My Writing Process-Part 5: Editing and Polishing

My Process Editing and PolishingWe’ve reached the final post of my writing process series: editing and polishing. ICYMI: in this series, I break down my writing process and share what I’ve found works best for me in the hopes that some of my process might help you too! (Missed the first four parts? Find them here: Part 1 – Brainstorming, Part 2 – Outlining, Part 3 – Drafting, Part 4 – Revision.)

If I’ve reached the editing and polishing stage in the process, I’m feeling pretty good about the book. I feel like the story is working, there aren’t any more glaring problems or inconsistencies to tend to, and my book is almost ready for an agent or editor. But before I turn it over to anyone, I want to make sure the project is as shiny and polished as I can get it on my own. Here’s how I approach this final stage.

Critical read

Most of this part of the process happens during one or two critical reads of the book. Mistakes jump out more to me when the book is printed out, so I print a copy of my draft, put it in a binder and go over it with a green pen. In the previous reads, I typically make notes in the margins or circle/point out problems to consider later. This is the only stage where I write the changes right into the book. This is largely because in the previous drafts, those changes require more thought and planning. But at this point, the corrections are a lot more obvious and it’s easy enough just to note them without having to pause my read.

Typically, I’ll read through the draft looking for a handful of elements that I’ll talk about in the next few points. I make note of the changes, then go through my document and input those changes into the computer. This also gives me the chance to double check the corrections as I enter them.

Check all previous changes

One of the biggest things I pay attention to this round is that all of the previous changes I made in the story. I want to be sure they fit into the story seamlessly and don’t require any additional attention. If it turns out I missed something big, then I’ll make note of it and revise like I do in the previous stages. If it’s a more minor change (like adding or revising a sentence to a paragraph), I’ll likely write the change in the margin just like the other changes at this point in the process.

Check on the clarity of sentences/ideas

Up until now, I haven’t paid too much attention to my writing on a sentence level. My priority has been the story. After all, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about the quality of my sentences when there’s a good chance I’m going to have to rewrite most of them. But now that the story is set, I want to make sure all of my sentences are as clear and concise as they can be. I’m also checking to make sure the ideas I’m trying to express are coming through. I consider the editing phase to be when I start looking at things on a sentence and language level.

Vary language

This is a big one for me towards the end of the process. Similar to my sentences, I’m not all that concerned about my language choices until I reach this stage. I will often lean on the simplest or most common words to get my point across just to get the story down as quickly as possible. But at this point, I want to make sure I’m using a wide variety of words and actions.

If I start to notice words, phrases, or actions that I’m using way too much through the whole book, I make note of them on a separate sheet of paper and do a search for them on the computer after I finish my read through. Then I can see exactly how many times I’m using the word/phrase/action and how close together the repetition is occurring. If I’m using the word/phase/action as frequently as I suspected, I’ll brainstorm a list of alternatives then go back through the document and vary the repetitions as need.

Check grammar and typos

I do my best to catch as many grammar errors and typos as I can before I turn my book into anyone. It’s also worth noting that some grammar errors and typos are expected by agents and editors. They know writers are human and probably won’t catch everything. But It doesn’t look good if a manuscript is riddled with careless errors that are hard to maneuver around. I read the book once or twice and do my best to catch as much as I can, but I try not to obsess. You should absolutely do your best to be as thorough as possible when you’re editing, but  I don’t think it’s good to hold a book back just because I might have missed something. It keep you from reaching your goals, but errors like this can always be corrected down the line.

Pay extra attention to my most common errors

While I’m editing for grammar and typos, I try to keep an extra special eye out for my personal most common errors. For example, I’m known to either repeat or skip words, or sometimes use the wrong homophone. Since I know these are areas of concern for me, I try to slow down and really look at what I’ve written. A lot of times these mistakes are hard for me to pick up on because my brain seems to know what I meant, and I don’t always register what’s on the page. I’ve found giving myself plenty of time and reading slowly can be beneficial with this. It helps me pay more attention to what I actually wrote, instead of what I meant to write.

One last read from critique partners and myself

Before I really declare a book “done” I have my critique group, who has read every draft, sign off on the final version. I also have a couple of readers who are particularly good at catching grammar, typos, and my most common errors read it over. This is helpful because not only do I get to pass off a more polished draft, but I get a final fresh perspective, which is so valuable at this stage. If these readers have any other bigger notes, I do my best to incorporate them, then (depending on how much I changed) give it one final read.

Send it out

Once I feel like I have the book in the best possible shape I can get it in, I send it out. Before I had an agent, this is when I started querying. Now it goes right to my agent. For more on how to tell when your book is done, check out this post!

I hope this helps you with your own editing and polishing!

This is also the end of My Writing Process Series. I hope I shared something that helps you build your own process!

Now it’s your turn: How do you edit and polish your novels? Do you have any editing tricks to share? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process – Part 4: Revision

My Writing Process: Part 4 - RevisionWelcome to Part 4 of My Writing Process series! In this series, I break down my writing process and share what I’ve found works best for me in the hopes that some of my process might help you too! (Missed the first three parts? Find them here: Part 1 – Brainstorming, Part 2 – Outlining, Part 3 – Drafting.) Today, we’re talking about Revision!

Yes, we’re at the revision stage! What that means to me is that I have the skeleton of the story figured out. I know who the characters are, I understand the world they live in, and I know what the beginning, middle, and end of the book will be. However, often times it takes writing the book for me to really understand those elements, which means they may not be fully realized in the drafts I have. That’s where revision comes in.

Read for character, plot, and world

Before I do anything, I sit down and read what I wrote. In the drafting post I mentioned that sometimes I won’t bother reading old drafts if I know I’m going to change a lot. By the time I get to revision, I’m definitely reading the book. I go through it with a green pen and a notebook. For earlier revisions, I’m mostly focused on the big picture issues in the characters, plot, and world. I’m looking for inconsistencies and out of character behavior, plot holes or incomplete plots, and elements of the world that are unclear or just don’t make sense. For even more details on what I’m looking for, check out the post: How to Identify Your Novel’s Problems (and keep in mind at this stage, I’m only really focused on the early stage revision problems).

