Here’s the cover of my debut Young Adult novel due out June 2nd, 2015. Go to Bittersweet-Enchantment.com for a chance to win one of five ARC copies!

I believe the ARC contest ends Oct. 31 — so hurry! http://www.bittersweet-enchantment.com/2014/10/cover-reveal-deadly-design-by-debra.html There are already 237 entries . . . don’t get left out!

debra dockter

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Betas in Action: My Critique Session

FINALLY!!!!

I met with my beta readers, Deb and Cynthia, today to go over the revised first book of my series. And let me tell you, they were spot-on perfect.

First:  they talked about the good. My initial version of this novel was in third person, and they both loved the change to first. They loved my MC’s voice and her sarcasm, they liked being in her mind and knowing her thoughts, and they liked seeing the growth and change she undergoes. They liked some of my secondary characters a lot, especially my comic relief team. 🙂

Second:  they got down to the nitty-gritty. And what was amazing was that they both had pretty much the same things to say, and that we were able to brainstorm ways to solve the problems they saw.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Nota bene (if you don’t know Latin, that means “note this well!”):  if your betas agree on the same thing, that’s something you need to fix.

Those Blasted Secondary Characters:  One thing they both agreed on, which was something that had already been in the back of my mind, is that two of the secondary characters do not play a huge role in the story. They will play BIG roles later in the series, so I had to introduce them now. But Deb and Cynthia felt they were too peripheral, and that I had two choices. A.) Make them more important and put them in scenes where we get to know and like them better, or B.) Eliminate them. I will have to do some thinking on that, especially since I’ve never seen myself working in waste management. But. Secondary characters have to play a role:  they can’t be window dressing. So we brainstormed ways to give them solid roles in the story.

See? Betas are good! 🙂

“Oy! You’ve said this already!”:  They also picked up on some key phrases that I overuse. And if you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have that problem,” HA!!!! We all have “go-to” phrases that we revert to when we’re writing, even subconsciously. You need to train yourself to look for them. Sometimes they’re scattered throughout the manuscript, and it takes a fresh set of eyes to find them all. And sometimes, just some time away will let you see that you’ve used that same phrase four times in two pages. Ahem. Not that I did that or anything.

A Different Perspective:  Betas are also good because they have different knowledge and backgrounds than you do (or they should, if you’ve chosen properly). Deb teaches psychology, and she had some great suggestions for the massive conflict that forces my MC to break up with her boyfriend. Things I hadn’t even thought about, because I’m a historian, not a psychologist.

That inevitable “What the fruitbat?” moment:  One thing that did catch me off-guard was the sudden emphasis both Deb and Cynthia had on my MC’s family. They appear in just one tiny scene at the end, but they both felt that my MC’s entire family couldn’t hate her. (My inner writer is still saying, “Hmm. I remain unconvinced. I must think upon this.”) But Deb made a very good point:  she said, in effect, “When I read this, it made me stop reading and wonder why her entire family were jerks.” And one thing you never want to do is take your reader out of the story. Therefore, Deb’s reasoning was absolutely valid. As a beta, remember, one of your key tasks is to help the author make the story better. In the end, I think we all agreed on the fix.

I’m not saying it was always easy to hear the criticisms. There were certainly instances where I felt my inner writer rise up and say BUT I LOVE THAT AND IT’S NOT COMING OUT I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU SAY YOU MEAN, MEAN PERSON!  Wait. That was my inner drama queen, sorry. It was my inner writer that made me sit back in my chair, carefully consider everything they said, and admit that they were right. Or at least, that their opinions had validity. 🙂

And the clearest example of this was the vehemence with which Cynthia hated my ending.

I love my ending. It took days to craft into perfection. It’s bold. It’s full of intrigue and danger, and sorrow and sacrifice. According to Cynthia, it’s also full of crap.

For one very good reason, though, which she explained (and with which Deb agreed):  because there’s no real resolution to the largest problem. Yeah. I know. It hurt to even write those words. I was trying to blame the fact that Cynthia just got married on her insistence on a happy ending. But damn it, she made a good point:  we never really solve the mystery of who killed Someone Very Important, and we need at least one bloody thing resolved in this book. Not everything gets to wait until Book #381 to be explained or solved. 

So we spent quite some time going over Who Really Killed This Very Important Person, and why, and how to impart that information. As Cynthia put it, “Erin (my MC) is throwing everything away, including her academic career, to help this girl. It has to be for something.” So now my job as the writer is to incorporate those changes in a way that makes sense, is true to the story, and yet enables us to still have a bit of a mystery. Yay!

