If this looks familiar, it’s because I’m continuing to pull useful artifacts from certain deteriorating social media sites to preserve them in my own internet museum. Hope this one helps!
I often write the pitch or blurb for my novels before anything else. I may scribble some notes here and there, spitball a few ideas, but that pitch helps me crystallize essential stuff that I can then expand into a synopsis, then an outline. It’s not quite the Snowflake Method, but it’s close.
So after writing so many pitches, I thought: how do I write them? What stuff do I include? How much coffee do I drink first and what does chartreuse smell like once the caffeine hits?
But seriously, here’s what I do; maybe it will help you.
To write a pitch, I need three things. Three P’s, in fact. And sometimes an O. Hah, Threepio. Anyway. The three P’s: Protagonist(s), Place, Problem. Who is the main character? Where does the story take place? And what problem are they facing?
For the protagonist, I try to focus on what’s most relevant to the story. Whatever the reader needs to know for problem to make sense, to matter, and to suggest why THIS person is the one doing the stuff and why they’re worth following around.
For the place, I want to show how the world of the story is different from ours. Again, ideally I focus on things that are relevant to the character and problem. Think of every “in a world” setup you’ve heard in a movie trailer, and how it establishes the status quo.
For the problem, I try to tie it into character. Here is the thing that has gone wrong and needs fixing, the secret that forces the character to make a choice, the event or situation that sets them on the path to Hijinks. I establish the win condition and price of failure, aka the stakes.
What about the O in Threepio? That’s for Opposition. If you’ve got it, you can include something about people or forces trying to prevent your character from solving the problem. Sometimes (often) the opposition includes the character themself, getting in their own way.
Every story is different, so stuff won’t always fit neatly into the three P’s I’ve outlined. But it’s somewhere to start, and it can help focus you whether you’re planning a book or you’ve already written it and are trying to distill its essence for querying purposes. Good luck!
Continuing our chocolate fixation this month… This is from way back in May 2020. Still applicable, though my cake baking skills have improved! Which maybe proves my point?
Here’s an allegory for writing. This morning, I wanted to bake something for my husband for his birthday. I’m not an experienced baker, by any means. Also, he’s vegan, so that means no eggs, no milk, no butter.
I started looking for recipes online. Breakfast stuff first: muffins, scones, etc. Do you know how to make a flax egg? Haha, me neither. Also we’re out of flax.
So I shifted to chocolate stuff. Brownies! Except I’ve made vegan brownies before. They didn’t go well. Basically, they were a bunch of loosely clumped crumbs that had to be eaten with a spoon. One brownie recipe advised you to stick the brownies in the fridge so they would firm up, and I know I’m being pissy, but that defeats the purpose of brownies for me. Also, I don’t have a square cake pan, which most of the recipes required. So I gave up on brownies.
By this point, the baby was wild and cranky, getting into fights with my son, who was complaining about wanting lunch. Already so late! I was sad, and tired. I’m not even a baker. Why was I wasting my time trying to do this? It would suck anyway. I should give up.
My mama didn’t raise quitters. I whined to friends and gave myself a few minutes to mope, then I kept looking for recipes. Okay, so I wouldn’t try to make a two-layer chocolate cake, but maybe cupcakes? And I finally found a recipe I had all the ingredients for.
I started making the cupcake recipe and realized, right after I mixed the wet ingredients, that I had already messed up. Put in WAY too much vinegar. That sure would have been something to taste test. I dumped it out and started over after another self-indulgent groanfest.
It finally came together. I put the cupcakes in the oven and got bold. Chocolate buttercream frosting. I’ve never made frosting in my life, but I was gonna do it. I used the wrong mixer attachment and then kept having to scrape the sides of the bowl but eventually… FROSTING.
And then, omg… CUPCAKES. They didn’t fall down in the middle! They didn’t explode over the edge! They were just cake in cups! Success was mine.
So I went from giving up on ever baking anything because I suck and I can’t do it, to this. POOPCAKES! I think the frosting looks like little emoji poops. I have a simple mind.
What does this have to do with writing? I mean, you probably connected those dots already, but… So many days, I feel like giving up. Like I can’t do it. Like writing is too hard and I’m a loser and how dare I even bother trying?
And then I do it anyway. Because yeah, maybe I’ll mess up. Maybe it’ll be the vegan brownie fiasco all over again. But. BUT. What if it isn’t?! What if it works this time? And you won’t know until you do it. And the more you do it, the better you get at it, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Thanks for enjoying my poopcakes and my allegory. If you get discouraged, it’s okay and normal. You can take a break and feel your feels and then maybe, maybe, do the thing anyway?
