The Authors Guild logo.
Photo Credit: The Authors Guild.

The Authors Guild released a survey a few weeks ago about how much the average author makes, and hooooooooo boy, it’s not good. According to the survey, the median income for all writers is about $6,000, while the median for full-time authors is around $20,000.

On top of that, roughly 25% of all authors surveyed earned $0 in book-related income in 2017, and 18% of the full-time authors earned $0 in book-related income in the same period.

There’s a lot of really good data in the survey, and it’s worth checking out the Authors Guild takeaways and the survey itself.

And now that you’ve read the survey, it’s time to read the critiques!

Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of talk about this survey. Here are a few fun ones:

  • Fantasy Author Michael J. Sullivan has an in-depth Reddit post on the matter, and explains that it’s much more complicated than that–that income from the sales of books does seem to be going down, although there are many other opportunities for forward-thinking authors to make money
  • Jane Friedman, author of the excellent The Business of Being a Writer, explains why the data might not mean what the Authors Guild says they mean, and the challenges of getting authentic data on income. (But still emphasizes that it’s rare for authors to make a living on only their writing–and that that has always been the case.)
  • …Which links to John Scalzi’s take on the matter, the very clearly named: Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then.

All this points to a very complex picture: it’s really hard to measure the average full-time author’s salary. The way authors are being paid and where that money is coming from is rapidly evolving, and self-publishing and the Internet have drastically changed the playing field.

And then there’s the sobering fact that full-time novel writing has always been a low-income endeavor, and it’s not clear that the average writer in any era was ever supporting themselves on book sales and nothing else–writing has always been a field where only a small percentage of people make a lot of money.

So it’s complicated. And fascinating.

The topic of writing and income is fascinating. Everyone outside the writing world imagines that writers make BIG BUCKS. (I wish I could find a Twitter post I read a few weeks ago where an author said something like, “I just published my first novel with a big 5 publisher and was shocked when my friends assumed I was wealthy now.”) Countless people decide that they want to write novels for a living, and think the path goes something like “Write a single book –> Publish it –> Make as much income as your probably-more-than-minimum-wage job.” The idea that anyone who has a hardcover version of their book available at Barnes & Noble is wealthy is strangely embedded in society.

Of course, once you actually start writing, the advice you get from writers is bleak: you can be a New York Times bestseller and still need a day job or a family or life situation that means you can live without an income. Many authors had to publish dozens of books (here’s an example! Or this old post I wrote, which has a few examples from authors!) before they could support themselves on their writing.

I won’t pretend to have my own take on the Authors Guild results, because the folks I linked above are all far more experienced on the topic. But all in all, the topic of money in writing is complex and often sobering. For most of us, the best advice remains the one you hear the most often: don’t quit your day job. Write because you’re passionate about it. And, no matter what else you do, keep writing.

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It’s the end of the year! And that means it’s time for me to look back at what I accomplished, and lament review how it went!

(Also, I full acknowledge that this is going to be ridiculously boring to anyone who isn’t me. Sorry. It’s tradition.)

Reading: The trend continues!

If there’s one thing I’m pretty consistent about, it’s reading. I actually read more this year than I have in any year since I started using Goodreads (which is 2013, apparently). This is good, kind of, because I’m pretty sure that’s the only thing I did well at this year. Er. We’ll get to that in a second.

According to Goodreads, I read 44 books this year. And, like always, they were all over the board–I read an awful lot of fantasy, yes, but that definitely wasn’t all I read. I read everything from non-fiction to history to science fiction.

And, for something like the third year in a row, my favorite book of the year wasn’t a YA fantasy! I fell absolutely head over heels for the Ancillary Justice series–an award-winning adult SF that absolutely sucked me in. All three of them were amazing. I think I read the whole trilogy in a couple weeks, followed by the author’s other book, Provenance. And I just preordered her upcoming fantasy. They were good, okay!?

Honorable mention goes to Record of a Spaceborn Few, the third Becky Chambers novel, which didn’t make me cry as much as A Close and Common Orbit, but was still a mindblowingly pretty bit of worldbuilding. Overall, Ms. Chambers’s series (which Goodreads calls the Wayfarer series, I guess?) is also now one of my new favorite trilogies ever. It’s also an adult SF, which is kind of bewildering–I’ve honestly never read that much SF. This year, I was all over it.

Writing: This year was a garbage fire

No more warm fuzzies. Let’s talk about writing.

