Fixing the First Page Feature #32

Photo credit: AnToonz on Flickr
We are nearing the end of February! Which for me at least has been a relatively good month despite not-so-great health things. I'll take it. This also of course means it's time for the next Fixing the First Page critique—yay!

As usual, I'll start by posting the full first 250 excerpt, after which I'll share my overall thoughts, then my redline critique. I encourage you guys to share your own thoughts and critiques in the comments (because I'm one person with one opinion!), as long as it's polite, thoughtful, and constructive. Any rude or mean comments will be unceremoniously deleted.

Let's do this!

Title: CREW

Genre/Category: YA Contemporary

First 250 words:

"It’s not the moment your life collapses that’s the worst part.

It’s what comes after.

When you wake up from the nightmare to find out that it wasn’t, unfortunately, a nightmare, but your life, and you have to go on living it.

So this is me, approximately three months after my life ends and I have to start it all over again:

Sitting like a taut wire at the edge of one of those red velvet, deceptively uncomfortable auditorium seats, while on the stage a tiny Asian boy with skin issues is eking out Hamlet’s soliloquy.

“What dreams may come,” he squeaks, “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil—” 
Which sounds exactly what I’d like to be doing right about now. 
My knuckles are white. My intestines have tied themselves up into a knot and are currently trying to escape through my throat. I’m two people away from my audition. Some people have sucked, like this kid, but most have been pretty good. 
And me? I’ve never done this before. But if we’re going to base this on my high school endeavors to date, I’m placing my bets on the “suck” end of the spectrum. 
I could just get up and leave. I should just get up and leave.

But that would be admitting defeat. To Mom. To Vicky. To myself.

This was my last great idea. I’m out of options.

I take a deep breath. I can do this. I love plays. Especially Shakespeare. Especially Hamlet."

This is really interesting! I really like the voice—though there are some tweaks I'm going to suggest, I'd definitely place it as a teen—and the tension is clear. There's also some great imagery I'd like to see even more of, but not bad to start.

I have nothing significant to suggest changing overall, so let's look at the line edits:

"It’s not the moment your life collapses that’s the worst part. It’s what comes after. When you wake up from the nightmare to find out that it wasn’t, unfortunately, a nightmare, but your life, and you have to go on living it. Suggest making this one paragraph because I can already see you use short paragraphs a lot and "It's what comes after" doesn't really stand well on its own, and as a whole it makes more sense with all three together.

So this is me, approximately three months after my life ends and I have to start it all over again:

Sitting like a taut wire at the edge of one of those red velvet, deceptively uncomfortable auditorium seats, while on the stage a tiny Asian boy with skin issues pimples is eking out Hamlet’s soliloquy. Love the imagery in the bolded. I'd squeeze more in this first page if you could—not in this paragraph, but overall.

“What dreams may come,” he squeaks, “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil—” 
Which sounds exactly what I’d like to be doing right about now. Heh, this is a line that sounds very teenagery and snarky and I like it.
My knuckles are white. My intestines have are tied themselves up into a knot and are currently trying to escape through my throat. I’m two people away from my audition. Some people have sucked, like this kid, but most have been pretty good. 
And me? I’ve never done this before. But if we’re going to base this on my high school endeavors to date, "Endeavors" isn't really a word teens (or even most adults to be honest) use casually. Switch this out with something more casual. I’m placing my bettings on the “suck” end of the spectrum. 
I could just get up and leave. I should just get up and leave. But that would be admitting defeat. To Mom. To Vicky. To myself. These work better as a paragraph together, IMO. 

This was my last great idea. I’m out of options.

I take a deep breath. I can do this. I love plays. Especially Shakespeare. Especially Hamlet."

Okay, so, the main thing I'm noticing overall is overuse of short paragraphs. This is something I see pretty often as an editor, and I get it—short paragraphs are punchy. The more you use them, however, the less punchy they are. Remember, stylistic things in writing should be used as a spice—a little here, a little there, but use too much and you ruin the dish and everything tastes like salt. Try to only use short paragraphs when you really want to give the paragraph some impact—and remember with every use it becomes a little less powerful.

Otherwise, I think this is a strong start. Be careful with word choice (every word should sound like it'd come from a teen!) but the voice is interesting, I like the imagery, and if I saw this in the slush, I'd keep reading.

I hope that helps! Thanks for sharing your first 250 with us, Mary Kate!

Twitter-sized bite:
.@Ava_Jae talks voice, stylistic writing effects, and more in the 32nd Fixing the First Page Feature. (Click to tweet)

Discussion: Do You Power Through Slow Openings?

