Leigh enjoys writing, reading, and working on mysteries without any clues in Virginia. Leigh primarily writes contemporary YA, but likes to toss in a speculative twist here and there. She is rep'ed by Elana Roth Parker at Red Tree Literary.

BuJo is the new… everything: Bullet journaling for writers

I’ve always loved journals, but here’s the thing… I’ve never really used them. My lifelong MO  with journals goes something like:

  1. Receive/purchase a new journal
  2. Delight over its beauty and features and how it’s going to capture the stories of my life so eloquently that my great, great, great, great, grandchildren will read it and feel connected to me in a deep, meaningful way
  3. Write in it for three or four days.
  4. Lose interest.
  5. Lose the journal.
  6. Dig it out like six months later when something angers or hurts me and I need to scribble down everything that happened and everything I have intense feelings about and how I’ll never be over this incident.
  7. Regret that if my great, great, great, great, grandchildren ever find and read my journals they’re just going to see me as an incredibly angry and intense person.
  8. Repeat stages 1-7.

But that all changed a few months ago…

Author Emery Lord’s fall newsletter mentioned her discovery of bullet journaling and included a link to this BuzzFeed article titled: WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One. If you clicked on this post thinking: “WTF is a bullet journal? Why should I start one?” I’ll refer you to that article now, which explains it all far better than I could, so… Go ahead, check it out.

Alright, are you back? Is your mind blown by the brilliance of this concept!?

So, why am I talk about Bullet Journaling on a blog dedicated to writing? Because I’ve found it to be absolutely fantastic when it comes to organization for all the writing things (on top of all the life things).

Writers track a lot of things: new ideas, word counts, deadlines, revision notes, queries, agent research while querying, etc. And I’ve tried a LOT of ways to track them: calendars, sticker systems, per-project notebooks, emailing myself notes, spreadsheets, and more… and all of those systems worked, in their own ways, for some time, but ultimately, none of them ever stuck that long for me before I was searching for a new, better way to be organized.

Here’s why I like bullet journaling, and why I think it’s sticking for me and helping with my writing: It allows for all of the above, and it works into the greater scheme of my overall life. It’s not a separate system, it’s part of the all-in-one of my calendar, to-dos, plans, everything (at least, that’s how I’ve set it up… but that’s the beauty of BuJo-ing, you can set it up in whatever way makes the most sense for YOU). So, I’m looking at my writing goals and progress along with my family and friend commitments, work commitments, exercise tracking, reading tracking, travel plans… EVERYTHING. I use stickers to track writing, reading and working out. I can look at my life as a day, a week, a month, and see what’s coming up. Everything is all together so I can see the checks and balances. Slacker writing week? Well, it makes sense if I see a hectic life-week and I let myself off the hook. Super open calendar? I can get more specific on my book-related goals and use the time to the fullest.

So, if your 2017 New Year’s Resolution sounds like any of these:

  • Be more organized
  • Manage time better
  • Create more balance
  • Be more aware of habits
  • Try not to be so hard on yourself
  • Feel more on top of EVERYTHING

Give it a try!

Who even are you?!

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I’ve told you guys I hate drafting and I faux-hate revising. What do I even like about writing, you may ask? Like, seriously, I seem to hate all the steps. Why am I doing this to myself?

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Here’s what I like. More than like. Here’s what I love: I loveeee getting to know my characters.

I’m allllll about character motivations and feelings and mixing and matching different personalities in various situations. I show up for. the. characters.

So, how do I get to know my characters? Like, really, really, get to know my characters?

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I’ve developed a nice little character template I fill out for all my main characters before I get in too deep. And by little, I mean it’s pretty extensive and includes way more detail than will ever make it into the actual MS.

And since we’re all friends here on the internet, I’m happy to share it!

THE GREATEST CHARACTER TEMPLATE TO EVER EXIST (not that I’m biased or anything)

Check it out and read on as I explain a little more about how I use the doc.

The Basics: I mean…for the most part this is self-explanatory. But my favorite part of this is “The ____ One” category. No person is just one thing, but characters (especially in groups) can often boil down to one dominant trait that defines them: “the quiet one,” “the take charge one,” “the angry one.” Who’re we dealing with here? What’s the main perception of this character (even if sometimes it changes later in the story)?

