When Writing? Small Changes Can Fix Big Issues

Have you ever gotten feedback from someone who you respect, saying they hated your work? They liked the idea, but think you should have done it a completely different way?

No? Just me?

Recently, I submitted a couple of short stories to different markets, but after a pair of quick rejections, I sent them to friends for another look. Most of the feedback was along the same lines, so I looked at what I could fix and what I couldn’t.

But for the reader who hated the story? We sat down and talked about what they did and didn’t like about the story.

The real issue was the set-up — it was a horror/suspense sort of story and I was giving away too much too soon.

That was entirely in line with other feedback I’d had, although more precise in what parts worked, versus what parts should be changed.

So? I sat on that for a week. I pouted. I thought. I considered if these were even changes I wanted to make.

But my knee-jerk reaction (for once) wasn’t “they don’t get my story”, it was more of a, “I don’t wanna!” mixed with “How do I do that? While making sure the ending is still properly supported” (i.e. doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere).

Last night? I sat down to start on the changes, taking out the heavy foreshadowing (easily found in italics, on their own lines). And replaced those instances with more subtle hints at what lay ahead.

Fifteen minutes later? I was done.

I still need to do a re-read, to make sure the updates are smooth. I still need a second set of eyes (maybe fresh ones to make sure the ending wasn’t too abrupt), but this huge change? That seemed like massive structural issue?

With a few short line changes, I fixed it.

Takeaways?

Remember when setting something up in your writing, be it foreshadowing, backstory, world-building, or more — oftentimes, less is more. You only need enough to spark the imagination and flesh out the world. Not enough to slow the story.


Have you ever been intimidated by a suggested change you agreed probably needed to happen in your work?

Were you ever surprised at how little you needed to change your story to make a completely different impression on the reader?

Tell me about it in the comments below!

Morgan’s 2020 Resolutions

As January firmly establishes itself, I’m finally ready to talk about what 2020 is going to look like for me.

Last year was intended to be a year of reading, revision, and reflection.

Thusly, I listed my goals:

  1. Blogging/Vlogging
  2. Reading
  3. Revising
  4. Querying
  5. Beta-reading
  6. Conventions
  7. Writing

As I shared last week, I did great on everything on that list — except my revisions and querying — you know, the parts of the list that actually get me closer to publication. Does anyone else see the problem here?

This year? This year my focus is on revisions and querying/submitting.

As always, I like to set SMART goals –

  • Specific – you’ll see numbers and dates!
  • Measurable – you’ll still see numbers and dates
  • Achievable – I set goals for things I have influence over. I’m aiming for an agent, getting something published, but unless I self-pub, I have no control over that.
  • Relevant – I’m keeping my exercise goals and healthy eating off this post. These are all about my writing, the relevance should be clear.
  • Time-sensitive – Obviously, these are intended to be completed in 2020, but some items may have specific dates associated.

So? Let’s take last year’s list and put it in a new priority order.

Morgan, a long-haired brunette, is laying on a carpet, legs in slippers kicked up behind her, writing in a notebook.

Behind her is a table and a bookshelf.

1. Revising

Last year’s goal of revising 3 full manuscripts was… ambitious. I clearly was thinking more about what it takes for me to edit (clean up a draft) than about what it takes to get feedback from others, integrate it, and polish the draft till it comes out in my voice.

The manuscript I had ready for querying last year is in the middle of revisions with my wonderful mentor. But? The mentorship officially ended last April, and, although she generously volunteered to keep at it with me, she has paying work that, of course, comes first. So? We’re working through my novel 30 pages at a time.

My hope is to have the revisions done by the end of May, when I hit Balticon. But, life happens. So, what can I do to speed up the process on my end? Make sure that the next 30 page chunk is as ready to go as I can make it before I get feedback from the previous section.

I’m cutting a secondary character’s role in the last 3rd of the journey, and changing the nature of the last leg of the journey quite a bit, so I already know a large part of the plotting changes. Plus, my mentor keeps reminding me to add visuals. As I’ve said before, I worry about what’s in the character’s head and the action. I forget people want to see the world itself. So, that’s my revision priority.

