount of time varies, but I typically spend at least a few months thinking over a story idea before I get to outlining or drafting. During this time I come up with the basics of the story—the main character, the setting, at least a vague idea of the plot (though often it’s very, very vague until I get to outlining, when it becomes clearer)—but I also spend a lot of time thinking about the atmosphere I want my story to have. What sorts of feelings do I want the story to conjure up in readers: Wistful, gloomy, nostalgic, peaceful, funny, creepy?

Taking the time to ponder what kind of atmosphere I want my story to have helps when I get to drafting, because then I know what I’m aiming for, and I can make sure that my word choices support that atmosphere instead of detracting from it.

2. I watch for the sounds of words and the feelings those sounds elicit.

Think of the words creamy and thickened. Both can describe essentially the same texture; yogurt, for example, could be referred to by either one. And yet don’t they conjure up totally different feelings to you? Creamy, to me, sounds rich, luxurious, smooth, indulgent. Thickened, on the other hand, makes me think of the gelatin that forms in my homemade chicken stock if I leave it in the fridge—not a particularly appetizing image! Some of this is connotation—the way these two words are commonly used—and some of it is the sounds inside the words themselves. Creamy has a lot of smooth, open vowels that help to elicit the feeling of something, well, creamy; thickened, on the other hand, is broken up with sharp, hard consonants, which have the opposite effect.

It can be helpful to watch out for word sounds both as they relate to the specific feelings you want your reader to experience (sadness in a sad scene, comfort in a comforting one, etc.), and in terms of your story’s overall atmosphere. A ghost story might have a tendency towards words that sound eerie or spooky, while a rom-com might go for fun and flirty banter.

3. I keep an eye out for strong adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives and adverbs are the building blocks of description—we as writers wouldn’t get very far without them. But all are not created equal; the tree was big, for example, doesn’t give us the same feeling as the tree was colossal, and the tree was immense is also different. “Big” doesn’t carry the same feeling of size that colossal and immense do, both because the latter two adjectives both specifically mean ESPECIALLY big, and because “big” is much more common and less likely to elicit specific feelings in a reader. As I draft, every time I get to a descriptor, I pause for about two seconds to see if I can think of a stronger one to use. If I can’t, it’s no big deal and I go on, but much of the time I can.

4. Likewise, I keep an eye out for strong metaphors.

I use a similar process in choosing metaphors for my descriptions—in fact, I wrote a whole blog post here about writing strong metaphors, which goes in-depth into my process!

5. Try to steer clear of “to be” verbs—unless they suit your story’s voice for a particular reason.

It’s pretty common writing knowledge that “to be” verbs (was sitting, is running, etc.) are much weaker than their active counterparts (sat, runs, etc.). As I draft, I try to be aware of the verbs I’m using as well, and use as many strong, direct verbs as I can. The exception to this is when those “to be” verbs help the voice of my story—in my specific instance, I write a lot of Southern novels, and Southern dialect uses “to be” verbs very heavily, so I often have more of them in my book than I would in a book told in the voice of a Yankee. (A fact that has caused several of my not-Southern critique partners to scratch their heads!)

Publishing Mythbusters: Nope, You DON’T Need To “Know Someone” To Get Published

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I’ve been writing for most of my life, so I can’t count the number of times I’ve had somebody tell me in a lofty voice that I would never be able to make it in publishing because the only way to break into publishing is to “know” somebody. It’s a myth that, like many of us I’m sure, I’ve run into again and again—this idea that publishing is a massive conspiracy of well-connected people who close ranks against any newbies and allow only people they deem worthy to be published.

(As a Mormon, my favorite iteration of the one that blew up the internet many years ago, in which some people posited that there was a “Mormon YA Mafia”—composed of people like Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer—controlling who was successful at publishing YA. Yeah, guys, I’m 100% sure that’s not true.)

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This has always bothered me because it just seemed so patently false, and it’s bothered me even more this year as I and so many of my Pitch Wars friends have signed with agents—agents, I might add, whom few or none of us knew before we signed with them.

To see if my theory (there is no secret cabal of publishing gatekeepers; you are not less likely to be published because you’re not well-connected in publishing) held true, I decided to take a poll of writers who are or have previously been agented or published. It was a short and sweet poll, with only a small handful of questions designed to tease out whether or not the majority of writers who took it did, in fact, manage to get their agent/editor through means nepotistic.

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a resounding NO.

Of the people who responded to my poll, 48 (67%)—by far the vast majority of responders—found their agent/editor the old-fashioned way: through the slushpile (i.e., sending lots and lots of queries). The next biggest category was people who found their agent/editor through a contest, with 15 (20%)—though a lot of my network of writers were met through online contests, so it’s entirely possible that number is a little higher than in the population at large. Of all the writers who took my survey, only 6 (7%) met their agent through a client or other referral, and only 2 (3%) knew their agent before they signed with him/her.

