I read this ages ago, but hey. Let’s talk about YA tropes, through the lens of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

Screenshot of the cover of the novel.

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

My complete review is on Goodreads. Like always, I’m not going to duplicate the review here. Instead, I’m going to wax philosophical. Bear with me.

So, I read Miss Peregrine’s a while ago, and I really liked it. This was honestly a surprise, because I’ve really been struggling to find YA novels I like. But if you check out its reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that they’re very… divisive. So what drew me in?

Well, that gets to the core of what I’ve been struggling with. I like action. I like adventures. I also like well-developed characters and character drama. I like romance, but I like it as a subplot. Basically, I like “Fantasy with romance subplots,” not “Romance with fantasy elements.”

But romance is super duper in right now. Daughter of Smoke and Bone? Shadow and Bone? Graceling? These are all strong fantasies, but their main plotlines are about romance. Everything else is secondary.

And that’s fine, it’s just not my favorite thing in the world. Unfortunately, this seems to be an extremely popular trend, and I’m having a hard time finding more straight-up adventure fiction.

And that’s why I loved Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. The characterization is not as deep as I’d like, either for the heroes or the villains, but it’s a strongly-paced, high-tension adventure. It was mildly creepy, consistently tense, and mysterious. I didn’t like the romance in Miss Peregrine’s either (I actually found it uncomfortable), but it didn’t make up the majority of the novel. It was a subplot.

Would I have liked it as much if I hadn’t read so many YA fantasy-romances lately? Who knows? But it had something I desperately wanted in YA fantasies right now: A lower smoochy-smooch-to-adventure ratio.

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The pantsing vs. outlining discussion is as old as time. Every writer has, at some point, watched a bunch of people debate about the benefits of “winging it” versus the benefits of planning.

And I may be sensitive here–I probably am–but whenever people talk about pantsing vs. outlining, outlining gets panned. I’ve heard it all! It’s not creative and spontaneous. The process of outlining seeps all the fun out of writing. Outlining gives you the feeling of “being productive” without you having written anything, therefore it makes you not want to write at all. Heck, even Stephen King’s On Writing suggests you should just make a character and then just write and watch their lives unfold, because anything else wasn’t actually being creative or something. (I’m paraphrasing. That chapter irritated me and I don’t want to dig it out.)

I outline. I outline deeply. And it is literally the only way I can have an enjoyable, productive, creative writing experience. Obviously, that’s all I need–that’s how I write, and I write successfully, hurray!–but here’s what my process is and why it works for me.

Here’s how it goes.

Step #1: The Super-Loose Calculations and Plot Structuring

This is the only step (I hope) where I’ll sound stark-raving mad.

I am obsessed with word counts. The first two novels I ever wrote were horribly, stupidly, ridiculously off-target–the first was obscenely long, and the second was novella-length. It took me until my third novel to go, “Hey, you know what? Maybe I should actually stay in a sensible range.”

I write YA fantasy, so I try to stay in the 70-80K range, with an absolute upper limit of 100K. And I don’t do this by sitting down, writing, and hoping I get there. I do loose calculations. I know, for example, that I write about 3,000 word chapters, so my novel target is about 24-27 chapters.

And then I toss some kind of story structuring on it. At the very least, a 24 chapter story will have its midpoint somewhere around 12ish, and major, transitional events somewhere around 6 and 18, with smaller events interspersed between.

I am not laying a formulaic blueprint down. I’m just storyboarding. “I have these major events, and maybe they should go hereish and thereish.” I’m not saying, “Hey, event #1 has to happen in chapter 6, 18,000 words in.” I’m saying “Maybe this comes early in the story, and this stuff comes later.” It helps me figure out, in a very big-picture way, where stuff might happen and where it might go.

It’s not pushing myself into a formula, because I’m not going to actually limit myself to certain word counts. I’m not even going to outline around this. I’m just brainstorming in an organized way.

Step #2: The Outline

My outlines read like screenplays. I write down broad, summary sentences that explain everything that happens, all the scenes that occur, and where the dialogue happens. (Unlike a screenplay, I usually do NOT write down the actual dialogue.)

It doesn’t look like a screenplay, though. I make bulleted lists, broken up by where the chapters might start and end. Each bullet explains something that will happen in that chapter.