I don’t do too much writing in the book itself at this point. I may box out or make notes about a big section, but typically the issues are bigger than any one page, scene, or chapter. Instead, I make notes on paper about the problems I come across and the chapters or page numbers I find these problems. Here’s an example from when I was working on Enemy Exposure:

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Freewrite/Brainstorm solutions

Once I know what my book’s major problems are, I brainstorm solutions by freewriting. This is similar to how I brainstormed at the start of the book. Up until this point of my process, I’ve moved more or less chronologically through the book as I worked. (As in, I focused on chapter one, then chapter two, then chapter three, etc). Now I start jumping around focusing on each individual problem. When I brainstorm a solution, I freewrite that solution out in its entirety, even if it means skipping whole chapters/sections that have other issues. I’ll freewrite until I feel like I have a good working solution, then I move on to the next problem. I’ll repeat this until I feel like I know how to solve each of my book’s issues. Here’s another example from my Enemy Exposure revisions:

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Make a revision plan/outline for each problem

Once I know how I want to solve my problems, it’s time to figure out how to practically apply my solutions. I take my freewrites and I go through my book and figure out which chapters and scenes need to be changed to incorporate my solution. Like in the last step, I tackled this problem by problem (as opposed to planning changes chapter by chapter). This keeps me focused on working in the necessary changes without getting caught up in the other moving parts of the book. I make a plan/outline for each of my problems, which looks like this:

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For more on how to make a revision plan, check out this post!

Make a revision schedule

Since I made my plan, I know exactly how much work I have to do. To keep myself on track, I make a revision schedule so I know what my goals and objectives are each day. I typically work from the biggest problem to the smallest.

Part of this is for practical reasons. It makes more sense to me to make the big changes first since they typically run through more of the book and are more likely to interfere with a smaller problem. I’d hate to take the time changing a small problem, only to realize a bigger problem’s solution interferes with my new change and I have to change the smaller problem again. The other part of this is about momentum. I typically have more momentum and enthusiasm at the start of a revision, so it’s psychologically better for me to use that energy up front, then work through the smaller problems, which are usually much quicker to work in. Comparatively, if I take out my smaller problems first, the big problems feel even more intimidating if I’m losing steam at the end of a revision.

Revise by problem

Just like everything else so far in this stage, I revise by problem. Not only does this keep me focused on fixing the one specific problem at a time, but it also makes my book new again when I go to read it. When I read my book after a drafting phase, I typically have an idea of how the book will read since I drafted sequentially. But when I read a revision, I have no idea how my changes will work in the book as a whole. Revising out of order gives the whole project a fresh perspective that I desperately need when I’m three drafts in.

Get feedback

At this point, I know my book pretty well. Even though revision makes my book new to some extent, I still need to hear from people who have no idea what happens. So I seek out some trusted early readers for some feedback. I did an entire series on feedback, and you can find the first post here!

Repeat once or twice

I repeat this process until I feel like I have a book that’s really working well. Typically I put a book through at least two or three revisions, but sometimes it’s more than that if the book needs it.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how I revise and I hope you find something here you might like to try!

You can find the last part of the series, Part Five: Editing and Polishing, here!

Now it’s your turn: What’s your approach to revision? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process – Part 3: Drafting

My Writing Process Part 3: DraftingWelcome to Part 3 of My Writing Process series! In this series, I break down my writing process and share what I’ve found works best for me in the hopes that some of my process might help you too! (Missed the first two parts? Find them here: Part 1 – Brainstorming, Part 2 – Outlining.) At this point in the process, I’ve thought and I’ve planned, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly what I’m going to write. Which means it’s time to start drafting! I consider the construction of the first two drafts to be my “drafting” phase. Let’s take a look at what they entail!

Draft One

Set project and daily word count goals

At this point, through trial and error, I’ve come to learn what my general goals should be for a first draft. Typically, I shoot for a 60,000 word count draft goal. I tend to underwrite my early drafts, so while my finished books have been between 80k-100k, they’ve all started with 60k first drafts. If you’re someone who overwrites, you might want to shoot higher and be prepared to cut. Publishers like most novels to fall between 70k-100k (with exceptions, of course), but there’s no “right” number for a first draft. It really comes down to your writing style and how much or little details you like to write while you figure out your story.

The daily goal is dependent on the book. If I’m writing a book that’s more fast-paced, I tend to write quicker and move from scene to scene pretty easily, so in those cases, I start with a higher goal. But if the book seems a little more methodical, I tend to write slower, so a lower word count goal makes more sense. Typically, my daily goal is usually 2,500-3,000 words a day, and that’s something else I’ve figured out through trial and error. As a writer, my goal is to write as much as I can each session without killing myself. Any more than this and I feel fried and even a little burnt out.

Create a writing schedule

Once I know my goals, I get a calendar and plan exactly when I’m going to write. Typically I write 2-3 hours a day, 5 days a week, so a draft can take me anywhere from a month to six weeks. Again, this is something I figured out through trial and error. I tried being a writer who writes every day and I burned out pretty quickly. Even writing less, but writing every day, didn’t work for me. I need a few days where my brain can turn off and completely reset, so I take weekends off as much as possible. I’ve learned I can do a six day writing week if I have to, but five days a week is my ideal.

Daily drafting

I do my drafting in Scrivener, but any word processor or notebook will work! Some people draft best if they write slowly and take breaks. I’ve found I draft best when I draft fast and messy, and if I let myself get totally locked in and power through my session. My only concern for a first draft is to follow my outline and to meet my word count goal. Nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter if the writing is bad or scenes don’t completely make sense, or if I lose a character or contradict myself. I’ll fix it later.

To keep me from overthinking, I try to plan my days to the minute when I’m drafting. This limits my writing time so I don’t have any extra time to think too much. If at the end of the day, I reach my word count goal and moved my outline along, I’ve had a good day, regardless of the quality of my writing or the book as a whole.

It’s also worth noting, that I started writing on the clock when I tried writing “out.” So if you want to learn more about the benefits of writing “out,” I’ve got a post for that too! And for more on drafting on the clock, check out this post.

Dealing with issues

Since I’m prioritizing quantity over quality, there are A LOT of issues that come up as I write. The most important thing about a first draft is that it gets finished. Because of that, I don’t want to stop to writing to fix every problem that springs up. Instead, I keep a notebook next to me and jot down all the problems I find as I write. This way, I can keep moving forward without worrying I’ll forget what I need to fix later. As long as an issue doesn’t prevent me from moving forward, I keep working.