But, of course, there’s going to be some downtime.

To fill that in, I’ve been nudging my alpha reader who has my middle-grade contemporary fantasy (the school play story) and should hear back in the next week or so.

Also? Last year also included writing some short stories and some poetry. Between revising my middle-grade story and getting those shorts and poetry ready for publication, I’ve got a lot to work on.


2. Querying & Submitting

If you haven’t tried to get your work published before, this item might seem confusing. What’s the difference?

Querying is a intro-letter and first chapter or so that you send to a literary agent. Once you have an agent, they often make you do revisions, before submitting your work to a publishing house.

Why do you need an agent? There are many publishing houses that do not accept unagented work. Agents understand what your contract should look like and what is negotiable. Plus? The agent’s job is to know the market — and thus know what your book needs in order to best sell it — and to whom. Typically, you query 5-10 agents at a time.

Submitting a manuscript/short story/poem is what you can do to any editor/publisher who is open to it: publishers (who are open to unagented work), literary magazines, anthologies, etc.

When you’re sending a cover letter and your story to the place that will actually print/publish the piece, it’s called a submission. Typically, submissions are exclusive (unless the guidelines state otherwise), so you have to wait to hear back before you can send to another publisher.

This year, for my short stories and poetry, I’m going to try to get at least 5 stories ready for publication and submit them to at least 10 markets. At least half of those submissions should be before July, just to make sure I don’t forget to put myself out there.


3. Blogging/Vlogging

With you, I’m finding an audience and, I hope, creating a community. You are the people whose queries I help polish as you look for an agent, whose books I add to my massive to-read pile, the people I feature in my Author Spotlights. Blogging puts me out there, keeps me accountable, and gives me a way to give back to the community.

Plus? I haven’t missed a week on my blog since February of 2016 (although, I have done reruns) nor a vlog-post since I started vlogging on June 27, 2017. So? I’d hate to break my posting streak! Thus, I’ll continue putting out a new blog/vlog every Thursday with writing tips or writerly musings.

I’m already off to a great start with this, but when I have them lined up, I’ll also be sharing Author Spotlights or Query Corners on Tuesdays.

I’m thinking of adding some Authortube videos of my massive to-read pile, or maybe an occasional brief weekly check-in since those were popular during NaNo. I just need to find a time that works every week for those, so I can schedule them in advance and make them interactive.

Quote on a grey board on a brown shelf with books behind it.
“And to think, some of life’s best stories haven’t even begun”

4. Reading

I did great on this one last year, but I’m not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. I had a lot of travel, and managed to hit 41 books, but there’s no guarantee this year will as generous. I even managed to read a decent amount of physical books — but a lot of those were new or re-reads. Not as many from my to-read pile as I’d like to admit.

So? I’m keeping my goal from last year of reading 26 books – a little more than two a month. This time? At least 10 of them should be physical and ALREADY on my bookshelf.

So far? I finished a short story collection I bought over the holidays AND read a book that’s been with me since before I moved. Not a bad start!

5. Writing

Yet again, writing is so far down my list!

I can hear your thoughts, your concerns. What’s wrong, Morgan? I thought this was your writing blog. Why isn’t this more writing focused? Do you want to be a blogger/vlogger more than a writer?

Well, first? Rewriting IS writing, and revisions are tops on my list. The goal is publication and I’ve got 4 manuscripts, 21+ short stories, and 30+ poems just waiting for a home.

More writing right now just means a larger backlog of things to be polished.

But! Never fear, I will be doing OctPoWriMo again — writing a poem a day for all of October. And then NaNoWriMo — writing 50,000 words in November. If I’m really stumped in November, I’ll rebel and revise either 5 shorts or a full manuscript. But, knowing me, I’ll probably make new words.

6. Beta Readers

I’ll be reaching out to beta readers as I wrap up my revisions on my middle grade novel, hopefully before August. Last year’s goals of having revisions of two different manuscripts done by May AND July were unrealistic.

As always, I like to keep my beta reader pool to no more than 8 readers, typically from different backgrounds. I usually give them separate copies, so that their feedback won’t influence each other.