Now, this would be an excellent time to include a screenshot of one of my outlines, but I can’t find one that isn’t completely ridiculous. My outlines are silly, in shorthand, and full of profanity. So let’s just stick to a much less useful example instead:

  • Character A goes and talks to Character B.
  • They talk about what just happened. Character A is upset and troubled, B tells her not to worry, but it doesn’t help…
  • Character A goes out to the shipyard and thinks about…

So on, so forth. It’s just a basic list of this happens, that happens, this happens. I’m figuring out the logistics. Why are people where they are? What did they do? Why?

And why? Because then, when I sit down to wrote a chapter, I don’t have to worry about what will actually happen. I know, kinda-sorta. I just have to sit down, flesh it out, and put it into prose.

But it also lets me identify plot holes before I ever write the story. It also lets me ensure that everything is foreshadowed sufficiently and gives me a high-level perspective on character growth, plotting, and pacing. I can usually address the most grievous plot holes before I even write the story.

Step #3: Write the actual story, and only loosely follow the outline.

Now that I have thoroughly plotted out every important detail, I write. I only loosely use the outline.

And this is why I say that outlining doesn’t make writing any less spontaneous or creative. I have the logic figured out. I have the gist of pacing, characterization, and plot development. But when I sit down and write the thing, I usually change my mind.

I stumble on unforeseen issues. I think of things I’d like more. Once I actually write the dialogue, the interactions, the scenes, I realize that the characters are going in a different direction–their feelings or reactions are different or strong enough that I have to have them do something else.

So things change. I generally stay pretty close to the big picture, but the details all change. I almost always add chapters, remove them, or end them at different places. In my last major novel, I dropped an entire subplot, and chapters 4-7 did not resemble my original outline at all. And that was fine. I still knew what I was doing.

And that’s it! It works for me. I’ve tried pantsing stuff, and it just doesn’t work–everything I write has to be drastically, immediately rewritten, because the first thing I think of is almost never as good as the second. Outlining helps me figure that out without investing 3,000 words into it.

First off, WriteOnCon! I didn’t talk about it much ahead of time, but I participated. (And now it’s over, so this won’t be useful to anyone who didn’t already know about it.) WriteOnCon is a once-a-year, online-only “writing convention” for people who write anything in the range of picture books to New Adult. (So while they say “kidlit,” they mean anyone who isn’t writing adult.)

There were Twitter pitches and some Q&As, but the real gem was the forums. You could post your query, your first 250 words, and your first 5 pages. You got feedback. You gave feedback.

And it was fun! The community was helpful and enthusiastic. I got a metric ton of advice on my query. And now, armed with a better query and a boatload of encouragement, I am confident that I’m ready. I’m going to go query some agents.

But you know what? I’m not going to talk about it.

Here is a wonderful post talking about why. Once upon a time, on an earlier project, I kept a running count of how many rejections I got. And I posted about it! And oh my goodness gracious, why did I do that? Can you imagine? What agent would want to look someone up and say, “Hey, look! They’ve queried 20 people! I guess I was choice #21 and everyone else said no!” Yeaaaaah. Uh. That’s terrible.

So, yeah. I am querying. It is happening. Send me your good vibes and best wishes. I’m just not going to talk about it.

Guys. I am so excited for Pitch Wars. So. Excited. I can barely stand it!

Photo that reads 'Pitch Wars 2014! Submissions August 18, Agent Round November 4-5. www.brenda-drake.com, @brendadrake/#PitchWars.

Hotlinked from the Pitch Wars blog.

Pitch Wars is one of those legendary events. I’ve never participated before, but I’ve watched people get super-duper excited about it. And now it’s here again, and at the very best of times!

Pitch Wars is an event for authors with 100% completed, ready-to-pitch manuscripts. On August 18 (just a week from now!), you send your query and first chapter to your top 4 mentors. If you get chosen, they’ll spend the next two months editing your query and manuscript in preparation for the November agent round. The agents then review the newly-edited queries and manuscripts. You can read more about it on the Pitch Wars blog.

So now–right now!–people who want to participate have to make sure their query letter and first chapter are ready to go. They also have to review the list of mentors and find the four best suited to their work.

There are resources galore. All the mentors seem to be on Twitter, where they’re answering everyone’s questions. There are video interviews with the mentors, too! (Check out the MG and the first and second YA/NA ones!)

And the timing is so perfect.

My YA fantasy, Justice Unending has had a complicated life. It was written, polished, and pitched. That didn’t pan out. After a great deal of reflection, I did some major restructuring, changed 1/4 of the story and one character, and went on a beta crusade. After being encouraged by a lot of praise and some relatively minor recommendations, I used AW’s mighty Share Your Work board to craft a much better query letter. And now, after all that work, I finished my last copyedits… last week.

