Writing Tips

My Writing Life During Maternity Leave

I’m heading back to work this week. Between that and starting 2023, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how the last twelve weeks went since my daughter was born. 

It was tough.

That’s the easiest way to summarize all my emotions. Of course I knew going in that newborns require a lot of energy and attention from sleep-deprived parents, but I also heard a lot of good things about maternity leave. One coworker told me about all the television they caught up on during middle of the night feeds. I read another article where a mom talked about how the first baby is so easy and her husband and her just drank wine and passed the baby back and forth. Surely, I thought, I’d find a little time to write if others had been able to watch TV and drink wine. And I did. Kind of. A teensy bit. But again, it was HARD. 

I mostly wrote during middle of the night feeds, propping her up with one hand and using my other to type on my phone. That and a few naptimes. But mostly, even when I found the time, I was too tired to manage something worth keeping. After a few times writing gibberish, I decided to wave my white flag and only write when I was well-rested AND she was napping. In twelve weeks, that happened three times. The other time I was able to write was when my husband would take her to give me space. Even then, though, I really needed time to recover from my C-section and how draining breastfeeding can be.

All in all, I only wrote 8,000 words these past twelve weeks. From someone who usually writes that in two weeks or so, it’s really hard not to be disappointed in myself. I am doing my best to recognize that I’m going through a major life change and I need to be kinder to myself. But still. 

I fear not being able to finish my WIP in a timely manner. I fear that even if I do, it will be nonsensical due to exhaustion. But I know working writing moms who have done it before me, and I’m holding onto that energy as I surge forward with determination and perseverance. 

I will find a way, because I want to. I need to. 

Maybe it’ll happen even faster than I’m hoping. Maybe we’ll find more of a routine with me back at work and her going to daycare. Then again, maybe I should lower my expectations and just be.

All I can do is do the best I can. And as long as I do that, I’m sure I’ll look back on this time and be pretty proud of what I was able to accomplish… even if it’s just a few thousand words.

Every word leads to another scene. Every scene leads to a new chapter. Every chapter leads to a completed novel and, eventually, THE END. 

~SAT

Author Announcements

I’m Now Represented By…

ICYMI!

I am so excited to announce that I am now represented by Marietta Zacker at Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency!

From the beginning, Marietta understood the importance of my middle grade novel-in-verse about losing my mom to the opioid crisis when I was 11, and I cannot wait for us to share it with the world.

This is the most personal story I could’ve written. It’s also one I promised myself I would write when I was 11 and couldn’t find a children’s book about the unique grief that follows the loss of a loved one (especially a parent) from drug abuse.

Unfortunately, since my mom’s death, the opioid crisis has only grown. (In fact, deaths have more than quadrupled.) And it’s expected to continue to rise. Now, maybe one day soon, kids like me will have that book that shows they’re not alone. My story has a champion.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, you can reach out to SAMHSA: it’s a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service.

Also, I wanted to give a shoutout to my friends who helped me with this novel: Sandra Proudman, Angela Cervantes, Natasha Hanova, Vicki Dixon, and Lisa! Also, my Sanity group for keeping me sane: Tiffany White, Elizabeth Bane, Sarah Kaminski, and Jessica Conoley! And of course, thank yous go out to everyone on this website as well! Y’all have cheered me on since the beginning.

If you’re interested in a How I Got My Agent post, I will most likely be sharing one in the future! But I am expecting to give birth to a baby later this week, so I am still on maternity leave and will likely be on it for a while.

That said, I recently wrote some blog posts about querying you can check out in the meantime:

I hope you enjoy the reads,

~SAT

P.S. I’m hoping to be back from maternity leave in mid-December. In the meantime, definitely connect with me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I tend to pop up there sooner. Though, I’ll probably pop back here to share a baby picture or two in the near future!

Publishing Advice

Pay-To-Play in Traditional Publishing, and Why We Need to Talk About It

A few weeks ago, I was querying when I kept coming across agent after agent who was closed to submissions except from those who they’ve met at conferences. Below that, a list of conferences was provided, where a writer could go and purchase a ticket (often in the hundreds), and then an additional ticket to pitch them (somewhere between $50 and $200 extra). 

I almost went on a Twitter rant about accessibility and paywalls, but decided against it. 

Then I saw this:

Of course discourse followed, many of whom were against the offering. But honestly? It feels a little hypocritical to me. Or, rather, willfully ignoring the overall bigger issue here. 

There are lots of ways to pay-to-play in traditional publishing, and it was only a matter of time before it got egregious.

The traditional publishing landscape has always had issues–nepotism, lack of accessibility, etc.–but what I find the most frustrating is how contradicting the landscape can seem to a new writer. 

One of the first pieces of advice writers will hear is that money should always be flowing to the author. Agents shouldn’t be charging reading fees, editors shouldn’t be charging packaging fees, etc. However, we have created an environment where there’s exclusive conference pitching, MSWL’s e-consultations, and the freelance hiring of editorial staff and agents for query/manuscript critiques. 