If I figure something out that does significantly change the course of the rest of the book, or if what I’m writing feels so wrong that pushing through is truly painful, then I will stop, re-outline, and create a new schedule. Typically, this happens pretty rarely thanks to my outlining, but it does come up from time to time.

Take a break

After I finish my first draft, I try to take about a week away from the story to clear my head and give me a fresh perspective. If I don’t feel fried, I’ll work on another project (learn more about a creative shift here), but if I do feel fried, I take a complete writing break and catch up on some TV or do something else that doesn’t overtax my brain.

Draft Two

Read the last draft (or not)

I usually don’t share my first drafts with anyone, largely because I don’t need help or feedback yet. At this point, thanks to my own notes, I have a good enough idea of what I need to do, that I don’t need anyone else to weigh in. Sometimes, I’ll read the first draft and take more notes about the changes I want to make. Other times, if the book really felt like a total disaster while writing it and I know I’m going in a very different direction, I won’t bother reading it. I’ll go right into prepping the next draft.

Brainstorm and outline

Once I have my notes and changes, I go back through and brainstorm and outline just like I did for the first draft.

Open a blank document

Because I drafted so quickly, I change A LOT between my first and second drafts. So much so that I’ve found the best thing I can do for myself is to retype the second draft in a blank document. I’ve found that because I change so much, it’s easier to start with a blank page than try to squeeze changes into the terrible draft I have. I don’t get rid of the first draft entirely. I print it out and keep it next to me so I have easy access to the good stuff, but I retype everything–even the stuff I plan to keep.

Sometimes, I will completely trash the draft altogether if I’m changing it that much, but often times, I’ll end up retyping at least half the draft. It sounds a little unconventional, but approaching my second drafts this way really opened up my writing process. I did a whole post about this technique, so if you want to learn more, check it out here!

Draft again

Then, I start drafting again. I follow the same approach as the first draft. Typically by this point, I have a better understanding of my story and my world, which means there are more aspects I want to explore. Because of that, I usually increase my word count goal to 70k. I also may give myself a little extra time each day. Now that I have a better idea of the story, I try a little harder to write the story I envision. There’s still a fair amount that I will need to fix later, but I try to be a little more purposeful with what I’m writing this time around. Other than that, my approach stays the same.

Share with Readers

When I finish this draft I still have another list of notes of changes I want to make, but usually by this point, my story is developed enough that I’m ready for other people’s input. I send my book to anywhere from 1-3 people I feel like I can trust to see what I want this story to be, and who can help me get it closer to my vision. It’s important for me to have people I can talk things out with and bounce ideas off of, so my early readers are essential to my process. If you want more on this, I have a whole series on feedback you can check out. Here’s the first post.

That’s how I approach drafting! I hope this helps with your process!

You can catch Part Four: Revision here!

Now it’s your turn: How do you draft? What do you struggle with when you draft? What helps you keep at it? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process-Part 2: Outlining

My writing Process--Part 2: outliningLast month I started a series on my writing process! I started this series largely because a lot of you asked for it! The first post was all about brainstorming. If you’ve read that post, you know most of my brainstorming happens in the form of freewriting. Once I’ve freewritten the story to death and I have a good idea about the characters, the world, and the general plot and storylines, it’s time to make it start to look like a book. For me, this means outlining!

Of course, not every writer is outliner. You may have heard that there are generally two schools of thought for prewriting. The planners who outline and try to work out their story first, and the pantsers, who fly by the seat of the paints and figure the story out as they go. I am definitively a planner. What I’ve come to realize is that when I write, I don’t do well when I try to do two things at once. I can’t think about the story and write the story at the same time. Outlining gives me the space to think first and write second. I’ve also learned that if I don’t know what to write next, I’m more likely to let my characters wander aimlessly, and I have a hard time staying motivated and showing up on a regular basis.

I’ve also found that I get the most out of my story if I have a series out outlines that get progressively more detailed and specific. This gives me and my story room to grow and evolve. Here’s how I approach my outlines:

1) Outline the Plot

I already have an idea of what I want the plot to look like from my freewriting stage. Now it’s time to give that plot an actual plot-like structure. My outlining starts with my favorite plot structure is this three-act structure. I like this plot structure because it focuses on consistently raising the tension in the story, which helps create a steady build to the climax. I also like it because it has more crisis points/rising actions than most plot structures I’ve come across. Thinking of my story like this helps me create a more balanced and consistent story. Here’s an example of an early plot outline from Enemy Exposure:

Plot Outline
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Each important plot point gets its own color in the chart, then I briefly expand on each point around the structure. I don’t plot every storyline like this–just the main plot. That’s what ultimately drives the story, so that’s my main concern. But I do tend to have a bullet point outline for each storyline I use so I know what needs to happen and can plan accordingly when the time comes.

2) Outline the Character Arc

Once I have the plot outlined, I go back and make a second chart just like the first, only this time, it’s for my character. I look at each of the plot points I worked out in the previous outline and I figure out how they tie into my character’s development. Typically in my brainstorming, I’ve come up with one big developmental lesson I want my main character to learn. In order to maximize my plot, I try to make sure that each plot point pushes my character closer to learning this lesson.

For example, in my first book, I wanted my main character to learn to trust people, so I made sure each plot point somehow challenged her to trust the other characters more than she was generally comfortable with. I try to keep the same pacing as the plot here. So, in the beginning, the developmental challenges for my character will be relatively small and grow as the story progresses. This outline typically looks the same as the one above. For more on how I use plot and character together, check out this post!

3) Pacing Outline

Once I have the plot and character outlines done, I start to think about how these points will fit into the overall book. I want to make sure I have the crisis points evenly distributed so there’s a consistent build throughout the book. To help with that, I make a pacing outline. I typically shoot for thirty chapters in a first draft. (There’s no real reason for this–I just found that’s a good marker for me.) I take a page in my notebook and write the chapter numbers down the left side of the page. Then I go through and estimate roughly where I should hit each point of crisis. I put a small dot next to those chapter numbers. Sometimes I have to move them a chapter or two, but I try to keep it close to my original estimate.