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Physical: Pretty much quick reference stuff. It’ll keep you from having to catch silly things when editing and revising, like changing a characters eye color every other chapter.

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Personality: This is one of my favorites, especially the “What makes them…. They show it by….” When your character is happy how do they show it? Are they giddy? Do they keep it to themselves? What will make your character anxious? Is it confrontation? Being late to things? Small spaces? How do they show it? Do they try to redirect a confrontation? Are they a peacemaker? Are they an obsessive clock-watcher? Do they do absolutely anything to avoid being closed in small spaces? When I sit down and think through these things ahead of time I go in knowing my characters and how they’re going to react in almost any situation I put them in. And, most importantly, I can make sure they’re consistent in their reactions (until they experience a moment of character growth that would bring about a new reaction). Sure, sometimes they still surprise me, I’m always open to that, but it really helps to understand what in general makes my characters feel certain ways and how they typically react to those feelings. What’s their default MO?

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Memories: I don’t always fill out all of these, but I typically pick a few that feel relevant to the story. Thinking through a characters pasts, and what in particular sticks with them, will help you to understand their layers.

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GMC: Goals, Motivation, Conflict: Here’s the money section. As you know, your characters need to have a goal, they need to try to reach it, and something has to stand in their way…. or else you’ve got no story. I take some time to think about what the characters want in the beginning, middle, and end of the story as well as what gets in their way along the journey.

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For Fun: Ok, so this might really be my favorite. Because, as the name states, it’s JUST FOR FUN! But… can also be revealing. It includes the classics, like Meyers-Briggs personality types and Hogwarts houses (the real need to know stuff), but I also give thought to all the little things that make people, people. What’s their biggest pet peeve? Did they take piano lessons when they were younger? Do they have (or want) a tattoo? What’s their handwriting like, perfect and neat or barely legible? How do they drive – super aggressive or super safe? These are things that may never, ever, ever, make it into the actual MS. It may seem like a total waste of time to know that one of my MCs guilty pleasures is watching rom coms with his sisters. And maybe it is? But my knowing these details helps me really know my characters, they’re already well-rounded in my head before I dive in to the story itself.

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This is what works for me, but no guarantees it’ll work for everyone. I’m coming at this from a contemporary-ish YA standpoint, if you’re writing fantasy that takes place in a whole other world you probably won’t need to know what your characters favorite TV show is. But, some of the sections more related to what your character wants and what makes them tick will still be helpful, or, at least, give you some ideas or a jumping off point to find a method that works for you to get into the heads of your characters.

 

How to Increase Your Odds of Getting into Pitch Wars

That’s the question on everyone’s minds right now, right? The sub window opens August 2 and mentee hopefuls everywhere are frantically polishing their MSs, tweaking queries, and changing their relationship status with Twitter to: it’s complicated.

How do I know this?

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Because, I’ve been you.

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And I CAN HELP YOU. So gather round potential pitch warriors, while I offer up some tips to increase your odds of being selected as a 2017 mentee.

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TIP #1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK

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The easiest way to short your odds is to sub to the wrong mentors. When the blog hop goes live on July 19, read the mentor wish lists c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y and whittle your choices down to the best possible fits for you and your work.

How else can you get to know the mentors? Check out their books for a sense of their strengths and styles, read their blogs, watch the Pitch Wars Live interviews (or recordings if you can’t catch them live!), and follow them on Twitter. Ask follow up questions* about their tastes if you’re unsure (note: mentors won’t be able to answer questions until after the blog hop goes live, July 19, but you can start thinking about the kinds of questions you might want to ask now).

And most importantly, do your homework. There may be “helpful” resources floating around on the inter webs that claim to have info on what the mentors want and don’t want, but in past years we never saw any that were 100% accurate. Don’t rely on second hand info, go straight to the source, do your own investigation with your MS in mind. You don’t want to waste a sub on the wrong mentor due to misinformation.