Photo credit: Kamil Porembiński on Flickr
So I'm currently reading This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, which I've been reading on and off for over a month now. Yes, a month. This is an interesting case because while I tested the book before buying and loved the opening (I mean, it starts with a teen girl burning down an (empty) school chapel with the explicit aim of getting expelled from said school, which is a pretty sweet hook if I've ever read one), and while I loved the writing and was interested by the fascinated world building...for some reason it just didn't grab me at first.

I still haven't really pinned down what it was, exactly, that made it so easy for me to put the book down and not feel super motivated to pick it up again later. It wasn't like I was bored while I was reading (I wasn't!) but I guess I just wasn't invested in the first 100 pages as I generally like to be.

Over the weekend, however, I sat down and power through the pages partially because I felt bad for letting it sit there for a month, partially because my Goodreads challenge was (is) yelling at me, partially because my pre-orders of A Conjuring of Light, The Hate U Give, and The Ship Beyond Time are all arriving soon and I have some re-reads I need to get started on, and partially because I really wanted to finish it before picking up another YA. So I sat and read and after I got beyond the 100-page mark, I found it was not-so-difficult to keep reading because I was finally invested (yay!) and I ended up reading over 200 pages that day.

So now I've made good progress (finally) and I'm super hooked to the story (so hooked I chose to read it instead of playing more Final Fantasy XV, which is saying a lot) and I'll probably finish it before this posts. But all of that made me think about how usually, when I pick up a book with a slow opening in the store, or I hear about books with slow openings in reviews...I tend to walk away.

Granted this was a special case because the opening wasn't slow and I couldn't have predicted that the first 100 pages wouldn't pull me in despite liking so many elements, but the situation is similar. In my own writing, I always make sure to try to do my best to have a compelling opening, because I'm well aware a lot of readers testing a book won't give you the chance of a 100 pages for the story to get interesting unless they already like your writing—meaning they've already read your previous books and are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt—or for some, they've been told to read past the slow part and they're willing to do it.

When working with unpublished writers, my advice is similar—to make sure you have a compelling hook, because most agents and readers won't wait around for the story to get good for a writer they don't know.

But I think that's the key there, too—This Savage Song isn't the first Schwab book I've read, so even if I'd been bored by the opening, I still may have very well given the book a chance because I already know I love her work. Same goes for those pre-orders coming in save for The Hate You Give, which is a debut, but I pre-ordered them all without testing because I either already love the author's writing or I trust the people who've read the book and said it was awesome.

While I admit I don't test books quite as often as I used to because I tend to rely more heavily on word of mouth these days, I still tend to follow the unspoken agreement with myself that I won't waste my time on a boring book because quite frankly, I have way too much to read. So if I test a book out and don't love the opening—I put it back. Or if I browse book reviews and see more than one say they found the first third slow—I don't add it to my TBR.

But given my experience with This Savage Song, which I will probably be recommending with the caveat of "power through the first 100 pages," it does make me wonder how many other books I've passed by that I would actually enjoy after the first third or so.

I won't be finding out because I'm still keeping to my agreement with myself because I really shouldn't be taking over a month to finish a book. But it's interesting to think about nevertheless.

Do you power through slow openings? Always? In certain cases? Never? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Twitter-sized bite:
Do you power through slow book openings, or choose something else to read? Join the discussion on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet

Vlog: How to Manipulate Pace

You asked, I answered. Today I'm talking about how to manipulate the pace in your manuscripts.


What other tips would you add for manipulating pace in a WIP?

Twitter-sized bite: 
Struggling to get your WIP's pacing right? @Ava_Jae vlogs some tips for manipulating pace in your manuscript. (Click to tweet)

Book Review: SCRATCH by Manjula Martin

Photo credit: Goodreads
When I asked for recommendations of non-fiction craft/writing books that were beyond the basics, a friend recommended Scratch edited by Manjula Martin, so I added it to my TBR list where it stayed for a while. Then my birthday came along and a relative with no knowledge of my Goodreads TBR list sent it to me as a gift. 

I've had money on the mind a lot lately, so the timing couldn't have been more perfect. Before I get into the details, however, here's the Goodreads summary:

"A collection of essays from today’s most acclaimed authors—from Cheryl Strayed to Roxane Gay to Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen—on the realities of making a living in the writing world. 
In the literary world, the debate around writing and commerce often begs us to take sides: either writers should be paid for everything they do or writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job, but your ultimate goal should be to quit your day job. It’s an endless, confusing, and often controversial conversation that, despite our bare-it-all culture, still remains taboo. In Scratch, Manjula Martin has gathered interviews and essays from established and rising authors to confront the age-old question: how do creative people make money? 
As contributors including Jonathan Franzen, Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Nick Hornby, Susan Orlean, Alexander Chee, Daniel Jose Older, Jennifer Weiner, and Yiyun Li candidly and emotionally discuss money, MFA programs, teaching fellowships, finally getting published, and what success really means to them, Scratch honestly addresses the tensions between writing and money, work and life, literature and commerce. The result is an entertaining and inspiring book that helps readers and writers understand what it’s really like to make art in a world that runs on money—and why it matters. Essential reading for aspiring and experienced writers, and for anyone interested in the future of literature, Scratch is the perfect bookshelf companion to On Writing, Never Can Say Goodbye, and MFA vs. NYC."