The cupcakes were great by the way. And the frosting was effing sinful. FIN.
Given the impending holiday, it seemed appropriate to rescue this particular topic from the flames of social media hell before it melts. Enjoy!
Having read through a few novel pitches for other people, and because I am always turning things into similes and metaphors, I have come up with yet another theory for How to Pitch. I call this one: What flavor is your chocolate?
Say your novel is chocolate, and you’re trying to sell it to other people. On the one hand, yum, chocolate! What more do you need to know? And yet, there are many kinds of chocolate. You want your potential chocolate enthusiast to know which kind they’re getting from your book.
As you’re writing the pitch, consider what makes this chocolate unique. What flavor is your character? What filling does your world contain? What fruits and nuts of plot give your chocolate texture? What shapes and sprinkles and decorative swirls of theme adorn the exterior?
What other chocolates might this one remind people of? What parts of those chocolates do you have in yours? You can potentially pique interest more easily if you know audience tastes and can convince them you’re giving them more of what they already like.
You don’t have to be verbose, but you do have to be clear and descriptive in a way that teases, tantalizes, creates expectations, makes your chocolate-craving audience reach for the delightful bonbon you’re offering them. Seduce them with your words.
You don’t have to tell them everything–sometimes there’s pleasure in the surprise. But they’ll never know if you don’t convince them to try it in the first place. If you’re too vague, too imprecise, they might reach for a different chocolate instead.
And maybe that’s good! You don’t want someone who’s allergic to dairy to grab your cream-filled milk chocolate truffle. Giving a clear indication of what to expect can help people make choices that are better for them, their tastes, their mood, whatever.
But you want the reader/eater to make the choice because of what they know about your book, and not because they don’t know enough. You don’t want them to pass yours by because it didn’t stand out from the many other apparently identical candy options.
Also, be honest! You don’t want someone to pick up your chocolate because you misled them into expecting one thing, only to hand them something else entirely. Sure, they might still like it, but they might also spit it back in your face and never trust you again.
So there you have it, friends. When you pitch, make sure you tell the agent, editor, prospective reader, whoever, exactly what flavor your chocolate is. Make their mouth water, and they’ll be happy to take a bite.
In preparation for NaNoWriMo a while back, a friend of mine asked about how to come up with subplots in novels. Here are some ideas, with a little discussion of TV writing as one way to think about structure.
The way I learned it back in college, in a typical TV show, there are at least three plots in every episode, called the A, B and C plots because simple is good. The A plot is the main story, the overarching drama or mystery or conflict that takes up most of the screen time and involves your main characters.
The B plot may somehow relate to the A plot, or it may be a separate thing. It may involve your main characters, or focus on secondary characters. It can relate to an ongoing season plot instead of just the episode plot. It gets second-most screen time.
The C plot fills the cracks in time between the other two plots. It’s usually lower-stakes interpersonal drama or comic relief, good for exploring relationships between secondary characters who need more fleshing out. It can also be a series plot, something that is teased here and there and eventually becomes a B plot, then the A plot.
So a novel subplot can be a B or C plot, either related to the main plot or tangential to it. The stakes are often not as high, but they can lead to good character development or world building opportunities. And if your C plot is a series plot, it can lurk in the background and surprise the characters at inconvenient times, creeping forward slowly or leaping in sudden bursts.
In terms of how much time is devoted to each plot, that’s up to you. Usually most time is spent on the A plot, maybe half that on the B plot, then half again on the C plot, but ratios can vary depending on stuff like having multiple character POVs or intertwined plots or themes. You might have multiple A, B or C plots, or start working your way down the alphabet until it’s not so much a plot as a running gag.
Subplots are especially useful in the Great Swampy Middle of a novel, as some call it. They can function as side quests, or nested goals to complete along the path of the main quest, or as big set pieces that are like mini-novels within a novel.
But Valerie, how do I come up with these magical forays into feels and factions and so on? Here are some questions you could ask yourself to generate ideas for these B or C plots.
What’s happening with the secondary characters? What goals are they pursuing? What are their character arcs and how are you going to show them? They’re people, too! They have wants and needs that may work with or against your protagonist. Potentially a good source of conflict.
Related to the previous questions: what interpersonal stuff is happening between your primary and secondary characters? Relationships can be romantic or platonic, friendly or fraught, and can grow and change along multiple axes in different ways.