For the last few years, I’ve averaged about 200,000 words a year. That doesn’t mean those words used very well–in 2017, I reached 251,000 words by rewriting a single story over and over, then writing a 70K NaNoWriMo draft that I later threw out. I ended up with one reasonably polished final draft, yes, but it was hard.

So while writing more words doesn’t mean I was more productive, this year was still total garbage at 90,163 words. Argh!

This doesn’t mean I didn’t do anything, of course. Let’s try to be positive!

  • I finished my last edit of my current YA fantasy.
  • I pulled together all my query materials and queried a bunch of agents.
  • I stopped querying at 40 agents, with a 12% request rate, because I got the first R&R of my life! So now it’s time to do some major overhauls, cross my fingers, and see if mayyyybe, just maybe, this manuscript might get me an agent.
  • And hey, I’ve got 2 full requests and a partial still out, anyway–so who knows? Maybe they’ll be interested in it, too.

I didn’t get a ton of new writing done, and that’s… well, because I’m learning a lot about how I work, I guess. I didn’t get much done during the year I queried Justice Unending, either. That’s enough to write a blog post over–and I probably already have!–but it’s interesting to see that my work habits change whenever I’ve got a query out.

But the last couple of months have been pretty productive–and now I’ve got an R&R to worry about!

Out with the old, in with the new!

Honestly, despite not writing nearly as much as I wanted to, I accomplished most of the things I wanted to do last year. I finished my draft! I queried! Querying went better than last time!

I didn’t finish the sequel to Justice Unending, although I do have some early drafts and a fairly complete outline. It needs a lot of reworking, but it’s in decent enough condition that I can hop back into it soon enough.

So what are my goals this year?

  • Finish my revise and resubmit early in the year. Then submit it, cross all my fingers and toes, and hope for the best!
  • Write the sequel to Justice Unending. It’s outlined! I keep getting Amazon reviews complaining that I haven’t finished it yet! Whoops. Yeah, let’s try to get to that this year.
  • Get back into short stories. I haven’t written one in a loooong time.
  • Sketch out lose outline ideas for sequels to my current project. This shouldn’t be crazy difficult, but I need to remember to do it. So, yes: it’s on the to-do list!

All very straightforward and obvious. Isn’t that nice?

And that’s it!

OK, so 2018 wasn’t my most productive year. But I also had the most successful query of my life, and that counts for something, right? And now I’m all ready for 2019, with a fancy productivity planner, some clear goals, and a shiny R&R to guide me. So here’s to a brand new year!

Hello again! I’m back from my NaNoWriMo adventure. Alas, I didn’t actually win NaNo this year, but hey! I got out of the house a few times, met a few new people, and got to better know some of the folks in my region. That’s a win in itself!

And now, let’s get back to the blog! …er, for a week or two, at least. I’m probably not going to be super busy during the holidays.

Cover of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.

Image originally from Goodreads.

A while ago, I started a post called “On Finding Motivation to Write, and Why ‘I Want to Be Published!’ Might Not Help.” I wrote it, threw it in my draft folder, and never published it.

The basic idea was simple: it was about how I’d get depressed and anxious if I spent too much time thinking about how wonderful it’d be to get a project published, and why I thought that success-focused motivation (“I want to write because I want to get an agent someday!”) might actually be unhelpful.

It was an honest post, but it felt like whining–or, worse, like it was some roundabout way for me to dump on myself. So I put it aside.

Then I picked up Wired to Create at a book swap. I wasn’t even through the introduction when I ran into something that reminded me a lot of what I just described.

The Difference Between Being Creative Because You Want to Create and Being Creative Because You Want to Accomplish Something

Check this out.

People who set aside a special time and place in their lives for creative thinking and work … also tend to score higher on measures of creative potential. In contrast, people who are more motivated to develop a final product (agreeing with statements like “I work most creatively when I have deadlines,” “If I don’t have something to show for myself, then I feel I’ve failed”) tend to score lower in creative potential and intrinsic motivation and higher  in stress and extrinsic (reward-oriented) motivation. Those who derive enjoyment from the act of creating and feel in control of their creative process tend to show greater creativity than those who are focused exclusively on the outcome of their work. [Emphasis mine]

Huh.

First–before I go farther–Wired to Create is about increasing your creativity. It’s not a book about how “Creative People” are just better and more productive. So the above isn’t saying that there are two types of people and one is just less creative, lol sucks to be you, they’re discussing how mindsets may affect overall creative output.