As someone who works in library programming where our speakers are often literary agents, editors, and authors, I understand that we all need to make money here, but we’ve largely ignored how this environment has confused up-and-coming writers–many of whom fall prey to scams because of it. A more common issue I’m seeing, though, isn’t necessarily writers falling for scams, but rather writers feeling obligated to pay-to-play. In fact, I have been one of those writers before. I think most writers have at some point. How could you not, when you keep hearing success stories from those who could afford that one conference, service, or MFA program? The odds feel stacked against you. And the truth is, they are.

Networking is an essential role in any business, and networking—more often than not—costs money and time.   

This reality is why so many turn to buying opportunities. In fact, I’ve blogged about one conference I personally attended when I was not in the financial place to do so (but why I didn’t regret it). You can read that piece here: How Writing Conferences Can Surprise You 

I was so desperate to move up in my writing career that I sacrificed my health, wealth, and other well-being for a measly chance at talking to somebody–anyone, really. I didn’t end up with an agent, but I did find some of my best writer friends that I still have to this day. I don’t regret it for that reason. But I haven’t paid that much to attend a conference since. I just can’t justify it. Not when querying is free. In fact, I got my first agent through the slush pile. Not at a fancy conference. Not through a consultation. A free, one-page query I workshopped with fellow writers I found online. (Again, for free.) 

This is why I tell newer writers that conferences/meetings are great, but not to spend money if you are struggling. Querying is FREE. There are lots of free resources and opportunities, including scholarships. 

Here’s a quick list:

  • QueryShark
  • QueryTracker (there is a premium version, but you do not have to use it)
  • MSWL (search the database for free; some classes are also free; other classes and consultations are not.) 
  • Free newsletters and articles through Writer’s Digest, Publishers Weekly, etc. 
  • Google around for writing blogs! Especially from writers you read. 
  • Jami Gold
  • IWSG (Insecure Writers Support Group) 

We also have free writing and publishing classes at The Story Center, open to anyone in the world. You do not have to have a Mid-Continent Public Library card to use our services or attend our programs.

Speaking of libraries, if you have access to a library near you, you may have free craft books and publishing resources that you can check out. 

These resources are great to help any writer begin their publishing journey. 

You can also apply for scholarships funding memberships and conferences. Many don’t know that you can also volunteer your way into a space. It never hurts to message the conference manager and ask what your options are.   

That said, I’m not asking agents/writers/editors to not charge money for critiques or pitch opportunities. What I am asking for is a greater focus on accessibility and affordability. 

If you’re only going to be open to those who can attend conferences, make sure you’re contributing to conference scholarships. If you’re often sharing your services, make sure you’re sharing free writing blogs/tips you see that you think your followers will find helpful. You may consider doing a giveaway every once in a while. 

On a larger scale, we need to be advocating for publishers to pay their editors a living wage. We need agents/writers to make a living wage, too. That way, we’re not all side hustling ourselves into a pay-to-play model only few can benefit from. 

Most importantly, we need to be championing free resources more often. 

We need to make sure everyone feels welcome in the traditional publishing landscape, not just those who can pay. 

~SAT

Writing Tips

Writing (And Working) While Pregnant: First Trimester 

You may or may not have seen my social media recently, but for those of you who didn’t, well, I have some news to share. 

I’m pregnant!

I’m currently 24 weeks, but I wrote most of this blog post during the first trimester when I wasn’t yet comfortable sharing my status. (I still wanted to blog about it, though!) I figure I can do a three-part series, one post for every trimester, and will inevitably post about being a working-writing mom in the future, too. 

Oh, cue the baby anxiety (and excitement). 

This is my first pregnancy, so everything is very new to me. The first side effect that affected my writing was the brain fog. I had absolutely no clue that it starts so early. I had brain fog before I even knew I was pregnant. (I suppose I should’ve side-eyed that lazy Saturday more suspiciously.) Strangely, though, it came with some perks. 

First trimester pregnancy brain fog brought me a lot of peace. My usually high-strung, ever-plotting/dreaming brain became a rolling tide of sleep, lazy days on the couch, and playing with my cats. Where I’d usually feel bad for laying around all Saturday afternoon, I quite enjoyed it. I slept better than ever before, too, which was weird. And holy dreams. So many vivid dreams. I’ve always used my dreams as inspiration for my books, but that’s because my dreams are typically mind-blowing adventures. Pregnancy dreams? Not so much. They happen in abundance and are completely nonsensical. So, I guess it’s a no on inspiration. 

No writing or inspiration? Surely I can use that energy for something else. 

Oh, wait. The fatigue. 

I was lucky enough to avoid morning sickness until week 9, which was nice. But I still didn’t have much energy for anything other than work and taking care of my cats. 

I have literally never had an issue creating like I did in my first trimester. The brain fog was unreal. No matter how often I sat at my desk or how long I stared at my computer, I just sort of zoned out. I tried everything: creating something new, working on an old favorite, revising one of my novels that’s 90% the way there. But I just couldn’t.

Getting through work was enough of an accomplishment to be honest. 

All that being said, I work full time. Working full time while pregnant is a lot, let alone using up any additional time to create. I’m not pushing myself super hard.

I also heard that a lot of the energy comes back in the second trimester, so we’ll see how that goes in that blog post. 😉 

I’m definitely having some anxiety about how writing will fit into my working-mom life, but hey, many people have done it before, and I have no doubt I’ll keep pursuing the dream as much as I can. 