What character baggage can you force them to deal with? Problems from their past, people they left behind, situations that went unresolved… Pull a few skeletons out of their closet and rattle them. Reopen old wounds; re-break bones that didn’t set properly so they can heal better. This goes for main or secondary characters.
What factions are operating in your larger world? What are their goals and how are they planning to accomplish them? How do those plans run parallel to, intersect with or even disrupt your main plot? Who might owe whom favors and why? Cash them in! Think of allies and adversaries for your protagonist here.
What world elements feed into the plot but are themselves separate and need to be dealt with? This could be a lot of things: bureaucratic red tape, legal hoops to jump through, physical or cultural challenges, disputes to settle before the main quest can continue… You can play with analogues to real-life problems here, but beware of the ripple effects and ramifications.
What secondary themes do you want to explore? This can be tricky to nail down in the planning stages, but having general ideas can be useful. Usually theme will suggest other stuff already mentioned, like character trajectory or faction interests or possible world complications.
Are there any other subplot generation methods that work for you? Drop a comment!
People sometimes ask about how to sustain interest in a novel-length project as a writer, a question that can be especially relevant to folks with ADHD. Dealing with shiny new ideas is one thing, but how do you keep drafting or revising when the donwannas descend?
When things start getting too Real and Serious, when the grind feels like an endless series of tedious fetch quests with low drop rates, I don’t give up. Instead, I come up with a game.
I’m not the only one who does this and I didn’t invent the concept. I use the term “game” because my husband explained it in improv terms that way. When you make a joke, it’s a joke. Do it twice and it’s a callback. Three times, it’s a game.
Find a thing that’s fun for you, and figure out how to repeat it over the course of the novel. Write towards it the way you eat a meal while thinking about dessert. Edit with an eye to figuring out where to insert it.
You can add the game at whatever stage you need it in your writing process: the start, the murky middle, the end, while revising… whenever! You can do this on a small scale, within a particular scene or in a chapter, or you can spread it out throughout the whole book.
It can be as obvious or subtle as you want. You can be the only one who knows it’s there, or it can be a blatant running gag that gets progressively funnier. It can be an object turning up inconveniently, a symbol you eventually subvert, a character who changes over time… anything that you’re excited to repeat and revisit. It’s all up to you. Instead of Chekhov’s gun, it’s Chekhov’s fun*!
And the cool thing is, chances are the game adds continuity and cohesion, an anchor point a reader can latch onto. It gives them something to look forward to, something to notice on a second or third read, something you can deploy for surprise and delight or to add emotional depth and resonance. Used at just the right moment, it can lighten up a serious scene or cause more tears than a cut onion.
Writing can be a hard slog, so it’s worth treating yourself along the way. You’re digging the tunnel, but you also have the power to hold up a light for yourself at the end of it–or even better, add lights along the way so it isn’t all crushing darkness. Not just lights, either. Snacks. Party music. Cheesy motivational posters of cats. Go all out! It’s your tunnel, and you deserve to enjoy it.
*Millions of dad voices suddenly groaned in agony…
For the first post of the new year, let’s talk about a normal writer issue: Shiny New Idea Trouble. How this usually manifests: you’ve been working on a project for a while. Your initial momentum is gone, because like any moving object, writing responds to the forces of thrust and drag.
You have a shiny new idea! It’s so good! It’s the best idea you’ve ever had, maybe?!?! It’s definitely better than the idea you’ve been working on. It has to be, because that idea isn’t zipping along like it used to. But should you abandon the old idea to work on the new one?
Probably not. SNITs are normal. The thing you’ve been working on loses steam and slows down and feels like it’s not as awesome as it was when you started. Every new idea is perfect because it exists in a state of potential rather than reality. As soon as you start writing it, that precious ideal thing gradually congeals like cooling grease or blood, messy and flawed.
If you abandon your original idea and start working on the new one, you have lots of momentum again. Plenty of thrust to overcome drag and friction. Energy levels are high, enthusiasm gauge is full. You have enough lift to defy gravity and fly!
But another SNIT is inevitable.
So, what to do instead? You can write down a summary of the new idea, as short or detailed as you want. Let your imagination play, but not for so long that a pit stop becomes a layover. Take notes, write a synopsis. Start a Pinterest board. Then, the most important step: go back to working on your other project.
