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!


It’s so easy to get distracted!

When I look at my twitter feed right now, I see:


Like any good writer who uses twitter, I’ve considered all these contests. They’re all great, all different, all run by the loveliest of lovely people, all gone about with wonderful sentiment. I’ve participated in some of them before, but…

…not this time around.

See, I’ve learned a few things from twitter pitch contests. These are strictly my own opinion, so take them with a grain of salt if you’re so inclined.

  • I see a lot of the same people entering the same works in these contests.

    To my mind, this is both good and bad. It’s good because people aren’t giving up! I assume they’ve been working on their manuscripts, taking the feedback received from earlier entries, and refining. It’s bad because as these manuscripts get accepted into all the contests over and over, there’s less room for the ones who haven’t been through the wringer before.

  • I am not good at distilling the essence of my story down into 140 characters (minus character space for the contest name and genre hashtags).

    I am, however, filled with admiration for people who can do it well. I’m actually fairly adept at doing this for other people, but hell if I can do it effectively for my own work.

  • In my heart of heart I believe there’s something to be said for not saturating the decision-making market with one of my books over and over.

    I don’t have any problem doing things the old-fashioned way: querying, using all the connections I have, pulling any and all strings, and making sure my letter and synopsis are water-tight.

I’m happy for everyone entering these contests. Blessed be, best of luck, go conquer, live long and prosper. I’m trying to stay on top of what my twitter friends are doing, but I’m also trying hard to finish my editing and rewriting, tighten up my query, finish getting my beta feedback, and moving forward independently.

Who knows? I might make the exact opposite decision next time around. Good luck! As always, if there’s anything I can do for any of you, just ask.

And before I go: what are you working on, and how do you feel about pitch contests? Leave a comment and let me know so I can cheer you on, no matter which path you’re taking.


You can find me on twitter at @gwynnejackson and occasionally under the hashtags #amwriting and #amediting.


“I’m a writer.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about my answer when someone asks me what I do.

“I’m a writer.”

Does that hold true when I’m not writing? I mean… since my dad died in July I’ve been at such a creative low. I hate to blame it on emotional impact from Dad’s passing. Maybe I’ve just been lazy. Maybe I’ve been lacking in inspiration. Sure, I forced my way through NaNoWriMo just to say I did it, but I pretty much hated what I wrote and for the first time never promised to revise a NaNo novel.

I’m not afraid of hard work. I do it all the time. Excuse me while I delve off into the personal here but calling oneself a writer sooner or later involves baring who and what you are to the world. When I think of what keeps me busiest during the day inevitably I fall back on being the primary social contact for an often lovely (but sometimes not) 96-year-old, who I try to visit at least five times a week. Zing, there goes my day. I also try to stay moderately heart-healthy by getting cardio exercise every other day and by cooking vegetarian food, which is a labor of love but also a time-consuming one. (Q: how many ways can you prepare vegetables? A: so many.) I have other artistic pursuits besides writing: drawing, photography, beadwork, needlework. They are all solitary pursuits that can’t be done simultaneously.

I need a clone.

As far as writing goes, it hasn’t been something I’ve been able to simply squeeze into the nooks and crannies of my life. I do it best when I set aside dedicated time to do it. It also works best for me when I do it first thing during the day. Guess what else works best for me when I do it first thing during the day? Exercise. If only I could do both at the same time, but I can’t. I can read when I ride the stationary bike, so I make a point of doing that.

Today I set aside everything else for working on my book. I didn’t know that would be today’s plan, but it has been. I woke up, got my computer, and sat down to work on the thorny action scene I’ve been avoiding. The avoidance wasn’t because I don’t know how to write action scenes–this book is filled with them. It had just become, in my mind, that one more thing that needed doing and I started resenting it.

It really wasn’t that bad. I sat in my favorite most productive writing spot in the sun surrounded by cats and simply went for it.