I’m considering joining a local critique group and feel that short stories work much better in those venues than a full manuscript. Especially since I’m more interested in feedback on my pacing and characterization than the chapter itself. I guess it’s arrogance, but I think I know where my problem points lay.

On the flip-side, I’m now a contributing editor to The Oddville Press, an online literary magazine of odd, but not really fantastical tales. I’m also a regular beta-reader for my dad (who’s retired from a day job and enjoys filling my inbox). Not to mention, I have a few critique partners, and writer friends who have been known to reach out for feedback. I will try not to commit to more than 3 full length betas this year.

Morgan taking a selfie while sitting near the front of a room full of chairs. (She's at a writing panel at a convention)

7. Conventions

Actually, maybe I should have changed the name of this goal. This should be all the in-person writing goals. I aim to attend 6+ open mic nights, 4+ monthly writer meetings, try a critique group, and 3 NaNoWriMo events (kickoff, 1 write in, and the all-nighter till 11pm). Plus? Two+ conventions.

I intend to hit Balticon again (May) and — if everything works out — WorldCon (August) in New Zealand (!!). I submitted to be a panelist at Balticon again… and this time was accepted! And? I think they approved the panels I suggested (topics from this blog that I feel I can talk competently on, and that my unpublished perspective won’t be a detriment to my authority on the subject).

How do I know they approved them? They recruited me to be on their Programming team! (Apparently, after attending nearly 30 panels a year for the last 5 years, they suspected I might have opinions about what makes a good panel and who are the good panelists.) So, that’s another time commitment.

What does being on panels net me? Why do I want to do this?

First, it’s a greater reach for my blog and vlog. Plus, a larger audience when I do get published. Hopefully, a way to make more friends and supporters. Plus, a chance to talk about all the stuff I obsess over on my blog and on my vlog in person with actual people.

But how does attending conventions count as a writing goal? Isn’t it just fun? Or part of your social media addiction?

Well, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ve probably noticed that over half the content is actually write ups from notes at convention panels! I attend the panels, for those who can’t (or don’t). Also? My sister teases me that I act like a teacher, trying to get her recertification credits, all in one weekend.

And? Well, I talked about it in my post on attending conventions, but, of course, there’s the networking aspect. The science-fiction and fantasy conventions I prefer are full of readers, writers, and even some publishers and agents!


In Summary

As is becoming my trend, the first part of my year will be focused on revisions, the middle on conventions, and the end on writing. Plus, I’ll be reading and blogging and vlogging throughout the year.

Except December. I’m not a writer in December — everyone needs a chance to breath.

We’ll have to wait until next January to see if I had 2020 foresight.


What does your plan look like for 2020

Did you build in flexibility?

And, how SMART are your goals?


See my previous years resolutions and reflections:
2017 Resolutions | 2017 Retrospective
2018 Resolutions | 2018 Retrospective
2019 Resolutions | 2019 Retrospective

Top 5 Fears When Facing Feedback

Earlier this month, I sent my synopsis to my mentor. Sunday, she sent it back with feedback and I eagerly– spent the rest of the day avoiding it.

I had dived into her comments on my first chapter. I don’t usually hesitate to read feedback.

What was different this time?

The synopsis lay my story out cleanly. In 3 pages, my mentor could see my entire plot. My characters’ motivations. Everything.

My Top Five Fears:

5. Just didn’t connect

The most common and frustrating reaction from agents — the pure defeat of “I just didn’t connect with the story/characters/plot”.

But, as a mentor, she’s going to give some sort of feedback. What if she suggests it go in a completely different direction, that doesn’t work for me or my characters?

What if she insisted I was telling a different story than I had? Or thought a different story would be more compelling to agents?

4. Found it confusing

Sometimes agents don’t connect because they can’t understand what’s going on. What if my mentor didn’t get my story because my writing was confusing? The motivations didn’t make sense and the sequence of events was unclear.

3. Found it too formulaic

Perhaps, she could have thought it was decently written, but something she’s seen a thousand times, with nothing unique for us to build on, to draw the agents and publishers in.

2. Found it too contrived

A critique-partner had already told me back in December that one of my plot points felt a bit too contrived. What if my mentor agreed, and thought MORE of the plot felt forced and contrived?

