QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Don't Let NaNo Ruin Your January

There is a board on the NaNoWriMo forum dedicated to reaching 50,000 words. A noble goal: after all, isn't that what we're all there for? But some of the suggestions that I've seen (not necessarily in that forum) seem counterproductive at best to me. What I love to see in that forum are threads for encouraging one another,

We've reached the final stretch of NaNoWriMo, the last seven days in which everyone will write like crazy, trying to reach 50,000 words. There's even an entire section of the NaNoWriMo forum dedicated to reaching that elusive 50k. However, I've seen suggestions there and elsewhere that seem counterproductive at best. Sure, they'll get you closer to that beautiful purple bar on your profile, but will they really help your book?

Tricks that Almost Never Work

Spell out all your contractions

No, just don't. It may add lots of words to your word count in a semi-legitimate way, but it won't be much fun come January when you have to go back and decide which ones need re-contracted.

Rehash the plot to a new character

Sometimes the plot needs to be rehashed for believeability. But in the final draft, you know it will suffice as, "I told my sister everything that had happened since she left for France last week," rather than a whole conversation.

Have a flashback to the beginning of the book... and copy-paste the first scene

No. Pretty please don't do this. This doesn't help you find the story. It doesn't help your editing process. It doesn't help anything at all.

Give characters really long names/titles

Imagine if every reference to Voldemort in the Harry Potter series was "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." An extra five words every time someone mentions him. Five words you'll probably delete later. How many times does that full phrase appear in the million-word series? Not many. Even worse if you do this at the end, using find/replace to beef up a character/place name just to hit 50k.

Write Every. Single. Line. of dialogue

Obviously, you should write all the dialogue that belongs in the book or gets you closer to understanding the book. What I'm talking about are the pleasantries and small talks that happen in real life and never, ever happen in novels (unless they're used as foreshadowing, but that's a topic better suited to revision). It will add words to your story if you write, "Hello." "Hi, how are you?" "Fine, you?" "Good I guess." "So what did you do today?" "Not much, just played video games. You?" "Well my sister's in the hospital." That's a given. But in the final book it will almost certainly look like two characters approaching each other and one of them saying immediately, "My sister's in the hospital."

When all else fails, add aliens/a zombie apocalypse/a meteor crashing/etc.

The further along you are in your novel, the worse an idea this is. I often see it advertised as prompts for sprints or for people who are stuck, "just to shake things up." There may be a few times it's worked and prompted the story to go in the direction it was always meant to go. But for the love of revision in January, don't go adding these things to a contemporary just so you have the words. What's the point of writing them when you know without a doubt they'll be deleted the moment you re-read?

Tricks that Can Work

Write a scene from a non-POV character, or outside the timeline of your story

This is the kind of suggestion you should take if, for instance, you're having a hard time getting to know a character, or want to explore a character's history to see how it would be affecting their present. There is a lot of value in this, even if it is the kind of thing you're going to immediately cut come January. (You are going to cut it immediately, right?) The catch lies in not getting so distracted from what you actually want to write that you can't get back on track. This should be a quick troubleshoot, a diagnosis... not the new program.

Add a fight

Fights are always appropriate in books, regardless of the genre. You have battles, fist fights, gun fights, cat fights... all of them can not only add words but conflict to your novel. The trick here is to keep it organic. It's important to be true to your characters and the story, but you don't have to have best friends being besties all the time. It can be useful to think about a verbal fight in terms of "What's the worst thing she could possibly say right now?" and then, of course, have her say it. Even if the fight doesn't stay in the final book, you may have learned something about their relationship dynamics.

Relentlessly describe everything

Unlike including every bit of dialogue you possibly can, this can be useful. There are two ways in which I mean it, too: first, describe all aspects of the setting and make sure you're using all five senses (assuming your character uses all five senses). Make sure you personally know the setting and the layout so that the scene begins to come to life around your characters. Second, if you aren't sure which way to word something, use both. I know there are times I have to stumble through a paragraph of description before I hit on the perfect two- or three-word phrase I was looking for. The way to make sure you ease into January here is to make sure you cross out the words you know you won't keep. Don't make your future self do more work than s/he has to.

