Notebook with 2018 Review written on it

2018 Year in Review

I’m probably the last to the “Year in Review” party, but I have a good excuse! The mountain behind my house was on fire. Literally.

See, where we live is very dry and fireworks are banned in the entire municipality. But, someone decided to celebrate the new year with a flare. It landed on the mountain. And spread.

11,000 hectares of burned land, 31 houses gone and 28 damaged, 5 helicopters and hundreds of firefighters and volunteer support teams later the fire is out. Sixteen days of uncertainty and fear.

Thankfully our house was never in direct danger, but the wind was whipping the fires and they can travel quickly. We did pack in case we had to evacuate.

But that’s 2019, and the danger is past. I’m here to talk about 2018. I’m going to look at two areas, writing and reading.

Writing in 2018

I had three big projects last year: IN HER OWN SKIN the YA I was revising and then querying, THE MONSTER NOVEL STRUCTURE WORKBOOK which I revised and published(!!!!), and UNCHURCHED which I outlined and then drafted during NaNoWriMo and December.

IN HER OWN SKIN (YA book)

In 2017 I and this book were selected by author Sophie Cameron for mentorship via Author Mentor Match (Round 6 starts soon!). Incredibly exciting and validating. Sophie gave me excellent, really helpful feedback and I dug in with serious revisions. The bulk of the work was done in 2018.

In addition to Sophie’s feedback I used Holly Lisle’s How To Revise Your Novel course to guide me in making changes. Between these two factors I did more in-depth revision than I’ve ever done before. It was empowering and I’m so grateful for this experience.

Then it was back into the query trenches in June. Overall I had a 6% request rate, which isn’t terrible but isn’t great either. Having learned a lot about my book, and about the industry through AMM, I came to the conclusion by the end of the year that this isn’t a grabbing enough book to be a debut. I’m really proud of it, I’m immensely pleased with all I learned and the opportunities I got through this book, but it’s time to let it rest. I’d rather have a strong ace in my back pocket than not.

THE MONSTER NOVEL STRUCTURE WORKBOOK (nonfiction)

The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting StuckI began working on the theory behind this book in 2016. It came from my frustration with what I hadn’t found in researching novel structure. There was conflicting information from different sources and I needed to use my graphic design skills to make it all cohesive. And then the obvious next question was, “Wouldn’t this help other people, too?” So I wrote a book and prepared downloads to go with it.

Writing this book was so much faster than writing fiction. Fiction requires lots of layering and subtlety and cause-and-effect planning. This nonfiction poured out of me (I wrote 5k in one day without sweating). I have a lot of experience writing documentation for work, and those skills came to bear here.

To launch the book I recruited a beta reader team who gave me invaluable feedback, and went on to leave stellar reviews. Highly recommend this method.

I sold what I consider a good number of copies between the launch on Sept 15 and the end of the year, and I’m going to continue promoting it in a low-key but consistent way.

(I’ve got the next Monster book lined up, too—THE MONSTER GUIDE TO WRITING GROUPS! You can sign up to hear more here.)

UNCHURCHED (YA contemporary)

Oh, this book. I’ve taken so many cracks at it and learned so much along the way. The last time I looked at it seriously was in 2015, when I determined that that wasn’t the draft I needed. I put it aside to work on IN HER OWN SKIN. In 2018 I picked it up again, made some mega changes, and wrote an absolutely massive outline. It was 13,000 words by the time I was ready to draft.

Why so big? First of all, I’ve been working with these characters and this story for years and years. There’s a lot of nuance and subtlety I wanted to make sure I included. Secondly, I’ve learned that the more thorough my outline is the easier it is to draft. If I outline what I want to happen then turning it into a scene is much easier. Of course, I didn’t pull this off flawlessly. I still had places where I’d basically said, “And then the character says something witty with major implications,” but hadn’t put in any legwork to figure out what the actual words would be. So that slowed me down in places.

Still, giant outlines are definitely a plus for me. Will do again.