Likewise, most writers didn’t consider themselves well-connected in publishing before they started trying to get published—only 8 (11%) had previous publishing connections.

And the kicker: Of the 72 who responded to my survey, fully 62 (86%) of writers said that they did not connect with their agent/editor through any previous publishing connections. Yep—the vast majority of us began our careers as absolute nobodys.

(And on a mostly-unrelated but further encouraging note, the majority of responders in my survey—23%—didn’t sign with their agent until after 2 or more years of querying.)

This has been mostly true in my experience, as well. While, ironically enough, I’m pretty sure I did get an offer from the agent I signed with because she also reps a friend of mine—only because my agent was so swamped with queries that I’m pretty sure she would never have seen my offer nudge if my friend hadn’t prompted her to search for my nudge e-mail in her inbox!—I also had offers from nine other agents on that manuscript, none of which came through nepotistic means. About half of those offers were from the #DVPit contest on Twitter, and the other half were through regular old-fashioned querying. In fact, the two agents with probably the biggest name recognition both offered just based on a query they’d pulled out of the slush pile.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule. And obviously, people who already have big-name notoriety—like Hollywood celebs—tend to get much, much larger advances than us ordinary human beings. (But not even always—there are plenty of stories of debut authors nobody had ever heard of before who were given seven-figure advances.) But if you’ve always dreamed of being traditionally published and been intimidated by the idea that you know nobody, take heart: You stand a great chance! In fact, I’d say that probably the BEST thing you could do for your chances at publication are find a few really solid critique partners to help your writing grow to the point it needs to be at for publication.

So go forth and query… and don’t worry too much about that mythical YA Mafia.

Why You Need Good Critique Partners—And How To Find Them

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Startup Stock Photos

They say that no man is an island, and that’s probably especially true of writers. Sure, we spend a considerable part of our lives holed up in an office/couch/coffeeshop typing imaginary worlds in solitude—but when it comes to taking the next step, to seeing our writing ability grow and develop beyond what we feel we’re capable of, there’s one thing we really, really need:

Good critique partners.

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Critique partners are like the superheroes of the writing world. A good CP can do so many things for you: Help you hone in on the areas your writing is weak and build them up, keep you accountable to your writing goals, give you a pep talk when you’re this close to quitting altogether.

But the growth goes both ways—because in a normal CP relationship you switch work regularly, you’ll also have the chance to improve your skills by learning how to pinpoint the places that other writers’ books fall short… and then look for those same weaknesses in your own books. Both being critiqued and critiquing can be huge sources of improvement for your writing!

“Hang on a second,” you’re thinking. “I’ve had my mom read my books, and she’s a pretty tough critic. She caught all my typos! Isn’t that enough?”

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As much fun as it is to have family and close friends read your work (my dad is one of my go-to early readers!), there’s a 99.99999% chance that you’re not actually going to get good objective feedback from them. And, unless they’re talented writers in their own right, there’s an even higher chance that they won’t be able to give you the kind of feedback that you really need, because they won’t be familiar enough with writing techniques to be able to help you fine-tune things like plot structure, characterization, and emotional resonance.

And even if they’re not related to you, not all CPs are created equal. I’ve had a lot of CPs in my career, and they’ve definitely been a mixed bag—some that were lifesavers, others who were unhelpful or downright damaging. Sometimes, finding good CPs can be a little like dating: You might have to exchange first chapters (or whole manuscripts) with several different people before finding the one you really click with. It’s always wise to go into a new CP relationship with the understanding that it’s on a trial basis, and that there will be no hard feelings if you turn out not to be a great fit.

So how do you go about finding CPs?

Lucky for you, the internet is full of resources for finding good critique partners, and real life is, too!

If you’re looking for in-person writing groups or somebody you can sit down and grab coffee with while brainstorming or going over your MSs together, check out groups on Meetup.com, the calendar of your local library (many offer writer’s groups!), or local branches of national organizations like SCBWI or RWA.

If it works best for you to do your CPing on-screen, never fear! New resources pop up all the time. Here are some I’ve seen in action:

You can also meet online CPs through forums, Twitter, and online writing contests! I know several writer friends who have connected with CPs during online Twitter pitch parties like #PitMad. Many of my own CPs have come through my participation in Pitch Wars.

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It can take time to build up a circle of trusted critique partners, and at times it can feel discouraging—but don’t give up. Finding good CPs can take your writing to places you’ve never imagined you could go before, and while that may sound like hyperbole, it’s totally true! Good critique partners will help you stretch, grow, address your weaknesses, and deepen your strengths, all of which will take your writing up to the next level.

Going on the CP search can feel intimidating (which is also kind of like dating, come to think of it). But it’s important to remember that there are many, many writers out there in your shoes, eager to connect with potential critique partners. Developing a good CP relationship takes time, effort, and patience, but both your writing and your creative life will be deeply enriched by the process!