And that’s not all it says! It also describes the difference between what it calls “harmoniously passionate people”–who are driven to create because it provides meaning to their lives–and the “obsessively passionate”:

In contrast, obsessively passionate people are less motivated by a love of their work … They frequently experience anxiety when engaging in their work and feel constant pressure to outperform others because they see their achievements as a source of social acceptance or self-esteem. They are motivated to engage in their activity due to the promise of external rewards, not their inner inclinations … While it is paved with goals that can sometimes be adaptive for performance … [this] road tends to be marked by lower levels of vitality, positive emotions, and enjoyment…

Both harmoniously and obsessively passionate people, the book seems to acknowledge, are being creative–but the latter is more likely to be more anxious and less happy about it.

Writing Because You Want to Write vs. Writing Because You Want to Succeed

I’ve thought about this kind of thing a lot. A lot a lot. And it’s not just because I’ve been struggling with motivation this year. (Well, OK. It is.)

But it comes down to something you’ve probably heard before: it’s easier to motivate yourself to write if it’s the writing itself that you’re looking forward to.

It takes a lot to write a novel. Writing a YA- to adult-length novel will take you roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. That’s months (if not years!) of work. So how do you get your butt in a chair every day? How do you motivate yourself through self-doubt, plot holes, and problems you can’t seem to fix?

The more you focus on the writing, the better you’ll probably do. You’ll still have good days and bad days, but if you enjoy the experience of writing, then you’ll probably feel at least a little good when you do the part you enjoy: writing. And that happens all the time!

But if your motivation to write is “All this writing will be worthwhile a year or two from now, when I finally get an offer from an agent!” Then… Well, all the good parts of writing are far off in the future–and may never happen at all! You’re setting up a situation where now you have to struggle, and someday this might retroactively end up being a good use of your time. And if you don’t eventually succeed, you might feel like you accomplished nothing. And now you have to waste another year or so to try again!

Super motivating, right?

So I would be super not surprised if that latter person was more stressed, more anxious, and less happy with the day to day process of writing.

Of course, dreams–and dreaming–is still important.

Of course, Wired to Create doesn’t suggest you forget about accomplishment and focus only on the joy of creation. In fact, there’s a whole section about having a dream can inspire creativity. It’s just that dreams, alone, are not enough:

Having dreams and goals alone is not enough to push us through the difficult times… What’s clear is that while we need a dream and a positive self-image, we must also develop strategies for keeping sight of those dreams while we work through the investable challenges that the creative journey presents.

And, interestingly, the type of goals you set are also important to consider:

People who are hopeful tend to create learning goals (like experimenting with a new type of sound), which support personal growth and improvement. Those without hope, on the other hand, tend to adopt mastery goals (like selling a certain number of records), which are less focused on growth and more focused on outperforming others. … Hopeful thinking may actually promote creative thinking skills, insofar as it involves coming up with various flexible strategies to achieve a goal.

Overall, none of this is too shocking. This sounds really close to a book like Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, which describes how people who are masters of their craft constantly challenge themselves by giving themselves growth-oriented goals that push their boundaries. Or even Mindset, which is all about how growth-oriented people focus on, well, growing their skills, rather than demanding complete and utter perfection of themselves.

In any case, there’s nothing bad about dreaming about getting an agent or publishing a book. Having a positive dream to aim for is helpful. But when you sit down and set goals for yourself, they should be growth-oriented and manageable: more “My goal is to work on my dialogue on this project” and less “My goal is to be famous!”

So what do I take out of that?

Almost all the content above came out of Wired to Create‘s chapter on Passion, and on how important joy and enthusiasm are for creating your best work. And when I look at what motivates me, and what I’ve been passionate about, I realize… I’m kind of all over the place.

I do love writing. I’m blissful when I hit a moment of flow, lose myself in a story, and produce something that feels emotional. I write because I love those moments. But I also really, really want to reach my goals. I want an agent. I want a publishing deal. I want to have the chance, someday, for writing to make up a significant part of my career.

And it’s that–the dreaming, the “I want to accomplish things” part–that I tend to beat myself over the head with. I want these things! And what did I do to accomplish them this year? Not enough! I’m not writing enough at the moment, so hey–guess what, me, you’re never going to attain those goals at that rate! And when I look at a reason to sit myself down in the chair and write, I think “Hey, maybe this’ll be the project when I accomplish my goals!” And then my enthusiasm tanks. Because that’s not very motivating.