I won’t lie, though. I’m already looking at my WIPs differently. Which ones can I finish before the baby is due? Which ones will require less energy/research/strain?

I decided to stick with my haunted YA instead of my adult fantasy or historical fantasy. 

I started my writing career by writing paranormal romance. It’s always been my happy place. Why not stay there for the time being? 

My kid is due in late Sept-early October, so it’ll be spooky season all around. 

~SAT

P.S. I have two upcoming events!

On Thursday, June 9, I’ll be teaching How to Write a Series at the Midwest Romance Writers meetup in Lenexa, Kansas. If you’re interested in attending, contact them here.

On Monday, June 13, I am teaching Starting a Writing Project via ZOOM for The Story Center at Mid-Continent Public Library. This program is free, virtual, and open to anyone in the world. Dive deep into creative inspiration, and learn tricks to prevent writer’s block. Then discover tools to help you set realistic goals and stay on track. Come prepared to put pen to paper. More information and registration here.

Publishing Advice

Writing a Great One-Line Pitch for Your 2022 Query Letter

Last month, my post—The Difference Between Querying in 2019 and 2022, and Why Your Well-Intentioned Advice May Be Doing More Harm Than Good.—got some attention on writing/publishing Twitter, and I received a lot of great questions. The top two that stood out?

  1. How do you write a fantastic one-line pitch? 
  2. Where do you recommend I research agents right now?

I wanted to tackle writing a one-line pitch first, and then talk about research strategies during my next post on May 23. (For those of you who are new here, I post writing/publishing tips every first and third Monday of the month.) 

So let’s talk about the one-line pitch! 

In my opinion, a great one-line pitch covers your whole book. It’ll highlight character, the stakes, the world, everything–all in one sentence. The shorter, the better. Below I’ve included a logline template that has helped me in the past. 

I encourage you to try this exercise out right now. Take each color/subject, make a list, and shift the order around until you get three pitches you love. Once you have that, send them to beta readers and get their opinions on it. (Don’t tell them which one you love the most. Simply ask them which one caught their eye and why.) Use that information to either revise or choose. 

Another way to write pitches is by looking at pitches. Search through Netflix and see how they summarize each show in one sentence to really grab the viewers’ attention. Even better if you can find some shows that are similar to your book. (Don’t forget, folks, you can always use movies/TV shows as comparison titles, too–though I recommend having at least one recently released book comp.) That said, I like to look at deal announcements. Those often summarize the book in one hooky sentence that is designed to entice readers. (In fact, I based my most recent pitch off of similar deal announcements in the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf newsletter.)

Honestly, there are pitches all over the internet. From Query Shark to participating in pitch parties on Twitter, you’re going to see hundreds and hundreds of pitches. So how can you make sure your pitch is standing out? First and foremost, you should be studying others’ pitches as much as you can. You should also practice writing them. (Sometimes it’s easier to write a pitch for something you didn’t create, like a favorite show you’re currently watching. That way, the pressure is off your shoulders, and you can focus on the how is this working, not the how is this going to do on sub.) While you’re studying pitches, ask yourself why a certain pitch worked. What caught your eye? What made you sit up in your seat? One of the best posts I’ve seen on writing pitches was by literary agent Ali Herring: The Art of the Quick Pitch. Why do I love this post? Because she shares her clients’ pitches. It’s such a rare gem for agents to share such information, and it’s worth taking a couple minutes to look through. 

Once you have a one-line pitch, take a look at your query. 

Pitches should go at the top. This is for easy access. Agents are slammed right now. I doubt they have time to read every sentence of every query letter they get. Though I’m sure there are agents who do, I like to err on the side of caution and make sure they are getting the best information upfront. I personally like to include my metadata as well. This means I’m defining my age category, genre, word count, and (possibly) my comps. (More likely my comps will come right after the pitch. 

For example:

Dear (Agent):

[Insert personalization of why I believe they are a good fit], [insert pitch and metadata]. This book will appeal to fans of (comps) or This book has the atmosphere of (comp) with the snarky friendships of (comp). 

[insert two paragraphs about book]

[insert small bio] 

Sincerely, 

Me

[insert contact information]

This is the formula that has worked for me. That said, there’s lots of formulas out there that have worked for others, so don’t feel beholden to my method. Try a few different types out and, again, seek out betas who can give you an unbiased opinion about which ones read the smoothest (and, even better, were the most enticing). 

Now get to pitching! 

~SAT
P.S. My quarterly newsletter is going out soon! It includes exclusive writing tips, a giveaway, what I’m currently reading, and so much more. This time, I’ll be giving away a $10 gift card to any local bookstore. Subscribe here.

Publishing Advice

The Difference Between Querying in 2019 and 2022, and Why Your Well-Intentioned Advice May Be Doing More Harm Than Good.

When I signed with my first agent, it was 2019. I’d queried two manuscripts by then between 2017-2019. In 2021, my agent left the industry. I took some time off, then wrote the book of my heart, and now I’m back in the query trenches for the first time in three years. As an author with books under my belt and previous querying experiences, I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning authors posting querying tips for those currently looking for representation. But you know the saying. 