If a scene isn't working, try again

Sure, you're not supposed to edit during NaNo, but what about a do-over? Wondering what that scene would be like if a different character were present? Thinking a witty line of dialogue might have sent the plot off in a completely different direction? There's no use not trying. In the end, one or both of the scenes will have to go, but you should be closer to finding your story in the process.

The Litmus Test

In my opinion, whether these methods of padding your word count are "good" or not comes down to one question: Does this further my story and/or my understanding of the story? If the answer is yes, then do it. If the answer is no, you might want to rethink which is more important to you: winning NaNoWriMo or eventually having a polished novel that you're proud of.

What are some ways that you power through the last week of NaNo?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Surviving Submission

For aspiring writers, climbing out of the query trenches and finally getting an agent can seem like winning the lottery. But then what? Obtaining representation gives you an advocate and a foot in the door, but what actually happens when your book is on submission? Or, what if you're on submission directly to a publisher and frantically refreshing your inbox every thirty seconds? To help navigate the process, I asked Gina Panettieri from the Talcott Notch agency to answer some questions about surviving submission. 

Do agents submit to editors via query letter like authors or by phone call or other method? Do you agonize over queries like we do?

Gina: Agents pitch projects to editors in a variety of different ways, and sometimes the same agent might pitch your project in a letter, on the phone and in person, depending on who she's pitching to and what opportunities arise. I think most of us take the time to carefully craft a very winning pitch letter, and I know that it's not infrequent that I find the book's description that I created for my pitch being used by the publishers as the back cover copy and the catalog and website copy for the books that I sell, so I know they must feel it hit the spot, too. So, yes, we agonize over what to write! We realize the value in conveying the important properties of the story to the editor quickly and convincingly, and often tailor the letter to the specific editor we're addressing, knowing her specific interests.

What advice can you offer to an author on submission? 

Gina: First and foremost, check the website of the agent or publisher you're submitting to to find out what they want you to send and in what format and follow the instructions. 
Don't send hardcopy when they want electronic and vice-versa. Send proper size SASE if you want material returned.
Don't send submissions by registered or certified mail (everyone hates that). If you're worried about whether it got there, just ask for delivery confirmation, which doesn't require a signature on the other end, or you can send it priority, which includes tracking.
Observe formatting instructions. I know editors who won't read something if it's not formatted correctly. 
Don't fudge and say something was requested when it wasn't in order to submit to a publisher or agent who only reads solicited work. We know. 
Include information on your platform and marketing with your submission, even for fiction. It may push your submission over the edge into a 'yes'. 
Don't call to check on your submission! This is true everywhere. 

How long does submission usually take? 

Gina: That can range wildly, but a few weeks to several months, depending on the editors, their backlog and reading pace and what other events are taking place (like sales conferences, book expos and vacations) that can slow down responses. But agents (and authors) often do multiple rounds of submissions,  and it's not unusual for it to take a year, eighteen months or longer to sell a book. It takes patience, perseverance and faith in the book in many cases!

If an editor is interested, what happens from there if the MS gets to acquisitions?

Gina: If the editor is interested, she may ask other editors to read it for their feedback, and she may get additional input from other departments. The editor will create her own pitch, perhaps drawing from the pitch given by the agent, and compile her own materials for the book, requiring competing titles and sales data, to pitch it to the editorial board and determine what could be projected for the sales potential for the book. The editor has to win over the rest of the editorial board, who may raise objections to the book based on other projects which haven't done well, or perhaps concerns over a book being too similar to another one the publisher has done, or issues with the book don't being on-trend or being too niche. The editor has to come in prepared to counter anticipated arguments, or present her pitch tailored to address those concerns pre-emptively and be prepared to fight for her book. It isn't always that easy! I often call the acquisitions board The Board of Sales Prevention! It's important to give your editor as much ammo as you can to bolster her. A great platform and marketing statement, great comp titles, good data on why your book is trending, and any data you can give to overcome objections (perhaps a poor performing comp title did poorly for a specific reason and you can show why your book is different).