I got a bunch of beta readers for the outline, and then drafted in November and December. There were some really difficult points where I was itching to revise already. I’d revised effectively with IN HER OWN SKIN and I wanted to be back in that place, with a draft already down and able to make it pretty and perfect. But that’s not how drafting works. So I put my head down and cranked out words, painful as it was. By the end I was making a bunch of notes for planned changes, which is the best case scenario.

Quick shout-out to Pacemaker which helped keep me on track after November. It helps you calculate and track word goals (and page goals and more) over a given period. Really cool.

I now have a 72k word draft waiting for me.The 20th will be a month since I finished it and then I can reread and make a plan for revision.

Reading in 2018

I use Goodreads to track my reading habits. All the below stats are from running my eyes over and over the list, so I might’ve screwed up somewhere.

  • I read 55 books last year.
  • 12 were writing craft books, 43 were fiction.6 were graphic novels.
    20 were fiction books aimed at adults. 15 were aimed at young adults.
    19 could be defined as Own Voices—books by and about marginalized identities.

Books I really enjoyed in 2018:

So that was my year. A lot accomplished, a lot learned, a lot of enjoyable books. How was your year?

nano2018

NaNo Prep 2018: What I’ve Learned in 10 Straight Years of Participation

It’s nearly that time again: National Novel Writing Month. Every November I and thousands of other writers challenge ourselves to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. It’s a big goal, and it’s really hard, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also the way I draft best.

I first learned about NaNo in 2004, which I failed miserably at. In 2005 I succeeded, but I also started college where I was studying creative writing and didn’t have the bandwidth to NaNo. I tried again in 2009, and I haven’t stopped since. Every year I try, quite literally come hell or high water.

There was the year I was in a car accident and spent the month spacey on pain pills. There was the year Hurricane Sandy stranded me on vacation in the Caribbean and I couldn’t get home because home was a dystopian landscape with no power. There was the year we moved to South Africa, which was actually really productive because I didn’t have anything else to do in this new country yet.

Then there was last year, when I got my 50k spread across the starts of three different projects. This is not how I like to work. But it helped clarify how I do like to work, and that’s worth knowing.

I need to prepare. A lot.

I always do NaNo prep. I thought I had prepared enough last year. I thought I had enough notes and plotting done to be able to write Masque, a book inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” I rapidly discovered that I hadn’t. I had characters and a good bit of worldbuilding and a plot but I didn’t have layers. Layers are subplots, connections, and nuances–the stuff that makes the back of your book and your front of your book look like a clever mirror of one another. I had my main throughline but none of the extras that would make the book a rich experience.

So I wrote 10,000 words and stalled out.

I’m not good at pantsing

I picked up another project that I felt had quite a lot of work still be done on it, but that I also thought I could just let myself have fun with it. Silk, a story about a cat thief who takes over an empire twice, has layers. But they aren’t anchored yet. And without anchors I don’t feel like I can keep going.

Basically, there are two functions in writing and my brain is only good for one of them at a time. I can invent a story, or I can craft prose. I can’t do both. Which means I need to do lots of prep work and outlining so I know the story and can concentrate on the prose.

15,000 words on that one.

I need to trust the process

Systems work for me. So, feeling quite morose by this point, I decided to just grab a new project and outline it, counting the outline toward my word count. It would still be writing, still be storytelling. I picked a concept that I hadn’t developed very much yet, Corset Queen, a romance between a cosplayer and a swordswoman who works Ren fairs. I opened up Gwen Hayes’s ROMANCING THE BEAT and let her lead me. I wrote a rich outline, a paragraph or two per chapter.

It worked. I told the story, inventing lots of new things, and I had fun. So I started in on the prose and altogether I just topped 50k. By three words. It was enough.

Three attempts, one mishmash

I’m sad that I didn’t come out of last year with a complete draft that I could throw myself into revising. That’s been my pattern for years: I draft in a mad rush in November. It happened to be not such a bad thing, though, because it allowed me to keep focusing on IN HER OWN SKIN and the MONSTER NOVEL STRUCTURE WORKBOOK.