The path to hell is paved with good intentions. 

Okay, so that may be a little harsh, but I mean it when I say that times have changed. Advice that previously used to be sound is no longer relevant or an accurate depiction of what’s going on in the trenches and publishing industry in general. 

For one, in 2019 turnaround times were typically 2-3 weeks, and I’d often hear back way before that. In 2022? Turnaround times are staggeringly different. Yes, there are some that still get back within the 2-3 week timeframe, but for the most part, I am seeing 6-10 weeks as the norm. In addition, there are a lot more agents saying “no response means no,” so getting closure isn’t even a guarantee. (Did I mention that so many more agencies have adapted a “no” from one is a “no from all” policy?) No shade here, of course. I understand how busy everyone is. But this certainly makes querying via rounds a lot more time-consuming for writers. You used to be able to send out queries knowing that you’d get an answer within a month or so, and then you could readjust for a second round. Not so much in 2022. Not only are response times longer than ever before, but feedback (even on full manuscript requests) is rarer, too. That makes the “query in rounds” advice a little moot. I still recommend it, of course! Just not for the same reasons as I have in the past. This time around, I’d recommend it for sanity reasons. Too much at once can be overwhelming for anyone. I also stand by the fact that you should be getting some requests on your query. Just not as many as before. 

In the past, for instance, some folks would say you should have a 75% – if not higher – request rate. That sort of statistic is just unheard of right now. Granted, it’s hard to discern the actual stats from anecdotes I’ve read online and heard from friends, but the trends I’m seeing are a lot less than 75%. Lots of folks on Twitter today have been sharing that a 10% request rate is good right now. (You can also see trends on Premium Query Tracker.) 

Full disclosure: At the time of writing this, I’ve sent out 10 queries. I’ve been lucky enough to get 4 full requests right out of the gate. 3 of my other queries got denied, but 2 of those were personalized and encouraging (a wrong-fit scenario). The other 3 are still pending and won’t get a response for another 3 weeks. I definitely know I’m the exception. 

So what is my advice for querying right now?

It’s more important than ever to have a great query letter. More so, a fantastic one-line pitch. Even if you feel like you are a seasoned writer with seasoned beta readers, I encourage you to branch out and try to get feedback from a new source. Even better if it’s someone who has secured rep recently. Other than that, I recommend keeping your query as short as possible. (Everyone’s swamped, right?) I, personally, put my pitch and all my meta data at the top (comps, word count, genre, age category). I also add in personalization if applicable. (We met at a conference, you told me to send you more of my work in the past, MSWL fits, etc.) That way, an agent can see right away if they’re interested before diving into the long part of the query. My bio is at the bottom. Once I start querying, I keep track of when I’m supposed to hear back, and if the agent isn’t a “no response means no” agent, then I send a polite one-sentence nudge. Don’t be afraid to nudge! One of my full requests happened because of a nudge. If you can get referrals, great! If you can attend conferences to meet agents, wonderful! But don’t feel like you must spend money to up your odds. If you query in rounds, check out the agents’ response times via Query Tracker, and try to pick a few that have faster turnaround times. That way, you can more easily discern when you want to do a second round. (Remember: Publishing is not a race. It’s better to query well than fast.) Prior to querying, I’ve also asked myself these tough publishing questions to make sure my book has a place in a competitive market. This has worked for me. 

Does that mean I’ll secure rep? Nope, not necessarily. 

Of course I hope that I will. I have 150% confidence in my book, writing, and platform, and my MG novel-in-verse about the opioid crisis is an important story that needs to get into the hands of kids like me, who lost a parent in such an awful way. But I also recognize that the industry is in a tough place. Agents and editors and writers are swamped. We’re all just trying to do our best out here. Which is also why I think out-of-date tips can be harmful.

Try not to give out old-school querying advice without understanding the current landscape. Take a minute to look around at the agencies and agents, both new and established. Talk to those who’ve secured rep recently. Listen to those who are currently in the trenches. Without doing so, traditional advice could ultimately be more discouraging or even point the writer in the wrong direction. For example, if you tell someone that they should revise their book or opening pages because they don’t have a 75% request rate, you could be causing the writer to make unnecessary revisions.

For my fellow querying writers, if you’ve been thinking about taking a break, do so, especially if it’s for your mental health or general well-being. It never hurts to take a pause, consider your options, refresh the creative well, or just step away for a while. In fact, it might be just what you need. Either way, I recommend taking old-school querying advice with a grain of salt. The basics still stand, absolutely. But don’t get discouraged if you aren’t getting a 75% request rate. Try not to let the old way of doing things get you down. Concentrate on the now instead. Find writer friends that are in the trenches with you, join a querying group, and help each other through the process. Friendship truly can go a long way. So can keeping track of all the encouraging notes you receive. Do yourself a favor, and open a Word doc right now. Title it “Book love for (title)” and start saving every compliment, including the encouragement you may receive in a rejection. An example I received? 

“I do hope you find the right agent as you’re pitching around! Stories like these are so wildly important and needed.” 

It was a rejection from an agent who just wasn’t the right fit. But it means a lot to me to have their support! 