What's hot and not right now with publishers?

Gina:  You know there are always the exceptions to every rule, of course! Mythology- and folklore-based YA continue to get immediate requests. Both YA and MG are getting darker and edgier so that's getting attention. Sweet....not so much! Sci-fi action-y YA is selling well. Mystery series for MG, boy-friendly fiction (everyone asks, but it's hard to find), and ghost stories (hey, they're bringing Goosebumps back!) are very welcome. Anything King of Thrones-y would get a look. Vikings are hot. There's a big push for diversity in publishing (yay!), so diverse casts of characters are encouraged. Cozy mystery series are always popular, and if you can add an animal character POV or cute paranormal quirk, all the better!  YA editors are all asking for nonfiction (and you'll see a lot of YouTube stars books topping their lists, but let's hope that's not the extent of it!). Coloring books for adults are all the rage, too, so if you can come up with a unique concept for one, go for it!

Many thanks to Gina for taking the time to demystify the process. Good luck to all you folks on submission!

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets. You can learn more about Kim and her books at CorianderJones.com

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Truth Amongst the Lies: Why Fiction Needs to be Factual

NaNoWriMo is a blasted challenge for me. See, I don't actually get 30 days to write—I get just a little over a third that number. That's because I'm slavishly devoted to my day job, which is fraught with 12-hour computerless shifts. Horrid, horrid thought for a writer to be cut off from the ebb and flow of words for such long stretches of time.

I suppose it's a writer's saving grace that writing is mostly mental: I believe that writing is only 10% typing and 90% thinking. It just seems more apparent to me during the month of November. This time of year, I tend to quantify my writing efforts and, like every other good little Query Tracker enthusiast, I obsess with the numbers.

As a writer with limited screen time, I have to work very hard to make sure I make the most of my typing time—usually by using my thinking time to fullest advantage. Sometimes, though, that turns against me and I start to overthink the story.

And that's almost as bad as not writing at all.
Truth in Fantasy
I'm a speculative fiction author with definite fantasy leanings. My favorite genre to read is high fantasy, the stories that make you work to unlock every storyline, every character, every unique world element. I love complex family hierarchies, social and ruling systems, and unique magical theories and arts. I thrive in those worlds where there are no limits beyond the authors' imaginations.
But when I stop reading and start writing, I find myself thinking about the facts in fiction. A lot.
Research takes up a huge chunk of my thinking time. Historical periods, locations, events—accuracy is important to my story telling craft. It's not enough for me to spin a tale—the story must have strong, believable feet upon which to stand. Truth is the structure that suspends my disbelief.
"Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a "human interest and a semblance of truth" into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative. Suspension of disbelief often applies to fictional works of the action, comedy, fantasy, and horror genres." Wikipedia, the font of all wisdom (and probably the number one cited reference for high school term papers)
A "human interest and a semblance of truth" can mean so many things: an honestly-portrayed emotion, a genuine personal experience, an accurately described setting, a relevant recounting of an historic event. Our stories must ring true enough so that the reader may become one with the story, a part of the telling itself.
Someone who doesn't read fantasy may believe that the very nature of fantasy would be at conflict with truth. Not so. Fantasy begins the moment a writer frees himself from the bound of reality, the point where he utters "what if…?" and takes the first step of discovery.
And what could be more truthful than capturing that journey from an honest emotional perception or an accurate portrayal of the setting?
That journey— whether through outer space, deep under the earth, or entirely within the realm of a character's psyche— must always have a truthful element, even if the character is completely alien. If not, the human reader may not connect to it. 

As for me, my word count is balking at the moment because I'm neck deep in Civil War maps and regiment muster dates and the Pennsylvania Bucktails. I'm trolling historical society websites and getting really close to hitting up a history professor or two. Why? Because I need a setting for my NaNo story. The book isn't about the Civil War or soldiers or battlefields. But there's a house, next to an unmarked cemetery, which a character believes may have been a Civil War regiment's temporary camp.

