How to Start A Novel

[Shameless Advertising: A shorter story of how I got the Call is up on my friend Michelle4Laugh's blog. You can check out it and lots of other awesome Call stories here!]


I've recently been toying with ideas for WIPs, waiting for one of them to grab hold of me so I could put fingers to keyboard and start writing. When it finally happened, I opened a fresh word document and started typing.

Then stopped.

Then started.

Then stopped again.

I realized I needed to rethink my process.

Now, I'm no outliner or avid researcher. I'm not a pantster, either. Generally, when an idea hits, I let it churn in my brain a little, then jot down a short query synopsis (VERY flexible for change), then start at the beginning - a very good place to start. That's exactly what I did this time, only I realized that my lack of understanding of character, place, etc. was not going to get me anywhere. So, I did some thinking, scrapped most of what I'd written for the beginning, and started over fresh. I'm much more pleased with what I've written now.

For those of you also struggling with writing those first words of a fresh manuscript, here are some tips:

1. Love the query

Unless this is your first manuscript, all of you know how horrible it is to write a query letter a short, enticing introduction to your completed novel. Use this to your advantage. Before you've even written the first sentence of the novel, craft a query you love and build the plot details of the novel around it. Not only will it help you focus the plot and make it intriguing, but you'll also have query draft 1 complete!

2. Consider your characters

Some writers (like me) are eager to dive into a novel without outlining or even knowing much about the main characters. But if you take even a couple minutes to figure out what they're like, where they come from, and what incident will upset their world can lead to a clear beginning for the story.

3. Use pictures for inspiration

Pinterest, anyone? If you haven't checked out this site already, I encourage you to do so, as it's chalk-full of fantastic images that can serve as a major source of writing inspiration. You can create boards for your novels that allow you to collect images related to location, period, and characters. A great picture can be enough to spark an awesome story. (If you're curious, you can glimpse the world of Extraction here.)

4. Be open to mistakes

Sometimes, the best way to write a novel is to barrel through even when you're stuck. Remember that the fresh manuscript is a draft; it can be revised and polished. Maybe you'll have to write three or five or twenty openings before you find one you're happy with, but write all of them. You never know what they'll lead to.

I'll leave you all with an entirely unrelated but lovely advertisement, courtesy of Game of Thrones.

Happy drafting!


2am Worries

A year from now, I'll be a college graduate. I'll have a bachelor's degree in film production. Where I will live? What I will do?

I have no idea.

A year ago, I thought I knew. I'd graduate with a film degree, drive off to Hollywood, and work my way up until I could direct motion pictures (while writing novels on the side).

Only, it hit me sometime in the past two semesters -- between the hours spent in the library trying to write 5000 words per day and the hours spent writing, directing, and editing student films -- that what I wrote up there in parenthesis doesn't belong in parenthesis. Writing is what I love to do more than anything, and it's my dream to do that for a living.

I'm not sure I want to be a film director anymore.

It's not that I don't love filmmaking. I love the energy on set and that magic moment when a shot is played back and a story comes to life on screen. But my adoration for film is less than my passion for telling stories with the written word. This past semester, it was hard to switch focus from the novel I was hard at work on to making a short film for a class, even though that film was crazy fun to make. On set, amidst the sweat, the tears, and the awesomeness of directing a movie, that novel was still tugging at the back of my mind.

It wasn't the same in reverse. When I was in writing mode, that was all I cared about.

My dilemma, then, is: what will I do if my book doesn't sell, if I don't make it big enough that writing can become the focus of my working career? There's no way that'll happen in a year. I'll have to find some other way to support myself enough to live and get my own apartment or house. When I graduate, I can still move to Hollywood and try to get into the film industry...I'm just not sure that's what I want anymore.

I want to travel the world. I want to see Europe and New Zealand (Hobbiton). I want to live in NYC for a while. I want to marry and have kids. I want to hitch a ride to the stars if when the technology becomes available. I want to be in a musical. I want to see my book in print.

In the meantime, in a year's time when I graduate and have to figure out how to fund all these endeavors...

I don't know.

But maybe I don't have to worry. Everything in my life, from minor worries to major things, has always had a funny way of working out.

Two weeks ago, I was about to give up on my book. And then I landed an agent.

So, we'll see.



Book of the Week: Shatter Me

Rating: 4 out of 5

From the first page, the writing of this book hooked me. Shatter Me is the story of Juliette, a girl who has been locked up for 264 days because her touch is lethal. Her thoughts are tangled beautiful dripping with emotion crossed out in places. That is the way she deals with her isolation and the years of her life she's spent unable to touch anyone without hurting them.

One day, she is given a companion in her cell. A boy with eyes that are too familiar not like any she's ever seen before.