No matter what happens, I know I’m going to keep trying. I’ve already started revising my historical fantasy with the hopes of querying that by the fall, should my novel-in-verse not pan out. I also have two other completed manuscripts and two new ones I’ve started drafting (and so many more I’m dreaming about). It’s always good to be looking ahead (and you’re a lot less likely to be disappointed if you have something new and shiny to focus on). 

I wish all of you the best of luck!  

~SAT

Miscellaneous

Publishing Questions I Ask Myself Before I Start Writing a Book

Publishing is hard. We all know that. What makes it harder is bad timing and unclear focus. It’s easy to get lost in the art of writing long before you consider the business of writing, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business. You should have your business plan in mind before you set off on your writing journey. By doing so, you’ll be a lot more prepared for pitching and revisions.

That said, I want to add a caveat before I start sharing the publishing questions I ask myself before I start writing a novel. I’m pursuing traditional publication. That requires different techniques than self-publishing. Putting the publishing method aside, though, if you want to write a book that brings you joy and that’s it, then go for it! I am not here to stop you. It’s important to write and be happy. I have learned that lesson the hard way before. However, I am here to discuss how to hone your skills and focus that joy into a project that stands a higher chance at success. 

By being purposeful in our writing decisions, I believe we increase our chances of success. That doesn’t mean it will absolutely work. But there is something to be said about timing (and a little bit of luck). If you can put the odds in your favor, why wouldn’t you? To do that, I’ve learned to ask myself some pretty hard questions before I start writing. 

Here’s that list:

What does this novel add to the market? 

Maybe it goes without saying, but I think this is probably the most important question you must ask yourself. How does your book stand out from what’s currently out there? How is it relevant but also fresh? Do you have a twist on an old trope that hasn’t been done before? Are you writing it from a perspective not often seen? My advice is always to lean into your most unique aspects as hard as you can without breaking the story. This will help it stand out. 

Are there unique elements that need to be pushed or scaled back?

Once I have a list of my unique elements, I have to take a hard look at the plot/characters. I don’t want to push my unique elements too hard. By doing so, you can break a story. It’s important to understand your limitations as a writer. If you are trying to push yourself to try something way outside your norm, make sure you’re enlisting help from experienced writers or beta readers who avidly read your genre. (You should also be reading avidly within the genre/age category that you’re writing.) Remember: unique is great, but readers also love an old trusted trope. Having some familiar expectations can be a fantastic selling point, too. 

Is the pitch succinct and commercial? 

You certainly have time to figure out your pitching materials, but personally, I start working on a pitch and query letter before I start writing the actual book. Why? Because it quickly shows me if I truly understand the novel I am about to write. Who wants to get 80k into a piece only to realize they aren’t positive about the main themes or twists? Have you attempted to write a query letter to get a better idea of the main theme/plot/character? I stand by attempting your query letter (and maybe even your synopsis) before you start writing. It will reveal the glaring flaws you already have, before going in and finding out the hard way. I will also add that it’s important to recognize that this query isn’t truly your query. I’ve literally never used my starter query as a draft query for when I start to query agents. It’s more like a tool to get me started on the best writing path possible. I often still discover many new (and fun) elements in my work once the writing begins, but having the bare bones of a strong plot keeps me on track and confident that the work won’t fizzle out due to confusion or roadblocks. 

Why would someone pick up this book compared to a comparative title? 

Pretend you’re at a bookstore and your novel is nestled between its comparative titles. Cover aside, why do you want to pick up this book the most? This might go back to the earlier question about what makes your book stand out, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to try out from a reader’s fresh perspective instead of a writer’s. 

Why would you choose to work on this book compared to your other WIPs?

If you’re anything like most of the writers I know, then you probably have a dozen or so ideas bouncing around your noggin that you are dying to write. So why this one? What makes this WIP better than the other ones you are currently playing around with? Not just better to you, but also better to the market? I will caution you not to pick out the idea you have the most fleshed out. Just because you’ve spent more time with it, does not mean it is the best one to pursue right now (or ever). I, myself, recently put my historical fantasy aside to pursue my middle grade novel-in-verse. Why? I’d already written three drafts of my historical fantasy. I had a great revision plan and betas lined up ready to read again. I even had an agent who already requested the full from a writing contest I won before I decided to revise. (They said they were happy to wait until I was done.) By all means, I should’ve concentrated on the historical, right? Wrong. The more I looked at where I stood with that project, the more I realized now was not the right time to pursue it. While I wasn’t confident I could revise the historical and secure representation with it (mostly due to where the market is at with this particular kind of story), I was ready for my middle grade book. Plus, novels-in-verse are finally picking up steam. I wanted to ride that wave before it became a hurricane and mine got lost in the flood. So, I took that leap of faith. I put everything aside to start a brand-new project that I was truly passionate about. I’m now querying and have more fulls than I did with my historical. Sometimes, it’s about reading the water and following your gut when you decide which river to take. (Okay, I’ll stop with the bad water metaphors.) 

Can you spend 3-5 years on this project and be happy? This includes revisions, rejections, more revisions, etc. 