So I saw some reviewers say they found the book depressing, but maybe my expectations for making a living as a writer are super low or something because I actually found it encouraging. While not all of the essays focus exactly on making a living, the ones that did were frank and honest and most importantly to me—though most of them struggled at first, they did eventually reach the point where they were comfortably making ends meet, often through multiple streams of income. Some were more open about numbers than others, but they all ultimately talked about their own experiences and how they got to where they are today.

The interviews and essays reveal many different options out there for writers—everything from writers living solely off their fiction, writers living off several writing income streams, writers with full time jobs, writers with part time jobs, and writers dependent on someone else's income. To me, it was an encouraging reminder that one way or the other, writers figure this stuff out, and so can you.

While there were a couple essays/interviews that I didn't particularly care for—especially one interview that was pretty literary elitist and eyeroll-worthy, to say the least (looking at the lineup, I'm sure you can probably guess which contributor it's from)—I found most of the essays and interviews to be enlightening, interesting, and even entertaining.

All in all, if you're looking for some frank talk on a writer's income from a variety of professional writers, I definitely recommend picking up Scratch. Whether you find it encouraging or depressing will probably depend on what you're expecting in terms of how writers make a living, but either way it's an eye-opening read that I'm definitely glad arrived in my lap at the time that it did.

What are some of your favorite writing craft books that go beyond the basics? 

Twitter-sized bit: 
.@Ava_Jae gives 4.5 stars to SCRATCH by Manjula Martin. Is this frank look at a writer's income on your TBR? (Click to tweet
Looking for honest takes on how writers make a living from published writers? Check out SCRATCH by Manjula Martin. (Click to tweet)

Fixing the First Page Winner #32!

Photo credit: EvaSwensen on Flickr
Another quick pre-post post to announce the winner of the thirty-second fixing the first page feature giveaway!


And the thirty-second winner is…


Hooray! Congratulations, Mary Kate!

Thanks again to all you lovely entrants! If you didn't win, as always, there will be another fixing the first page giveaway in March, so keep an eye out!

How to Wake Up Early and Be Productive

Photo credit: Richard Ricciardi on Flickr
It's 6:54 AM as I type this, and I've already done the following:

  • Brushed my teeth and put on my contacts
  • Let the dog out
  • RTed stuff on Twitter (probably too much ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
  • Answered a potential client e-mail and did the math required for it
  • Looked at my To-Do list for the day
  • Re-arranged my blog post schedule a bit
  • Started writing this post

I wrote a while back about how I became a morning person, which is a strategy that, two years later, has continued to work well for me. While I don't always get up quite as early as I used to (I average around 5:30 AM now instead of 5:15 AM), I do want to push that back again so I'll probably start doing that soon. Nevertheless, as I've gotten to know myself and the progression of my disease has carried on, I've found that my trend of having more energy and motivation in the morning to be productive than I do in the afternoon—especially because when my disease flares it usually happens later in the day—has continued.

Some days, though, I still struggle to drag myself out of bed.

So maybe, like me, you want to try this morning thing to see if it helps you get more writing done. I think that's awesome and commendable and not just because I do it—changing your schedule around and pushing yourself to do something not-so-fun (getting up early) not because you have to but because self-discipline is pretty awesome.

How do you do it then? Well, there are a few keys and tips I've picked up over time:

  1. Go to bed early. I put this first because honestly, this is the most important part. I always try to make sure I get between 7-8 hours of sleep, which means if I plan to get up at 5:15 AM, then I go to bed at 9:15 PM. This right here is the easiest way to self-sabotage because going to bed early can be hard sometimes. But if you really want to get serious about waking up early to be productive, then you need to make sure you get however many hours of sleep you need every night.

  2. Make it a habit. The only way to do this, of course, is to be consistent. This means going to bed early and waking up early every day—yes, even on the weekends. The only way to reset your sleep schedule to get used to your new sleeping pattern is to do it every single day. If you only do it during the weekdays then stay up late and wake up late on the weekends, your body will never get used to the sleep schedule and you'll be tired and cranky every time you wake up. And that's not fun or productive.

    I've made my habit so concrete that some nights when I make an exception and stay up...I still wake up at 5:30 AM. It's not really a bad thing—it means my body has gotten very used to waking up early, which helps me most days, but it is a thing that sometimes happens. 

