Dreaming in Character

G.L. Jackson


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Eight Things I’ve Learned About Writing a Novel

A year ago, I was about a month away from tackling yet another rewrite on my little rock & roll romance/women’s fic novel. I knew I needed to revise it heavily, but shit, I’d already rewritten it a bunch of times over the course of a year and a half. I knew I wanted to change it up one more time (hey, four is a good number), strip out all but one POV, and punch it up a bit romantically.

Then something happened that changed my writing life: I opened up a copy of Romance Writer’s Report and found an article by a category romance writer. She outlined a basic 55,000-word romance novel beat sheet. I read it, told myself “hey, I can do that with this book!” and got to work. I overshot the 55k by about 10,000 words but when I was done, I had an adorable and sweet little novel that actually flowed. It worked. The pacing was great.

I entered it into Pitch Wars in August.

To my great surprise, my novel made it into the contest. This was the same book that was rejected the year before…but really, it wasn’t the same story at all. It had some of the same characters, but it was wildly different from the previous year’s draft (which I found out belatedly had been under serious consideration but ultimately was rejected because it wasn’t ready).

Funny thing about rejection: it doesn’t sting as much when it turns into an acceptance. My mentor had seen the story the year before and one of the things that helped nudge her in my direction was the scope of the revision. She’d seen that I was able to take something that didn’t work and turn it into something that was a lot closer to working, and she also knew I was neither afraid of nor averse to rewriting. Score one for me!

It’s been a while since I was in the heat of Pitch Wars, but I want to talk a little bit about the things I learned going through the process.

1. Waiting can be excruciating (but patience is a virtue).

But we’re writers, a lot of us querying writers, so we already know this lesson. A sub-lesson is never make assumptions. Odds are the moment you’re convinced you’re going to be accepted/get into a contest/get a request for pages/get an offer of representation, the exact opposite will happen. Lesson learned: wipe that smug little smile off your face and go about your business, Gwynne. You’ll be much happier.

2. Being accepted comes with its own set of interesting circumstances.

Only so many people can ever get into a limited acceptance contest like Pitch Wars. I did. My critique partners didn’t. This effectively put a wedge between what I’d been working on with them and what I needed to work on for Pitch Wars. I only had a month and change to revise my novel, and that meant little to no time to read for anyone else, much less have time to make viable critiques. Could I have managed my time differently? Sure, but it actually worked out for the best.

The Pitch Wars Class of 2016 is a great group of people and we will always be members of this exclusive club together. I’ve made lots of new writing friends, found critique partners actually writing in my same genre, and have been able to share successes and failures with them all.

3. There are no guarantees.

Right after the agent showcase, a lot of people attracted a lot of agent attention. A lot of Pitch Wars people were signed right away. A lot of us haven’t found agents yet. What does this prove? Even getting into a prestigious contest like Pitch Wars doesn’t mean it’s a path to instant fame and fortune (unless you’re Tomi Adeyemi–beautiful outlier, you!). This goes back to what I consider Every Writer’s Words of Wisdom: no one path is like any other. Some people have the story everyone’s looking for. Other people have the story it’s going to take longer to place. That doesn’t mean one is fantastic and the other sucks. It just means the ones that got scooped up right away are the ones that got scooped up right away.

4. Get used to the sound of an ego deflating.

No manuscript is perfect. They all need work, revision, rewriting. Mine went from 65,000 to 91,000 words over the course of my insanely feverish September 2016. I was a little bit smug going in. Imagine the smile dropping from my face when my mentor (the fabulous Mary Ann Marlowe, whose debut novel Some Kind of Magic just came out in January–you should all read it if you haven’t) said “you have a pretty good story. But it’s not a romance.” But what do you mean, Mary Ann? There’s love! There’s conflict! There’s a Happily Ever After!

I’ve learned so much about the structure of a romance novel from this contest and I’m forever grateful. Like a lot of first-time romance authors, I had the cocky notion that the classic romance formula was, well, tired, and I could show the world how it could be redone in a better way. Wrong! The formula exists for a reason. That doesn’t mean it has to be adhered to rigidly, but the basic tenets of a romance have to be included, even if the author messes with the order or placement of those tenets. Romance readers have expectations, and if the author doesn’t satisfy the expectations, it’s not a romance novel. End of argument.

5. Writing query letters doesn’t get easier.

But we can learn to become more effective at writing them, and at writing a synopsis.

Just a few weeks ago I had to take my three-and-a-half page synopsis and distill it into one page. With a little merciless slashing-and-burning, I managed to do it.

6. No word is sacred.

Murder your darlings, they tell us like it’s so easy. You know what? It is easy, but it requires a moment’s distance from our writing and a healthy dollop of dispassion. Things will fall by the wayside. Sometimes they’ll be our favorite things, the ones we swore up and down were fundamental to the story, without which it couldn’t go on. Nope. None of that is sacred. As Mary Ann advised when I lamented losing a whole series of scenes, I could have a mock funeral for them and send them on their way. I did. Guess what? The story is much stronger without those favorite scenes bogging it down.

Ultimately, crafting a novel relies heavily on the art of letting go.

7. Never stop writing.
Write, write, and write. When you think you’re done, start something new. While you’re querying, keep writing. While you’re researching agents, keep writing. While you’re waiting with bated breath to see if any of the agents who’ve requested your story will respond–and if so, favorably–keep writing. The only way to become a better writer is by writing. That’s all there is to it.

8. But don’t be afraid to give yourself a break.

Sometimes, a vacation needs to be a vacation. I did something last month I’d never done before: went on vacation without my laptop. This was actually incredibly liberating. It allowed me to relax, enjoy myself, and refresh. When I got back I had so many writing ideas juggling to get out on the page that I started a writing spree and now I’m about to write the last scenes of my book. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t allowed myself some time off to recharge.

And that’s all she wrote.
Of course, there’s more. I could go on and on. Ultimately, no writer’s path to success is the mirror image of any other writer’s climb up that mountain. This is all just my experience, and one I’m so grateful to have had.

And now I’m off to write the final chapter for the sequel to my Pitch Wars novel. I know, I know, we’re not supposed to write sequels if we haven’t sold the first one yet. What can I say? It’s the story that wanted to be told, and even with everything I’ve learned, I still like to buck trends and test new waters. Happy writing, everyone!


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Giving Up on a Book

This has nothing to do with Pitch Wars. I want to set that straight right off the bat. I love my PW manuscript with the fiery passion of a thousand supernovas, even though I’ve read it and rewritten it so many times I’ve lost track. No, this is the story of another book I wrote, and it’s about self-analysis and having reasonable expectations. Continue reading