*WE LOVE QUESTIONS! Just be careful not to straight up pitch your MS to mentors on Twitter. We can’t tell you whether or not to sub to us, you’ll have to decide that on your own. We can tell you more about general things and books we like and don’t like to help you pin down best-possible fits. Basically, ask questions we can give definitive “yes or no” answers to, not “maybe….it would depend….” answers. (e.g., “Do you enjoy fairy tale re-tellings in fantasy worlds?” Yes! Good question! “Did you read A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES? Did you enjoy it?” Yes! And I loved it! Great question! “Would you want a Beauty and the Beast retelling in a fantasy world with fairie lore woven in throughout?” Well… I could tell you I like Beauty and the Beast, and fantasy worlds, and fairie lore, but the real question here is “do I want it” and that answer’s going to be “maybe…it would depend on your hook and how it’s done… ” And that’s not really going to help you narrow down your choices. See the difference?) 

TIP #2: IT’S NOT A RACE

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Take your time to make your choices, guys! It’s not a race to lock in your mentor picks. Have your favorites, but keep your eyes and ears open. A mentor may tweet how desperate they are for YOUR EXACT BOOK later in the game, even if it wasn’t spelled out in their wish list. If you’ve already made your picks based on wish lists alone, you could miss it!

Lemme tell you a little story: In 2015, I thought I’d made my picks, had narrowed it down and was ready to sub. In the days before the sub window opened, one of the mentors who I thought would be a good fit and was still stalking following on Twitter tweeted about how much she wanted a good sister story. Meanwhile, there was a mentor I’d been convinced I was definitely subbing to who’d been tweeting about things they loved and wanted that were starting to veer further away from my genre. I swapped them out on my list and subbed to the mentor who wanted the sister story…. and…guys, THAT WAS THE MENTOR WHO PICKED ME!

And here’s another story: Last year, our absolutely incredible mentee almost didn’t sub to us. Why not? She’d subbed to my co-mentor in the past and thought she’d have a better chance picking mentors who’d never seen her work before. But at the last minute she saw a tweet where my co-mentor basically, unknowingly, begged (yes, literally begged), for her MS. Our mentee changed her mind and subbed to us and… the rest is history (thank goodness, it’s almost a year later and I still think about how much I love her MS all the time).

So be flexible, keep evaluating your best choices as you come across new information between July 19 and August 2.

TIP #3: BE (M)SELF-AWARE

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Be honest with yourself about your work. It’s super easy to develop mentor crushes while reading the bios of these amazing and talented writers (I only had several dozen in 2015). If you find yourself saying things like “well, maybe my MS isn’t that dark” or “oh yeah, it’s totally hilarious!” but you know…maybe…deep in your heart, that you’re stretching a bit (because, mentor crush): don’t sub. Sub to the mentor asking for your degree of dark and your level of comedy, etc., etc.

Of course, you want a mentor who you think will be a good match personality-wise, but put the MS first. Don’t waste a sub when you know your MS isn’t really in line with their tastes.

TIP #4: BORROW SOME EYES

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No, not in like a horror genre way. But get some extra eyes on your query, first page, and synopsis.

I can hear some of you now, “I’ve read it literally fifty billion times myself, it’s fine, it’s grammatically correct and polished and makes perfect sense.”

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Trust me, it’s not.

Guys, I’m a query QUEEN. I can whip any query into shape in like thirty minutes or less. I just get queries. But I’ll openly admit my own query was always weaker than anyone else’s I worked on (and I’ve worked on a LOT).

Why?

Because it’s SO easy for your mind to just fill in the blanks when it knows your MS inside and out. You need someone who has not read your MS to look at your materials from the outside. They’ll see the holes right away, they’ll raise questions, they’ll point out things that confused them.

And then you can fix it.

TIP #5: FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS

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Another super easy way to hurt your odds is failure to follow instructions. Here are ALL THE DETAILS you need to know to sub to Pitch Wars. Read them. Bookmark them for later. Double check that you understand the length the sub window will be open and all of the submission guidelines. Have everything you need for the sub packet (query + first chapter) formatted properly per the guidelines and ready to go.

TIP #6: BRING THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

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Alright, so I wanted a Mindy Kaling gif of her saying “Why Not Me?” (the title of her latest book), but I couldn’t find one (and I searched for…way too long), so instead you get this one. ANYWAY!