Next, I go to each chapter and write one or two key events that happen in that chapter with a focus on building to the next plot point. I’ll also touch on key moments in my subplots, but they’re still not my primary goal. I try to keep it short, but as you’ll see, I typically have a hard time with this and end up squeezing as much as I can onto each line. Sometimes as I’m outlining, I’ll add post-its with key scenes I want to make sure I include in the final detailed outline. Here’s one of Enemy Exposure‘s pacing outlines:

Pacing Outline
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4) Detailed Outline

Now that I’ve got my story paced, it’s time to really dig in and figure out what’s going to happen in each chapter. For this outline, I get three sheets of computer paper and position them so they’re landscape. Then I fold them so I end up with six squares. Each square is a chapter. I fill the page front a back, so each piece of paper has twelve chapters. Then I go through and figure out exactly what will happen in each chapter. This is also where I start to really consider each storyline–there’s typically around five or six. I use a different colored pen for each plotline. This makes outlining more fun for me, and it also makes it easy to see if a plotline appearing consistently enough. I’ll use post-its if I want to add to a chapter or make a change based on something I work out later in the outline. Here’s some of an Enemy Exposure outline:

Detailed Outline
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A lot of times, if there’s going to be a problem in my story, I find it in the outline. It shows me if a storyline is too flat or if there’s an aspect of my characters or world I need to develop more before I write. However, there’s no substitute for actually writing the story and discovering what it is and isn’t supposed to be. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I still do a fair amount of revision. The biggest way these outlines help me is to give me a direction and a goal. They make it so every day, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I need to do, which makes it easier to keep moving my story forward.

I hope this gives you a good idea of how I use outlining and how it may help your process!

You can find Part Three: Drafting here!

Now it’s your turn: Are you an outliner? How much outlining do you do? Tell me about it in the comments!

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When to Submit Your Book Series/Trilogy: Publishing Tips

Today’s post is for all of my book series and trilogy writers out there! I’ve always been a series girl. I love both reading them and writing them. If you ask me, there’s nothing like getting to know a group of wonderful characters and then spending multiple books with them. But if you’re writing a series, it might be hard to know when to submit your book series to an agent/editor.

Should you wait until you finish the whole series? If not, then when? And what else do you need? This post aims to cover all of that! It was also inspired by a Well Told Story commenter! (Thanks, Sarah!)

Just as a side note, this post is geared towards unpublished writers who are looking to be traditionally published for the first time. In most cases, you need an agent for traditional publishing, but some small presses don’t require an agent for submission. Because of that, I’ll be using agent and editor interchangeably.

Here’s what you need to know when the time comes to submit your book series or trilogy:

When to submit your book series

In most cases, the time to start submitting your series is after you finish the first book. At this point, you should have a strong first novel that gives you a good sense of your characters and a trajectory for your series.

Why you shouldn’t submit your book series sooner

Agents/Editors want to read your book to see what kind of writer you are before they make any offers, so you shouldn’t start querying until you’ve finished the first book. You want to make a good impression, so be sure you’re submitting your best work. This means you shouldn’t be submitting a first draft. Make sure you’ve revised and polished your book to the best of your ability! (This much is true if you’re writing a series or not. Finish your book before you submit anything!)

Why you shouldn’t submit your book series later

It may be tempting to wait until you finished your series/trilogy. This would allow you to really tighten, polish, and present a complete story for publication. However, there are two reasons why I would advise against this.

First, your editor is likely to suggest changes to your first book that will significantly impact the later books in your series. These changes can affect any (or every) aspect of your book, including character, plot, and world building. If this happens, it’s very possible you may have to change some of your plans for the series. This is a lot easier to do if you haven’t written the other books.

Second, if you are writing with a goal of publication, you need a first book or standalone to get an agent/editor. A second (or third) book won’t get you anywhere if the first book doesn’t sell, and writing those books without a contract takes valuable time away from another project that might get you an agent or editor. This doesn’t mean you can’t write the rest of the series for yourself if that’s what you want to do. But if you want to be published, I would suggest putting those plans on the back burner and focusing on a new project entirely. Otherwise, you’re putting a lot of time into something that may not get you any closer to your overall goal.

What you might want to prepare

Even though you’re not writing your complete series, you want to be prepared to discuss it with your potential agent/editor. When you go to submit, there are two things I recommend having ready:

First, a plan for the second book. A synopsis is ideal, but if you’re not a planner, try to have some plot points at the very least. Your agent may need you to become a little bit of a planner to sell the series, but they’ll tell you what they need from you when the time comes. Also, don’t feel like you have to commit to whatever you plan. Everyone involved knows that the editing process of the first book may change things, they just want to see what your vision is at this point in time.

The second thing I’d suggest having is a plan for the series. This can be more vague than the plan for book two since it’s farther down the road. Just have a good idea what key moments are going to pop up and how the series ends. That should be enough of a pitch to get you in the door, but if your agent/editor needs more from you, they’ll let you know.

It’s also worth noting that you may not need either of these things. I didn’t, but I know of authors who did. Every agent/editor is different, but I say, it’s better to be prepared than be caught off guard.

My experience

When I was first querying Crossing the Line, I had envisioned it as a trilogy. I’d read some agents asked for a synopsis of book two, so I wrote one, but never ended up needing it. I told my agent it was a part of a planned trilogy and the rough direction when we first spoke. Then when my publisher showed interest, they asked if I’d be open to keeping the books more episodic so the series could be longer than three books if we wanted.  I hadn’t considered anything but a trilogy since I’d finished the first book, but now that it was suggested to me, it made perfect sense.

Ultimately, the sales were only good enough for two books, but I’m still really glad this was the direction we went in. The trilogy was a different story. Thinking of the books a series led me to the story that was meant to be told. I didn’t need to submit any plans for the series to my editor, but that’s likely because I was being asked to change my plans and they knew I didn’t have it figured out yet.

Bonus tip

If you can, do your best not to end your first book on a cliffhanger. This doesn’t mean every single storyline has to be tied up. (Mine wasn’t!) It just means that it would be best if no one’s life is hanging in the balance and if the plot that was the most pressing in this book is tied up. There can still be plenty of loose threads to set up the next book, but it’s typically an easier sell if your agent can say your book is part of a planned series, but also stands alone. It gives your potential publisher options, which they like.