And I did learn a lot about my writing process. I learned that I mustn’t try to rush it. If I’m not ready for a full-on draft come November them I’m not ready. And that’s fine! The important thing is that I tried.

So what’s next?

This year I am as over-prepared as I can get. UNCHURCHED began life back when I was in high school, and I’ve been working on it on and off since then. I’m determined that whatever I draft this year is going to be The Draft that I then polish up to the best of my ability.

The outline is over 12,000 words long. Am I insane? Only a little. There’s method here.

The first reason it’s so huge is because I knew I’d be sharing it with my Author Mentor Match mentor, and she’d never seen any of this before. I needed to give enough information that a new person would understand what was going on. Context.

Secondly, I wanted to get all the layers in. Having worked on this story for SO long, there are a lot of layers I’ve built up. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any. And I pulled out Aeon Timeline’s matrix feature to track how frequently a given thread was mentioned. Basically, I did all the plot-proofing I was able to.

Then I got beta reads on the outline. This is important for my process as well, because at a certain point I’m too in the weeds to see everything. I need the external feedback to guide my next changes. I’ve already gotten comments on plot, character, motivations, logic, and weaknesses. Which I get to fix NOW instead of when I’ve written thousands of words that will have to be cut.

This is my process.

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motorcycle

Prepping for NaNoWriMo 2017

I’m impatient to get going this year. I mean, there’s always some impatience going in, but this year feels stronger than in the past. It’s a mixture of excitement and anxiety. And just plain, “But I wanna!”

I realize that I didn’t actually blog about NaNo at all last year. 2016 was, as I’ve said before, a very weird year. It was our second month in a new country, and there wasn’t much to do but write. I finished early and went over the requirement. It was a good year, if a strange one. IN HER OWN SKIN is now out in the query trenches.

This year I feel much more like myself. Being in a house that is ours helps. Having my own room helps. Having my study back helps.

I’ve got an utterly massive outline (9300 words!) that I’m reviewing for holes. It’s so big because I have new critique partners this year (Thank you, Query Kombat for putting me in touch with such awesome people!) and I wanted to make sure I got them totally oriented in my world.

That’s right, we’re going back to the Cranbrooks this year.

UNCHURCHED is the book of my heart, or as close to that as I’ve yet come. I am determined to make this book work. This is going to be the fifth time I attempt to write this story for NaNo. I mean, I’ve done it before. I’ve written drafts that won. I’ve also failed mightily on this book. (There was the year I got in a car accident and was put on a muscle relaxant, and there was the year of Hurricane Sandy when I was stranded in the Caribbean… At least my excuses are interesting.)

The thing about this book is, it’s the book I’ve done the most learning on. Like, it’s as if I got a DIY bicycle kit and spent ten years messing around with it and on it and now it’s a beaten up mess but it has an engine so technically it’s a motorcycle now not just a bike. I’ve tried experimental parts shipped from odd corners of the globe. I’ve ridden it through all sorts of weather and had it break down on me over and over again.

But it still rides.

So I’m going to write this book again. It’s changed a lot from even the last major draft, so it’s gonna be a wild ride.

Wish me bon voyage!

yarwa2nd

Second Place in the YARWA Rosemary Contest!

All day I’ve been on tenterhooks. The last week has had an element of the surreal. The last month even more so.

Today the winners and finalists for the Young Adult Romance Writers of America’s 2017 Rosemary contest were announced.

My manuscript, IN HER OWN SKIN, won second place!

(I’m sorry if you’ve never seen the Yatta video before. You need to. It is SFW and very, very silly.)

(Yatta means ‘I/you/we did it!’ in Japanese.)

I am over the moon. I haven’t had such strong external validation in a long time, so this means a lot to me. I never expected my entry to go anywhere, so all this is icing.

Super awesome icing.

I want to say thank you to my amazing brainstorming buddies, CPs and beta readers for helping me get here. Thank you.

selkie_blues_by_sgorbissa-d4iia8r

Pitch Wars 2017 Mentee Bio: Son of Bio

It’s time for #PimpMyBio! Every year Pitch Wars hopefuls post fun profiles of themselves to share with the community. Pitch Wars is a contest where the prize is a mentor to help you revise your book. Learn more about Pitch Wars at organizer Brenda Drake’s website.