Pep Talk: You Are More Than This Moment

This pep talk was intentionally kept until after the Pitch War window closed. You’re all Pitch Warriors. Good luck. -The TTS Team

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 So. You entered Pitch Wars, and you didn’t get in.

Maybe you got some requests from mentors who ultimately turned you down, or maybe you waited through the decision period with the crickets in your inbox growing ever louder. Maybe you got feedback from the mentors who passed you by, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’ve had to sign off Twitter for awhile to focus on some self-care. Maybe just seeing the words “Pitch Wars” is making you mad.

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Pull up a chair, my friend. I’d like to tell you a story of someone—several someones, actually, who were all in your same place once.

Many of us 2015 Pitch Wars mentees had applied for Pitch Wars in previous years without getting picked. I first heard about Pitch Wars in 2014, not terribly long before the submission window opened. I had started querying for the first time a few months before, without a single agent request or other promising occurrence. I was thrilled at the prospect of getting to work with a mentor on the book that I loved, but which clearly wasn’t grabbing agent attention. And (duh), I was thrilled at the prospect of getting that revised work in front of tons of top-tier agents in a contest that had already resulted in agent matches and book deals for so many people.

I was a serious writer and felt like I had a serious chance. I talked up Pitch Wars to my best friend, and together, we sent in our submissions when the window opened.

She got in. I didn’t.

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I was pretty crushed. I’d been so secretly confident, and then, boom. I didn’t have a single request from any of the four mentors who I submitted to. I signed out of my newly-created-just-for-Pitch-Wars Twitter account and took a good long look at my true potential. I wondered, deep down, if this was the end of the road for me. I recently found a series of emails I sent to that same best friend after I didn’t get into PW, wondering anxiously if I’d ever have it in me to write more than “pretty words” (my specialty).

As the days passed, I did get feedback from two of the mentors I’d subbed to, both saying similar things. I knew, deep down, that that feedback echoed the feedback I’d gotten from the publishing industry as a whole: that the book I’d subbed was never going to go anywhere.

Eventually, I stopped querying that book and moved on to a new project. And the next summer, that new book DID get me into Pitch Wars, as well as landing me a lot of requests both through the contest and through the regular query trenches. That book didn’t ultimately get me an agent, though; I had to start querying yet another project before I finally, finally got The Call.

Want to know the two biggest things I’ve learned from all of these experiences?

1. I may be good at some stuff, but I’ve still got a long way to go.

I am a lover of lyrical, literary word-smithing. Prose that sings its way across the page is what I love to read and write. And by the time I applied to Pitch Wars in ’14, I was pretty good at that. But there were a lot of other things—reading the market, plot structures, deep characterization—that I wasn’t that good at. Getting rejected from Pitch Wars was a tough, but necessary, wake-up call, reminding me that although there were a lot of things I’d gotten good at, I still had a long way to go. Once I got over the sting of the not getting in, I was able to pull up my big-girl pants and get to work. The next manuscript still wasn’t perfect (obviously!), but it was much, much closer.

This wasn’t only my experience, either—I’ve talked with several writers in the 2015 mentee group who also applied in previous years and got rejected, but the rejection experience or feedback they received from mentors they applied to gave them the courage they needed to do the hard thing and beef up their weak spots before applying again.

2. I am more than this moment, and I am more than this book.

Remember how I said I loved the book I entered PW ’14 with? And remember how I said that even the book I got into PW ’15 with didn’t land me an agent? Both of those things were hard to swallow. My PW ’15 book was, really, the book of my heart; it’s still a book I think about almost daily, and one that I intend to go back to and rewrite again in the future in hopes of someday making it marketable.

But not getting into Pitch Wars in 2014—and my later experiences with rejection, as well—taught me a second important lesson: As a writer, I am more than any one moment, and I am also more than any one book. Although shelving my previous manuscripts was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do, it also taught me resilience and courage, and it taught me to place my long-term goals (have a writing career creating books that I love) over my short-term goals (sell this particular book).

And that lesson has been, and continues to be, an invaluable one, because in many ways, rejection in this industry never stops. Sure, I have an agent, but now I’ve faced editor rejections; once my book baby is out in the world in a real, hardcover form, I’ll be opening myself up to rejection from reviewers, readers, and critics. Sometimes, all of that potential down-the-line rejection can feel overwhelming, until I repeat to myself: I am more than this one book.

So, those of you who are reading this in the wake of not making it into Pitch Wars, take heart. You’re not alone. And though you’re hurting, you won’t always be hurting. Allow yourself some time to grieve, to focus on self-care and whatever that looks like in your life. Take whatever time you need.

And then buckle down and take a hard look at your long-term goals, and always remember:

You, my friend, are more than this one moment.

