Tag Archives: YA Novel

Let the Querying Begin … Again

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy (patient and supportive) followers know: if I’m neglecting this blog, it’s because I’m letting my other writing take  center stage.   Still I wanted to update my home page because I have some exciting entries coming up, including a guest blog and hopefully an author interview.  Several of my fellow bloggers,  Louella Dizon San Juan, Robyn Oyeniyi, and Laura Susanne Yochelson have recently self-pubbed and I have to say I am so proud of them and very much in awe.  I’m also in the process of writing reviews for Amazon, which is a daunting task in itself!  For my part, I’ve decided to hold out for now and go the traditional route, which means all (well, much) is riding on one teeny weeny little document that can make or break me.  I mean, of course, my query letter.  A query letter is your calling card to agents (one of whom will hopefully rep your book one day, and go on to find you a deal with a publisher).   The most important part of your query is the plot summary, which you write to entice–just as the blurb on the back of your book will do for readers.   It should be grabby–not gimicky–intriguing enough for an agent to ask for pages, and–according to various sources at the many, many query letter writing, and pitch prep seminars I’ve attended-NO  MORE THAN TEN SENTENCES LONG.

Of course, your query letter is meaningless if your book isn’t done–really done.  I have learned this the hard way.   When I first wrote Birch Wood Doll, I struggled so much with the query letter; I just could not find a catchy way to summarize the plot in ten sentences.  I revised my letter over and over, never satisfied that I had correctly portrayed my book while making it sound interesting.  This, I have to say, was a red flag.  The reason I struggled with my query letter, the reason it sounded like a different book each time ai rewrote it, was that Birch Wood Doll, though I had gotten to the end, was not finished.  What was it even about?  It didn’t know.  I didn’t know.  Sure, it was a biracial jewish girl with an eating disorder, torn between two men, struggling with dual identity, unresolved about her career in ballet versus her academic life at University.  And her father is dead.  And her grandmother threatens to disown her.   And her friend falls off a building high on cocaine.  And there’s this guy who whittles her a doll made of birch and … Yikes.

So I took the book back, whittled away myself, figured out what I was trying to say and finally … no I didn’t get it published, but I was able to come up with a heck of a pitch. No fewer than five agents asked for partial or full manuscripts when I attended the Pitch Slam at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference.

Just for fun, here’s my “Before” pitch for Birch Wood, followed by the “after” letter that worked for agents.

BEFORE:

Birch Wood Doll (mainstream fiction, complete at 85,600 words), is the story of a biracial, bulimic ballerina’s search for self and true love.

Navigating two cultures, two divergent career paths, and two lovers, Amy, a biracial (black/white/Jewish) dancer, uses sex, cigarettes and starvation diets to cope with stress.  Forced by her wealthy grandmother to give up a ballet contract and attend Princeton University, Amy meets and falls for two men: smooth, sexy Jack, also biracial, quick with a love song and access to cocaine—and sweet, noble Kole, a white, rural-bred, wood-whittling, football player who wears his heart on his sleeve.  Over the next fourteen years, as her identity  unfolds in the context of the love triangle, Amy learns—with the help of a symbolic doll made of birch—to let go of the past, trust her instincts, and find her own way to self-respect, wholeness and love.

Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Amy’s story is inspired by my own experiences as a Jewish, biracial dancer who took a leave from Princeton to join the Cincinnati Ballet, as well as by my own eating disorder struggle and recovery.  Like Amy, I stopped dancing to become a clinical social worker and later hung out a shingle as a psychotherapist.

This wasn’t my first attempt at a pitch by any means (I’d be too embarrassed to share that) but, I think any agent who made it to the part about “over the next fourteen years …” probably checked out then.  Now here’s my after-pitch, the one that more or less worked.

Birch Wood Doll, set in the 1980s and 1990s, is the story of a young, biracial ballet dancer’s search for self and true love.  Amy loses half her racial identity at 10: she’s mixed but looks “any race,” her black father dies and her white mother’s family tries to erase his memory.  Amy grows up searching for ways to define herself.  At first it’s ballet; she’s a gifted dancer with a knack for self-starvation and a cool stone-face to rival Morticia Addams.  Then—convinced she can only find herself when she finds love—Amy turns to men.  When she’s forced to give up a ballet contract to attend Princeton, Amy falls for two male classmates who satisfy opposite needs.  Jack is biracial too; he helps Amy rediscover her “lost black childhood.”  Kole is a linebacker, generously proportioned, which gives Amy a nice break from her eating disordered mindset.  Through college and beyond, Amy holds her position at the center of the love triangle, certain that either man could be the soul-mate who resolves her conflicts and heals her pain.  The devastating, unexpected result of her choice will break Amy’s heart but ultimately teach her who she is and open the door to real adult love.