About Me

…this is the hardest part, can’t I leave it blank? I could refer you to my two previous entries in this series (2015, 2016). But there’s a major change this year.

I moved to South Africa.

See, I was born here and my parents moved us to New Jersey (of all places) when I was still in diapers. What was supposed to be 18 months turned into nearly 30 years. My parents looked at their retirement options and decided that returning to South Africa was their best bet. Then they asked if I wanted to go with them.

Um, yes.

I’ve always been curious about this other life I could have lived. I have family who I hardly know. I’ve never been able to picture myself staying in one place forever. And I was in a good position to make a major move–no SO, no kids, no mortgage. As they say, do it when you’re young.

So now the three of us live on a beautiful stretch of coast, on a lake, beside the mountains.

Overberg Mountains

What I wake up to every day.

I’m really, really happy I made this move. And I’m really, really lucky. I’m freelancing with a contract from my old employer to keep me afloat, and have been able to dedicate way more time to writing. I think it shows in the quality of my work. I see it in the progress I’ve made on every project. It’s a Good Thing.

About My Book

This year I’m entering IN HER OWN SKIN, a YA contemporary fantasy. It’s about selkies, people who can turn into seals. They’re a popular legend from Scotland, though their stories are often very sad. I have a thing about women in mythology who get screwed over get the short end of the stick. Selkies–and their half-human children–fall into that category. So I dreamed up a story about the daughter of a selkie and how she learns who and what she is.


selkie blues by sgorbissa on DeviantArt

You can read the query on my Projects page, under the accordion.

I’m still stunned to note that IHOS is a finalist in the YA RWA Rosemary contest. Course, that’s evaluated based on the beginning of the novel, not the whole thing. I know my beginning and my query have game, because I made it into Query Kombat this year, too. I’m applying for Pitch Wars because a) don’t self reject, and b) you don’t know what you don’t know.

How I Work

I’m all about the pre-work. Before I write a word, I have to know what’s going to happen. I don’t just outline, I timeline and draw maps and do beat sheets and whatever else to be sure that I know the story inside and out. Once upon a time, when I was a baby writer, I would seize upon an idea and plunge right in. Those stories never went anywhere. Good pre-work saves my bacon.

Mmmmmmm, bacon….

Alas, that also means that come revision time it can be hard to see what still needs work. I rely heavily on my CPs for fresh perspective, and I lavish love on them for their insights.

I am not afraid to tear the manuscript apart. I’ve done that repeatedly with my 2015 entry, and each time I learn something about what that book needs. (That book is the one I did a lot of learning on, so it’s got baggage. But it will see the light of day someday!) I also know when to put something down. My 2016 entry has some major fundamental flaws in it, and I’ve shelved it. Never say never–but it’s probably never. I think the selkies have a shot, though.

And Now For Something Completely Different

via GIPHY

Besides well-timed absurdist humor, I also enjoy gluten free cakes, naps, the art of Alphonse Mucha, Oxford commas, and writing with Lady Gaga on repeat.

The Google can’t find me a good gif of John Cleese going, “Gooood niiiight ding-ding-ding-ding-ding!” so you can enjoy the full sketch instead.

Check out other Pitchwars bios here.

Rosemary Finalist

I’m a finalist for the 2017 Rosemary Award!

This is the second major good news of the last couple of weeks. I actually learned about it around the same time I got into #QueryKombat (Round 2 Entry), but didn’t want to say anything until finalists were announced.

The Rosemary is an award given by the Young Adult Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America (YARWA), “for excellence in YA and NA fiction.”

My selkies are being called excellent!! One of three!

via GIPHY

Just a little excited over here.

Winners will be announced July 26 at the RWA National Conference in Orlando. I won’t be able to attend (due to that being halfway around the world business). I’ve done the math and it’s really not feasible. Sigh. I would love to be there for this, as it’s undoubtedly my biggest writing accomplishment to date.