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Preparing For The Call: How To Ace Your Agent Interviews

Near the end of April, I got the e-mail that every querying writer dreams of—an e-mail from an agent saying that she had finished and loved my novel and wanted to set up a phone call to discuss it. By the time our scheduled call rolled around I’m pretty sure I looked like this:

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But the call—which turned out to indeed be an offer—went great, and I busily sent out my nudge e-mails that afternoon. What followed was the most insane ten days of my life, as offer after offer rolled in. I ended up with ten offers, nine of which included standard agent interview phone calls (the tenth rolled in just past my deadline when I was completely out of time and brainpower). By the end of the whole thing, not only had I signed with an absolutely incredible agent, but I also had become something of an expert in how to handle The Call.

Before I go further, let me just say that when I was querying (and it was a long and difficult road), I steered well clear of blog posts like this. Reading too much about how to handle The Call felt like tempting fate, like if I let myself imagine how I’d comport myself while interviewing an agent I’d never actually achieve that milestone. So if that’s you, I hear ya, friend. Feel free to mark this post for later and cruise on by.

But for those who have an agent call looming—or just those who like to be nicely prepared—I thought I’d share a few of the things I learned during my ten days filled with agent calls, as well as sharing the list of agent questions I worked off during each of my interviews, all of which were very helpful.

What I Learned Doing Nine Agent Calls

1. Try to take the call in a setting that makes you feel confident.

The night before my first call, when I was about ready to throw up with nerves, my husband—who had recently interviewed for and been hired for his dream job—told me that I should dress up in an outfit that made me feel confident. It felt a little silly to be putting on my favorite dress and sparkly silver flats to hang around my own house on a Saturday, but I did it! I also made sure that I had anything I might need so I didn’t have to feel panicked during the call—for me that was my computer, some paper and a pen to take notes, and a water bottle. All of those things helped me a surprising amount once the call started, and I was able to feel relaxed and much more confident than I’d expected I could.

2. Every agent has her own style when it comes to making the offer.

Some of the agents who offered on my novel offered outright in the e-mail, often at the end of a long e-mail detailing things they liked. Others kept it brief. Some only said they wanted to set up a phone call to “talk about the book,” which left me in a cold sweat, convinced the call would be the dreaded R&R. Once we were on the phone, some agents offered right within the first few minutes, while others wanted to chitchat a little longer; one also made it clear that her offer was contingent on me agreeing to do revisions (which I was cool with).

3. Every agent handles the call differently.

Some agents gushed at length about my book, others didn’t. Some wanted to know what other things I was working on, others didn’t. Some wanted to know relatively unrelated things about me, like my favorite authors or how I came up with the inspiration for my novel, while others kept to strictly business. Some sold themselves and their agencies hard, while others left the ball more in my court. My rapport with each agent was different, too—I came out of that ten days feeling like some of those agents I could’ve easily gone to lunch with and claimed as my new BFF, while others I was made downright nervous by.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

In fact, agents want you to ask questions! 75% of all of my calls was me asking my list of questions. I even worked up the courage to ask some questions I was really nervous to pose—for instance, in my lineup were a few agents who had already rejected a previous manuscript of mine, and I wanted to know why they’d passed on it and if they would consider representing it later on down the road after I’d revised it. All the agents I asked answered graciously, and being able to make my choice with confidence that my agent would have my back was really reassuring.

5. From this point on, YOU’VE got the power.

During that first full-of-nerves call, I was so stunned when we finished talking about why she loved my book, where I came by the book’s inspiration, and how the offering agent would propose editing the book—and then she said, “Okay, now I’m going to tell you a little bit about why I think I and my agency are the perfect fit for your book.” And then she launched right into a sales pitch! I distinctly remember sitting in my chair thinking Lady, trust me, I would kind of sell a kidney just to have you rep my book, you don’t need to sell ME on it! But it’s worth remembering that from this point on, the author/agent power dynamic has shifted. You and your agent will be partners, which means that it’s okay to contact them, it’s okay to ask questions, and it’s even okay to disagree with things they say! It feels really strange after being in the query trenches, but it’s important to make sure that your agent-author relationship feels like a professional business relationship that is on equal footing. Hopefully the two of you will be doing great things together—and that means standing up for yourself and your rights as the book’s creator!

Want to know what questions you should be asking during your agent interviews? Here’s the list of questions that I honed down to the ones that were most helpful for me during my series of agent calls!

You’ll definitely want to take some time before your call is scheduled to gather a list of questions and figure out what things are important for YOU to ask. Here’s the ones I used for a jumping-off point!

1. What’s your vision for my story? (Also here ask about any changes they think are needed)

2. May I see a sample contract?

3. May I contact any of your clients? (I found it most helpful when I could talk both the clients who had already had sales, and clients who had had none.)