And then people tell me “Hey, good luck on your queries–I hope you get an agent!” And I get sad. Because maybe I won’t! That’s depressing, too!

That’s not exactly what Wired to Create was describing, but some of the things it discussed are very familiar to me. I wonder how much of my stress and frustration might be because I’m not treating my dreams like positive and encouraging aspirations, and I’m instead treating them like goals I’m currently failing to attain?

I don’t really know if I can distill this all into a concrete work list of things to do, but it’s  food for thought.

National Novel Writing Month logoIt’s October 31! You know what that means!

…OK. Yes. It’s Halloween. I actually meant something else.

It’s the end of October. And tomorrow’s the start of November! And that means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month–also known as NaNoWriMo–a beloved annual event where writers try to write a 50,000-word story in a month.

Let’s chat about it!

I honestly didn’t like NaNoWriMo until I lived in a big city.

Honestly, the one-and-only reason I participated in NaNo last year–and the reason I’ll be doing it this year–is to socialize.

For a long time, I didn’t live in a place with a big writing community. I lived in small cities. I lived outside the United States. And no matter how many times I decided that I was going to hop on the forums and make digital friends, I… didn’t.

And NaNo is not that fun, at least in my opinion, if you do it alone. The thrill is in the community. It’s sitting in a room full of people who are desperately struggling to catch up, who are blazing through hundreds of words as fast as they can, and who are all encouraging each other to go go go! Without the community, well… I mean, you can write a book whenever you want, you know?

But if you’re in a place that has a decent local NaNo group (and you can check that by checking out NaNo’s Find a Region tool), it can be a lot of fun. Go to different write-ins. Chat with other writers. And if you don’t like them? Who cares! You’re there to write! Say your hellos, get to know everyone, then plug in your earphones and write for an hour. It’s the best of both worlds!

And even though I still think 50,000 words in a month is kind of silly…

Honestly. I know I said this last year, but 50,000 words is weird.

NaNoWriMo is an easy way for new writers to give themselves a challenge–and for that, 50,000 words is great. It’s high enough to be a challenge (especially if you don’t write) and it requires you to write nearly every day.

But most adult fiction is longer. Heck, most young adult fiction is longer. And I write fantasy, which can be just shy of twice that long. I could maybe write a middle grade fantasy inside of 50K. Possibly.

You don’t have to complete a novel to “win.” But NaNoWriMo isn’t nearly as exciting when the goal is “let’s write 50% of a novel really quickly, then finish the rest over the next few months!” How am I supposed to celebrate that?

…I’m doing it anyway! And won’t be posting in the meantime.

I know! You must be heartbroken.

I won’t be posting until December. Because let’s be honest–I write 1,000-word posts, and I’d much rather put those words toward making that NaNoWriMo graph shoot up.

I’ll be back in December, hopefully with 50,000 words of progress beneath my belt and a few stories about the new people I meet–and maybe a few new friends?

It’s fun to complain, isn’t it? Let’s complain about querying!

Querying is complicated! Querying is messy! And every time I query, I am simultaneously delighted that I seem to be doing OK and terrified that I’m doing everything wrong. And both might be true!

Nothing makes sense. Everything is anxiety-inducing. This post has no point!

Let’s get to it anyway!

Response rates are super important!

Everyone loves response rates. Heck, QueryTracker only tracks two statistics on your “Queries > My Stats” tab, and response rate’s one of ’em. It is:

Total Number of Agents Who Asked for Any Material / The Total Number of Agents You Queried

Multiply that by 100, slap a percent sign on it, and bam! You’ve got a response rate!

And what’s a “good” request rate? Answers vary! A common piece of advice is to start your querying journey by sending out 10 queries and waiting to see if you get at least one response before querying more–because 10% is a good request rate, and if you have at least that, your query is probably OK.

And is it a useful statistic? Yes! Kind of! Sometimes! With caveats!

Because if you’re getting requests, but you’re not around 10%, it’s nearly impossible to tell what that means.

  • Something may be wrong. Maybe you need to strengthen your query or your first chapter.
  • Or maybe you’re approaching the wrong agents?
  • Or maybe it’s OK! Honestly, if you’re getting requests, you’re doing OK. If you’re getting enough (which is subjective) and some of them seem to be branching into full requests, then sitting there going “Oh god, is 7% high enough? Am I doing everything wrong?!” is probably counterproductive.