And everything changes.

Learn more about Shatter Me on Goodreads. The amazingly awesome author Tahereh Mafi blogs here and tweets here.


The Obnoxiously Long Story of How I Got An Offer

June 2, 2006. The day I sent my first query letter.

It was for an alternate history novel that took place in the Civil War era. That's all you'll ever hear about it.

Now, I was thirteen when I queried my first novel. I received a couple requests for it, which (not surprisingly) resulted in passes. But I also received encouragement from agents who knew my age and believed in a couple years my writing might be strong enough to sell. I will always be grateful for their words. Writing is what I've always loved to do, ever since I could write. The number of unfinished--and a couple finished--short stories in the journals in my closet is too high to count.

So, I set my first novel aside. I started some others and eventually settled on a fantasy for young adults. I have no idea how many revisions it went through over the couple years I worked on it. But in June of 2011 (yes, a long time later), I started querying.

From June to October, I sent out queries and landed a grand total of two requests. Beta readers had loved it--even the agents who read it admired the writing. So what was up with that?

Well, this is what I think:

A. It was a high fantasy, which few agents rep.
B. Angels and demons were involved--in a different way than in paranormal books, but their appearance in the query was probably a turn-off.

Whatever the reason, by October I decided to stop querying and set the book aside. I had simply spent too much time on it.

And a new idea was calling.

A moon.

A poisonous, giant moon looming in the sky. That's how Extraction began.

The idea came to me from a single line in a manuscript written by a dear friend of mine, the lovely Riley Redgate (who blogs over at In The Jungle). She mentioned a moon in the sky, and for some odd (but awesome) reason, I pictured it way bigger than it was actually supposed to be. And then wondered what the world would be like if the moon were poisonous.

In the summer of 2011, I wrote the first chapter for a book that involved this giant, poisonous moon. For a while, I set it aside, but in October, I was ready to dive in again. See, it was the week of my birthday (on October 7th). The idea had been developing in my head long enough that I knew I had something special, and I was determined to spit it out.

I set a goal for myself: I had until December 1st to write the first draft. I finished about seven days early.

People always say it's a good idea to step away from a manuscript before revising it, but I ignored them. I flew straight into revisions, found myself some beta readers, and had a query out January 9th.

Thereafter, I started getting rejections.

Oh my, I thought. The query had been polished and given the stamp of approval by many writer friends. What was going on?

I won a full request through a pitch contest online, so I had a feeling it was the query, not the premise or manuscript that was getting me rejections. I revised the query again. I tried a couple different versions. Still, nothing.

One day, I came across a query by a published author that inspired me to try something brand-new. I whipped up a new query and sent it out on February 13.

Reward: Partial Requests! Full Requests!

Sure, I was still getting rejections, but the requests were enough to get me excited. Finally, agents were reading my manuscript!

February 23, I got a call from an agent who had requested my full. No, this was not "the call." It was a wonderful agent who took the time to let me know he had started reading and stopped after a certain point. He explained why. He told me what was wrong with my novel and offered suggestions to fix it. And I am so glad he did. I owe a lot to him.

That evening, I started revisions. They took me a good month, as I rewrote half the manuscript.

I finished and started sending queries out again. On April 2, I received a request for revisions from another dear agent. These revisions took me about the same time, though they were of a different nature and, at least in my mind, not quite so major. Again, I was incredibly grateful for suggestions. It was clear to me by now that the manuscript I'd first queried was not anywhere near ready, but it was getting there.

Monday, May 1, the day before Insurgent's release, I deemed the manuscript ready to send out again. I resubmitted it to Dear Agent, and also to a number of others who had requested it right around that time.

me + Insurgent = happiness

The next Monday, I learned Dear Agent was passing. She had wonderful things to say, including interest in other manuscript ideas of mine, but her reason for passing (the current market) also made me realize something. Extraction was maybe not going to be the manuscript that would land me an agent.

But that was okay! I had another idea Dear Agent thought sounded intriguing, and I was eager to start writing it.

The next day, Tuesday, May 9, I was sitting in my acting class around 12:30pm PST when I noticed I had a new email. I opened it without really noticing who it was from.

I did a major double-take.

An agent--let's call her Agent 01--had finished Extraction, and not only had it made her cry, but she wanted to talk to me on the phone sometime in the next day or so. A phone call! dizhfghdgjdgl

Only, I'd had a phone call before. So, despite the fact that I audibly squealed, I didn't get my hopes up too much. I told myself it would be another call about revision suggestions.

The next day, I was actually driving when Agent 01 called. I pulled into the library parking lot as quickly as I could and answered before it went to voice mail.