Maybe you thought I was a kill-joy, but I promise, I’m not. I know how important your mental health is when pursuing publication. Writing can be a long, lonely adventure, and those feelings can only get worse if your current WIP is dragging you down. When folks tell me they’re writing a novel (and planning to pursue traditional publication), one of the first chats I have with them is how long it can take. Writing the first draft is typically the fastest part. Beyond that is beta readers, revisions, querying, rejections, more revisions, signing with an agent, going on sub, more rejections, hopefully a book deal! Yay! But 3-5 years between writing your first draft and the actual book release date is pretty common if not expected. Granted, that doesn’t mean you have to be happy every single day for 5 years. That’s unrealistic. But, realistically, will you enjoy working on this book for a long time? The reasons for saying yes, or no, will vary from writer to writer. Some writers can write purely from a business angle, no problem, but others require a little bit more excitement in order to pursue an idea for a long time. 

All of the answers to these questions will be unique to you. They may not even be the best questions to ask yourself. These are just the ones I ask myself before I start writing, and they help me make decisions every time. Maybe they’ll help you, too. 

If you have additional questions, I’d love to read about them in the comments below! 

~SAT

Publishing Advice

I Almost Self-Rejected Myself Out of a Publishing Opportunity

Last month, you may have noticed my blog post – Yes, Writers Need to Hear the Hard Truths. But Warnings Can Go Too Far. – go up on Jane Friedman’s website. I was absolutely thrilled by this. I’m a long-time fan of Jane’s blog and book, The Business of Being a Writer. I also regularly attend her courses at The Business Clinic. But I never in a million years thought my blog posts were good enough to be featured on her website. So much so that I never considered submitting. I didn’t even know it was a possibility. Then, my good friend Jessica Conoley was featured, and I was amazed by her. 

What an accomplishment! What a dream!

She continued to have her blog posts featured on Jane Friedman’s website over a course of weeks. Each one was thoughtful and interesting and so damn inspiring. I realized then that Jessica had inspired me. (And you can read a list of her amazing blogs posts on Jane Friedman’s website by clicking here.) 

After Jessica’s posts went live, I continued writing blog posts for my own website, but I kept thinking about Jane Friedman’s blog. What sort of posts do I have that would be beneficial there? Could I write one? Could I try?

I told myself that when I came up with a worthy idea, I’d put myself out there and submit. Then, BAM. An idea came. 

I wrote it, but I still wasn’t sure. How could I be? I’d never written a blog post to be submitted elsewhere before. Once I decided I wanted to try that, I reached out to Jessica for tips. 

By the time Jessica got back to me (less than a day later), I was already doubting myself. I told her as much, and she pushed me to send it. I clicked SEND a few minutes later. Soon after, I heard back. Jane was interested in featuring my blog post on her website. 

I was amazed. 

If it wasn’t for my friend’s success, encouragement, and tips, I would’ve simply decided I wasn’t worthy of trying. 

It’s scary to put yourself out there, especially when it’s something new, but do it! 

You never know what will happen. 

Who knows? The next time you click SEND, an acceptance letter could be on the way. 

In fact, right after I was accepted to Jane Friedman’s website, I gained the courage to submit my first short story somewhere pretty special. We’ll see how it turns out! Either way, I’m pretty proud that I already clicked SEND again.

~SAT

Miscellaneous

Behind the Scenes of Pitch Wars with Team Snickersnee

Behind the Scenes at Pitch Wars with Team Snickersnee

In case you missed it, Team Snickersnee announced our 2020 mentee for Pitch Wars! (But more on that below.) Since announcement day has come and gone, I thought it would be fun to give everyone a behind-the-scenes peek at what went down with Team Snickersnee. 

We asked for anything under the science fiction or fantasy sun, including young adult and new adult (if willing to age down to young adult). You can reference our original wishlist by clicking here.  

Here are our stats: 133 submissions 

Sci-Fi: 

  • Space Opera: 4
  • Near Future: 2
  • Dystopian/Post Apocalyptic: 11
  • Cyberpunk: 2
  • Steampunk: 1
  • Soft: 15
  • Military: 1
  • Science-Fantasy: 2
  • Time-Travel: 2
  • Other: 3

Fantasy: 

  • High/Epic: 21
  • Urban/Contemporary: 19
  • Magical Realism/Fabulism: 5
  • Historical: 2
  • Portal: 11
  • Paranormal: 1
  • Other: 22

Horror: 4

Thriller/Suspense: 2

Contemporary: 2

Adventure: 1

Top three trends we saw: 

  1. Elemental powers
  2. Zodiac 
  3. Witches 

We definitely had a blast reading everyone’s words! In fact, we put more than half of our submissions in the “maybe” pile. It was really hard to dwindle down to just one person. 

So how did we break it down? 

As a team, Sandra and I split the submissions in half. She read the first half, and I read the second half. We took notes on the ones we loved, and then we sent each other the list so that the other person could take a look at the submissions, too. We made it a goal to choose 5 manuscripts to request. We then read the first 50 pages of each and discussed again. (We even requested two more fulls!) We messaged each other a lot, discussing various aspects of the manuscripts, possible edit letters, etc.—until we felt that we had found the manuscript. Our final decision happened over an hour-long ZOOM call. Ultimately, while we loved so many manuscripts, we had to factor in how much work the manuscript needed in the time allotted, if our vision aligned with the author’s, and if we were the right mentors for this particular mentee.   