I hope this helps you submit your book series!

For more on querying an agent, check out my querying series! You can find the first post here.

Now it’s your turn: If you have experience submitting a series/trilogy, when did you submit your book series? What did agents and editors ask from you? If you don’t, what plans do you have? Tell me about it in the comments!

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My Writing Process-Part 1: Brainstorming

My Writing Process: Part 1--BrainstormingLast month I sent out a survey to my newsletter subscribers (you can sign up in the sidebar or at the end of this post) asking what types of posts they’d like to see more of. A lot of people asked for more process posts and for more about my own writing process. So with that in mind, I’m kicking off a series that’s going to be all about my writing process! First up, brainstorming!

There are some writers out there who, when asked about their favorite part of the writing process, say something to the extent of “whatever part I’m not doing.” I am not one of those writers. While I genuinely enjoy each stage of the process for different reasons, the earlier in the process my book is, the happier I am. So, brainstorming is unquestionably my favorite.

I think this is partly because I’m more of a big picture person, so the less I have to sift through the details and explain the science or reason behind some small-but-essential plot point, the better. And partly because I love writing because I love the characters and their MOMENTS. At this stage, all I have are the characters and their moments and no problems. I don’t have to worry about why a part of the plot can’t happen or doesn’t make sense. The story isn’t developed enough to be difficult yet, which makes it so much fun!!

When I start brainstorming, I do a lot of freewriting in both a notebook or on my whiteboard wall (more about my wall here). Here’s how I break down my brainstorming:

The Idea

The idea for book starts with a spark (perhaps you know the feeling?) that usually comes after watching a tv show or movie with a concept that intrigues me. I got the idea for Crossing the Line when I was watching The Avengers. Once I realized that main character Black Widow wasn’t always one of the good guys, I became fascinated with what the transition from bad to good must have looked like and I needed to explore that more. The idea for a book I’m finishing up came after watching a Netflix series (but I’ll share more about that down the line). Nearly all of my ideas have come to me after watching something.

Typically I let the idea cook in my brain for a month or two. From time to time, I may jot down some notes, but letting the story develop a little on its own has always been good for me. I can’t tell you why, but if I try to write things down too soon, I find I run out of steam quickly. I tend to have a very loose idea of my main character, the immediate supporting characters, the world, and the story before I put anything on paper.

Then, when I feel like I need to write it down, I take my brainstorming to paper and start freewriting. This is the most scattered and undeveloped my story will ever be. Usually, by this point, all of my thinking has given me a handful of key moments for my characters to experience. I write those moments down. They’re messy, out of order, and I go off on tangents, but it’s awesome because it’s too soon for any of those things to be a problem.

The Characters

Once I have all of these rough ideas out of the way, it’s time to dig into the characters. I write commercial fiction, which means my books are more plot-driven. However, I’ve always liked to think that it’s my job to write an engaging plot so my characters have the opportunity to grow and overcome. So the plot may drive my story, but I write my plot for my characters first and foremost. I’ll do a dedicated freewrite for each of my main characters that focuses on these three big character questions. I’ll typically spend 2-3 notebook pages per character on the first question, 1-2 pages on the second, and 3-5 (or more, if I need it) on the last.

All three questions are important to the character, but to me, the last one is the most important for the book. I’ll do a complete freewrite on the entire arc for each major character as I see it at this stage. This freewrite typically focuses on key moments in the character’s story. There will be massive holes, but again, those things don’t matter right now. By the end, I have a big picture understanding of who my character is as a person and what their journey will be in the book. Sometimes these arcs change later. Sometimes they don’t.

The World

World building is probably one of my biggest weakness, especially at this stage. This is most likely because out of everything, it needs the most details ASAP to function. But at this point, I try not to go too crazy. I figure out the bare minimum I need to understand about my world for my characters to live in it. Typically, these essential locations and systems have shown themselves to me in that early idea freewrite. I’ll also develop any relevant history to the world.

For example, with my spy series, I knew I needed two spy agencies (the good guys and the bad guys). My character was staying with the good guys, so she needed a place to sleep, train, learn, and work. So I developed those place and some minor characters to go with them, which was enough to get my story off the ground. I also came up with the history of the agency on its own, and with my enemy agency. I approach the world building in all of my books very similar to this, though each story has slightly different needs.

The Main Plot

Once I have the characters and the world down, I start to freewrite the main plot. This stage of brainstorming often starts on my whiteboard wall to get some rough connections and ideas down, then when I’m out of room, I’ll transition back to my notebook. Typically in the idea freewrite, I’ve figured out what the main plot is and how the book ends. The character freewrites help me understand what I need out of the plot to serve my characters and the world gives me the vehicle to make it happen. This is where I bring it all together.

I do a freewrite of what the complete book would be at this stage. It’s essentially one big long summary that can run anywhere from 10-15 pages. It often leads me to uncover aspects of the story I hadn’t thought of and I go off on tangents to explore those ideas as I need to. Again, there’s still a lot of the story missing here, but it’s the first time it has any kind of book-like shape.

The Subplots and Weaknesses

I like to have a handful of subplots running through my books. Some of them I know from the start, but others surface in the main plot freewrite. At this point, I have a good idea of what those plots are, so I do a free write of each one independently. This helps me see how big the subplot it, how it connects to the main plot, and how it serves my characters. I tend to have anywhere from three to five subplots at this stage and each freewrite is around 3-5 pages long.

I do my best to only figure out what I need to know. That way I don’t get too locked into minor details while the book is so young. The main plot and subplot freewrites often expose some big holes and problems I overlooked earlier. If they’re problems I need to solve so I can write my story, I solve them now before I move on to the next step.

I hope this helps you build your own brainstorming process!

Check out part two of this series where I talk all about how I outline!  And if you want to see more about why I love freewriting so much and how it helps, check out this post.

Now it’s your turn: What approach do you take to brainstorming? Are you a freewriter like me or do you have another favorite approach? Tell me about it in the comments!

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How I Got My Agent: My Successful Querying Story

Querying: How I got my agentWelcome to Part Three of my three-part querying series! ICYMI: Here’s Part One: How to Write a Successful Query Letter and Part Two: How to Query a Literary Agent. This time, I’m going to tell you all about how I got my agent.