Two minutes into the conversation, Agent 01 offered representation. And my world changed.

I texted my best friend right away. I drove home (I completely forgot to check the library for the book I had wanted) and let a couple others know. My parents came home, and I jumped up and down when I told them. I also sent out emails to the agents who were reading my manuscript or still had my query letter, letting them know I'd received an offer. About ten others were reading it, at the time. I gave them a week to get back to me.

The next day, I had an email from an agent who wanted to talk to me on the phone--only, it was going to be a call with her AND another agent from her agency. Intimidating, much?

I spoke to both of them the following morning. The first agent was the one I had queried, and she'd loved my manuscript, but she and the second agent (let's call her Agent 02) had decided the second had a better spot for me on her list. Agent 02 also loved my manuscript. Agent 02 offered representation.

I received two more offers before the week was up. Agents 03 and 04 were also enthusiastic. Every single one of them was professional and experienced, and all of them had small enough lists that I felt I'd receive the right amount of attention from each of them. Only one had revision ideas I wasn't quite sure about.

To put it lightly, it was a tough decision.

But in a way, it was also easy. The moment I began conversing with Agent 02, I was overwhelmed by her passion and drive. Not only did she adore Extraction, but she had her entire agency behind her. Her assistant had read it in a day. I had a built-in set of cheerleaders.

Even more than that, I felt like Agent 02 got my story more than the others, which was the most important thing. She compared parts of it to real-life events that I hadn't thought to compare it to before, but they fit. She had revision suggestions, but I agreed with them. And she wanted a sequel. I also wanted a sequel. ;)

From our first conversation, I felt Agent 02 really fought for the opportunity to represent me. I felt like she really wanted it. When it came time to decide, I went with her because she was the obvious choice for me.

Between the three manuscripts I've queried, I've sent out several hundred queries and received numerous rejections. I received twenty-six requests for my young adult sci-fi Extraction. Four offers. I accepted one of them.

I am delighted to have Alison Fargis of Stonesong as my agent. :)


I Have An Agent

So, some very cool things have happened in the past week and a half.



*throws confetti everywhere*

It's official now, because I've signed the contract. See:

My favorite pen in hand.

Look! The Doctors are happy, too!

I am pleased to announce that I am represented by the lovely Alison Fargis of Stonesong. The (obnoxiously long) story of how I got here will be up tomorrow!


The Origin of a Story

This past semester, I took a screenwriting class that taught me a lot about stories and what they involve--the three act structure and all that. But one of the biggest things it helped me realize was where my best ideas for stories usually come from.

Ideas come from a lot of places. Some, you get from watching people and listening to, or participating in, conversations. Some come from daydreaming or reading and asking the question, "What if?" Some fall out of the sky, out of nowhere, slamming into your head and causing a minor concussion.

Ideas can come from wandering through random locations. For example, you're on a night-time adventure with your buddies and you come upon a haunted warehouse. Creaking floors, cobwebs, eerie noises. You think to yourself, "Hey! This would be a cool place for a story!"

For me, wherever the idea originates from, when I sit down to write the story, the plot tends to spring from an image.

Here are the images that led to my three completed novels:

1. a farmhouse in the rain

The actual farmhouse, minus the rain.

This image led to an alternate history novel about a family dealing with hardships during a rainy season in the Civil War era.

2. a flaming sword

This image led to a fantasy novel about a sword forged by demons.

3. a poisonous moon

This image led to a science fiction novel about (go figure) a poisonous moon and a girl who lives on the planet it orbits.

I recently came up with another science fiction novel that stems directly from this image:

4. a wave that steals children

Wave by Jon Sullivan

So, what's the point of all this?

If you're struggling to come up with a new idea for a novel, try starting with an image. Something that makes you ooh and awe and ask "what if?" Something that you can create a story around.

Happy writing!

How do you come up with story ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Book of the Week: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Rating: 4 out of 5

The first in a trilogy by Patrick Ness, this book is one of my loves. The writing style takes some getting used to, at first, but once you get used to it, you'll love it.

The narrator, Todd Hewitt, is a boy who wants to become a man. He is the last boy in Prentisstown, a town where there are no women. A town where everyone's thoughts spew into the open air in a never-ending stream of Noise.

When Todd finds a strange spot of silence, he learns that everything he thought he knew might not be true. The town has a secret so terrible, Todd and his (adorable) dog Manchee run from it.

It's hard to escape when everyone can hear their thoughts.

Interested yet? Add it to your "to-read" list on Goodreads! Order it on Amazon or at your local bookstore!


The Writer's Voice: #5 Extraction (YA Sci-fi)

Everyone, thanks for the lovely comments! I'm no longer in the contest, so I've taken down the query and first 250 words. :)