Now I can pat myself on the back because I got it done, and fixed up the rest of the manuscript to reflect the changes I’d made. For the first time in almost a year I’m starting to get the motivation to query again. I’ve got a letter and a good synopsis, but I need a few brand-new readers first because now I’m sworn to querying only when I believe this book is really, truly ready.

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When is that novel ready to query?

I keep thinking my stories are ready to query.

The problem is that they’re not. One might be… if I would just write a decent query letter and synopsis for it. The problem with literary fiction featuring unreliable narrators is that their stories are tough to encapsulate.

Another book is almost ready. That’s the one I’m currently editing for the (I’ve-lost-track-of-how-many-times) last time before querying, hopefully. I’ve submitted query letters on this before without getting any nibbles. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the query letter I have, particularly. It’s that I haven’t queried widely enough, and I confess that I am a chicken. I like to talk about having a flameproof suit, but I don’t like rejection any more than the next person.

A third book is one I thought was ready last year, but it was too close to its NaNoWriMo inception and I was so in love with the world and characters and setting that instead of tightening it up during the edit process, I added another 45k words to it. That made it way too big for its perceived genre and no one was interested. It’s next on my list of novels sitting around on my hard drive that need editing, right after I finish this one.

As a former editor, I’m a perfectionist. I don’t like to see anything step out the door with typos or grammatical errors, especially of the consistent variety. That has a tendency to work against me, though. Nothing is or will ever be perfect. I will undoubtedly find things on subsequent reading passes that I wish I’d done differently. At some point I’m going to have to actually put on that fireproof suit and send query letters out the door. My half-assed goal is to do that within the next few months.

I’ll go ahead and answer my own question: that novel is ready to be queried when I’ve exhausted all my other excuses, bitten my nails down to the quick, read and re-read until I can’t see the words any more, and my critique partners give me the thumbs-up sign. Then I’ll get to Phase Two: deciding who to query and in what order. That will be its own can of worms, but at least I’m expecting some drama there!


How about that.

For the first time since my dad passed away, I was able to do some writing. Only about 1000 words, but it’s a start.

I’m trying not to let my writing brain get too scattered. I’ve got two works in progress, one YA & one NA/Adult. Before he died, I promised Dad I’d let him know what agents these days are looking for as soon as I found out. I’m holding myself to that promise and will get back to querying once I’m satisfied with my NA/A word count.

How are all of you?


OK, I think I’m ready.

Commence querying…now.

I can either send out a few on a Friday afternoon, or obsess over it all weekend. I’d rather not spend my weekend obsessing, Of course, if I send out queries now, I’ll be jumping every time I get an email notification.

To make a long story short, there is no best time to send a query letter. We all knew that, right? Right.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


When Querying is like Cooking

Ask any writer how fun it is to send out query letters. You’ll probably get a blank stare that means the words “query letter” and “fun” don’t belong in the same sentence. We agonize over those letters, trying to perfect them and make them intriguing while keeping them professional. It’s like juggling double-ended knives.

It’s like giving someone an open invitation to stomp on your dreams.


(Oh no, I just broke all the rules of grammar at once! A sentence beginning with a conjunction. A fragment. A single-word sentence. A single-sentence paragraph! Improper capitalization!)

Learning to craft a query letter has been such a great experience! I participated in several Twitter pitch contests earlier this year. While I’ve decided to step back from those for the time being, they were invaluable for several reasons. First, I made a lot of great connections with other writers as a result. Second, I learned to distill my story to its core.

Producing a good query letter is just a different kind of story-cooking magic. It’s the equivalent of inviting someone in while you’re baking chocolate chip cookies: the place smells great and the idea of the treat to come is so enticing your guest can’t wait for more.

A synopsis, on the other hand, is like getting a taste of the cookie… but only one bite of that hot gooey delicious melted chocolate chip. If your guest wants more they need to ask for the whole cookie, not just one taste.

Since I enjoy cooking and following recipes while making them my own, I’m taking a similar approach to sending out query letters. Not every recipe will be a hit, but one of them surely will. There’s a perfect literary meal in there somewhere, and I’ll dish it up one of these days.