These stories meant a lot to me when I was querying, so it only seems right that I share my own. A shorter version of this story can be found on the Writer’s Digest blog. There was a lot I couldn’t fit into that post, so this is an expanded and more query-centric version.

Post-High School Querying

If you’ve read my story, you know I wrote my first book in high school. It was a YA fantasy. I spent the end of my senior year editing, determined to have a “polished” book by graduation, so I could spend the summer querying. I used AgentQuery.com to research agents I thought would be a good fit for me, built a list of between fifteen to thirty agents (I don’t remember exactly), and sent my letters out in two or three rounds. At this point, agents were just starting to accept email queries so most fo my letters went out via USPS with a self-addressed stamped envelope for a response. It took all summer just to send those first letters and hear back.

Since almost everything went out snail mail, it also got expensive pretty quickly–especially when sample pages were involved. Which is why I didn’t query too much beyond the summer. In addition to the expense, but I also started to realize that the book could be a lot better. I didn’t get any requests, so after the summer, I pulled it back. Even though I didn’t get anywhere close to getting an agent, I learned a lot about the querying process, which was really helpful down the line.

Post-College Querying

I wrote a new book in college that was set in the same world as my previous book. This one felt so much better from the start. I used the beginning of the book to get into my MFA program, where I workshopped it until I had a draft I was really happy with. There were still a few sections that I thought could be stronger (especially toward the beginning) but it was the absolute best I could do at the time. I pulled on everything I’d learned from my first querying experience and combined it with what I was learning in my MFA program and got querying. (This was when I found QueryTracker.com.)

In the end, I queried this book twice. First in the fall of 2011. I had a working list of agents when I started, but I was always looking to add more. I found a query tip somewhere (I can’t remember exactly where) that suggested looking in a book’s acknowledgment section for names since most authors thank their agents there. So I flipped through a bunch of books I had read recently and found two of the authors were represented by Michelle Wolfson. I added her to my list.

Michelle has a “no response means no” policy, so she only responds if she likes your query. When she responded to mine I was thrilled. Ultimately, she wasn’t making a request, but she was very encouraging while pointing at a few issues in the book that resonated with me. She also asked me to keep her in mind for the future if this book didn’t get me an agent. She may have been passing on my book, but I felt like she saw what I was trying to do even though I wasn’t actually pulling it off yet. Because of that, she became my first choice for my future agent. I also pulled the book back to revise based on her feedback.

I spent the next nine months revising it on and off while I worked on my thesis project for school. I started querying again in the summer of 2012 while I wrote Crossing the Line. Michelle was closed to queries at this point, so I never got to go back to her with the revision. I got a couple requests for the updated version, but no offers. I queried this book until Crossing the Line was polished and ready to submit, which was mid-September of 2013.

The Numbers: 126 agents queried, 2 requests, 1 promising rejection, 0 offers

Querying Crossing the Line

When I started querying Crossing the Line, Michelle was my first choice thanks to her previous rejection. But she was also still closed to queries. I didn’t follow agents on social media when I was querying–I didn’t want to be that attached–but I followed Michelle. I had a good feeling about her and I didn’t want to miss when she opened back up again. In the meantime, I went back through the list of agents I’d cultivated and started at the top again while I wrote a new book. Six weeks into querying, Michelle opened and I sent my letter off right away. She got back to me within a couple hours asking for more pages.

One of the reasons I liked Michelle from the start is that she’s very upfront with what you can expect from her. She tells you right in her submissions guidelines that she typically responds to queries very quickly and partials very slowly. This turned out to be accurate. Michelle also mentioned how long I should wait before following up. I followed up with her every few months until the last Thursday in June when her response said my partial was her subway reading for that afternoon. Later that night, I got another email from her asking to read the whole book.

I sent it off, excited, but also expecting it to be a little while until I heard from her. (By now, I had gotten good at waiting.) The following Tuesday morning, my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize, and I had my hands full straining chickpeas, so I didn’t pick up. A beat after the phone stopped ringing I realized who it might be. Sure enough, Michelle had left a voicemail saying she loved my book and asking me to call her back. I called back before I could think too much about it. (I was ready to do some research on what it might mean and what questions I should ask, but I refrained.) We had a great call and I was officially a represented author.

The Numbers: 111 agents queried, 2 requests, 1 offer and acceptance.

Why I Said ‘Yes’ on the Spot

As you can see, I queried a lot of agents and didn’t get many requests. Even with that, I didn’t say yes to Michelle because she was the only one who offered. I said yes because I believed she was the best agent for me. She saw something in the first book I queried her with when very few did. Additionally, the things she felt weren’t quite right with that book were also things that had bothered me–I just wasn’t able to put my finger on them. This made me feel like we’d be in sync and make a good team. I also really liked that she responded to two very different books. I’ve always known that I’d want to write in a few different genres, so it was encouraging to know going in that she’d had some interest in two different stories.

At the time, all I had out with other agents were query letters. Between our exchanges and my gut instinct, I was sure Michelle was the agent for me. So much so that I felt giving the agents who had my letters a chance to read my book and make an offer would have been wasting their time. Ultimately, this just felt right to me–even in my overexcited state. I have no regrets.

So, that’s how I got my agent!

This concludes our querying series! In case you missed the others, here’s Part One: How to Write a Query Letter and Part Two: How to Query A Literary Agent.

If there’s anything about my personal querying journey you want to know more about, feel free to drop it the comments or send me a message.

Now it’s your turn: If you’ve queried in the past, what did you learn that’s helped you going forward? If you haven’t queried before, what are you anxious or excited about? Let me know in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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How to Write a Successful Query Letter

I created this blog to prioritize writing more so than publishing, but publishing is a MASSIVE reason why we write. So it would be super unhelpful of me not to discuss publishing at all. Whether you want to share your work, see your name on a bookshop shelf, or fund your writing habit, publishing most likely plays some kind of role in every writer’s journey. And the road to publication starts with writing a successful query letter.

This is part one of my three-part querying series. You can find Part Two: How to Query a Literary Agent here and Part Three: How I Got My Agent here. We’re kicking things off with the first step in querying: a successful query letter. Since my experience is with traditional publishing (not self-publishing) I’m going to keep my focus there.

Now, let’s take a look at a successful query letter. First, some basics:

What is a query letter?