I almost didn’t enter this year, because I didn’t think the romance in IN HER OWN SKIN was strong enough to warrant it. But, it turns out the Rosemary isn’t for strictly romantic fiction. I saw a tweet about it a few days before the deadline and threw my hat in. Stroke of luck!

I’m still stunned by this and the QK selection. All I can do is profess my profound thanks to my little team of brainstormers and crit partners. You helped me get here. I should take you all out to lunch. Virtual lunch. Or something.

Here’s to more good news in the future!

querykombat logo

I’m in #QueryKombat 2017!

Professor Farnsworth says, "Good news, everyone!"

I was selected for QueryKombat! QK is a contest where queries and novel excerpts are pitted against each other, bracket-style, until the strongest query is reached. I’m on Laura Heffernan’s team, competing with the query for IN HER OWN SKIN, my YA selkie novel.

As of last night I officially survived Round 1 and made it to the stage where agents become the judges, and request pages. To say that’s exciting is a severe understatement. I’m ecstatic to have made it this far, and whatever else happens is gravy.

You can find my Round 1 entry here: http://writersoutworld.blogspot.co.za/2017/06/qk-round-1-shes-better-than-420-vs-this.html And Round 2 is here: http://blog.lauraheffernan.com/2017/06/query-kombat-agent-round-11-this-selkie.html. I revised quite a bit based on feedback from judges and other critiques.

The seed for this book was planted a long time ago, possibly as far back as high school, as I have a memory of thinking about it on the school bus. I have a thing about female characters who get the short end of the stick in myths, fables, legends, and other tales. I always felt the lady selkies in traditional Scottish stories had a rough time of it. Then I did some more thinking and realized that their kids have an even worse predicament. That’s how Emily came into being. I’m so proud that she’s being shared with more people now.

Anyway, the last couple of weeks have been instructive as well as exciting. Here’s some of what I’ve learned so far.

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

The QueryKombat Forum is my new best friend. This year the hosts set up a forum before the contest for people to swap entries and give feedback. My query went through about five rounds of edits based on the comments of readers, and I credit that process and those readers with my making it into the pool. My query changed radically–the best word would be honed.

I also learned a lot giving feedback to others. I’ve done plenty of research into what queries should look like. The best way to learn is to apply those rules, not just to your own work but the work of others. Being able to recognize elements as pros or cons went a long way toward helping me see them in my own work.

Even better, each round of QueryKombat invites judges and other readers to comment on the entries, resulting in even more feedback. My query and first page are so much stronger now.

Emotional Roller Coaster

So many emotions.

When I enter contests or submit queries, I block the memory of doing so from my mind and do my best to forget about it. I figure if something important happens, they’ve got my email. Unfortunately, that only works through the first round of notifications. Once I got the news that I had been accepted to QueryKombat, all those emotions became unhinged unleashed.

Excitement! Nerves. Impatience. Self-doubt. Despair. Defiant pride. Optimism. On and on, cycling between highs and lows like you wouldn’t believe.

Even when Round 1 began to wind down and it looked like the votes were in my favor, I stayed on tenterhooks until closing time. Then I kept checking the feeds to get confirmation. I’m still not sure this isn’t all a giant mistake and I wasn’t supposed to be selected in the first place. Shh, I don’t think anyone’s noticed yet.

Your Friends Will Get You Through It

Community really is one of the best parts of a lot of current writing contests. Through the magic of Twitter and the forums I’ve been getting to know other entrants. I love their work and I want them to succeed. We help each other and commiserate over this crazy thing we’re all going through. It’s like NaNoWriMo that way–we’re all in this together, so why go through it alone?

And I’m not neglecting my existing pals, either! They were the first people I told, and I feel the love each time they ask me how my entry is doing. They’ve helped me a tremendous amount, too, reading my work, giving feedback, recommending resources, and cheerleading.

I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the love and generosity of other people.

I’m sure there are more surprises and lessons to come. I’m looking forward to all of it because it means I am that much closer to my goals.

Cheers, gang. You helped make this happen.