All told, this was such a great session. This wasn’t about them telling me what was wrong; this was about us working as a team to make the book better. When you, the writer, come into a critique session with an open mind and a willingness to admit your betas have a point (because if you don’t, then why did they just waste their time reading your manuscript?), magical things happen. And when your betas come to the session with both the good and the bad, and the confidence to state both equally and give their reasons for their opionions, magical things happen. Magical things = Your Book Gets Better.

I know mine will. And that’s exactly the way it should be.

It’s a Book!

Debra Dockter is finally giving us her thoughts on having that new book – that FIRST book – in her hands!

debra dockter

I remember being told that once you hold your baby in your arms, you forget about all the pain and the hours of labor it took to get to that moment. And it’s so true!

This week I got to hold my book for the first time. I opened the door to take the dog out, and there they were, the ARC copies of Deadly Design, my debut young adult novel. Like many writers, I’d fantasized about that moment, about what it would be like to hold my book in my hands. Was it everything i thought it would be? Yes, and more. Not because I’m so proud of my baby, but because I’m so humbled by the work that went into it, not just my work, but the work of all the people who made it possible.

Not to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech — those things are…

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When That Scene Just Doesn’t Work

We’ve all been there.

You’re typing away madly, barely hanging on as your characters get deeper and deeper into trouble. Or you’re lost in the rush of the words, the meter and cadence and rhythm.

And then . . . it isn’t coming so fast anymore. You’re struggling. You’re not sure why. You just feel that Something Isn’t Right With This. Nothing you can put your finger on. Just a subtle shift in the universe, is all. The dialogue feels stilted. Your characters, stifled. Your action, weird.

What do you do?

A LOT of people will give you this advice:  “Push on through! Write it anyway! If it sucks, you can revise it later! Don’t stop!”

What the fruitbat kind of crap is that???

If it’s not working, IT’S NOT WORKING. Here, let me get my soapbox back out. soapboxThere, that’s better. Now, back to what I was saying. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s a reason why it isn’t working. There’s a reason why your fingers have gone still on the keyboard and your brain — and probably your characters — are screaming at you to stop. Just stop. Everything. For five minutes.

So you stop. Phew. Isn’t that better? Now. Let’s figure out exactly What Went Wrong.

There are any number of reasons why a scene doesn’t work at a particular time. Some of the most common are:

1.) You’re taking a wrong turn or going on a bad tangent. Writers have a gut instinct about their stories and where they need to go. If you find yourself stuck, think about it for a second. Is this scene taking you down some narrow, rutted dirt road with no way out? Are you going to get stuck and have to wait for some dudes blaring “Dueling Banjos” from speakers to come bail you out? Maybe your gut is telling you that’s exactly what’s happening. Just like we need to listen to our instincts in “real life,” we need to listen to them in our writing lives, too.

2.) This scene will change your novel — and not for the better. Is it making your characters do things they shouldn’t be doing? Is it slowing down the pace? Is it going to result in a complete turnabout for your storyline, one you don’t want?

3.) It’s just boring. Or worse, it just sucks. This happened to me last week. The scene is crucial to my storyline; that wasn’t the issue. The issue was how it was written, initially. It — well, here. You can see for yourself. The first is the way it was originally written; the second is when I stopped and said, “this sucks!” and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes later, I saw Adam loitering in the shadows at the end of the porter’s lodge, inside the quad. When he saw me, he took a few steps forward, into the light, and I could see the fear leave his face for a second, see the relief that flooded through him – only to see it disappear in the next second, and the fear return. He stopped, some distance from me, and I slowed my steps, hesitant.

“Come.” He jerked his head towards the quad, and I followed him. It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried down the cobblestone walks, through a small gate, and across another quad towards the dorms. I’d never been in this part of the campus before, but Adam seemed to know exactly where he was going, his long strides eating up the walks.

“Adam,” I gasped, “what the hell’s going on?”

Yeah, I’m a coward. What I really wanted to ask was whether he knew I could see ghosts, whether she’d told him. I didn’t have to; Adam gave me a quick glance, and in his eyes I saw everything.

“She’s flipping out,” he said. “Screaming about you and how you’ve done something to her and she’s got to talk to you right now so it can be fixed.” His steps paused, and he searched my face; then he stopped completely, and grabbed my arm to stop me, too. “Erin,” he said. “What does she mean? She said – she said to tell you they’re everywhere, and she believes you. She said – she said she has to see you, right now.”