4. How communicative are you?

6. What’s your preferred form of communication?

7. Will I be talking more with your or with an assistant or colleague?

8. How often/quickly could I expect to hear from you? How often/when do you want to hear from me?

9. Will you only check in when you have news, or should I expect monthly status updates or whatnot?

10. How do you handle submissions?

11. How many editors do you generally go out to at a time?

12. How many rounds will you consider before you think it’s time to shelve a project?

13. Do you let your authors know ahead of time which editors you’re submitting to?

14. Do you forward rejections on to your authors? If so, how often?

15. Do you only work on one book at a time, or would you want to look at other books I was working on while we were on sub?

16. What publishers do you think would be a match?

17. What happens if this book doesn’t sell? In the past, how have you handled clients with books that didn’t sell?

18. Are you an editorial agent?

19. What’s your turnaround on a manuscript, while you read & compile an edit letter?

20. How do things work for future books (some agents consider themselves career agents, while others take it one book at a time)?

21. Are you involved in marketing?

22. What sort of publishing schedule do you usually expect of clients? If a client isn’t under contract, do you still expect them to put out a book a year?

23. How do you handle foreign rights? Do you try to retain foreign rights? Who handles rights for your agency?

24. If for some reason we need to part ways, how would this be handled? What happens if you leave the agency or quit agenting?

25. I also found it helpful at the end of my calls to discuss some of the kinds of projects that I saw myself working on in the future—for instance I’m a poet and would like to write novels in verse, which isn’t something all agents will take on. I also got offers from several agents who had rejected a previous manuscript of mine, and wanted to know how they’d handle it if I were to revise that book and want to bring it out on sub. If you have questions about future projects, now is the time to float them!

And most of all: GOOD LUCK, and congratulations for embarking on the next stage of your career!

5 Reasons Pitch Wars Rocked—Even Though My Pitch Wars MS Didn’t Get Me An Agent

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I didn’t get an agent during Pitch Wars. In fact, not only did I not get an agent during Pitch Wars, but I didn’t get an agent with my Pitch Wars book at all—I didn’t sign with my agent until after I’d stopped querying my PW MS and started querying my next book. And yep: That was hard. Really hard. I-came-super-close-to-giving-up-for-good hard. As fun as it was to see so many of my Pitch Wars friends get agents and book deals during or soon after the contest ended, it was also an overwhelming reminder of what felt like my big, fat failure.

And yet, even in the darkest moments, I never for a single second regretted applying to or being accepted into Pitch Wars 2015. And despite the fact that my Pitch Wars book is currently shelved, and will eventually need another big rewrite (sob) before I can show it to my agent and have hopes of submitting it to publishers, I am so grateful for the Pitch Wars experience. Because you know what? It’s true, what people say—Pitch Wars is about WAY more than just the agent round. Whether or not you get agent requests, whether or not you come out of the contest with an offer or languish in the query trenches for years more, Pitch Wars has a profound effect on your life and your writing. I promise!

Here are five reasons that Pitch Wars was 100% worth it to me, even without getting an agent for that book:

1. It gave me validation in a moment when I needed it greatly.

2015 was the second year that I applied to Pitch Wars. The first year, I didn’t get a single request for further materials from any of the mentors I applied to (though I did get immensely helpful feedback from two of the mentors—which is yet another reason applying to Pitch Wars is so worth it, even if you don’t get in!). In 2015, though, I got requests from all five mentors—and knowing that got me through a LOT during what was probably the most emotionally difficult year in my writing life. I’d already queried my Pitch Wars book quite a bit before I got into the contest, and had had a decent request rate that had within a few months turned into a lot of full rejections. I was convinced that my book needed a lot of work, and starting to feel hopeless about my skill. Getting those mentor requests reminded me that I HAD worked hard to get to where I was, and that my writing did have something it that was worth fighting for. In the months after Pitch Wars, when I was feeling frustrated about not getting anywhere with that manuscript, remembering the fact that all five mentors had loved my writing was all that kept me going some days! 

2. It taught me how to really revise.

I was not a greenie writer when I got into Pitch Wars—my Pitch Wars novel was my fourth, and the second one I queried. I knew how to take a critique and how to revise. But during Pitch Wars, because my novel had serious pacing issues, I ended up revising on a completely different level than I ever had before. I don’t have an exact number for how many words I cut and rewrote during the work period, but I estimate that I rewrote about 2/3 of it more or less from scratch, and I moved all of the chapters into different places.

That level of revision was pretty enormous, and the book that I’ve fully revised since then didn’t require nearly so much work. But revising that dramatically was one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done in my writing career, because it taught me how to dig into my story without being afraid of breaking it, and it also helped me figure out how to hone in on my book’s heart and make certain that the plot was revealing that heart in the best way it could. With my next book, I was able to change up one of the timelines in the story with confidence and without panicking, because my Pitch Wars experience had taught me how effective (and fun!) large-level revision can be.