It turned out that none of the agents who went for my pitch wanted to represent Birch Wood Doll, but the book did wind up being a Nilsen Literary Prize finalist.  Based on feedback the Nilsen people gave me, I now believe that Birch Wood is one last sweeping revision away from being really, truly done.  I’ll get to it, but for now, I’m focused on my YA book, Second Company (formerly known as Twice the Dazzle) …

…which is, I now believe, really, truly done itself.  Of course, a few months ago, I believed it was done, though I had not in fact heard back from all my beta readers.  And because I couldn’t resist, because I just couldn’t wait—even though my query letter wasn’t perfect yet either–I queried a few agents.  No big deal, querying before you’re ready, except that you may be wasting an agent’s limited time, as well as wasting opportunities for yourself.  Those agents I queried before I was ready are agents that might be great for my book, but agents I can’t query again.  Nor can I get away with querying other agents in their agencies.  That’s considered bad form too.  But you live and learn, sometimes the same lesson a few times over before you get it.

The good news is that my beta readers liked Second Company a lot (some said Love!) AND were really great about giving me fine-tuning suggestions.  One more revision, another month of well-worth-it hard work.  (Another tightening of the query, too.)

Now my query letter is good; my book is the best it can be (I believe).  I have changed the title (on the advice of a well-published friend) as well as reordered my chapters, so it begins in the middle of the action, rather than with an emotionally introspective scene.  You can read my new, improved first chapter here.  So I am really ready.  I’m also strong enough to say, bring on the rejections, because they’re not personal, because everyone gets them, and all you really need is one solid, enthusiastic “Yes!”

Wish me luck.

Back: a Book Revised, a Reading Upcoming

DSC00621It has been so long since I’ve posted here, so long since I’ve read or commented on the blogs I follow.  In my last post, I apologized in advance for what I knew would be a break, and my kind, supportive followers commented that there was no need to be sorry—that they understood. However, at this time, I think an explanation of what’s been going on might make for a good return post.

First, as I mentioned, I had restarted my therapy practice, which felt wonderful, returning to a part of me that I’d been away from long enough to really miss.  It was time; I was ready to work and focus on the lives of others.

Second, though I had technically written two books during my leave, both needed some work yet. Though Twice the Dazzle—a version of which I’d completed before the hurricane—was close, my concentration had been nil since the fire.  I was unable to write much more than a blog post and was unable to read much more than the New York Times.

But as December was nearing its midpoint, something began to lift.  Suddenly, I was able to sit with a book again (and read one I’d been meaning to get to for years: The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  Loved!)  I was also itching to return to my own book, which was so close to done.  It was time to finally use the feedback from my consultation with Arielle Eckstut and make it the very best it could be.

Step one was to minimize the priorities in my life.  The top was, is, and has to be my family.  I have two children and a husband who are still reeling in their assorted ways from this fire—a trauma for us all, no matter how you look at it.  Next—related to the first—is managing our lives in this temporary home, replacing and recreating what I can of our life.  Next is my work, rebuilding and reestablishing my therapy practice.  Writing came fourth and had to fight for its place at the table.  I knew that if I was going to get this thing done, I needed to focus.  That meant releasing myself from other commitments, as well as giving myself total permission to withdraw from the blogosphere, from Facebook and Twitter, and even—to a degree from email.

It was so freeing to do that, to trust my instincts and to devote myself to the few things that could not wait.  Thanks in no small part to the understanding support of my friends, family and, of course, my followers, I am happy to say that I have done what I set out to do and completed the revision.  The book is now getting a last onceover from my “team” of wonderful beta readers, and a serious proof-read.  This time around, I will not—mark my words—submit my manuscript prematurely.  (Yes, I am trying the traditional route at this point, not having the wherewithal to research self-publishing right now.)

That said, I do have exciting news: I am doing my first reading from Twice the Dazzle, my YA novel about twin teens in the ballet world—this very week!  My dear friend and former college roommate, Louella San Juan, has invited me to join her as she presents from her new book, The Crowded Kingdom, at Dewey’s Candy in DUMBO, this Thursday.  See Louella’s website for details.  I have also posted the press release on my new “EVENTS” page.