Okay. It’s not bad, exactly:  it just wasn’t going anywhere. So I immediately stopped, and rewrote it.

Twenty minutes late, I dashed through the gates and saw Adam at the other end of the walk, in the shadows. He stepped forward, and I stumbled to a halt at the look in his eyes.

“Adam,” I whispered, “what the hell’s going on?”

His face was white; his eyes looked haunted, afraid. And when he touched my arm briefly, I could feel it trembling, even through my sweater and coat.

“Wish I knew,” he said. “She . . . she called me about an hour ago. Completely off her rocker. Begged me to come over, to make them go away. And then . . .” He took a shuddering breath, and jerked his head towards the quad. “Come on. Better you see for yourself.”

It was a freezing night; my breath clouded the air around me, and I shivered in my heavy coat as we hurried across the quad and out the north gates, towards the dorms. I’d never been on this part of campus before, but Adam seemed to know where he was going, his long strides making it difficult to keep up with him. Every now and then he’d glance over his shoulder to make sure I was still there, but he didn’t slow down, and he didn’t seem to want me to get too close to him.

Something twisted up deep inside me. But I forced myself to follow him into one of the nineteenth-century dormers and up two flights of steps. The entire house felt oppressive; I felt pressure from all sides, and my senses immediately went on guard.

I had to GET ON WITH IT. So I did.

4.) Your characters are telling you to stop. This does happen. Sometimes we think we know where a story needs to go and what needs to happen, and what we really need to do is listen to our characters. It’s not your story, after all; it belongs to them. They live in that world. They have to deal with the fallout of their decisions. And if they’re just sitting there like lumps, it’s probably because you’re not listening to them. Listen to them. Then do what they tell you to do.

5.) It isn’t moving the story forward. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, that beautiful prose that springs from our pens (or keyboards) just doesn’t get the job done. I’m a firm believer that if a scene doesn’t perform at least two functions, it isn’t working hard enough. A scene can be beautifully written and still have tension, deliver information, convey character and character changes. Scenes must move the story forward. If yours doesn’t, you have two choices:  revise it, or, as Stephen King says, “murder your darlings.”

Yes, I’ve had to do that. I hate it. But it’s not gone forever! You still have it on your hard drive, and your flash drive, and in the cloud, and  in hard copy, and in a dozen other places because we never ever have just one version of our novels, right?! And who knows? Maybe it can be reworked into something different. Maybe you can pull certain quotes or sentences and use them elsewhere.

So the moral of the story is, if you’re stuck on a scene — ABANDON IT. That scene isn’t the only gig in town, I promise! And what you learn from that scene will only help make the right one even better.

Announcing . . . the cover for Deadly Design!!!

Have to share!

Today is the cover reveal for Debra Dockter’s YA thriller Deadly Design, and here it is, on the Bittersweet Enchantment blog:

http://www.bittersweet-enchantment.com/2014/10/cover-reveal-deadly-design-by-debra.html#comment-form

Plus, there are ARC giveaways! So head on over — it’s an amazing cover, and an even more amazing book (I should know; I’ve read it already!).

As always, you can follow Deb on Twitter:  @DebraDockterYA, or on her blog at debradockter.com.

Yes, once I get published, I expect the same shameless publicity from her, too. 🙂

Those Dreaded Revisions, Part 2 (My Own Process)

Last week, I promised I’d show you my dirty little secret — my own revision process. (Why — what were YOU thinking?!)

First, let me get this out of the way:  there is no magic number as to how many times you need to revise your manuscript. There just isn’t. I’ve been working on one series for six years now. It took me forever to realize that the reason it wasn’t working was because a.) It needed to be in 1st person, not 3rd, and b.) That first long, slogging book was really two books disguised as one. Know how many revisions I went through with that first book? Twenty-eight. I actually had to go back and look at my saved documents because I’ve blocked that number from my mind.

But then I figured it out late last year, spent most of the spring and early summer dividing that one book into two and rewriting the new first book to the series. Know how many drafts I went through with that one? Twenty-one.

Now you’re probably asking:  what exactly constitutes a draft, to you?

To me, a new draft occurs when I have made so many changes that it cannot no longer be considered the same version. That threshold, however, is probably different for every person. It can be changes to sentences and paragraphs. major deletions, moving scenes and/or chapters, rewriting entire chapters. If all you did was go in and change “and” to “or” once or twice, that’s probably not a new draft. If you wrote an entire scene where Joe declares his love for Becky and she slaps him, so he goes out and shoots someone, and that didn’t happen in the previous version, that’s probably a new draft.