(That might or might not be where I am right now. Cough.)

Request rates are only completely clear-cut in one situation: if you get no requests after many queries. If you can go 10 or 20 queries without a single peep of any sort… Yeah, it’s probably worth looking at your query letter.

Otherwise, everything is fuzzy. Especially since…

Agents make decisions based on personal sales and client information that you can’t possibly know!

Of course, if you go by the theory that a good request rate means you have a good book, you’re assuming that if your book is good–truly, unambiguously good–then every agent will want it.

And yet agents often make choices based on things you have absolutely no control over: what books their clients are working on. What sales they just made. What sales the editors they worked with just made. What seems to be in vogue right now (which is based on books that were sold and published a few years ago.) What seems to be on the horizon. You don’t have any power over that.

And they have quirks! Have you checked out the Manuscript Wishlist at #MSWL? The glut of authors and books out there means that agents can have really, really specific requests!

So maybe you have a remarkable book that’s topical, marketable, and interesting. That should get you some requests. And yet, somehow, you can also truly be all these things and not have a really amazingly high request rate. Because of luck. Because the topic isn’t quite what they have in mind, or they’re selling too much of this, or it’s too similar to something else they’re representing, or…

But it only takes one to say “yes”!

In the end, it really only takes one agent to say “yes.” You could send out 90 queries, have an abysmal request rate, and… if you get one request from one agent who falls in love with your story, then it doesn’t matter. You still get an agent. You still did it. It could happen, even if your request rate isn’t mind-blowingly high.

So you don’t need a lot of requests. It helps, and it’s a good sign, of course. And it’s much better to be getting lots of requests, lots of interest, and lots of potential leads–because goodness knows you can get a lot of full requests and still get absolutely no offers of representation.

Ultimately, querying is hard and you will never know anything.

Nothing means anything! Good numbers are good! Bad numbers may be bad! Middling numbers might mean anything! Anything short of unambigous and immediate success is impossible to gauge!

If you have a high request rate, you can safely say that you  have a great idea, a great query, and a powerful first chapter. Go you!

But if you have an okayish one, it’s… easy to beat yourself up. It might be OK but not amazing, and it may be getting requests, but maybe not enough… And maybe your query could be better, and maybe it’s OK, and maybe you just have to keep trying. Because who knows?

Even if, ironically, querying lots of agents means your request rate lowers. At least until you get more requests. Sigh.

In short, querying is a roller coaster and I never know if I’m doing an abysmal job or an OK one.

Fun times!

Banner with part of the cover for the novel Justice Unending, by Elizabeth Spencer.First thing’s first! Want to enter a giveaway for Justice Unending? Just hop over to LibraryThing, change the “Media” drop-down to “Paper Only,” and scroll down until you find it. (I wish I could link directly to the thing. Sorry for all the extra steps!)

And with that out of the way, let’s get back to my favorite kind of post. I was reading stuff on the internet, and someone said something I didn’t agree with, guys! Let’s talk for 1,000 words about it!

So! The other day, I saw a post worrying about their YA science fiction. It was a story about teenagers. They had jobs, were concerned about their futures, and were looking forward to college. But it was otherwise a very innocent-sounding story, with no sex, no violence outside of a few bumps and scratches, and a lighthearted theme, and it had an unambiguously happy ending.

And he was nervous: is this not a young adult story? Did I actually write a middle grade story?

I was shocked at the number of people who were like “Oh, yeah! That’s not YA! Drop those ages!”

Huh.

Middle grade novels are not just sanitized young adult stories.

This happens a lot, actually! Many people don’t think there’s that much difference between YA and MG. Since they’re both books for children, many assume that the only difference is the subject matter: light violence, no sex, and no cussing is a PG movie. That’s MG! And if there’s anything PG-13 in there? BAM! Instant YA!

(Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with the acronyms, YA = young adult, or books for people loosely in the 13 to 18 year range, and MG = middle grade, or books for those loosely in the 8ish to 12 year range. But those aren’t hard numbers. There’s a lot of blurriness around the edges.)

And if all you care about is subject matter, then there’s a clear line: everything gritty and serious goes into YA and everything full of childhood adventure goes into MG.

And… that’s not entirely untrue? Middle grade novels are designed for a younger audience, so they do need to be age-appropriate in the way they handle violence, romance, and relationships. They don’t tend to have PG-13 content like sex and intense violence.