There’s a difference between being realistic and being negative. In 2015, this contest received nearly 1,600 entries for 125 spots. Last year, I think it was closer to 1,900 for about the same number of places. The odds of not getting in are much higher than the odds of getting in.

But every year hopefuls on Twitter count themselves out and put their own work down before the mentees are announced. Guys! Don’t do this! Mentees work their asses off, in Pitch Wars, and beyond. They don’t give up before the game has even started. If you’re saying “I know I’m not good enough for this” before the mentees are even chosen, what are you going to say when we ask you to WORK for the next two months? What are you going to say when it comes time to post your pitch in the agent round? If you’re already counting yourself out, why should a mentor choose you?

As long as you followed the instructions and submitted to mentors accepting your genre/category, IT COULD BE YOU (especially with the behind the scenes trading back again this year). This contest isn’t for perfect stories that need zero work. It’s okay to know your story could be better (spoiler: it could always be better). This is a contest for great stories that we can help become even better. If you enter, you have the same odds as everyone else (they just happen to be horrible odds).

Recognize that, be prepared for the odds not to go your way, feel all the feelings, but don’t bash yourself and your work in public. You wouldn’t go to a job interview then stand in front of the person who interviewed you and say “I know I’m not good enough for this job,” would you? It does not increase your odds of getting in.

(And while we’re at it, play nice with everyone else too. Being kind to one another is mandatory in this contest. Read more about the Pitch Wars anti-bullying policy here. )

TIP #7: DONATE FOR EXTRA ENTRIES

This is the BIG one… did you know you can sub to TWO EXTRA MENTORS if you donate to Pitch Wars!?

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THIS IS HUGE! Six entries instead of four would DEFINITLEY increase your odds of finding the right mentor match. If this is an opportunity you’re able to take advantage of, take advantage!

TIP #8: CHECK OUT THE SCAVENGER HUNT

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Don’t forget! There will be a scavenger hunt during the blog hop again this year. More information to come, but if you read the “All the details” post carefully, you may have noticed there’s “an exciting prize!”

SO, GOOD LUCK, PITCH WARS HOPEFULS!

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We know, it’s a crazy ride from when the sub window opens until mentees are selected. But even though the odds aren’t in your favor, enjoy the ride. Make friends, meet CPs, learn, and look for the opportunities (and believe me, they are plentiful) no matter what the outcomes.

Oh, and welcome (or welcome back!) to the Pitch Wars community.

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**Note: If you saw this post last year, it’s been updated to reflect any changes to this year’s Pitch Wars details, which can be found here: Pitch Wars 2017… All the details!

Pushing Past First Drafts

There are two types or writers:

  1. Writers who LOVE drafting
  2. Writers who LOATHE drafting

I am not a writer who loves drafting.

Wait a minute, Leigh, didn’t you just write a post on revision hell? I mean, yes, but that’s the good kind of hell. First drafts, for me, are just my brilliant ideas being INCREDIBLY NOT BRILLIANT.

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Revision is where ideas start to shine (even if it’s another type of hell to get them there). Here, let me illustrate with DANCE:

First drafts:

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Revision:

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Unfortunately, you can’t get to the magic without a first draft. To quote the incredibly talented Victoria Schwab:

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So… what helps me to push past? To just get those flipping words on the gosh darn page?

  1. Plotting.
  2. Discipline.
  3. Daydreams.

Plotting

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This is a new one for me. I’m a former pantser who’s made the switch over to the dark side…and I’m never going back. Having a road map, an attack plan, just knowing what needs to happen helps me cut down on the amount of time I spend staring at blank pages. I may change it later, completely re-write a scene with a new idea, but as long as I have something that I know is moving me in the right direction, it can only get better from there.

New to plotting? Check out Chuck Wendig’s 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story as a jumping off point.

Discipline

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The only way to do it is to do it. If I only wrote when I felt inspired and creative, my first drafts would never get done (or, they’d take like twenty years…). You’ve got to get disciplined sometimes to get things done.