A query letter is a letter that writers send out to agents or editors explaining who they are, what their book is about, and asks either agents to represent them or editors to publish their book.

Who needs a query letter?

Pretty much every writer who wants to be traditionally published. Query letters are used to get the attention of agents and editors. If you’re hoping for a bigger publishing house (Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Macmillian, HarperCollins, etc) you need an agent to get your book to an editor. However, there are some smaller houses will take submissions directly from authors–if that’s a direction you’re interested in going. Generally speaking, you’ll need a query letter either way.

If you can go right to an editor, then do you really need an agent?

As far as I’m concerned, yes. Yes, you really do. Sure, if you’re looking for a smaller house, you can sometimes query the house or editor directly, and if your only goal is to be published, then this is definitely an option for you. But if you’re looking to build a career, I wouldn’t recommend forging those waters without an agent (and I personally can’t imagine doing so). A good agent knows the industry and will put you in the best position to succeed. They will also protect you and make sure you don’t get taken advantage of. They’re basically a teammate. Additionally, bigger publishing houses won’t look at your work without an agent, so if that’s the kind of book deal you’re looking for, you won’t get there on your own.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the rundown for writing a successful query letter:

1) The Format

A basic query letter is going to be three paragraphs and consist of a hook, synopsis, and bio. It’s generally pretty straight forward and absolutely should not be more than a page. I’m going to walk you through each step, but as we move on, if you want to take a closer look/see some different examples here’s the format explained on AgentQuery.com, which was the source I used to write my first query letter.

If you do some internet searching, you may come across some formats that have the third paragraph first. If you want to format yours this way, that’s absolutely okay. It’s very possible to write a successful query letter that’s set up like that. (I’ve seen plenty.) However, my experience (and personal preference) is the hook, synopsis, bio sequence, so that’s what I’m going to walk you through.

2) Salutation

Dear Mr./Ms. [Agent name] is a perfectly fine way to start your letter. Address the agent you’re querying directly and don’t over think it. (I definitely over-thought it).

3) Hook your reader

Once you’ve greeted your reader, you’re going to dive right in. The pitch should start immediately with the first paragraph, which is the hook.

I like to compare both this paragraph and the synopsis to what you would read on the back cover of a published book. Your hook should be its own 1-2 sentence paragraph that introduces your main character, hints at what makes your book special, and/or adds enough intrigue that would make your reader want to see more. A successful query letter should fully engage and entice your reader.

4) Synopsis

Once you have your reader hooked, you need to tell them a little about the story so they actually want to pick up the book and read it. Truth: I found this and the hook to be REALLY HARD! After spending a year writing the entire book and understanding the nuances of the main plot and numerous underlying storylines, condensing it all into nine sentences was painful!

If you struggle with this too, I suggest doing your very best to focus on the heart of your story. Who is your main character? What’s the main conflict? What does your main character struggle with internally and externally? What is a direct threat to the character?

You don’t have to give your whole story away in your query, but you want to entice your reader to open the book and read, just like the back copy of a book jacket would do. There may be several subplots that seem really important to you that don’t make the letter. That’s okay!! As long as what you’ve written captures the heart of the story, it’s a letter you can seriously consider submitting.

5) Add info about your book including title, genre, and word count

The third paragraph has two parts. Part One is about your book. Tell your reader the title, the age group (Middle Grade/Young Adult/Adult etc), the genre (thriller, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, etc), and estimated word count. If you see this book as the start of a series, this would also be the time to mention that.

6) Say why you’re qualified to write this book

Part two of the last paragraph: Give the person your querying any background information that proves why you’re qualified to write this book. This can be writing related (writing classes you’ve taken, writing degrees you’ve earned, publication credits you have), and/or specific to the content of the book (for example, if you’ve written a book about a lawyer and you are a lawyer, that would be something to mention). Use anything and everything that can help you, but don’t lie!

7) Thank your reader and wrap up

Thank the agent for taking the time to read your letter, say you look forward to hearing from them, and get out. One sentence is enough here.

8) Revise until you have a letter you like, then polish the hell out of it.

I usually had to write my query letter at least twice until I had something that I felt like captured my book. The first draft was me writing down what I thought I needed (which was way more than I actually needed). The second draft was when I cut almost everything I’d written and reworked/expanded on what was left. Then I worked that until I was happy with it. Once I had a letter that I felt captured the book, I polished it until I felt like it read perfectly. Then I found other readers to catch everything I missed. If you have trouble, I definitely recommend talking to a friend or two you trust who has read the book and can give you some insight into which story points are really important and which aren’t. Once all of that’s done, it’s time to query!!

Here’s my successful query letter!

Now I’m going to share my successful query letter for Crossing the Line. Truthfully, I kind of hate the idea of sharing this! My book was a serious challenge to boil down into a couple paragraphs. Now that it’s published and I’ve seen how it’s been pitched by professionals, I think it could have been A LOT tighter. But none the less, this is the letter that got me my agent, which is why I’m sharing it with you! 🙂

Dear xxxxxxx,

North Korean intelligence agency KATO believes eighteen-year-old American spy Jocelyn Steely is under their control. And that’s exactly how Jocelyn wants it.

When KATO sends Jocelyn back to the American-based International Defense Agency she was kidnapped from as an eight-year-old, they see it as the perfect opportunity to infiltrate the ranks of their biggest rival. After ten years of brutal training, forced drug therapy, and a series of successful — yet traumatizing — assignments, KATO never considered the possibility that Jocelyn could still have a mind of her own. But she does. To her, this mission is not only an escape, but also a chance at revenge. The only problem is Jocelyn has never trusted anyone enough to have an ally, let alone a friend. In order to escape KATO, she’ll have to learn to rely on others — including former enemy agent Travis Elton. And to Jocelyn, there is nothing more difficult or terrifying.

CROSSING THE LINE is a young adult thriller complete at around 91,000 words. It is the first book in a planned trilogy. I have an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in Communications and Media Arts from Neumann University, where I double minored in Writing and Journalism. My writing has been published in both the Neumann University Joust and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I have also spent the past three years volunteering with creative writing classes at a local high school where I assist in creating lesson plans and work with students on an individual and group level.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind Regards,

Meghan Rogers

Bonus thoughts: Should you personalize each letter you send?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about–maybe too much–so I wanted to discuss it here.