It was a hard choice!

There was so much incredible talent, and we definitely would’ve taken on more mentees if we could have. If you submitted to us, thank you for trusting us with your words! We truly enjoyed reading our submissions. 

Now for a fun Q&A: 

What was your biggest surprise reading through submissions this year?

Shannon: This was my first time being a Pitch Wars mentor. Going in, I thought the writing itself would be the ultimate factor in choosing which manuscripts to read more of, but honestly, all the writing was so good! I relied on the synopsis a lot more than I thought I would. It showed me how the story unfolded and if I felt like there were structural issues we could help with or not. I was definitely looking for someone we could mentor. If someone’s package was 120% perfect, I moved on. Some writers are definitely ready to query without a mentorship!

Sandra: This was my second year mentoring, and what was surprising was how different the submissions were this year from last year! I loved getting to read a whole new batch of stories from writers who might not have subbed to me last year. I was also just in awe of the quality of work submitted; there is so much talent in the world right now. There’s not one entry that I read that I didn’t think the writer would find representation, whether with the manuscript submitted or with another.

Any writing tips for those who submitted?

Shannon: Use beat sheets (like this one on Jami Gold’s website) and swap with critique partners. Most importantly, make sure each scene is driving your story forward, and that your protagonist has agency. (They should be happening to the story, not the other way around.) A common mistake I saw is a scene where we meet the protagonist’s best friend or family, and that’s it. See if you can combine your meeting scene with an actionable scene. (Ex. Could the best friend be introduced while the protagonist is dealing with an unexpected issue?) If you have any scenes that feel like your protagonist’s “regular” day, it should probably be changed or cut.

Sandra: To Shannon’s point, knowing your character’s arc is in my opinion the most important part of any story. Who is your character at the beginning and who do you want them to be by the end of the manuscript? And what turning points will help you get them there. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, or somewhere in between, knowing the turning points you want to hit is so important to keeping the pacing and character arc’s moving forward. And hitting them at the right places. One of the things I love doing with my work is deciding the word count I want to hit before I start to write. So if I want to write an 80K manuscript, I know I need to hit that first turning point at 25% of the book, so at 20K, and my midpoint at 40K. Aside from that, to just keep writing and reading! I didn’t land my agent till my third queried manuscript, so perseverance is key and learning what you can from other writers and published works.

Publishing tips?

Shannon: Watch your word counts. There was a surprising amount of manuscripts that were 100k and higher, which is a really hard sell to an agent or editor for a debut. Make sure that your manuscript is in line with the expectations of your age category and genre. If you’re struggling to cut, ask a beta reader to help. Consider combining characters or scenes. Don’t be afraid to take a break from your story and come back at a later date to analyze what is truly, absolutely 100% necessary. In regards to querying, I highly recommend Query Shark and Query Tracker

Sandra: Totally agree with Shannon on word counts! I’ve seen some agents and editors talk about this on Twitter lately as well!

It’s also interesting seeing trends as well and what ideas seem to spread like wildfire and become popular. This is also really hard to see because it means the market is saturated in these stories, and you’re likely competing for an agent’s attention who has already received several stories with the same general idea. One of my biggest publishing tips and something I’m working hard to do myself, is how to take a common idea and have a twist to it. So if your book is about vampires, how can you freshen up a trope that an agent has seen often? Same if your story has elemental magic. Can you do something in your manuscript that sets the story apart so there’s a good spin in the query you’re sending out? Just making sure that your story is as unique as you can make it, and that you’re showing off what makes it unique to the fullest! Genre-bending is also very popular and a great way to freshen up tropes!

What are we most excited about?

Working with our mentee, Miranda Sun! She wrote an amazing heartfelt #ownvoices YA contemporary fantasy filled with magic forests, generational secrets, and humor! Did we mention the slow-burn hate-to-love romance with a ghost? Give her a follow on Twitter and stay tuned! (Fun fact: Miranda’s submission was #31!) 

~SAT

Miscellaneous

Tracking Character Motivations with a Free Spreadsheet

It’s no secret that I’m currently revising a manuscript. I’ve been talking about revising a lot lately and giving glimpses into what my revision process looks like. I’m currently on my third draft of a multi-POV sci-fi novel, and I am still smoothing out my character motivations. (What can I say? It can be tricky! Especially when you change something in chapter 3 and it causes a domino effect for the next thirty chapters.) In fact, character motivations can get trickier the more you revise. Why? Because you have to remember the exact decision each character made and why in this particular version. Obviously, you might see where lines start to blur. No one expects you to remember every little detail of every manuscript you’ve ever written, but readers do expect consistent, believable characters. And it’s your job as the writer to deliver.

One way I track the motivations of my characters is an Excel spreadsheet. 

If you follow me elsewhere, you might have seen me upload the photo of my Excel spreadsheet, which actually led me to today’s topic. I received a lot of messages asking for more information and tips on motivations, so I thought I would dive deep into this topic today. 

