16 June 2012

Never Give In: Part 1 or On "How I Wrote a Novel and Snagged an Agent"

"Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions or honor or good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to to the overwhelming might of the enemy."

- Winston Churchill

I love Winton Churchill.

I can see you, sitting there reading this thinking, "WTF!? I came here to read a post about writing and querying agents and you're going to talk about Winston Churchill?

Damn straight I am.

For years I've used Winston Churchill's quotes as sources of inspiration. In one of the darkest times in his nation's history, his words brought comfort and instilled confidence in his people. However, one of this more famous quotes, which has been bastardized through the years from its original form down to, "Never give up, never, never, never give up,"always gave my pause. Maybe if I'd known the actual quote as written at the top of this post, it wouldn't have, but I didn't. I only knew the, "Never give up, never, never, never give up," version and it always provoked the logical part of my brain. It whined, "Maybe some people should give up. Maybe some people aren't good enough and are banging their heads against a solid oak door that's never going to open."

Today, I tell that logical, snooty, whiny voice. "You're wrong."

If you follow this blog or follow me on twitter, you know that yesterday I signed with a literary agent, the utterly fabulous Michelle Wolfson. We're having lunch on Monday and it'll become official when I hand her my signed agency agreement and she adds her signature next to mine. It's real. And if anyone had told me in August 2011, when I started to write Game. Set. Match. that less than a year later I would have an agent, I would have laughed hard enough to cry. That was the furthest thing from my mind (though it was there, just buried really deep.)

So, all of that is to introduce this post as the first in a series about how I did it and hopefully some of you out there reading will find it helpful or at the very least interesting.

Step 1: Write a Manuscript

Three easy words to type out, but not nearly as simple in execution. Some people carry stories around with them for years before they ever put pen to paper, others wait only a day or two before they start writing. I can't tell you which produces a better product. All I know is that last year, in early August I was listening to the song, Penny and Me by Hanson (NO JUDGING! YES, I CAN FEEL YOU JUDGING. STOP IT.) and Penny Harrison popped up, fully formed, in my head. A biracial, eighteen-year-old, tennis star who trains at an elite academy and is destined to be the greatest tennis player of her generation.

I spent a few weeks fleshing out her "world" and the characters who lived in it and I can't stress the importance of this enough. Even if you're writing contemporary fiction, even if the setting is as familiar to you and your readers as your own backyard, you still need to build a world for your characters to live in. Every setting has its own quirks and its important to a well-developed story for those details to come out on the page. I am not exaggerating. In our first conversation it's something Michelle and I discussed at length and it's a problem with a lot of contemporary fiction floating around. I read sci-fi, fantasy and a ton of classic lit. World building was instinctual for me because of that. So I say it again: even if you're writing a contemporary story, with no paranormal or fantastical elements at all, you still need to world-build.

After I had my setting and maybe a dozen characters (main and secondary) I spent a few days stressing over character point of view and 1st or 3rd person perspective. My only advice with those issues is the mostly unhelpful: write what feels right. If it feels right, you'll execute it well. If you try to force it, you'll just write crap. Now, it's not that easy because I KNOW I was rejected by several agents because of my point of view choices (and I know because they flat-out said so), but that's okay. The cliche is true, you don't just want an agent. You want the RIGHT agent and the right agent will love your vision for your manuscript (even if she has a few or more than a few suggestions for improvement, as I'm sure Michelle does for me!)

Where was I? Right, I'd made my third person limited, three separate point of views decision. Then I outlined. A LOT. There are different schools of thought on writing a novel. Generally writers fall into two categories, "pantsers" (as in, writing from the seat of their pants) and "plotters" (those who outline, either generally or down to the tiniest detail). I fall in the latter category and I can't imagine writing without at least a simple outline. I filled legal pads, index cards, highlighted POV sections, color coded, arranged and rearranged plot points, noted down some dialogue that popped into my head and made sure there were no plot holes.

This....gradually                                                          became this....

And then - FINALLY - I started to write.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in a few days!




  1. I have a feeling we read the same book on outlining :).

    1. Haha! I've actually never read a book on outlining, I just sort of did what I did whenever I was writing big term papers for my lit. classes in college.

    2. Ah... I guess the term "pantser" is a well-known term, then! I'd never heard of it until I read the outlining book I'm reading right now.

      I'm still in brain dump stage, so not quite ready to outline too formally yet. Just enjoying this part where I'm throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks :). But it's so exhilarating to have your characters and certain elements of your story so well-formed that you feel like you COULD start writing right now, if you had to. But I'm trying to practice patience and forcing myself to have some structure and framework--I know I'll be very happy I did that in the long run.

  2. This is great, Jennifer! So happy to hear it! Best of luck for a quick sale!! :)

  3. I certainly have no interest in writing a book, but I totally agree with you on outlining. Every paper I wrote in college, even if it was only 3 pages had an outline. It's just so much easier for me to meet the minimum length or citation requirements that way. I'm often too concise and outlines help me add length in a logical way instead of sticking in random sentences or paragraphs when I realize it's too short. When I was blogging, I had my fair share of outlines for that too, which is probably super nerdy lol

    1. Right? I don't know how people do it. For blog posts, I have little bullet points I want cover. No idea how the pansters do it.

  4. Pretty sure I played that Hanson song every time I DJed for my college radio station. NO SHAME.