If possible, steal some of the SNIT energy and leverage it to make progress on your original project. If you set a goal for that–say, a certain word count or amount of time spent on it per day–then you can make a deal with yourself that when you reach the goal, you get to work on the shiny new idea for a while. It becomes a reward rather than a distraction or detour, like giving yourself a snack-sized candy every so many miles on a long drive.
Chances are, your disenchantment with your current project is temporary. It’s a normal slump. Different authors tend to hit it in different places, and it can vary by project. It might be after the first few chapters, or around the halfway point, sometimes known as the swampy middle. You can get through the swamp. Avoid the fire and the lightning sand and the rodents of unusual size (which may not exist). But don’t give up!
…unless you’re actually, absolutely sure the current project isn’t worth finishing. This does happen. Maybe you’ve grown as a writer. Maybe you realize you’ve been toiling at something that genuinely doesn’t work for one reason or another. You could take a seam ripper to it and figure out how to sew it back together, but maybe the amount of time and effort needed isn’t enough to justify the final reward. Sometimes it’s best to acknowledge and appreciate what you’ve learned from the process and move on.
It takes careful self-reflection and honesty to figure out the difference between a SNIT and a valid reason to trunk a project. You may be inclined to make excuses in your desire to pursue the new idea. You want that fresh energy, that novelty. It makes your brain tingle and effervesce. Don’t waste all your time chasing that feeling, because it’s fleeting–though there are ways to try to generate it for existing projects, as I previously covered in this blog post.
All that said, it’s your life! Do what works for you. If you can flit between projects and still complete all of them, super awesome. If you’re okay with writing a bunch of half-finished things, go for it. I mean that sincerely; I used to play World of WarCraft, and my favorite thing to do was make a new character and get to level 20 or so, then stop and make another new character instead of pushing myself to get the first character all the way to level 60. Sometimes fun beats hard work because the fun is the point. Every process is different, and every person has different needs and goals.
And someday, you may find that old, tired idea at the bottom of your trunk and shake it out and realize it’s pretty shiny after all.
If you have other tips for how to avoid or overcome a SNIT, drop a comment!
At the end of 2020, I participated in a Worldbuilders panel about rituals. One of the things we talked about was ways to ritually, thoughtfully, intentionally yeet that particular year into the sun. Or celebrate! Because maybe good things happened to you, and that’s worth feeling happy about.
I compiled a list, which I now present to you in the hopes that maybe some of these ideas will help you find a measure of peace at the end of another solar year. Some of these are rooted in specific beliefs or superstitions, but even if you don’t think you or your house can accumulate negative energy, many of these activities are simply something nice you can do for yourself.
Caveat: please only do the things that work for you, and if they don’t, worry not! These are options and not edicts. Everyone is different, psychologically and emotionally and physically and locationally. What works for one person may be unpleasant or impossible for another.
1. Clean your house. Get a broom–a new one works best–and sweep any cobwebs out of your ceiling corners. Sweep or vacuum your floors and mop them. Take the dirt and/or dirty water and physically remove it from your house via the front door. Wash all your sheets and towels. Take out the trash. Out with all the old mess to start the year fresh!
2. Open all the doors and windows to let the old air out and the new air in. This can be used in combination with other rituals for maximum affect.
3. Light candles and/or incense in as many rooms as you can. Fill your house with light and nice smells! For some cultures or religions, there may be specific cleansing ceremonies involved in doing this as well. Picking certain shapes, colors or scents can be part of the ritual.
4. Take a relaxing bath or shower. Similar to cleaning your house, clean your body and wash away the old year. Use a specially chosen scented soap, light more candles, listen to music… add as many components to this as you’d like to make it special.
5. Go through your stuff and choose things to donate or discard. Thank your things for their service, then let them go. This can be emotionally taxing, so be kind to yourself before, during and after.
6. Change into new clothes. Different cultures have different associations with colors for luck or love or money, but you can just wear something you find joyful or relaxing or comfortable. New clothes, new year!
7. Decorate! Put up streamers or signs or whatever feels festive to you. Use your favorite colors if you want. Signal to your brain that this is a party and happy emotions and nice things are invited. It doesn’t have to be fancy or ambitious, it just has to feel good to you.
8. Eat grapes for good luck. My family does this every year. Each person gets 12 grapes, one for every month, and you make a wish or set an intention for each grape you eat. It helps you think about what’s important to you and what you want in your life in the year to come.
9. Write two sets of intentions: things you’re taking into the new year, and things you’re leaving behind. These can be as vague or specific as you want. You can then tear up or burn the ones you’re getting rid of, and put the ones you’re keeping in a place where you can see and remember them.