Why do I save so many drafts? you may be asking. Why not just save over the old version a million times? Doesn’t that save space on your hard drive? Well, yes, it does. But it also means that you cannot ever access the old version again. And let’s say you had a scene that you wrote, and after a few months you realize it just doesn’t fit with this particular book, so you delete it. Then you save that draft — and what have you done? You’ve deleted that scene permanently. What happens if you want that scene later, for a different book?! It’s gone! All gone! No turkey sandwiches! No gallons of turkey soup!

So that’s why I save so many versions. In different places. My laptop. My external hard drive. My email. My flash drive.

When I’m revising, I prefer a hard copy — although I am really liking my new method of saving my latest draft as an ePub document and loading it on my Nook. The only problem with that is you have to make the notes on a notepad (or utilize the handy-dandy Notes feature, which allows you to tap a word and then make a note that you can reference later). But the hard copy is great because I can take my colored pen and my Post-It Notes and go to town.

These are pages from a draft I revised earlier this year. This is what some of my pages look like:

page 1

Here, I’ve left myself notes about plot and character development. My first note is telling myself that the dates don’t match up, and that it’s too early for my MC to make any conclusions about whether one death had anything to do with another.

The second one is a reminder that although I know where this story is heading, my MC doesn’t quite yet, and I need to make that clear to the readers! She’s still jumping to conclusions — an easy thing for me to do, when I already know how the story is going to end (by this time, I did know, but I don’t always), and my MC needs to back off a bit and we need to let things develop.

Then, in the text itself, I am forever crossing out lines and rewriting them, and leaving myself notes about “this makes no sense!” Which is something you, as a writer, also need to watch out for:  you know your story better than anyone. Make sure you don’t assume too much! Always ask yourself:  if I was reading this for the first time, or if I didn’t know my own research, would any of this make sense? That’s where your beta readers come in. You need to rely on them to tell you when they get confused and where you haven’t given enough explanation. And you need to make sure they do tell you!

You’ll also see that I write in a purple pen. I will often do dark green, or red, but purple is fast becoming my favorite. I just don’t do black. Ever. It’s too easy to miss things when you go back to do the edits. page 3

Like I said, I’m very hard on myself. I’m a perfectionist, and I don’t like to make mistakes,and if something sucks, I am not shy about letting myself know it! 🙂 For instance, this note says “all of this needs rewritten.” Then I tell myself how I think it should really go. This is just a bare-bones outline, but when I come back to do the rewrites, I’ll have it.

In fact, there are four notes to rewrite this page. And you can see from all the chicken-scratches and purple ink, I wasn’t happy with this scene as written. (I just re-read this scene, in its new version, and I’m still not entirely happy with it, to be honest.) But I never, ever tell myself just to rewrite something, without giving myself a note as to why, or what I should do. That way, I always have that blueprint for later.

With this last one, there’s no major page 2Post-It Notes, but you do see two ink colors: purple and pink. The purple is my note; the pink is a simple “OK” in a circle, to let myself know that I made that change to my satisfaction.

With this particular dialogue exchange, I have three characters “on stage” — my MC, and the two ghosts she knows at her college, Emmett and Harry. They’re . . . you know . . . teenage boys . . . and they’ve been together so long that my MC cannot tell which is which. So when I wrote this exchange where I had no tag lines and no attributions, I got lost myself! 🙂 I needed to remind myself that at this particular point, only Harry was talking; I had to get Emmett in there somehow. Once I had rewritten that, I put the “OK” there to let myself know that this had been completed.

The revision process is different for everyone. As an OCD, sticky-note obsessed, purple-pen-loving writer, this is my method. And it works for me. It might work for you, too, which is why I wanted to share it. It’s a simple process. Brutal, but simple at heart. If you are willing — to quote Stephen King — to murder your darlings, this can work for you. So to recap what I do:

1.) Colored pens and sticky notes.

2.) A hard copy of my manuscript.

3.) A quiet time and place to work. This may be difficult, particularly if you live with cats, as I do. Find a coffeehouse nearby.

4.) Depending on how focused you can be, you may need to read through your manuscript several times. What you’re looking for is:  grammar, sentence and paragraph structure, character development, odd dialogue, adverbs (get rid of them!!!), plot development, lines that can be cut, and of course, those places where Things Aren’t Quite Right. A scene may need moved. A character may act oddly. You may have referenced something that you actually haven’t talked about yet.

