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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I did some writing in 2016.

I’m not big on “my year in review” blog posts.

What the hell, though, right? We all do a lot of things all the time, every year. But since the point of this blog is for me to have a platform as a writer, I’m going to talk about that…mostly.

I rewrote a book for the fourth time.

Then that book made it into Pitch Wars, where I rewrote it a fifth time.

Right after that, I wrote a new book for NaNoWriMo. While I was working on my NaNo book I was also sending out requested material to Pitch Wars agents, and doing a bit of cold querying as well.

A lot of people were thrown by Election 2016. I’m usually fairly quiet about politics but ended up speaking out about it (mostly on Twitter). There are times and places to make one’s opinions known, but I can already feel myself withdrawing from public discourse on politics. It isn’t that I’ve stopped caring. Anything but. It’s just that I need to focus my efforts on other things for the time being.

Like writing. I’ve made some great new friends through Pitch Wars, and came out of that with a much better book than the one I had going in. I’ll keep working on it and with it, keep writing new things. I’m a pretty spotty writer, though: I need a bit of time to recharge. Especially if I’m going to veer away from the world I’ve been writing (and living in vicariously) to do something new. That will mean a change of pace, emotionally and mentally. It’ll probably be good for me.

But yeah, THREE BOOKS this year. The same one twice, and a brand new one. I’m pretty damn proud of that. And as I said on Twitter, that new book has some of my best writing yet. I’m proud of all of it.


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My Playlist

If you’ve been following along, you know I wrote a novel that’s been workshopped in Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars contest. My story takes place behind the scenes on a rock band’s road tour. It features roadies! rock stars! women in the industry! managers! fans! models, Irish wolfhounds, load-in, load-out, backline techs, tour buses, hotels, extravagance, heartbreak, heartache, lies, deception, true love’s first kiss… and oh, yeah, music. Even though I can’t share the music in my mind from my pretend rock band, I can share the real-world music pivotal to the story.

Each of the primary characters have their own theme songs. My main characters get two each, just because. Continue reading


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It’s not over until it’s over

Hi! I remember blogging! I remember having time to sit down and compose well-planned and thoughtful blog posts! I knew one day I’d have the time to do it again.

Today is not that day. Fooled you! I’ve been more than knee-deep in Pitch Wars revision passes, refining, fine-tuning. Eradicating crutch words, erasing bad habits, spit-shining and polishing my manuscript. Writing the supplemental material: query letter, synopsis, pitch, and as one of my mentors put it, taking a chisel to my first page so that despite the fact there’s an entire novel to follow, it’s compelling all by itself.

Not too much to ask!

During the course of Pitch Wars I’ve learned:

  • how to survive on almost no sleep
  • potato chips are really not a great substitute for real food
  • the more you use “just a cup of coffee at Starbucks” as a reward for writing, the faster you qualify for more free drinks than you want
  • I can rewrite an entire novel in a very short period of time if I have to
  • When given the secret formula for supplemental material, I can take off my “I’m no good at marketing” hat and write those too
  • why scene maps are important
  • why outlining is a great idea
  • genre-specific story arcs exist for a reason and sure, I can be a rebel, but then I won’t have the type of book I want
  • this year’s mentees are a wonderful group of people and I’m so thankful to have taken this roller coaster ride with them
  • this year’s mentors are a wonderful group of people. I lucked out having two (thanks, Mary Ann and Jaime!)
  • It’s a real kick to find that people like my characters and stories and want more

GROUP HUG!

I could go on with haphazard lists, but I have to say that this has been an outstanding experience. Yes, my house isn’t as organized as it was two months ago and sure, I ate some of (okay, a lot of) the Halloween candy out of nerves and no, the agent showcase hasn’t started yet, but no matter what happens when the Adult/NA entries go up tomorrow, I’ve already “won” Pitch Wars. Just ask the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve met, the people I’m still planning on meeting. Look at the book I’ve written. This contest makes for great common ground. Whether my co-mentees have been writing Adult manuscripts like me, or New Adult or Young Adult or Middle Grade, we all have this shared experience. It’s humbled and enlightened me. It’s rejuvenated my love of writing. It’s taught me so much… you get the idea.

There will be a playlist post soon. In the meantime, I’ll be quiet.


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My Very Pitch Wars Month

So… it’s been a month now, give or take, since the Pitch Wars results were announced and I started kicking into gear. I’m going to wait until it’s over to give you my overview of the whole experience, but I thought a check-in was in order.

It’s important to say right up front I’m convinced I have one helluva mentoring team. We seem to have similar perspectives on what we want for my story (hugely important) and similar taste in so many things unrelated to the story. Pitch Wars is stressful enough, so I feel extremely fortunate to have mentors who are a good fit with my temperament and personality. They’re making it easy, and they’re making it fun. That stated…

…oh man, what a lot of work this contest is! I’m learning to love parts of the book-writing process I never loved (and in some cases, never heard of) before. For someone who’s always been a confirmed pantser, I can now see the value of putting in time planning and organizing. Because I only had a month to rework my novel, incorporating feedback from my mentors and moving it into its shiny newly-outlined direction. (Oh, I also beefed it up by 20,000 words or so.) I don’t know if I’ll be able to face NaNoWriMo this year without an outline in hand!