10. Speaking of burning things: write down your sorrows or grievances and BURN THEM. If your fire is indoors, dump the ashes outside when you’re finished. Scatter them to the wind or bury them or drop them in a body of water. Be free!
11. Write “2022” on a stone, tell it your troubles or worries, then throw it into a body of water. Or yeet it off a cliff if you have one handy and no one is at the bottom. You can skip the year-writing part if you don’t have the tools for it, or you just don’t feel like being quite so literal.
12. Have a celebratory meal, alone or with friends and/or family. Eat your favorite foods, or something with cultural or religious significance, and enjoy!
13. Make some noise! Ring bells, bang pots and pans, play music, holler… Drive out the bad energy and have fun while doing it. Be respectful of your neighbors–certain loud sounds can be triggering to some people–or maybe convince them to join you?
14. Break something. Take an old dish outside and smash it on the floor. Maybe write “2022” on it first if you want, or something bad that you want to shatter, to give it an extra layer of symbolism. Be cautious while doing this so you don’t hurt yourself or others! Don’t want to start the new year with stitches.
15. Make art to channel and release your bad feels. Write something, draw something, paint something, compose a song, dance… Whatever calls to you. Turn your feelings into art, then keep it or give it away or do whatever feels right with it.
For all of these rituals, be mindful, be intentional and be present. If this has been a rough year for you, some of these things may involve sad reminders of specific hardships. Do only what resonates with you and is helpful. Life is hard, and you deserve happiness and peace!
In the words of the greatest band of all time: be excellent to each other. Take care, and may your every new year be better than the last.
Until the end of next year, my work exists in a nebulous space where it could theoretically win awards if enough people decide that it should. And so, to facilitate that potential future, I present a brief summary of things I could be nominated for, but only the real ones, not the joke ones like “Most Likely to Continue Living as a Hermit in 2023.”
Fault Tolerance is the third and ostensibly final book in the Chilling Effect trilogy, featuring giant robots, found family, and of course, psychic cats. It’s an adult space opera, so it’s eligible for any best novel or best SF awards. Not YA though!
“Team Building Exercise” is a nearish future SF short story in the Bridge to Elsewhere anthology. You can buy the book to read it and find other great stories to nominate, or you can listen to me read it on Story Hour.
“Working from Home” is a fantasy/light horror short story about a mom just trying to summon a demon. Read it in the Don’t Touch That! anthology of parenting stories, which you can now grab on Kindle if you didn’t join the Kickstarter in time.
As co-editor of Escape Pod, I’d also love it if you would consider nominating some of the amazing stories we published this year (keep reading through December!) and maybe consider nominating us for best (semipro) magazine, and me and Mur for best editors.
That’s it for now! Next year I’ll have at least two short stories and a novel for you, so stay tuned…
Wandering back into this blog after so long feels a little like visiting some crumbling ruin overgrown with moss, with birds and mice nesting in various nooks and sunlight peeking through holes in the ceiling. I’ve posted more regularly, though still sporadically, to my newsletter, and to other social media in short form. But as certain online spaces slowly collapse through some combination of ignorance and malice, here I am, retreating to this quiet corner that is completely my own, however lonely and deteriorated it may be by comparison.
I’m not sure how much more frequently I’ll be updating going forward, but one thing I am going to do is repost a few things here that I think are worth preserving. They may be cleaned up or expanded from their original form, but they will sadly be lacking in accompanying amusing gifs. So it goes.
If you’re reading this and you happen to want me to share some specific post you remember fondly, or opine on a particular topic, feel free to drop a comment and let me know. Otherwise, prepare yourself for incoming random thoughts on various life- and writing-related stuff as we gently relocate the nesting creatures and begin to patch the roof. We’ll leave some of the moss, though; it gives the place character, don’t you think?
National Novel Writing Month is once again behind us, and what a November it was. 2020 has been a year of pandemic, quarantine, politics, stress, and a host of other complications and catastrophes on top of the usual stuff. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who even attempted NaNo this year deserves to celebrate. And to those who succeeded in making the 50,000-word goal: if you can do it now, this year, of all years, you can do it anytime! I hope you feel heartened and emboldened and proud, even if you’re also emotionally hung over and empty and deflated.
If you’re feeling a little adrift, or full of energy without a sense of how to use it, here are some thoughts on what you can do next. All of them are optional, so please consider what is best for you and what aligns with your own goals and life circumstances.