Motivations are important. So. Incredibly. Important. Without motivation, characters will come across as bland and unbelievable, which, quite frankly, makes them hard to follow or care about. There’s a lot to consider when choosing any particular character’s motivation. (Did I mention that ALL of your characters need a driving force? It isn’t just your protagonist, though your protagonist’s will probably matter the most since they are, well, you know, the protagonist.) Mostly, I find there’s a misconception that the bigger the motivation, the more important the story will feel to the reader. But it’s really the opposite. The more personal the motivation, the better. Why? Because the reader is more likely to empathize with personal stakes rather than worldly stakes. Which one do you care about more: A main character who must save the world or a main character who must save their little sister while the world is ending?

Typically, readers are drawn to characters who have personal stakes driving their motivation, even if the overall arc is huge (like saving the world). A great example is Katniss Everdeen. While she is the heroine at the center of a dystopian novel – and saving her country could’ve been the driving force – her true motivation was keeping her little sister safe. Without having a sister to save, Katniss wouldn’t have volunteered. (We know this as fact, because she had been in many lotteries before, and hadn’t volunteered before her sister was chosen.) Without a sister, Katniss wouldn’t be Katniss. Which is why what happens to her sister is so devastating. This sister-led motivation also creates a solid foundation for the reader to see why saving the “world” matters so much. (Why save a world if you don’t care about anyone in it?) Personal motivation will resonant more; therefore, allowing worldly stakes to have a solid platform. So let’s talk about those stakes. 

Your characters’ motivations should be challenged at all times. This is mostly referred to as “raising the stakes”. 

Ex. What does Katniss have to sacrifice in order to save her sister? What does saving her sister do to others around her? How does that affect Katniss’s future decisions? When does it change her decisions and motivation?

In addition to paying attention to your characters’ motivations (and upping those stakes), it’s important that your characters (especially your protagonist), change. At the end of the book, your characters should not be the same people we met on the first page. If they are the exact same person with the same feelings and motivations, then what actually happened in 300 pages? 

By creating a spreadsheet, you are forcing yourself to answer hard questions: “Did my character change in this scene? Did those changes push them forward or hold them back? Did it affect the story at all?” Spoiler alert: you should be answering YES to each of these questions, from chapter one allllll the way to the end.  

Typically, when I start writing a novel, I know where I’m going to begin and end. It rarely changes for me. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever started a book when I didn’t know the ending (or have a really close idea to what my ending would be). Why? Because the beginning tells me who the character started as, whereas the ending tells me where the character ends. The middle is going to be my character arc (herein referred to as the “rainbow”). If I don’t know where that rainbow is going, I will struggle to form all those colors that makes the story colorful, let alone form an ending that’s a believable treasure chest of gold. 

The spreadsheet helps me most out in the middle. I’ve found the middle is a place where a lot of writers struggle. In fact, the place I always get stuck at is about 65%. And when I get stuck, I love to work backward. This is where my motivational spreadsheet becomes super helpful. I can see where I want my characters end and compare it to where I got stuck. Then, I can ask myself, “What has to happen to these characters to get them here?” Once I start brainstorming, I can fill those motivations in. 

A spreadsheet is additionally helpful if you have multiple POVs or characters (ex. if you are struggling to track minor characters or the villain’s motivations), especially if Character A and B know something that Character C has yet to learn. In the end, I track the following: Chapter number/title, Chapter Summary, Character A, Character B, etc. (Typically listed in the order of importance.) I put the POV note in the chapter number. I also sum up what Character C is thinking/doing even if they don’t physically appear in a particular scene. That way, I am forcing each character to have their own presence, even in the “white noise” of their nonexistence in a scene. 

I highly encourage you to try this out if you are struggling with motivation, pushing stakes, and/or filling in that ugly middle. I gravitated toward this method because I’m an INTJ. I thrive with tasks dependent on logic. (Which is also why writing can be so hard sometimes.) Characters, as we all know, aren’t always logical, and yet they need to make logical sense to the reader. This single truth can feel like a huge contradiction to fledgling writers, when it isn’t. Not really. In reality, readers need to understand your character, even in your character’s most illogical moments. They need to believe that your characters illogical moments made sense to your character. Ex. Let’s say Character A loves Character B, and Character B has been kidnapped. Character A has a chance to save them, but only a 2% chance. And if they took that 2% chance, there’s a 98% chance they’ll both die. And yet, there’s no other chances coming their way. Logically, Character A should probably save themselves and hope for another chance. But we’re reading about heros! Character A is going to take that 2% chance, with all odds against them. Your reader should get that. They should feel how emotions have driven their decision-making. 

That’s what a spreadsheet is for. It’s forcing you, the writer, to give us those reasons, and making sure you’ve made those reasons clear in your story. 

Download your free Excel spreadsheet here. 

How do you track your character motivations? 

Also, what else do you want help with? I love to hear from you! In fact, it helps me help you more when I hear from you. I heard a lot from a lot of you all in my latest newsletter. (Whaaaaat? Shannon, you have a newsletter? I do! It releases once a quarter, and I always include more writing tips, sneak peeks at my work, and an exclusive surprise giveaway. Subscribe here.

My blog posts happen the first Saturday of every month, so check back in on Saturday, March 7. 

~SAT