It's not a huge part of the story. It's only a vehicle to explain what happened in the backstory.  It's not the most crucial element of the book.

But it needs to be right. It needs to be plausible. It needs to be something that could possibly have happened 150 years ago or else I'll just feel like I slapped something in there to fill a space.
I can't do that. I need that element of truth in my possibility.

What I should do is shut off the Internet, pick a non-threatening place in my manuscript, and get back to writing. I can skirt the truth for now and avoid the places where I'd have to make open declarations. I can focus on the characters and their relationships and their trials, seeking the human interest and the truth of their discoveries. Just because there's a ghost or two in it doesn't mean it has no base in reality. There is still a lot of truth to be told.

But I know that sooner or later, I'll go back to flipping open one of my books on Gettysburg and looking for a hint so my characters, human and ghost alike, don't remain homeless forever.

Thanks a lot, Coleridge. First Xanadu, now this. You know to really make a girl overthink everything.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How the QT Database is Kept Current

QueryTracker is proud to be the most up-to-date database of literary agents available anywhere. But, as anyone querying agents will know, things are always changing. Agents are constantly opening and closing to queries and changing their query preferences or genres of interest. Trying to keep up with the 1,400 agents listed on QT is a daunting task. So how do we ensure our information is current?

QT uses two highly effective methods to stay on top of the agent data:

  1. User feedback: We encourage QT members to let us know whenever they find information about an agent or agency that does not match what we show. Upon receiving a notification, we will first confirm the information and then, if necessary, update the agent's profile accordingly. This gives us an army of 100,000 authors, scouring the web looking for changes.

    To notify QT of changes found, members can use either the Contact Us page on the site, or post the information in the comment section for the particular agent.

  2. The QT Crawler: QT has created an advanced automated crawler, much like the program used by Google and other search engines to index websites. QT's crawler is a program which visits all the known agency websites, looking for any changes from the last time the crawler was there. When changes are found, the program highlights the change and then notifies us of what it found. Each site is visited twice per day, so when an agent changes anything on their website, we know about it almost instantly.
Other online databases depend on the actual agents to sign into their websites and make the changes themselves. Though we happily receive information from agents when they want a change to their profiles, we don't rely on this. We don't think this is the agent's job—they're too busy to do it and shouldn't have to. Using QT's two-pronged system, all they have to worry about is their own website; we'll take it from there.

So it is through use of advanced technology and a large and involved membership that QueryTracker maintains its role as the most trusted database of literary agents.

Patrick McDonald is the founder and creator of QueryTracker. Though maintaining QueryTracker keeps him too busy to write anymore, back when he did he tended to write in many different genres. Not because he was eclectic, but because he was still trying to find his niche. Though he never discovered his genre of choice, he did find his home at QueryTracker, a place where he could spend time in his two favorite worlds: writing and programming.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When the Publishing Business Just Isn't Into You

A few years back, a hugely successful book spoke the blunt truth that sometimes the object of your affection just isn't that into you and there's nothing you can do about it. It's a simple, yet profound notion that neither of you has a fatal flaw and the universe hasn't conspired to keep you apart. As the saying goes, it's not personal.  Every writer meets that moment when the question must be asked: Is it time to move on?

Before you decide to shelve your manuscript though, ask yourself some tough questions.

Did I query the manuscript too soon? Every manuscript deserves a break before a final edit and polish. That nay be a month, or a week, but if you haven't let your book simmer for awhile, you'll regret it later when you see a dozen ways those first five pages could have packed a better punch. This is easier to fix if you query in small batches. Yes, you've blown the opportunity with those agents that already rejected you, but there are plenty of agents out there.

And speaking of agents, did you research the agents before you queried them? Did you look at their favorite books, their current clients and their stated areas of interest? Was your query concise, professional and did it plainly lay out the protagonist and the stakes in your story? Did you do something gimmicky like writing the query in the character's voice or leading off with a hypothetical question? (If so, please proceed to "Query Help" on QT the forum right now)

Is your manuscript in a genre that's currently saturated? It really stinks if no one will touch your dystopian YA right now, but market trends have ebb and flow and you can't control it. Write something else. There will always be a place in bookstores for vampires and romance and sci-fi and a year from now, maybe you'll get a warmer reception.