I Like It. Now Add Suspense.

What will happen next?

What will happen next?

So, about two weeks before Hurricane Sandy and three weeks before our fire, I had a consultation with the brilliant Arielle Eckstut, agent, entrepreneur, and one half of the amazing husband-and-wife team known as The Book Doctors.  I’d first met Arielle and her husband David at one of their famous (in the literary world) Pitchapalooza workshops, held at Montclair’s beloved Watchung Booksellers, back in January.

I’d just come from the pitch slam at the Writers Digest Conference, where I’d successfully pitched my adult novel to five different agents. (To be clear: by “successfully,” I mean they had all asked for pages, not offered to rep me.) Anyway, I didn’t feel I needed to work on my pitch for that book, but wanted to try something new.   So, the night before the Pitchapalooza workshop, I wrote a brand new pitch–just for the fun of it–for a book I had not written yet: a YA ballet novel which would become Twice the Dazzle.  To make a long story short, David critiqued my pitch and then told me to let him know when the book was done. Nine months later, I emailed him with just that news. He read a few chapters and suggested I have a consultation with his wife, which is just what I did.

Arielle helped me tweak the pitch letter and fine-tune the list of agents to-be-queried.  Then, after reading several excerpts of my actual book, she gave me some great advice.  She loved my writing, she said; she liked the characters and the story too.  But …

“You play all your cards in the first hand.”

Meaning, via the dreaded info-dump trap, I had given away my characters’ back stories and motivation in the first chapter.  Suspense was the thing my book needed. Entice the reader along, Arielle encouraged me, trickle out clues as to why they might be this way and what happened before. Draw the readers in with the suggestion of what a glance, a touch, a turned back might mean later on.  Lead up to a big reveal. Make BIG MOMENTS your landmarks.

So, I got right to work. For example:

The first chapter (which used to be a prologue) involved the seventeen-year-old twins, Oliver and Olivia, simultaneously flashing back to a traumatic moment from their childhood, when their mother had abandoned them in a taxicab.  For some reason, I was convinced that I had to begin with this scene; it shed light on the twins’ own relationship as well as both twins’ relationships with each of their parents. You saw Mom’s mental illness, Dad’s brutal temper, as well as Oliver’s delight in wearing the tutu that chubby Olivia couldn’t squeeze into (foreshadowing both the gay theme and the weight struggle/body image theme). All in all, an exhausting two and a half pages (artfully handled or not).

What I needed to do, Arielle had explained, was take the story of the early trauma and hint at it, revealing it organically later on. She’d helped me figure out where and how to do this, and also–since I wasn’t going to start with the flashback any more–where I should start the book in the first place.

When the hurricane hit, I was about two thirds of the way into my revision. I barely took a break though.  As soon as we were staying with friends-with-power, I resumed the process. Then came the fire. Then the work screeched to a halt. Twice the Dazzle, about seven eighths of the way revised was dangling in the air. Until now.  I had a conversation with my husband last night, during which we agreed that, while the kids and the various home-reconfiguring issues need to be my priorities right now, as well as my therapy practice, I can’t put the book aside–not when I’m this close to the finish line.  Of course, I can’t quite do what I did before the fire, which was write the whole time my kids were in school. But I can still write, even if it’s an hour or two here and there. I can still finish this thing and be ready to query by, say, February.

I’m beginning today by putting the new, improved, post-Book Doctor Consult Chapters 1 (Olivia’s voice) and 2 (Oliver’s voice)  here on this blog for curious followers.  Comment if you like.  Know that I’m around here somewhere, trying to make it all work.

L

A Stench in the House … Someone Must be Writing.

The other day, I posted about my friend, Emmy Laybourne’s newly released YA novel, Monument 14.  So, what about my own YA novel in progress?  Rightly or not, I feel I owe my followers at least a tiny explanation.  Here’s what I meant to do after that “Ghost Blog” post, in which I explained the reason I was slacking off on my blogging was that I’d given myself a June 15th deadline for finishing a draft of my YA novel.  After making my deadline with flying colors (which I actually did, but more on the later) I was going to write a big victory post announcing the completion of the draft, the launching of the new revision phase and possibly throwing in some resolutions about how much more religiously I was going to blog, it being summer and all.