3. It gave me a community.

As I said, I wasn’t new to writing when I got into Pitch Wars. I had writer friends that spanned the gamut from close lifelong friends I’d been writing with for years to acquaintances on Twitter whom I cheered along in their #amwriting goals. But the Facebook group for the Pitch Wars 2015 mentees quickly started to feel like my online “home”—the one place I went to (and still go to) first thing every day, the place where I take all my writerly questions, and the people with whom I share both my successes and my hard moments. My Pitch Warrior buddies have brainstormed with me, encouraged me when I was this close to throwing in the towel for good, and celebrated with me when things went my way. I’ve also forged several new close individual friendships with people I met from Pitch Wars—one fellow Pitch Warrior is even my co-mentor for Pitch Wars 2016 (as well as an agent sister!).

4. It took my CP experience to a whole new level.

Before Pitch Wars, I had CPs, but I’d always had a tough time finding critique partners and beta readers who gave the kinds of critiques I needed to truly take my MSs to the next level. In writing my first post-PW book, I was floored with how fantastic the critiques I got from CPs I’d met during Pitch Wars were. My CPs helped strengthen my story beyond recognition, and even suggested a lot of ideas that I ended up incorporating during my revisions that made my book a hundred times better. That was the book that I eventually got an agent with, and among other reasons, I cite the fact that my Pitch Wars CPs pushed me to grow and stretch in ways I’d never been able to before.

5. It didn’t end in November.

Probably the biggest thing I have to say to recommend the Pitch Wars experience is this: It goes so far beyond a two-month revision fest. All of the things I’ve mentioned in this post—validation, community, revision skills, and new CPs—are things that continue in my life even now, nearly a year later, and continue to strengthen my writing and fortify my tender emotions as I continue in my journey toward publication!

Panster to Plotter: How I Outline Now

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In my last post, I shared why I’d made the switch from pantsing to plotting, and why I’m glad I did. Now, I’ll show you some of the nitty-gritty of how I plot! As a reforming pantser, I needed an outlining system that would be flexible, forgiving, and help me plan out my books and get a feel for a story’s strengths and weaknesses without triggering my, ahem, commitment anxiety. I still begin my stories with some grey areas, but this gives me a wonderful jumping-off point.

My system is a mish-mash of ideas from several authors:

  1. Melanie Jacobson, who taught a class at LDStorymakers 2015 on how she uses the Rachel Aaron method to increase her productivity even though she doesn’t have the liberty of writing 8-hour days
  2. Rachel Aaron, specifically the techniques in this post and this post
  3. J. Scott Savage, who taught a phenomenal class on Four-Part Pacing at the same writing conference. His lesson plan for that isn’t online anywhere, but point #5 in this post gives a broad overview of how it works. (Robin LaFevers also touches a bit on this idea in the link shared in point #4.)
  4. Dan Wells’ 7-part Story Structure model, although to be honest I hate the long second act idea and so I interpret it much more as Robin LaFevers lays out in this blog post—four equal-length acts (which fits nicely in with the four-part pacing idea in my previous bullet point)

The first thing I do is to make some sort of a quick-and-dirty key to my broad, overarching story shape. Usually, that takes the form of a query-like document: maybe 3-5 paragraphs, eloquent or not (usually not at all), which convey the story’s heart and the major plot points, if I know them. Before I do anything else, I try to at least know the way the story starts and the way the major event that happens at the climax. Lots of writers say that it’s essential to begin knowing your ending, but I find that for me it usually takes some fiddling around to discover what my ending needs to be. My end usually comes out of both the story’s themes and the direction the climactic event. I also try to isolate what my character’s goal is and the steps they try to take to achieve it (and how they’re foiled). I didn’t know this technique when I was outlining my first plotted novel last year, but as I’m going through the process again I’m finding Dan Wells’ 7-part story structure very helpful as a way to pin down key events that shape the story. Often at this point, these events are pretty fuzzy—along the lines of “Something happens that makes Rose see Bryony with more sympathy.” Detail can come later!

Also at this point, I like to take some time to tease out my central character’s desires, needs, contrived persona vs inner essence, etc. I really like these questions from Robin LaFevers for doing this. Martine Leavitt also has some good ones (I learned them in a class from her last year, and unfortunately can’t find them online anywhere). Essentially, any questions that get you thinking really deeply about your character is a good jumping-off point.

My next step, usually done either before I start outlining or while I’m in the early stages, is to draft a first chapter. I write voice- and character-driven stories, and so it’s really important for me to be able to feel like I’ve nailed down a character’s voice before I dive into plotting the book out. Both times I’ve done this my first chapter has ended up changing somewhat, but for me, it’s still worth it to gain the extra glimpse into my character’s head and voice that drafting the first chapter gives me.

Once I’ve done that, it’s on to outlining!