  3. Don't look at your phone notifications when you wake up. I started making this mistake last year and it was a huge mistake. I can't tell you how many times I woke up at 5:30 then spent an hour—an hour!—in bed scrolling through my Twitter. That was an hour I could have been getting to work. Oops.

    I've reigned that in again with the strict rule of not looking at my notifications until after I've gotten out of bed, put on my contacts, and brushed my teeth. Even though I do tend to do some RTing when I get to my computer, it's still made an enormous difference because I get to my computer a lot sooner than I did when I was lying in bed on my phone. 

  4. Remember the whole reason you're getting up early is to be productive. While I won't say don't use social media at all until after you've been productive (if only because that would be hypocritical since I don't do that and even maybe checked a Twitter notification while writing this point), reminding yourself why you're awake early in the first place can help you limit that time so you can get to work. Or at least, it helps me. 

  5. Put away the social media while you're working. I still have Twitter access on my phone, of course, but it's incredible the difference in my work output when I close Twitter on my web browser while I'm working. Something about not having a constant reminder of Twitter notifications I haven't yet checked allows me to ignore it for longer stretches of time—and get more work done as a result.

With those steps I've allowed myself to continue getting up before the sun for two years—and reigned myself in when I started making productivity-killing mistakes. If getting up early to get the words in is something you want to try too, I hope these tips help settle you into the early bird life. It's a pretty nice one, if I do say so myself.

Do you (or would you consider) get(ting) up early to be productive?

Twitter-sized bite:
Want to try getting up early to be productive? @Ava_Jae shares some tips. (Click to tweet)

When is Your Manuscript Submission-Ready?

Photo credit: AstridWestvang on Flickr
So the other day I asked Twitter if anyone had writing questions they wanted answered in a blog post, and as expected, writers of Twitter came through with lots of great questions. The first one, was this:

"What do you do after you've finished draft one and had beta readers review? Hire a professional editor? More beta readers?"

This is a great question, and one that kind of ties into a big part of working a novel, namely, how do you know when you're ready to submit?

This answer, of course, is going to vary writer to writer. But generally, my process looks like this:

  1. Draft the book—first draft. 
  2. Take a break from the book. 
  3. Revise—second draft (which often requires many rounds of revisions).
  4. Send to first round of critique partners. 
  5. Revise with first round notes—third draft (which also often requires many rounds of revisions). 
  6. Send to second round of critique partners, plus sometimes first sensitivity readers.
  7. Revise with second round notes—fourth draft (which also (surprise!) often requires several rounds of revisions). 
  8. Send to sensitivity readers I haven't already sent it to. 
  9. Revise with sensitivity readers notes—fifth draft. 
  10. Send to agent. 

If I didn't have an agent, step ten would be to start querying. Basically, that's the point where I say, "okay, I've made this as good as I can for now—it's time to get some industry opinions." That's the point where I believe I've taken all the steps I can to make my work as good as it's going to get for now. 

While I personally never hired a freelance editor to work on my manuscripts (mostly because, to be completely transparent, I couldn't afford it), I am, as most of you know, a freelance editor. So I'm very well aware that many writers work with freelance editors before querying—which is cool! As an editor, I do everything I can to point out the problem areas and make suggestions to help my clients better prepare their manuscripts for submission. Very rarely have I worked with a client where I thought they were already pretty much ready to go (I can think of maybe two or three cases total, in nearly a year of freelancing)—so I do think it can be helpful to work with an editor before you submit, if that's something you can afford. 

As a freelance editor, however, I always recommend working with critique partners and betas first, before you hire a freelance editor. There's a ton you can learn from other writers—for free!—so that you get the basic stuff out of the way before you work with a professional. So if I were to work with a freelance editor, I'd personally make that my Step 10, before I sent the manuscript off to query. 

Ultimately, here's what you want to make sure you cover before you start querying:

  • Have I made my work the best I can reasonably make it at this time? 
  • Have I worked with others to make sure I've fixed problems I couldn't catch on my own? 
  • If representing a (or many!) marginalized group(s), have I worked with sensitivity readers and taken their notes into account to make sure I've respectfully and accurately portrayed that marginalization to the best of my ability? 

The steps you take—and how many steps you take, and in what order—are going to vary both on your manuscript and your own process. I now take many more steps that I did years ago when I first started out—and it's not a coincidence that my work has improved markedly since then. But what's important is you're honest with yourself about whether you've really done enough to get your manuscript ready—and when you reach that point, you take a deep breath, and let your work fly.

What steps do you take to make your manuscript query-ready?

Twitter-sized bites: 
When do you know your manuscript is submission-ready? Author & freelance editor @Ava_Jae shares some thoughts. (Click to tweet
What steps should you take to prepare your manuscript before querying? Author @Ava_Jae shares her process. (Click to tweet)
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