One of my first thoughts after we got started was that despite my initial attitude last year when my manuscript wasn’t chosen, I’m glad I didn’t make it in then. I wouldn’t have been ready, either as a writer or as a recipient of critique and suggestion. I’ve never been one to write THE END and ship a book off for querying immediately. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that all the advice about letting a manuscript sit for a while before querying was right. (Also, I’m terribly shy about my writing and have a hard time sending it out… or at least, I used to.) I’ve never been in a rush to get something out the door.

That’s proved incredibly useful during this whole process. Last year I wouldn’t have had the patience to make the necessary changes. I might have fought them tooth and nail. Instead, I sat on the manuscript for most of a year, rewrote it with all the drastic changes I could muster, and guess what? I’ve rewritten it again with even more drastic changes.

Now I wait for feedback. Will it be good? Will it be horrible? Will I have to rewrite it again? I don’t know, but I’ll find out. For me, one of the joys of Pitch Wars is that it’s unpredictably predictable. I have to be on my toes. I have to be ready and willing to write, rewrite, finesse. I also have to cast off the shackles of claiming I detest the “other” pieces of writing (pitch, synopsis, query) and delve into those with an open mind and open heart.

I might have been quiet here this past month, but it’s because I’ve been busy. I’m ready for PW Part II. Whatever happens in the end will happen, but I can already say I’ve learned more about being a writer since August 25 than I had the past few years trying to work out this whole novelist thing on my own. And another unexpected bonus? I know how to use gif files with reckless abandon now. See?

starbuck-grinning


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Things I want to keep in mind

I remember how I felt last year when I didn’t get accepted to Pitch Wars. All that hope, all the excitement, all those dreams. I watched the pre-announcement show with all the mentors, and it was the sweetest sort of torment. I seesawed back and forth between I’m going to be in! and I’ll never make it in! I mean, I’d had requests for fulls, and a follow-up email or two. What did that mean?

It meant I had requests for fulls and a follow-up email or two, and that’s it. There were no promises, no hints. I spent the weeks between submission and announcement scouring what my potential mentors were tweeting about, trying to divine if any of it was about me or my book. I got swept up in the contest excitement and hype, and made some new friends and met some pretty cool people.

Then the lists of mentors and mentees was posted and my name wasn’t there. You know that sick feeling you get in the back of your throat when you realize you’ve been caught doing something really stupid? Yeah, I had that. I wanted to throw up. Then I double-checked to see whether or not I’d just missed my name.

Then I got frustrated. Really, my first reaction after the reality set in was this bitter ugly frustration. I’m sure someone’s written up Recognizing The Twelve Stages of Writing Rejection (and if they haven’t, they should). After frustration I got angry, then I got jealous. All the while, I was still happy for the people who did make it to the mentor round, but suddenly the door to the party I’d been hoping to attend got slammed in my face.

So I let myself wallow. I stopped following the Twitter PitchWars hashtag. I stopped reading the people I followed who’d made it in, because I didn’t want my low-level frustrated anger to turn into some full-blown depression. I told myself it didn’t matter, it was just another contest, the odds were stacked against me (I guess Stage #4 is Rationalization). I put my manuscript aside, went about my business, and in time the piquant sting of rejection faded, as it always does. I unmuted people. I stayed in touch with some of the mentors I’d submitted to, but not all. There was too much glee about the contest from some of them.

You know what I did get, though, that a lot of people never get from those they submit to? Feedback. Two of the mentors I submitted to took the time to send me thoughtful feedback about my work and about their decision-making process. Once I wasn’t feeling so hurt by their rejection, I was able to read that feedback and let it rummage around in my brain. Although I set my book aside for the better part of a year, working on a different story or two in the meantime, I never forgot that two mentors who didn’t owe me a thing took the time to send me sweet and gentle encouragement and suggestions on how to improve my manuscript.

When I finally revised (make that rewrote) the book, I reread their feedback and integrated their suggestions.

This year, I was accepted. Is my manuscript perfect? Hell no, but that’s one reason I was picked: there are things in it my mentors know how to help me fix. Three days in, and I’ve come to understand that getting into this contest means I’ve signed up for two intensive months of plotting, planning, and rewriting with two new generous critique partners (since I’m being mentored by a team) with more industry experience than I have. It’s not a magic pill or a fast-track ticket to anything.

But it is nice to know someone else has faith in my writing.


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I’m no more patient than I used to be

…but I do have more experience waiting.

If you’re following along, you know it’s Pitch Wars time. You probably also know this is my favorite contest of all because as I mentioned in my last post, it’s nice. Being nice and behaving politely is a cornerstone of the contest, and I appreciate the hell out of that.

On August 3 — the one day I was home between two very different trips — I entered my manuscript in the contest. Decisions won’t be announced until August 25, so by my calendar I still have another two weeks to go before I find out if I’ll be working with a mentor. So what am I doing in the meantime? I thought you’d never ask.

Here’s where I talk about maintaining my sleek calm plush-velvet demeanor (also about why I love Pitch Wars, beyond “nice”). Continue reading