I’ve read some posts that recommend writers take the time to research an agent’s list and give a pitch as to why they or their book would be a good fit. I’ve also read some thoughts from agents (not a ton, but some) that say they too really like when authors to do this because it shows them how serious the writer is.

But honestly? I didn’t really personalize my queries beyond the agent’s name, and I think that’s kind of an unreasonable expectation to put on a querying writer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I did my research.

I made sure I targeted agents I thought would be a good fit for my book. (I’ll talk more about that in my next querying series post.) But I didn’t take the time to write my reasons out in each query letter I sent off.

Would I have had a more successful query letter if I’d done this? Maybe. But here’s the thing; most of the agents you query are going to reject you. It sucks, but it’s true.

And 99% of the agents who reject you are not going to take the time to give you a personalized response explaining why. If you get a response at all, it’s likely to be a form letter. They simply don’t have time to give you anything more. Their priority is to take care of their current clients. Most agents can’t afford to invest a lot of time in a response to someone they don’t represent. Their time is valuable. It’s important to be understanding of that, especially as someone who someday wants to be an agent’s client.

But your time is valuable too.

Most querying writers are also working another job (or two), or going to school, or working and going to school, and hopefully writing another book, and making time for their families/friends, all on top of querying. And if you’re going to personalize every letter, that means you have to proof and polish and perfect every letter again before you send it off. In the end, I sent 111 query letters. Personalizing, proofing, and polishing 111 letters was, for me, asking for too much of my time for someone who may or may not represent me.

If an agent passed on me because I didn’t personalize my query, then I have to believe it was for the best. We probably wouldn’t have been a very good fit. As much as you need an agent to offer to represent you, it’s important to remember that once they do, the two of you are going to be a team. And considering most agents weren’t going to personalize a response back to me, I wasn’t so sure I wanted a teammate who expected more of me than they were willing to do themselves.

But! you should address each agent directly

You definitely want to make sure you’re addressing the agent/editor you’re querying at the start of each letter, but personalizing beyond that is entirely up to you. I only personalized two query letters, and both were to agents I had interacted with in the past.

(Though, full disclosure: One of those personalized letters was to the agent I signed with. I personalized it because she had previously responded to a non-personalized query about a previous project. So yes, my most successful query letter was personalized, but that only happened after she responded to a non-personalized one first!)

That’s everything I know about writing a successful query letter!

Be sure to check out the rest of my querying series, Part Two: How to Query a Literary Agent and Part Three: How I Got My Agent.

Now it’s your turn: What query letter tips have you come across or found helpful? Is there a favorite successful query letter you like to reference? Tell me all about it in the comments! You can also let me know what you’d like to see covered more in the future.

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Why I Write and Why I’m Blogging

Why I write Towards the end of my ninth grade year, in the spring of 2004, I decided I was going to write a book and get it published.

Not only that, I was going to write an entire series. I have always been a series girl. I spent most of middle school reading Harry Potter on a loop and Buffy the Vampire Slayer changed my world. Now I was going to write my own fantasy.

I had written a lot in the past, but it had always been for fun. I never planned anything I wrote all that much, but this was different. I wasn’t just writing a story anymore, I was writing a book–the first in a series. Planning seemed like a good idea. After all, that’s how J.K. Rowling had worked. I got a whiteboard for my room and started planning my series.  I planned for a year. By spring of my sophomore year, it was starting to come together. I had characters. I had a plot. I was close to being ready to write. I just had one more big plot arc to figure out. It was the plot that would run through the entire series. That year, I spent the first night of spring break in my room, brainstorming on my whiteboard.

I was at it for hours. I completely lost track of time. When I finished it was well after midnight. I remember looking at the board when I was finished and knowing this was it. This was my thing. This was my new way of life. It was exhilarating in a way that was addictive.

That feeling is why I write. If you found this blog, you know probably know what I’m talking about. That’s the feeling I’m always chasing. It’s what made me want to start writing, and it’s why I still write today.

So, that’s why I write, but why am I blogging?

I’ve been writing seriously for thirteen years now and one thing I’ve noticed is how easy it is for writers to get caught up in the doubt and rejection and fear and all the other negative aspects of writing. And I get it. I can be absolutely gutting. But I think when we put too much focus on the negative side, it makes it harder to celebrate and strive for the positives.

I was given a gift. I found writing when I was too young to realize that I was supposed to care if I was good or if someone else would like it. All I knew was I liked how it made me feel. That’s all I really cared about–the story and how writing it made me feel.

I think that because I started in such a pure and positive place, it was a lot easier to stay focused and build a life around those positives. I’m not going to say that a rejection or judgment has never gotten to me, but those moments have been few and far between. And when they have popped up, they didn’t weigh me down.

I’ve realized that a major reason for this was that the entire time, what I cared most about was learning to tell my stories better. Every new tool I could add to my writing toolbox excited me. I learned to take feedback, but also keep my circle limited to those who saw what I was trying to do and could help me make my stories stronger. Every new direction or idea I explored gave me that feeling–the same one that captivated me when I was in tenth grade.

And because of that, I realized halfway through my journey that I will always be writing, and I will always be trying to get better–whether I ever got published or not. It simply makes me a happier and more complete person. It’s how I want to live my life.

This realization changed everything. Ironically, it took understanding I didn’t need to be published for me to know with absolute certainty that I would be someday. Because I knew if I was going to keep writing and keep learning, I would keep getting better. And if I was going to keep getting better, then I might as well keep trying to get published because why not? And if I kept trying, I had to believe at some point it would happen. Even if I had to wait until I was sixty, it would happen.

Because of that mentality, rejection and negativity couldn’t touch me. I never wrote for anyone else’s approval. I wrote first and foremost to be happy and fulfilled. No form of rejection could ever take that feeling away from me.

I realize this won’t resonate with everyone, but if there’s a chance it can help another writer be more optimistic and undeterred then this is something I want to share. This philosophy has meant everything to me. It not only helped me reach my goals, but it also put me a good mental space to truly enjoy the process. The writers who don’t reach their goals are the ones who give up. I’d like to help you keep from giving up–and have a ton of fun along the way.

So please, take a look around! I hope I can help you.

Happy Writing!

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