But this doesn’t mean that a YA automatically becomes a MG if it’s not violent enough, or that a MG becomes a YA because it’s dealing with something serious.

MG and YA novels are fundamentally designed for different periods of life.

Let’s start with something obvious: YA and MG books are, in fact, designed for children who are at entirely periods in their lives.

YA Novels Have YA Themes. In the most generic way, YA books deal with teenagers who are on the cusp of adulthood. They generally have themes like:

  • Being independent
  • Relying less on their parents and family
  • Being self-sufficient, and making your own decisions in life
  • Dealing with adult responsibilities, or preparing for them
  • Having to deal with adult problems, like housing, rent, jobs, or whatever the adult equivalent is in your genre.

YA novels may include a lot of adult content, but this may be the characters’ first experiences with them: these characters may have their first relationships, their first jobs, or the first situations where they’re really expected to go off, alone, with no one else, and survive by their own means. They are people being tested by adulthood.

None of these require sex and violence. It’s entirely possible to have characters–and a plot–that revolve around what it’s like to become a self-sufficient, independent adult that don’t require graphic violence or sexy times.

MG Novels have MG Themes. MG protagonists are, at most, maybe about 12 years old. They legally can’t support themselves, or live alone, or have a job. Consequently, their protagonists are:

  • More reliant on family.
  • More dependent on guardians and adult figures in their lives to provide the essentials of life and to take care of the big responsibilities.
  • Less interested in relationships, or only starting to think about them.
  • Trying to establish their identities, to form personalities and opinions separate of their family’s, and to create their own self-image, their own goals, and their own dreams.
  • Looking forward to growing up, and getting to do things that older kids do.

But adulthood and self-sufficiency are probably very far away for these kids–and if they aren’t, it’s much more of a tragedy. These are kids who are looking forward to the freedoms and independence of being a teenager.

These themes bleed into EVERYTHING in the story.

Is everything I said above a cliche? Oh, yeah. Are there exceptions? Constantly!

But let’s say you have, say, a YA science fiction that’s written about teenagers being teenagers. Can you just remove their jobs and say “Hey, we’re middle grade now?”

Probably not.

Because those themes I mentioned above? They affect everything. A 10 year old is not interested in the same things, and doesn’t have the same thought process, as a 17 year old. Their lives are different, their needs are different, their expectations for the future are different.

  • It affects your characterization and character interaction.
  • It affects the plot: what happens, why it happens, and what the consequences are may be totally different based on your character can do, how your character is likely to react, and what your character wants.
  • It affects the core themes in the story–the elements that you focus on, the underlying message of the events that occur, the significance of what happens.

The dynamics between two 10-year-old friends are different–they expect different things, have different ideas of what they’re responsible for, have different kinds of boundaries with each other, etc.

A MG story about a rough childhood might focus on regaining trust, finding adults who care, rediscovering stability in life. A YA story might focus on learning that a home situation isn’t safe, breaking free, and finding independence.

But even now, even with all this in mind, you still can’t say “MG = light themes, YA = heavy stuff.” MG novels can absolutely have serious, darker themes. Many books are designed to help its readers cope with the world around them–and there definitely are 10 year olds who deal with dysfunctional families, violence at home and in their communities, and other “adult” topics. They, too, can find comfort in stories about protagonists their age dealing with these very real problems. The way they deal with it will be different than a YA book, and these scary topics should be handled in an age-appropriate way, but just having a darker, heavier theme does not necessarily mean that a book can’t be MG.

Consequently, it’s very, very rare that you can take a book, change the protagonists’ ages, and change nothing else.

So, in conclusion… No. If you’ve written a book about teenagers being teenagers, I’m going to guess that turning it into a MG might require significant rewrites. (And this is all without mentioning the more obvious things: like how MG books are much shorter than YA and that MG science fiction is, I think, much harder to tell in than YA.)

But the most important thing is that YA and MG aren’t interchangeable. A fluffy YA isn’t “basically” a MG, and a darker MG isn’t a YA in disguise. Whether a story is MG or YA is a much more complicated decision.

flickr_journaling_vic

Picture taken by Vic on Flickr.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I lost a ton of time this year by trying to bully myself into coming up with awesome ideas, on a deadline, during my daily hourly writing time.

It really, really didn’t work.

And because this wasn’t working, I decided to try some other, gentler brainstorming techniques. And while most didn’t do too much for me, journaling turned out remarkably well.