I use a notecard method to outline. Because I have a toddler and so really don’t have the space or ability to use actual notecards strewn about the room, I use the notecard function on Scrivener (you can find lots of simple tutorials online for how to make this work). I make a folder in my Scrivener document called “Outline,” and that’s where all of my cards go. I begin simply and not at all chronologically, much as Rachel Aaron suggests here.  I begin with a brief line about the scenes that I know (I don’t worry about dividing those scenes into chapters until drafting)—usually the basic structure I’ve figured out in my pre-writing. I usually write only one line on my cards at this point, often very vague, and I fill in more details as I go along and find the world becoming more vivid and real to me and the small pieces of the story lining up better in my head.

After I’ve gotten down the scenes that I already know, I look at my notecards and figure out where I can build bridge scenes. I ask myself questions: What will it take to get my character from this card to this card? I slowly lay out the story as it comes to me, one card at a time, jumping around to whatever part of the story arc feels most accessible and easy to pin down. If I find myself getting stuck, I do as Aaron suggests in her post and switch tracks for a little bit—I’ll go back to my character dossiers and fill them out some more, or write a couple of paragraphs about the setting, or flesh out more details for the scenes I already know I need. Before long, whatever element I was missing in the outline will click into place and I’ll be able to keep going forward. I’m both a commitment-phobe and a nervous writer, and this stage is both exciting and incredibly nerve-wracking. I frequently feel like flinging up my hands and shouting “WHAT EVEN SHOULD HAPPEN HERE?!” Usually, I just have to ride that feeling out, and the next step ultimately comes to me!

I also find it helpful to make lists of things I want to remember to include as I go—subplots, character arcs, small details that become important, literary devices like objective correlatives that I want to keep present throughout the story. As I skip around in my outline, adding more and more scenes and more details to the scenes I’ve got, I often refer to my list to make sure that I’m keeping all my metaphorical plates spinning the way I want to be. For example, in my last book, the MC’s younger sister was an extra-difficult toddler, and it was important for various reasons that a reader could see that. As I outlined and after I’d finished, I went through and made sure that I was having consistent scenes showing the toddler sister throwing a tantrum or doing something else that illustrated the stress she was placing on the family.

Once I’ve got what feels like all the scenes in my book briefly sketched out on my notecards, I color-code them. This was the serious lightning-bulb moment for me as I was experimenting with outlining for the first time! In Scrivener, I used the icon at the corner of the notecards (if doing physical cards you could use a highlighter), and chose a color for each of the four quadrants of my book. I identified the scenes that were transitioning into new sections (Plot Turn #1, Midpoint, and Plot Turn #2), and then I color-coded everything from that transition point to the next according to the quadrant of the book it was in. When I was done my document looked like this:

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(The actual outline begins at the blue flags; all the cards before that were about scene, backstory, etc.)

This was the point in my first outlining experience where the angels really started to sing, because all of a sudden I realized that not only could I get a feel for how my plot would play out as I wrote, but I also could diagnose pacing problems before I even began drafting. I was able to make sure that all four quadrants of my book had equal weight, and recognize which sections were too long and which needed more scenes to flesh them out. Later, when I hit the point about 2/3 of the way through my first draft at which I decided to make some major changes to the plot, I was able to refer to the outline in order to make sure that the new plotline would carry similar weight to the old.

The last thing I did with this book—which I didn’t do perfectly all the time, but which definitely did increase my writing speed when I did it—was to use Rachel Aaron’s scene pre-writing from this blog post. I had a notebook specifically for this book that I used to block out each scene before I wrote it, in the most basic of ways. This was especially helpful for those times that I would get interrupted in my writing session before I finished the scene I was working on; because I had it neatly laid out in short form in my notebook, I could easily jump back in later when I had more time. The instances where I didn’t do this were typically scenes which had come to me more fully as I outlined—there were some scenes in my outline that were already basically blocked out, because they’d been so clear in my head as I was outlining (or, alternatively, because I’d struggled knowing what should come at that point and so done some free-writing to figure it out).

Obviously, using this method didn’t get me writing 10,000 words daily, as it did for Rachel Aaron (I don’t even write every single day!). But it did consistently up my daily word count and, even more crucially, make it so much easier for me to pick my story back up and keep working on it when I’d been interrupted, something that had previously always been a struggle for me. And it did help me to create a much more powerful, tightly-woven, well-paced, and emotionally resonant book than I had ever managed before—a book that ultimately landed me my stellar agent! While I imagine I’ll still have projects that I prefer to discover as I go, I also imagine that I’ll fall back on this system much of the time, simply because it improved both the quantity and the quality of my writing so greatly.

At the end of her productivity class last year, Melanie Jacobson finished with a challenge for any of the students in the class who wanted to boost their productivity to give her suggestions a try. Since that challenge was what ultimately pushed me into stepping out of my pants-y comfort zone, I’ll extend that same challenge to you: Are you feeling frustrated with how many words you’re tossing in revisions? Are you never living up to your word count goals, or struggling to get into the flow of your story and losing it easily? Just for one book, try this out—and go right ahead and make changes and modifications so that it suits your writing style (I most definitely did).