5.) If you’re focused and practiced, you may be able to do everything in one go-through. If you’re not, you may want to make two or three passes. Maybe that first time, you’re looking solely at grammar and sentence structure. On your second, you can look at those “not quite right” things. Maybe you’ve already marked a few.

6.) The more familiar you are with your own work, the harder it is to edit. You just don’t see the trees for the forest — or in our case, the twigs. Which is another reason why you need good beta readers.

So I hope that helped a little. Next week, I may continue with some more examples of my own editing and revision process, and share some comments that my own betas have made (we’re to meet this coming Saturday!).

Those Dreaded Revisions — You Can Do It!

Last week, I showed you how to give critiques to another person, using a real-life example.  This time, I want to share a few tips I’ve learned about editing your own manuscript.

I realize — maybe better than anyone — that this new novel you’ve just written is your baby. You’ve spent the past three months? Six? Eighteen? giving birth to it. Nurturing it. But that draft is just the beginning. No one can write a first draft and then expect that first draft to go out into the world and survive. It’s really exactly like a baby:  you don’t expect a week-old baby to be able to go get a job, do you? Then why do you think that brand-new manuscript can be published just as it is? It doesn’t matter if you’re querying agents or planning to self-publish on Kindle, you need to edit and revise, probably more than once.

There is no right or wrong way to revise. If you’re a “pantser” (meaning “write by the seat of your pants,” with no plotting ahead of time), then your revision process will probably be different from someone who spent months plotting it all out and then writing. You actually go through the same process as a plotter, only in reverse. By the time your first draft is done, you’ll see the plot holes, where you can put in more twists, where you can ramp up the tension, where you can use a character (or even cut one!) to better effect.

I’m visual, so I like to take the manuscript and Post-It Notes and “plot” that way. Each scene gets a Post-It Note, and they get stuck on my office wall. It helps me see where scenes could be moved, where I have too many that are too similar, where I need to add in something to balance out the different plot threads.

There’s also no consensus on whether you should revise on your computer or on a hard copy. I prefer hard copies, the same way I prefer real books. I like to take a pen and make notes, to cross things out and jot new ideas in their place. Others prefer to work on their laptops so they can make changes right then and there. That’s okay, but make sure you’re saving that as a new file! If you permanently delete something from The Only Copy of You Novel, and you want it later — you’re screwed, my dear. That’s another reason why I prefer hard copies. Even if I do delete something, I always have that hard copy and I can retype it.

And on that note:  MAKE BACK-UPS OF YOUR BACK-UPS. If you start a new draft, SAVE IT TO MULTIPLE PLACES. Not just your hard drive. Not just your flash drive. BOTH. A really good way to save your work is to create an email account for yourself with Yahoo or Google, and email your drafts to yourself there (though you have to keep the account active, or it will be deleted — and with it, your work). Even if your computer crashes, you have it Somewhere Else. You may think I’m paranoid, but when you lose your novel and have no hard copies and no back-ups . . . Yeah.

Here’s a neat trick I discovered this year:  save your work as an ePub file and load it on your e-reader. It makes a world of difference! (For one thing, it makes you think “Holy freaking cow, this looks like a real book!”.) Typos jump out at you. Paragraphs and sentences take on a new life; you aren’t as tempted to skip over things, because you’re seeing it in a totally new format. You’re forced to confront things that you may have just shrugged at earlier. There are several free ePub converters online; the one that I’ve found works best for me is http://www.2epub.com/ I have a Nook HD+, and this is the only converter I’ve found that properly converts my Word documents into something that works on my Nook.

And let me get this out right now:  whether you’re doing a beta read for someone else or revising your own work, read it as close to one sitting as possible. Otherwise, you run into this problem called IDon’tRemember-itis. It’s when you read the first few chapters, set it down and go live your life for a few weeks, then remember you have to get this thing read, so you come back to it, but you don’t remember the first three chapters, so you have to re-read them. Then life comes calling again, and a few weeks later, you remember the novel, and you have to go re-read the first three chapters over again, and it becomes a never-ending cycle. How can you read for plot continuity if you can’t remember what the plot even was? Or know if the MC is acting out of character if you can’t remember what she’s like? You can’t. You’re doing yourself (or the other writer) a huge disservice if you do this. Do. Not. Do. It. Also, don’t read something else while you’re editing. You’ll get confused. Or worse, you’ll get tempted and fall right back into IDon’tRemember-itis.

Next week, I’ll let you have a peek at my own revision process. Hang on. It’s full of multicolored pens, Post-It Notes, scribbles, and harshness. 🙂