Here’s what I did.

First, let’s set the stage: I had a draft of a novel I didn’t want to use and a lot of ideas I didn’t like that much.

I wrote a novel for last year’s NaNoWriMo that was, unsurprisingly, not very good. I outlined it a week before I started and didn’t have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do. I stopped at 70,000 words.

And while NaNo was fun, the story was a mess. It had multiple points of view, and one of them–which made up a bit less than half the story–was pointless. The two POVs never interacted in any way. The main villain was a ton of fun to write, but she didn’t really do anything. This left the protagonist to kind of… wander around, do her own thing, and have a small, meaningless little adventure until it got trashed in the climax.

It was not a good story.

The more I dug, the more I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the secondary characters. I didn’t like the backstory I had created. I didn’t like the big reveal at the end of the book. I wanted to throw it out and do something totally different with everything–the characters. The story. The lore.

I needed to do a lot of thinking. I started by trying a lot of things that didn’t work. Then I tried journaling.

What do I mean by “journaling”?

Basically, I just sat down every day during my scheduled writing time, opened a Word file, and wrote about my feelings. I wrote about things like:

  • What ideas in my story did I like? Why?
  • What ideas did I not like? What bugged me about them?
  • What kind of characters do I usually like? What character dynamics do I like? Why?
  • Why did I not like the characters in the previous draft? What bored me?

So on, so forth. I wrote down my thoughts about my plots. I wrote my feelings about my backstory. I wrote about my theme. I wrote down what sort of things I enjoyed and what sort of things I didn’t.

I didn’t not come up with solutions. (But if one burst into my head, great! I’ll take it!) But if I didn’t know what I wanted, that was fine. If I did try to come up with new ideas, I’d just be brainstorming. And brainstorming is good, but I–again–had spent several months being bad about brainstorming. So I tried, very hard, to not pressure myself.

If my thinking aloud naturally, gracefully led me to an idea, I followed it. But if I was just angry and tearing apart my old story and ranting about how it bored me, I just let myself complain, then moved on.

Some approaches worked better than others.

I had never done this before, so I wasn’t quite sure how to do this correctly. It took me a while to figure out some good techniques:

  • I tried to balance “why didn’t I like [something I made]” with “what do I like?” I wasn’t trying to start a pity party. I was just trying to pinpoint why I didn’t like certain things, not insult myself.
  • I eventually pulled all the ideas I liked into a single file and tried to imagine a story that included all of them.
  • Similarly, I played around with how it’d feel if I removed everything I didn’t like from the original story. What was left? What holes were there? Could I fill them with the good ideas?
  • I also wrote down things I enjoyed from my favorite books, stories, and games. Why did I like them? What appealed to me? Why?
  • I tried to fangirl a little. What if I took the ideas I liked the most and tried to make them as big and dramatic as possible? What if they were the crux of the story? What if everything revolved around them? What is the coolest scene I could do about them?

Could I have just laid down and thought through all this? Sure. But writing it down made me process these thoughts more slowly. And, more importantly, it created a record of them. That let me come back the next day, look through my previous thoughts, and analyze them more deeply.

It helped a lot, actually.

For several weeks, this is all I did. I mused. I wrote down my thoughts. On most days, I made no measurable progress at all. I just thought.

But when I started making lists of everything I liked and didn’t like, and started to imagine a story that had all the good stuff and none of the stupid stuff… it started to congeal into a better story. And I started to outline.

It wasn’t perfect. There’s still a lot of messiness, a lot of weirdness, and at least one giant hole in my outline. But it’s definitely better. And there’s a lot more in this story that I’m genuinely excited to write.

And it worked because I wasn’t just brainstorming. I wasn’t sitting down, revving up my brain, and expecting fully-formed ideas to fall out. And because I was just working through my feelings, there was no way for me to slot my days into “success” or “failure.” (And if you’re just brainstorming? Yeah. Ideas you can use = successful day, no good ideas = hurray, I just wasted my time.)

I have a terrible habit of pressuring myself to produce something measurable, quickly. New words! New stories! New ideas! NOW. It helps to have a technique in the toolbox that lets me feel a little productive–I often came up with hundreds (or thousands!) of words of journaling every day–while not actually requiring me to produce!!

So if you fall prey to the same vicious thoughts, give it a shot. It’s like tricking your brain into a kinder, gentler form of brainstorming. Maybe it’ll help!