Well, here’s what happened instead.  I finished a draft on June 12th, a couple of days before my deadline, but rather than posting about it to celebrate, I dove right into the revision process without even coming up for air.  The reason being momentum, of which I had tons seeing as I’d been eating, sleeping and breathing the world of my twin protagonists, slamming through that last chapter, that final delicious moment when Olivia gets her dazzle on after 17 years of being outshone by her talented and dynamic twin brother Oliver.  I didn’t want to blog about it, talk about it, write about the process of writing it or do anything but just keep on writing—starting over at the beginning!  And let’s face it, is there anything more fun and exciting than combing through and tightening up a big 288 page mess that you made?

Writing a first draft can be scary.  Even though I used an outline and tried to stick to it, there were times when I got lost and self doubt consumed me.  What if I couldn’t finish?  What if the plot just didn’t work?   I admit it; there were lots of doubts and lots of periods of time where I’d finish a chapter and the thought of filling in the blankness ahead was so daunting,  I had to force myself to sit in the chair and write.  I did a lot of procrastinating, sometimes using the blogosphere itself as an escape.  I didn’t use a writing group because I find that getting feedback as I make up the story tends to hold me back.  I do better when I just write the whole thing, revise a few times and then test it out on people.  A first draft is for you, the writer.  It’s the progression through the whole story, with lots of notes-to-self (can this be told as a flash-back?  Do we even need the zany, mad-cap aunt?) woven in.  A second draft is the one you can start sharing with your writers’ group, or your mother or your husband or that one devoted friend who likes to read anything you seem to put on paper.  A second draft is the one where someone besides you can read the story and kind of get it; it’s the one before the third fourth and fifth drafts you might give to some beta readers—where it starts to count.

Nevertheless, a first draft is a huge milestone.  Before, you had an outline—better than a blank page, but still just a big map with no guarantee of arriving at your destination.  Now …

  • You know your outline works at least well enough to get      you from starting point A all the way home.
  • You have a beginning, middle and end and hopefully a      bunch of stuff to work with in between.
  • You no longer have just a story in your mind to invent, you have a book to tinker with: hundreds of pages of material      to tweak, sort, toss and turn into something potentially magical.
  • Best of all, since it’s for your eyes only so far, it’s      okay that it’s a mess … for now.

My friend who is a creative writing professor recommends leaving your first draft alone in a drawer for a few months while you work on other projects.  The idea is to come back to it with some distance and be able to clearly see what works, what doesn’t and what just needs to be deep sixed.  I think this is good advice.  However, I’ve got this momentum right now and I don’t want to waste it.  With this draft in hand, the fears, the tendency to procrastinate vanished and momentum was hard to break.  I still had about a week left before my kids’ summer vacation arrived to cut short my writing time, so instead of taking a breather from my book, I plowed on.

With the second draft, things happen more quickly.  If I have an hour, I can rewrite a whole chapter or a scene that doesn’t work, or write the sick aunt out of the book altogether.  If I have thirty minutes, I can pick a pretty OK section and make it pretty good.

On the downside, since I can’t wait to finish this draft and the going is pretty easy (for now), it’s really hard to stop and do other things.  Like laundry and dinner.  And getting immunization records for summer camp.  The other day, I’d been multitasking:  cooking dinner, folding laundry, helping my daughter pack for a camping trip, when I stole a “few” minutes to revise the chapter I was working that morning.  In retrospect I did smell something foul as I sat there, but for better or for worse, I was too focused to care what it was.

My son is much more independent than my daughter and therefore less likely to come up to my “writing room” when I’m working (when I’m up there, he can usually sneak in some precious unauthorized moments on the Wii).   I knew something was up when I heard his little feet padding up the stairs.

“Mommy,” he said, “I think there’s a stench in the house.  It’s starting to hurt the inside of my nose.”

A stench?  Indeed there was.  It was the wok full of broccoli and other assorted vegetables that I’d walked away from twenty minutes earlier and was now blackening away in a malodorous disaster.  (Yes my husband was home, as was my daughter, but their allergies often preclude stench detection.)

So this is where I’ve been, writing, revising, burning broccoli, letting wet laundry sit for a few days racing to get out a draft that someone can actually read.  I am in a big hurry to get to the end for reasons I’ll disclose in another post, but I must say, I am at last enjoying the process.  I think many followers are in the same boat with their own books, or somewhere in the vicinity.  Godspeed to you all.  Best of luck and keep me posted on your process!