Over the last two weekends, I attended 2 separate writing conferences: the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold conference in Denver, and the Arizona Night Writers Association conference in Gilbert, Arizona. I met awesome people at both, and also saw some really amazing panels and workshops. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to share some of the things that I learned. Today, I am sharing my notes of the most useful presentations at the RMFW conference about editing.
The presentation, called "Coal to Diamonds: How to Edit Your Manuscript From First Draft to Final Polish," was given by bestselling ninja mystery author, Susan Spann (who also gave me invaluable advice about pitching my own novel!). In the presentation, she explained her writing/editing process in detail. That process, she explains, involves 7 individual drafts (she defines a draft a a full edit from beginning to end). Let's break them down one-by-one
1st: Word Vomit
Susan writes her first draft as word vomit. There is no filter. Everything goes on the page as quickly as possible. The goal is to get the story in some form onto the page. It will be rough, it may lack important details, but it is written down. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Three things are important for this draft:
1. No editing. Just write. Get it out.
2. Set a word limit that you will reach per day and stick to it. Susan's limit is 6,000 words (she writes her first draft in 10 days!). Most writers can't handle that, so she advises to pick a limit and stick to it until you've mastered it and then up it. She started with a limit of 250 words and built up.
3. If you get stuck, think of the most improbably thing that can happen in your world and shoot for it. Try killing off a main character (or almost doing so) or something along those lines. This will help spark your creativity, and you can get through it.
2nd: The Skeleton
3rd: Research and Detail
When Susan has questions that require research or discovers places that need more detail during the 1st and 2nd drafts, she notes them in her manuscript and moves on. Now is the time to go back, do the research, and add that detail.
Another focus of the 3rd draft is to bring in the emotional impact of the story. This is often found in the details in how characters move and speak. Dialogue and mannerisms start to become very important here.
4th: Chapters and Trim
5th: Annoy the Family
Susan reads her 5th draft out loud. When she finds a place that causes her to stumble, she fixes it. This is one of the best ways to ensure that the words flow.
The goal for this draft is to add your unique voice to your story. It is also to check for grammar, sentence structure, and echo words.
The book finally goes out for critiques. Most other writers would consider this the alpha and beta reader stage. I'm not certain whether Susan takes partial work to a critique group, but it didn't sound like it from her presentation. In her words, this is when the story is finally read by others.
Most authors find this stage very difficult. Susan's advice is to remember that there is nothing your critique partners can say that will be as mean as someone on Amazon. In other words, as a writer, you need to learn to take it.
There is nothing your critique partners can say that is as mean as someone on Amazon.
Once the critiques come back, Susan goes through them and incorporates comments she believes are useful into the book. While she doesn't use everything, she does think about each comment and asks herself what made the commenter say it.
7th: Spit and Polish
The final draft, a last pass through the story for spit and polish, and then it is off to the agent.
Writing is very personal. Every author must find their own process and their own voice. However, learning the processes that work for others can be very instructive. I was surprised to discover that my own process is similar to Susan's, but I learned some new things that I will try as well.
What is your process?
My head was pounding. My heart was thudding. My hands were sweating. My throat was dry. And that was just for the pitch coaching session.
Last week, I gave my first, honest-to-goodness author pitch to an agent. It was one of the most terrifying, anxiety-inducing experiences of my life. Two weeks earlier, I had no idea what a pitch WAS, much less how to write and deliver one. What I found online was contradictory, and in spite of the assurances of my critique group, I felt woefully unprepared.
Spoiler, the pitch went well. I didn't keel over dead, and the agent asked to read my manuscript. Woo!
Along the way, I learned a few things that I think will help other writers looking to pitch.
First: Your pitch needs to be short.
Everything I found online suggested that a pitch should be a couple of paragraphs. So that was what I prepared. I took it to my pitch coach the day before my pitch and she scrapped the whole thing.
"It's too much detail," she said.