1. Found a massive plot hole

What if there was some logic my story was missing that broke the whole thing?

That would be a LOT of work. I’m emotionally prepared for edits and polishing, but a MASSIVE restructuring of my story would definitely knock me back on my heels.


With all that weighing on me? I indulged my cold *sniffles hard*, binge-watched tv, and avoided reading her email.

Finally, just after midnight, I gave in and opened the email.

No plot holes, just some clarification needed and slightly better justification for an almost contrived point.

I cleaned up my draft, sent it off, and I talked with her just before I wrote this post. She likes my story, loves my world building, and was pleased that I could justify just about everything in that synopsis.


How do you handle feedback? Is the stress worse than the reality of it?

New Year’s Resolutions: Dusting off my shelved manuscripts

As January firmly establishes itself, this might seem a bit late for a resolutions post, but I always planned to take January off from writing and relax some, so you haven’t missed anything.

For me, this is going to be a year of reading, revision, and reflection.

Blogging/Vlogging

I’ve got such a lovely streak going here, I’d hate to break it. So, I’ll continue putting out a new blog/vlog every Thursday on writing tips or writerly musings.

When I have them lined up, I’ll be sharing Author Spotlights or Query Corners on Tuesdays.

Plus, I’m contemplating maybe a picture post on the weekends. I’m debating if Saturday or Sunday is better. Suggestions?

Reading

They say one can’t be a writer without reading. And, finding out what’s new and good in your genre is research, right? Although, that doesn’t mean I won’t do plenty of ‘for fun’ reading.

My goal is to read 26 books this year, one every other week on average. (Although, I tend to read in binges.) I’m looking at taking breaks from writing to focus on downtime and reading in January, MarchMay, and July. And I hope that planning intentional breaks will help fight the feeling of being on a never-ending treadmill, where I fail if I let myself take a break.

So far? I’ve read a couple romances and all 4 books in Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician series. I think I’m off to a good start.

Revising

I’m sitting on a backlog of 4 manuscripts in various states — mostly collecting dust. It’s time to fix that.

I got some great feedback from a critique partner back in November for Manuscript #1 (a secondary world young adult fantasy), but it was kind of a bitter pill to swallow. I have been brainstorming and messaging with the critiquer on ways to fix it. But I took December and January off, partially sulking, partially trying to figure out how to solve the issues mentioned. I’m going to let the ideas percolate a bit more and plan to hold off until February before implementing my fixes.

Then, in April, I’m going to pull out MS #2 — the sequel to MS #1.

In June, I’m going to pull out either MS #3 (my gender-bent Robin Hood) or MS #4 (my middle-grade contemporary fantasy, where the more you connect with what you read, the more your world shifts to be like it… physically!)

Querying

Once MS #1 has been revised, again, I’m marching into the query trenches once more.

Starting in March, I intend to send out 3 queries a week for 4 months, unless I get an R&R. If it goes no where, I’ll contemplate edits in August.

Beta Readers

I’ll be reaching out to beta readers as I wrap up my revisions on MS #2 (May) and MS #3 or #4(July).  Readers for MS #2 will, by necessity, be people who have beta read or critiqued MS #1, but for the others, I’m open to a small pool of new readers.

I like to keep my beta reader pool to no more than 8 readers, typically from different backgrounds. I usually give them separate copies, so that their feedback won’t influence each other.

If my Alpha reader’s schedule permits, I’ll send my manuscripts to her for quick feedback, but otherwise, these may just go straight to my beta readers.

In August and September, I’ve blocked time to incorporate the feedback — at least for MS #2. And perhaps, some updates for MS #1 (either as query feedback suggests, or to better set up MS #2’s plotting).

Conventions

I intend to hit Balticon again (May) and WorldCon (August) in Dublin (!!). I submitted to be a panelist at Balticon… but after they’d already started sending out panel invites, so I may have been too late there. We’ll see. (Keep your fingers crossed!)

Writing

Hmmm, there’s very little actual writing on this project plan, but sometimes, that’s how the cookie crumbles. Besides, I’ve been assured that editing and revising and brainstorming ARE part of the writing process.