My original plan was to pitch it next month. Obviously, Pitch Wars is moving the timeline up a little.

And I am totally ready for this. Here’s hoping for the best!

I generally blog about writing tips and books I’ve read. This is rough, because I was reading this last week:

Illustration of three children and a shadowy figure in the background.

Hotlinked from the Aoitori Bunko website.

It’s elementary school fiction. In Japanese. For 6th graders. It’s about some elementary kids who start a mystery club and hunt down the legendary thief, Papillon. And it is, obviously, nothing I would really write a book review about. This is just fun, random nonsense I’m reading to keep up my ever-decaying Japanese skills.

I’ve been busy otherwise. Real life got in the way for a long, long time, and now I’m finally putting the last-last edits on my manuscript so I can submit it to agents. I’m hoping to do that in a month or so. More about that later!

In the meantime, have this article from Writer’s Digest about overcoming self-doubt in writing:

Author C.C. Hunter Explains How to Overcome Self-Doubt | WritersDigest.com.

It’s been years since I was a teenager, but I was everything you’d expect from a young, naive writer. I thought I was great at writing, I wanted to major in it, and I was determined to write for a living. I was a novelist. A writer! All I had to do was, you know, finish a novel. But I loved to write, so clearly I was destined for something special.

Ah, youth. Here’s what I wish someone had told me.

1. Finish Everything You Start

Finishing is everything. I now believe that it’s more important than skill. It certainly more important than perfection. Finishing a project is literally the most important skill you can ever learn. It doesn’t matter how well you write if you can’t see a project through to the end.

I spent my teenage years writing the opening chapters of dozens stories. I wrote scenes. I created characters. I created supplementary languages and poems. But I didn’t actually finish a manuscript until I was 21 years old. (Then it took me 3 more years to write one that was the correct length for my genre.) I loved writing, but I had nothing to show for it until my mid-20s. And that’s awful.

Do you want someone else to edit your work? Finish it. Do you want to submit it somewhere? Well, you aren’t going to submit the first 4 chapters. Even if your first novel is trash and you hate it and you know it’s deeply, profoundly flawed, finish it. You can do something with an imperfect manuscript. You can’t do anything meaningful with a fragment of a story.

2. Write For Every Market You Can

I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to write novel-length fantasy. So that’s what I did. I wrote nothing but fantasy novels, all the time. And since writing novels is hard, that meant I just never published anything.

But oh, short stories are wonderful. It takes me less than a week to write, edit, polish, and submit one, and 2-3 months to get a response. It takes me about a year to write, edit, and re-edit a single novel (and I still haven’t gotten an agent.)

But the moment I started writing short stories, I started getting publishing credits. And you know what? I can put that on an agent query. Now I don’t have to shyly, innocently avoid the fact that I’m unpublished.

So be flexible. Write your novels and finish them in a timely manner. But write short stories, too. And articles. Anything. Write for any legitimate market that will take you. That’s way better than being unpublished and waiting until your novel gets lucky.

3. Write in any Genre You Can

And, finally, don’t limit yourself to what you love. Every genre can teach you something about the art of writing.

My journalism degree taught me loads about being pithy. (You probably can’t tell. But trust me, I was much worse before.) Professional communications taught me how to simply describe complicated topics. All these made me think about my writing, and all of them made me better at it.

So don’t be afraid of non-fiction. Write for everything. Anything. If you like it, do it. If it pays, try it.

I still have a lot to learn, of course. I’ve only sold two short stories. But I finally have a goal, a plan, and a little success to show for it. I wish I had been this organized ten years ago.

Writer’s Digest is doing a contest for YA authors! You can find more here:

15th Free “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest: Young Adult Fiction | WritersDigest.com.

Basically: You submit the first 150-200 words of your unpublished, finished YA novel with a one-sentence log line. Then you have to mention this contest twice on social media (which is, I swear, not entirely why I’m posting this. But since you can be disqualified for not doing it, it’s important.)

The 3 winners will get a free agent review of the first 10 pages of their novel and a year’s subscription to WritersMarket.com. As an added incentive, agents have apparently signed authors that they’ve found through this contest. (Though, since that’s not guaranteed, it’s not worth getting your hopes up over.)

Any contest from Writer’s Digest is going to have zillions of entrants, so I’m sure I don’t have a snowball’s chance in heck of winning. But hey, why not? No harm in trying!