Are you a tad bit whiny/needy/bitter on social media?  Being a part of a supportive community doesn't necessarily mean you have to share every indignity you've suffered while dealing with rejection. Many agents do check you out on line before making an offer of representation or a request.Make your on line presence an asset.

This is the hardest one: Is your writing just not up to par? Have you tried to objectively compare your writing to other published works in the same genre? Try reading passages out loud, which is a huge help in identifying awkward sentences.  Has your manuscript undergone scrutiny by beta readers (not blood relatives) critique partners, or published authors? Have you done a full content edit, looking for clich├ęs, crutch words, tropes and pacing issues? It's never easy to admit that something you've created may not see the light of day in traditional publishing, and yes, great books do get rejected, but sometimes the common denominator is simply that this manuscript isn't the right one.

Every writer gets rejected. Every. Single One. Good queries and bad queries likely get the same form rejection. Before you give up your dream, try as best as you can to objectively assess the reason for your failures. Most of the time, you can fix what is wrong. Writing improves with practice. Queries can be polished. About the only thing you can't control is market trends and the wildly subjective tastes of people in the industry. Press on and never let the fear of failure stop you from pursuing your dream.

Kim English - A native Floridian, Kim is the author of Coriander Jones Saves the World and the upcoming Coriander Jones On Assignment at Sabal Palm Academy. She lives in southwest Florida with her family and an ever increasing number of rescue pets. You can learn more about Kim and her books at CorianderJones.com

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

7 Things Every Query Letter Must Have

I’m no agent, but I do see a lot of queries, and I’ve noticed that many of them tend to be missing some very basic, yet necessary information.

So I made a list of the seven most important things I often see left out. Some of these items will only relate to queries for fiction, but if you write non-fiction most of them will still apply.

1. Genre 
You have to let the agent know the genre of your book. Be precise. Calling it a “time-travel mystery with horror, erotica and western elements for women” only tells the agent that you don’t really know what you’ve written. Pick the one genre that most accurately describes your book and stick with it.

2. Word Count 
This detail is important because it can tell the agent if your book is it too long or too short for the genre. Make sure your word count is within standard lengths for your genre.

Word count refers to the WORD count given by Microsoft Word or whatever word processor you’re writing in. Do not include PAGE count. You should also round the word count to the nearest thousands. For instance, if your book is 87,872 words then call it 88,000 words.

3. Title 
This one is simple enough. Don’t forget the title of your book.

4. A Hook 
I know, coming up with a great hook is easier said than done. But there must be something about your book that makes it different and intriguing. Now all you have to do is wrestle it down to one or two sentences. Simple.

5. Summary 
This is the most important part of your query, yet you’d be amazed by how many query letters are sent without a real description of the story. You don’t have to be precise and cover the entire story arc. In fact, you shouldn’t. But you need to give some idea as to what your story is about. What is the conflict? Who is your protagonist and who or what stands in his way?

Think of it as the description you’d like to see on the back of the book jacket.

6. Brevity 
Your query should be one page long, single spaced. That’s about 300-400 words. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions where much longer or shorter queries were successful, but this is a recommended guideline for a reason. Don’t break the rules unless you absolutely have to.

7. A Target
Maker sure you’re targeting the right agent(s).  Don’t waste time (yours and theirs) querying agents who don’t represent your genre or aren’t even open to queries.

Do your research and always address the agent by name, so they know you didn’t just mass email your query to 200 agents.

If at all possible, state why you are querying a specific agent. Maybe she posted somewhere that she is looking for a particular type of book and yours fits perfectly. Or maybe she represents other books that are similar to yours, but not too similar.

Don’t just say, “I saw your name listed on [some agent list].” That’s not a real reason to query, and if that’s all you have to say then don’t say anything at all.

[Shameless plug] And of course, you can research literary agents using QueryTracker.