Sticking to a schedule helps. I designate a few hours in the day for drafting and I USE THEM. That also helps take the pressure off the other hours in the day that I’m not writing (because, you know, life), since I have some time carved out. By the time I get to that designated writing time, sometimes I’ve even tricked myself into being excited about it!

Sprinting with other writers on Twitter helps too. Knowing that at the end of the sprint I’ll have to admit if I got 0 words down pushes me a little harder. Plus, it’s just nice to know you’re in it with others.

Daydreams

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This may seem counter-intuitive to my first two tactics, but daydreaming about the day my book is on the shelves motivates me to make sure I’m taking the steps to get it there. And those steps, unfortunately, including drafting.

(Warning: Don’t let yourself get too caught up in tactic three)

What works for you? How do you push past the first draft? Leave a comment. I can use all the tricks I can get here!

Planning your trip to Revision Hell: Things to see and do

Alternatively titled: It’s your revision, cry if you want to

Or narcissistically titled: Bow down, I am the Revision Queen

In the past year, I’ve taken the same MS through two BIG revisions. Like, for real, BIGGGG jobs.

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During the first revision I cut somewhere around 30k words, then wrote about 20k new ones. I made a huge structural change to how the story was told. I added a new character and a new subplot. I completely changed the ending of the book. It was better.

Then, a few months later, I found myself cutting another 30k (ish) words. I added about 8k new ones. I condensed an eight-month timeline down to three, which meant rewriting the first act and dealing with the fallout (including changing the entire arc of one of the relationships). I removed the character and subplot I’d added in revision 1. I merged a few other goings-ons later in the story. Again, it was better.

After each of those revisions I declared “I’m never doing that again.”

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But, honestly?

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I would do it again.

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Because here’s the thing, each time, my MS was significantly better. 

And now that I know my first victory over the BIG REVISION wasn’t just a fluke, here’re my best practices for survival:

Figure out what you need to do. Figure out how to track it. 

This may sound obvious, but when you’re faced with a BIG revision, organization is key. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as it’s something that works for you. Make a clear roadmap of what you need to do, and track what’s still on the list to tackle.

I’ve done this a few ways: In excel, with detailed lists of what needs to change in each scene and color coded tracking to see my progress. In Scrivener, using the notecard feature as a “to do” list and emoji check marks ✔️ in the nav to see which scenes were done. And, of course, the classic paper and pencil route.

There’s no right or wrong way here, but you’ll need something to stay afloat.

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Start small. Celebrate what you get done vs. stressing about what’s left.

Trust me, you’ll feel better. Looking at your MS when you’re facing a BIIIG revision is kinda like dumping a bazillion piece puzzle on the table and then realizing that all the pieces are upside down and you can’t flip them over. It’s overwhelming.

Once you’ve got a road map, pick something to do first. Just one thing. And do it. Try not to think about the rest of the things on the list, just make sure you’re doing that one thing right and well.

Then, celebrate that it’s done! Pat yourself on the back. Get a cookie. Whatever. You did a thing, and while it may feel like NOTHING in the grand scheme of the HUGE revision, it’s a thing, and it’s done, and eventually they’ll start piling up to feel like progress.

Then, take a deep breath, pick a new thing. Repeat forever.

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Turn off your feelings (and possibly your soul).

If you’re facing a big revision, it’s likely you’re gonna have to kill some darlings. Get cold. Get objective. If things need to go, they need to go.  Sometimes they’re good things. Sometimes they’re clever things or sweet things or funny things. Things you still like, but they just don’t fit anymore.

Save them somewhere, maybe they’ll fit elsewhere. But don’t waste valuable revision time and energy forcing them. You’ve got bigger things to do, let them go. You wrote good things, you’ll write more good things. Keep moving forward.
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Get fresh eyes.

Find a beta read who’s never read a previous version. You want someone with no previous knowledge of your characters, world, or plot to see if your changes are having the right impact.

Someone who’s read a previous version will still have good insights (e.g., “I thought this scene was stronger in the previous draft,” “I thought that scene you deleted gave strong insight into X character”), but they’ll also have previous knowledge that will skew their read. They’ll be reading to compare. New eyes will catch new things.

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So take a deep breath, go forth! Attack Revise! Win!

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