Now: Go forth and write!

Pantser to Plotter: Why I Switched

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Free stock photo from Pexels.com

I’ve always considered myself a die-hard pantser. As a budding writer, all my first attempt at a chapter-by-chapter outline did was convince me that outlining removed my need to tell the story with an actual novel—I got a few chapters into drafting it and then gave up, my driving need to write that book gone. After that experience, I usually plunged into my books with a decent idea of what the protagonist was like and a very hazy concept of what the plot could end up being, and let the story take me where it would. I’d make a rough outline as I went, but that was it: I was committed to letting my stories grow organically.

Right up until last year, as my daughter hit her second birthday and her naps were dwindling rapidly. I was losing anything that resembled regular, uninterrupted writing time, and was now forced to write in drips and drabs—ten minutes here, twenty there, maybe forty-five minutes at night a few evenings a week if I was lucky. Each super-short writing session increased my frustration, since it felt like it took me at least that long just to get back into the flow of story, let alone producing meaningful content. I knew that if I was going to make a true go of writing as a career, I needed to change my methods.

In May of 2015, I attended the LDStorymakers conference in Provo, Utah for the second time. While there I attended a myriad of fabulous classes, but one in particular that lit a fire under me and gave me the courage I needed to ditch my pantsing ways and switch to—gulp—plotting on my next project. The class was taught by author extraordinaire Melanie Jacobson, who said she’d switched from pantsing to plotting a few books into her career, after realizing that she was regularly having to cut and rewrite enormous chunks of her stories before they could go to print. After that wakeup call, she started using a revised version of Rachel Aaron’s plotting method—one that doesn’t require you to be writing full-time—which she’s been using ever since. Melanie shared lots of her productivity-boosting tips in the class, and finished up with a challenge for everyone there to try it out at least once.

I went home scared but inspired, determined to put on my big-girl pants and plot my way into greater productivity. I started plotting my next book on the flight home from the conference, one notecard at a time. After a week or two, when I was ready to begin drafting, I was shocked to realize that I was now regularly able to write a thousand words in half an hour. Even when I was stuck or distracted, I was getting at least half that—a far sight better than anything I’d been able to do before. I also was much, much more able to maintain my focus and re-access my “writing zone” better when I had to split writing sessions up into small segments throughout the day. In just about every rubric I used, my productivity had at least doubled.

And that wasn’t the only benefit—I also was able to make much better use of writing tools like subplots, themes, and objective correlatives, because as I outlined I was able to see which sections those things were lacking in. In that book, for instance, I needed my main character’s mother to be under a lot of stress, and decided that one way I’d do that would be to make the main character’s baby sister a spitfire prone to massive temper tantrums. As I outlined, I was able to make sure that the baby sister was having meltdowns frequently enough that a reader would easily be able to see the stress her personality was putting on the mother. I was also able to make sure that other subplots, themes, and metaphors were carried all the way through the book, evenly balanced in each of its acts. As a result, instead of having to fight to unearth the aspects that make a book emotionally resonant in revision (the way I always had before!), I was able to work them right in to the first draft.

As I drafted, my outline was neither perfect nor foolproof. I made changes as I went—about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that the thing I’d outlined as my climactic event just wasn’t working, and I ended up bringing in a new plotline that dramatically changed my book’s course (and even its genre). And, of course, I still had to do plenty of ripping out and rewriting as I revised. But, to put that in perspective: With my last pantsed novel, which I revised during Pitch Wars 2015, I had to change the order of almost every chapter and rewrite probably upwards of 50,000 words. With my first plotted novel, I was able to leave the structure exactly as it was, and while there were a few chapters here or there that were trimmed or rewritten and one plotline whose timeline changed during my revision, the changes I made were much smaller and more manageable.

And one last thing: my new outlining system? It’s fun! As I worked through it for the first time, it felt like doing all the most delightful parts of writing—researching, daydreaming, and creating the raw stuff of story—without the anxiety and insecurity that comes from actually drafting or the tooth-grinding frustration of revision. I always enjoyed the excitement of pantsing a book, the thrill of sitting down at a keyboard and watching the story take shape before my eyes—but this was like that feeling distilled down, without any of the very real angst that comes with having to dump large sections of a pantsed book because they didn’t support the overall arc strongly enough.

I gotta say, after having done it this way? I can’t imagine going back to pantsing again anytime soon. As a querying writer, I also experienced much more measurable success with my outlined book than any book I’d ever queried before; I ended up with ten agent offers! A few of the agents involved had read my previous (pantsed) book, and as we were chatting on the phone during the offer call, mentioned that the plot of the new book was so much stronger and tighter than the plot of the old book—a fact I definitely attribute to the outlining system I used!

Check back next week for part two of my “pantsing to plotting” series, in which I’ll give a breakdown of how I plot now!