Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dear Author: Here's a Little Piece of My Mind

Question of the day: Do you think about your readers as you write? Does that work for/against you? How do you NOT think about all this stuff?

Like it or not (and the jury is still out on this one), I do think about my readers as I write. Especially as I wrote book #3 (which I previous referred to as The Happiest Days of My Life, but it is getting a title change, so now I'm just referring to it as book #3). It was really difficult not to because Time of My Life was such a break-out book that I got A LOT of feedback - a lot good, some not so good - and I found it impossible to void out the feedback as I wrote.

Now listen. Here's the thing. I write for readers. Without them, I wouldn't have a career. So while it wasn't always a wonderful thing - me mulling over some of the harsher reviews and whatnot - I did find it important to consider what struck a chord and what didn't. For some reason, TOML was read by a lot of Christian readers, some of whom wrote me, my agent or just posted on their blogs, that they enjoyed the book but took issue with my liberal use of the F-bomb. I'll be honest in saying that, as a non-Christian NYC-er who is exposed to some pretty foul language, this criticism never even occurred to me. Never once. But, as I was writing book #3, did I at least give a second thought to every F-word I used this time? Sure. It was an easy enough fix that didn't compromise my writing or my characters. When I felt like the swear word was absolutely necessary, you bet your ass (ha!) I put it in. But when maybe I could find a better way to phrase it, I found a way to do that too.

I also learned a lesson in my first book and that was that readers really want to LIKE your protagonist. Not everyone liked Natalie from The Department, which is just fine, and I wouldn't change a word, but it is and was something that I'm now conscious of. Why would readers agree to give you their time for 300 pages when they don't even care if your character wins or loses? Ditto some of the reviews that said I was a good writer but didn't develop my characters deeply enough. Those really stuck with me, and I agonized with my characters in book #3, making sure (I hope) that they were three-dimensional, real, fleshed-out people, like friends you might know in real life.

So that was the good. The bad is also all of the above. :) And that while I have all of these different reviews and voices and criticism clanging in my head, it's easy to feel paralyzed. I know, because I was. Even though you KNOW that you can't please everyone and that certainly books are SUBJECTIVE, if you ruminate too much on these things, you simply can't write or you can't write well. For a while, I was so, so, so terrified of writing crappy character development, that I didn't write anything. I mean, God forbid someone put up another Amazon review stating my characters were flimsy! (That's sarcasm if you can't tell.) But yeah, for a while there, it DID feel like one of those Amazon reviews would be the end-all.

So...I guess what I'm trying to say here is that it's a mixed bag. But in the end, I'm glad that I'm weighing my reader feedback. They're the ones who buy books, and they're the ones, ultimately, whom I have to please. I pleased the majority of readers with Time of My Life, so with book #3, I aimed to do something similar...I hope I have. And even if I have, I'm sure they'll be dissenters. Oh well. They'll post their Amazon reviews, and hopefully, I'll make them happy with book #4. :)

What about you guys? Do you listen to what your readers have to say?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

YA? MA? What the hay?

Question of the day: I wrote a novel that I thought would be deemed "young adult." My agent read it and said it was "middle grade." What's the difference and does it matter?

Truth told, I am not an expert in anything YA. At all. But I asked my trusty agent, and here's what she said: "I'm not totally sure, but my understanding is that there is not a hard and fast rule. But my experience if the protagonist/audience is 12 or younger, it is middle grade. Of course, the content can determine it too. If it's dark, it's YA."

She suggested asking a YA editor, but since I don't write YA, I didn't really have any contacts from which to pool. To answer your question, does it matter? I do feel like off the top of my head, most of the break-out youth set books have been firmly YA, but then again, I'm not an expert. The good news is that I run a blog with a lot of readers who know things when I don't. :) So if anyone can weigh in below, please do!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Flying By The Seat of Your Pants

Question of the day: You talk about plot complications, and I would like to know how you deal with those. As I am discovering, even the best-laid plans go awry when you actually put finger to keyboard, so I'd like to know how you approach such a instance. I have found that as I get to know my characters better, I am unhappy with some of the things I previously thought they would do - or even the direction of the plot. In such an instance, would you just make a note of it and go back to it a little later - or would you start a chapter rewrite there and then? I've been doing the latter, which doesn't bother me as the MS will literally keep me awake at nights if I don't attend to it immediately - but I'd be interested in some tips here.

Excellent question, and yes, I definitely wrestle with this, and have especially wrestled with this earlier in my novel-writing career, when I was still getting my sea legs as to how to write the best first draft possible. Because I am a pantser - as in, I don't outline, I don't have much of a clue what's going to happen, and I write by the seat of my pants - I often find, as you have, that the characters go places I totally didn't anticipate. In the manuscript I just completed (but, I'll note, haven't yet revised, which I'm sure will cause further changes), one of the main characters was a late entry into my imagination, and in fact, wasn't even part of my original idea, and the second half of the book took on a life of its own: I literally NEVER imagined what ended up happening was going to happen.

For me, this method works. I feels organic, honest and allows me to, I hope, create characters who aren't shoved into contrived circumstances because I deemed said circumstances necessary to get from point A to point B.

But. This method also means that yes, I often have to go back and tinker with what I've previously written. When I discover a disconnect, I go back and amend it right there and then. But this is because my writing and the plot tend to snowball...if I, in the back of my mind, know that there's some incongruity in the plot or the characters, I have a difficult time getting to the mental place I need to imagine their current lives or situations. (Wow, that's a really ambiguous sentence.) What I mean by that is that if I'm hung up on the thought of knowing that I need to change a character's past behavior or past life, it's hard for me to fully imagine their future behavior or their future life, because, as a pantser, all roads lead to the page I'm currently on. If something needs to be changed on page 56, well, then it's going to affect the outcome of page 102. Make sense? So I go back right then and rework it.

As I said, I've gotten better about this with every book I write because I have a much better understanding now of what I have to do to create tension, accelerate the plot, give the characters depth, etc. So I fall into fewer sand traps as I go. I guess my advice is to really ruminate on the action before you put it down on paper. Even though I might not spend my entire day writing, I do spend a lot of my non-writing hours mulling over what's going to go on the page when I do. I don't just sit down and write to write...I've long since hashed out WHY I'm asking a character to do something and WHERE this is going to lead to in the plot. If their actions make sense and propel the plot forward, then for the most part, I'm safe.

Anyone else deal with this? Do you go back right there and then to fix things or keep chugging along to get to the finished product?