8. Biography 
I know, the title of this post is “7 Things Every Query Letter Must Have,” so what’s with number 8? You can include number 8 only if it matters. A bio isn’t necessary because not everyone will have something worthwhile to say.

If you have past publishing credits or have won some writing contests, then you can include those in your bio.

If your novel is about a man on trial for a crime he did not commit and you happen to be a trial lawyer, then it is worth mentioning. But if you’ve written that same book, but have never worked in the law field or even stepped into a courtroom there is no reason to point that out.

In short, it’s okay to leave the bio off if you have nothing to say that is related to writing or your book. And don’t apologize for not having writing credits or other experience, just leave the bio off. If nothing else, it leaves more room for your story summary.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Unleashing Your Creativity: Five Ways To Switch Off That Internal Editor

A writer has two main signals in the brain: create and edit.

The creator, well, creates. Stories grow and bloom and take on life. The editor and her red pen prunes and cuts and shapes. But there's a reason why I'm a writer, not a farmer, so let's lose the gardening analogy and think of this another way: think green light and red light.

Green light, go—the words flow. Red light—stop. Stop and fix, stop and think, stop and just plain stop.

And stopping isn't going to help you get your first draft done.

First drafts need to be green light, all the way. Any time your word flow hesitates, it's an opportunity for the editor to take over. You'll re-read those last lines and tweak them. You'll pause, mentally discarding phrase after phrase because they're just not good enough. The writing stops. The cursor blinks, wondering if you got up and left. Red light.

But you don't have to live at the mercy of a red light. The writer controls the signal. Like every other element of writing, it's a piece of craft to be learned.

Pro-level Green Light
One way to bask in the glow of the green light is to attain a level of competency that lets you self-edit on the fly.  In this article, Sean D'Souza discusses how writing competency leads to writing fluency, where editing happens so quickly we don't even know we're doing it. The red light is only the briefest of flickers in a stream of green.

How does a writer become competent? You write. And you write. You make the mistakes that come with learning a craft. You learn from those mistakes and you get better. Each mistake and its subsequent lesson is one step closer to competency.

But learning a craft takes a long time. In the meantime, we still set word count goals and deadlines, long before we attain this nirvana called fluency. How do we keep ourselves writing forward instead of deleting backwards...or stalling because you can't get past a sentence just because you can't get it down right?

Do everything you can to keep the red light from coming on.

I have a few tricks I use during first draft writing and each one contributes to green light streaming in its own way.

1).  Go Analog
Notepads don't have delete keys. Plain and simple.

Writing longhand gives me a change to simply write. My handwriting is smooth enough that it all blends in my periphery--I tend not to look back over the last lines as I write. If I do need to change something, I strike it through. Unlike deleting, the original word is there so I don't obsess that I made a mistake by erasing one.

Plus, I love the flow of ink. I'm a very visible-art kind of person so writing with an ink pen is akin to painting words. Best of all, I get to choose the ink color that inspires me. When I was younger, my pen of choice was a purple Pilot ballpoint. Today, I'm partial to blue ink. So much of what I read is in black and white so the mere sight of blue taps into my creative side.

Blue is also my ideal color for meditation. Calming, serene blue. Did you know that writing is, in itself, a form of meditation? Google it sometime—when you're not supposed to be writing, of course. Which leads me to another red light reducer:

2).  Remove distractions
Distractions create pauses. If you are not actively submerging in the creative flow, typing out words, focused on the story, then your brain will flip the switch to editor mode.

I have a lot of cool junk on my desk. There's a lovely collection of ravens and skulls (thanks to my endless devotion to Edgar Allan Poe) and a bunch of Dr. Who and Sherlock and Supernatural collectables (because I will go down with that 'ship) and a bunch of other nifty writer things. In fact, my desk is the reason why I don't write at my desk. Ever. Too much to play with... and if I'm playing, I'm not writing.

If I look up from the page, I might toy with a sonic screwdriver. My brain might then toy with something I'd already written. The red light comes on and the editor comes out. And that's not what I want when I'm trying to get that first draft written.