She had me tell her about my story and wrote down details. Afterwards, she constructed a single sentence:
"A group of engineers in the Arizona desert loses contact with the outside world, only to discover that they are being hunted by a creature of animated stone who feeds on the blood of the living."
It was simple, straightforward, and incredibly accurate. It also highlighted the primary conflict (overcoming the creature) and the main characters (the engineering group). Even better, it focused on what makes my story different (a creature of animated stone). It was also easy to remember (a HUGE plus).
When I repeated this line to the agent, her eyebrows went up, she wrote some notes and asked for more.
Second: Be ready for a conversation.
After rewriting my pitch, my pitch coach (the awesome author Susan Spann) walked me through a conversation about my book. She helped me identify the key points I want to raise: where the creature comes from, why the engineering team is in the desert, what books/movies/TV shows are comparable to my book.
While not every one of these questions came up in the actual pitch session, some did. It also made me think about short, to-the-point summary sentences that helped me pitch better.
Third: Practice, practice, practice.
The night between my coaching session and my pitch, I practiced. A LOT. The morning of my pitch found me making laps through the conference hotel halls repeating my pitch line and reenacting potential conversations in my mind.
Another conference attendee saw this, recognized what I was doing, and stopped me to talk. She asked me for my pitch and engaged me in a conversation. It was awesome, because it helped me see that the pitch worked OK for others. I don't remember her name, but I am very grateful for her help.
Finally: Just do it
In the end, you just need to do it. The very next week, I found myself at another conference. I had a chance to talk to other writers and agents. I used the pitch. The result was some awesome conversations. More important, I will be better prepared the next time.
I'll probably still be terrified.
A few years ago, my very astute children coined the term: "Nervicited." It describes the state you are in when you are both very nervous and very excited about something. It also describes exactly how I've felt all week.
Late tomorrow, I'm off to Denver to attend the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference (#RMFW2017) for the rest of the week. This will be my very first writers conference and I'm very, very excited to meet all the awesome people I'm certain will be there and to spend 3 days focusing on nothing but writing. While I'm there, I will be participating in a critique group with a real agent, pitching my book to another agent, and reading the first chapter to a ballroom full of strangers.
I. Am. Terrified.
I don't know if non-artists fully appreciate how difficult it is for artists to share their work with others who might criticize it. My writing is a part of me. If you don't like it, that can feel very personal, even if it isn't.
I know. I know. What's the worse that can happen? Probably nothing. I'm going to have a cool experience no matter what, but knowing that hasn't reduced my anxiety even a little bit.
Maybe I'm just overly dramatic.
Maybe I'm just nervicited.
Wish me luck!
It's fun to tell people you've written a 100,000 word novel. Their eyes grow huge and they stare at you like you are some kind of freak of nature.
"I could NEVER write that much," they say with an expression of awe usually reserved for rock stars or Deity. We can discuss my opinions of THAT statement another day, but in a way they are right: Stringing together 100K+ words into a coherent plot is a challenge, not to mention the difficulty of actually making said 100K+ words good. But even that is nothing compared to trying to write a pitch.
For those of you not in the know, a pitch is a 1-2 paragraph description of your book designed to hook an editor or agent. I will be pitching my book to an actual agent at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference next week (I'm very nervous), and so I've spent many hours over the past few weeks writing my pitch.
It is so hard!
How am I supposed to distill 350 pages of sweat and tears and ups and downs and life and death into a couple hundred words? And then, to top it all off, YOU AREN'T SUPPOSED TO MEMORIZE IT!
I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if it didn't feel like so many of my hopes and dreams are tied up in these 2 paragraphs. This feels like make-or-break time. Do or die. Fish or cut bait. Paper or plastic!
Okay. Maybe that's a bit much, but it is still amazingly hard.
Incidentally, I'd love to share my pitch with you, but I can't. An unfortunate reality is that, by its nature, it has to spoil the ending. So you'll just have to wait to read the book.