Plus? I don’t have a big idea pushing on me right now.

That said, I intend to do OctPoWriMo again — writing a poem a day for all of October. And then NaNoWriMo.

If I don’t have an idea by then, I’ll do a rebel NaNo and revise whichever manuscript hasn’t been touched.


And that’s my plan for the year. If you got a little lost, here’s the plan in chart form.

I’ll be focusing on reading every other month until the last quarter, revising most of my backlog, querying, a couple conventions, and a bit of writing.


What does your plan look like for 2019?

Did you build in flexibility?

How To Beta-Read: One Writer’s Version

I almost entitled this “Beta-Reading: For Fun and Profit” but… I don’t usually profit. At least not monetarily.

I do a fair amount of beta-reading and/or critiquing. One can argue that beta-reading is commenting as a reader, where a critique is focused on craft-level commentary, but honestly, I do both. So, I’m not really going to break them out for the purposes of this post.

I read queries (obviously), synopses, short stories, essays, blog-posts, and, of course, novels. I’ve even been known to critique a non-fiction article, and the recipient claimed my excessive feedback useful, although frustrating because they believed they were closer to done than that…but I digress.

I beta-read for people in the writing groups I participate in, people who have beta-read for me, and for family members. (Or people who submit a query for critique to my QueryCorner at morgan.s.hazelwood@gmail.com)

You’d probably think that my beta-reading follows the survey that I send my own beta-readers. And… you’d be wrong. I follow it about as much as my own beta-readers do.

I use it as a guideline, and I generally keep the concepts in my head, but unless specifically asked, my commentary goes a bit sideways.

That said, what does Morgan’s beta-reading feedback look like?

1 – I can’t skip line edits

Okay, that’s probably a lie. IF, (and only if) I’m sending a single paragraph of general impressions after reading a partial or a short story, I can usually restrain myself.

But? If I’m going line-by-line and putting commentary in there? You’re gonna get at least some grammar edits, word-choice suggestions, and (for right-or-wrong) some comma movement.

2 – I’ll tell you when my eyes glaze over

I am predominantly plot driven. Or emotional journey driven? I want to know what is happening to the main character, what they’re feeling about it, and what they’re going to do next.

If you dwell on backstory, elaborate descriptions, or even fling too much action at me– scene after scene–I’m gonna toss in a note saying something.

I try to be kind, especially if it’s well-written. But you’re gonna see something like, “Can you filter in what she’s doing/feeling during this?” Action filtered into description or backstory helps move the story, emotional processing helps slow the story during too much action. Finding a balance? Is hard.

Pacing is tricky, so I want to help as much as possible.

3 – I’ll point out inconsistencies

I know I’m not getting your rough draft (I hope), and when you edit, sometimes you change things in most places… I’ll point out the spots you missed. Or things you didn’t mention earlier.

4 – I’ll say when you break my suspension of disbelief

If a character starts acting inconsistently? Or wolves show up where lions should be? I’ll say something.

If something or someone doesn’t fit my view of your world, I’ll let you know. It’s up to you to delete it, change it, or set it up better so it fits.

5 – I’ll applaud well-phrased sentences

Be it description, dialogue, or narration, a clever turn of phrase or beautiful imagery will get a shout out from me.

6 – I’ll start talking to your characters

Writing fiction? I have a low bar for getting sucked into stories and swept away by characters.

I’ll start cheering for your characters, putting in guesses about untold backstory and future plot points — both for me to find out if I’m right and so you can see what sort of thoughts your set up has inspired.

And? If I stop putting in edits and start just commenting on your characters and the plot? You’ve got 100% buy-in from me. Your story, my friend, is working.


***

Now, my questionnaire has more points than that, and sometimes I even remember to summarize my feelings on plot/pacing/and characterization at the end of each chapter. But, in general, this is how I edit.

Plus? I’m plot driven. Once I start, it’s unusual for it to take me more than 3 days to get through a piece, unless I don’t get time in the evening to sit down in front of my computer.


***

Have you beta-read? What sort of feedback do you give?
Is there something I should be doing that I’m not? Let me know!