Take the time to make a list of your worst distractions. Internet. The telephone. Your hair, if you're a twister-tugger-fidgeter like me. Identify those distractions and do what you can to limit them. The less you look up from the page, the less likely you are to staunch that green light flow.

3).  Plan Ahead by Plotting
Some writers love the freedom of watching a story bloom and unfold right before their eyes, with each sentence taking them further along a path toward a new undiscovered word. That's a beautiful thing, that quicksilver taste of creativity—and it's the reason many of us enjoy writing as much as we do.

But how many of us actually sit down in from of a blank screen without at least thinking where the book is going to go? Precious few, I'd wager. At the very least, we have an idea. A hook. An anecdote. Something.

But if that something isn't big enough for a pantser to go on, it's easy to bang heads with writer's block. (Pantser? Writer's block? If that's the main problem for you, read this.)

So, plan ahead. One easy way to do that is to create your plot outline.

Seems like contrary advice coming from a pantser like me but just hear me out. If you know where the story is going, you can write more freely than if you have to come up with each and every element as you go. A little planning goes a long way in illuminating the path ahead so you don't go bumbling in the dark.

4).  Allow Necessary Roughness
A first draft is often called the rough draft. However, writers forget that they are allowed to be rough when writing them. Sometimes, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our writing and feel pressured to make the first draft the only draft.

When I was in college, my freshman lit professor told me she loved my first drafts. I wasn't a budding writer or an English major. I had no thoughts about writing novels. I was a first year pharmacy student who felt more at home in the humanities department and I simply loved my reading and writing assignments. Lit classes were a brief escape from chem labs and white coats.

These days, I still haven't escaped the white coats, but I do still try to put out competent first drafts. It's a weird way to pay homage to my old mentors back in Philly—the pharmacist who writes as if her freshman lit teacher was watching. But these days, there is a big difference.

I'm not going for a grade. I've given myself a lot of breathing room. I allow myself to write imperfectly. I permit roughness in my drafts.

For instance: I use brackets (like this article describes.)  If an element makes me stumble, I close it off, skip over it, and keep going.

Skipping the unwritable parts keep the green light going. You can go back and write those spots later, after you've had time to work them out. (That's what second drafts are for, right?)

In fact, I love skipping things. In my current WIP, one chapter has only three words: SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS. The next chapter picks up the narrative once more, with actual scenes and sequences. I'm able to pull this off because of the previous tip about plotting. I know where the story is going so it doesn't matter if I have trouble somewhere.

I just gun the gas and speed past it, blasting through that potential red light. Skipping stuff can be such a rush.

5).  Avoid Criticism
It's not enough to allow myself to write roughly in a first draft. I know what I'm writing is not the final product. I know it's going to get better, and deeper, and less riddled with thinly-developed ideas.

But would someone else know that?

Beta readers and critique partners are a writer's best friends. Seriously. We all need a set of impartial eyes on our stories to see the flaws we can't. But a first draft is no place for that kind of critique.

Not only is the story not yet at a place to be properly critiqued—neither are we. A first draft is a place of discovery and experimentation, a place where creativity needs to flow unimpeded. Criticism, at this point, slams the writing light to full red. It forces us to rethink our work, to go back and change. It intentionally switches us to editor mode.

It also does something to our confidence. Even when the critique is gentle and constructive, it makes us doubt ourselves and where we thought our story was going. You might think a critique is necessary at the beginning, that it will save us unnecessary work down the road. I think that's premature. I think that there's a bigger risk of squelching a good idea before it has a chance to be fully developed. That's the worst kind of editing—it's censoring.

That's why I keep my first drafts to myself. I might give a sneak peek of a scene to one of my inner-sanctum betas, just for a taste of what I'm writing. But I never give enough to inspire criticism and I never hand a red pen over with it.

Green Light... Go!
The next time you find yourself stuck in first draft traffic, don't despair. The writer in you has the power to switch that signal and turn that red light green again. You don't need a miracle. You just need to learn how to take back that control.

The switch is all yours. Learn to use it to your advantage.

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Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.