Our Summer Vacation: Pitching Your Book

OUR WRITING ROADMAPI’ve been doing posts all summer with some tips for writing your novel. Each of the steps I’ve talked about–plotting, finding voice, editing–are part of the writing process. They can take months. Sometimes work gets stuck in one of those steps, and is abandoned for a period of time. Never think that you are wasting time on any part of this process. Writing is a craft, and takes practice.

Once your book is “done”, you need to get ready to pitch it. Note, I put done in quotes, because it is such a relative term. I’ve read stories I’ve had published, and wanted to change things. I’m rereading a manuscript I wrote a long time ago, and pitched several times. It is good, but I can make it better now. It is a fine line between a work being “good enough” or “not quite there”. Make sure you don’t publish prematurely.

Assuming you are ready to go to the next step, you need to make decisions about your path of publication. Do you want to go the traditional route, and find an agent who then pitches to an editor?Are you going to self publish? Are you going to pitch directly to a small press? There’s a lot to this decision, and I can talk about that more in a later post.

Today, I want to talk to you about the pitch itself. Imagine this, you’re in a elevator and an agent gets on with you. You chat, they find out you’re a writer, and they say “tell me about your book”.

Do you:

a) stammer and start telling them the story in details and you barely get past the first chapter when the elevator door opens and the agent runs away.

b) tell them your pitch as a conversation opener, and then have time to answer a few questions before the door opens.

The answer is, of course, b. But you’d be surprised how challenging getting that pitch down can be. Here are some of the things I try and keep in mind:

  • Make it a hundred words or less. It should take you two or three minutes tops.
  • Make it conversational. Don’t rush, try not to fumble with words.
  • Don’t tell the story. Talk about the theme–why are you telling this story? What is the hook? Why should they care?
  • Who are you pitching to? What can you change so it hits what interests them?

Those are some of the things to think about. So much easier said than done. But practice your pitch. Know it back and forth. You’ll use it at conferences, at meetings, in queries, in marketing materials. It’s never too early to think about your pitch. Who knows, it may help you focus your story while you are writing it.

My pitch for Clock and Dagger, the second book in my Clock Shop Mystery series is that Ruth Clagan is settling into Orchard, MA, and about to hold four parties in as many days when the past creeps up and threatens her new life. She has to find a murderer, and protect her family before the New Year rings in.

nhwn books clock daggerClock and Dagger was published yesterday, August 2. If you go over to the Wicked Cozy Authors and comment on the blog talking about the debut (at the link) you may be entered to win a copy of the book.

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As Julianne Holmes, Julie writes the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. The second book in the series, Clock and Dagger, was published on August 2. She is over the moon!

Our Summer Vacation: Editing

OUR WRITING ROADMAPWeek three of our summer series, and a topic I know very well. Editing. I just submitted book #3 of my Clock Shop Mystery series, and the editing is still raw. Before I go into more specifics about my process, let me frame what editing is/when it comes in.

For some people, a first draft is a slog through molasses going uphill in January. For others, it is an easy brain dump that gets you to the shaping part of your novel.Everyone has a different first draft experience, so have your own. But always remember two truths. First, no matter how wonderful a writer you are, editing is part of the process. Give yourself time to do it, and don’t shortchange that part of the process. Second, someone said you can’t edit a blank page, and they were correct. I am a firm believer in moving forward while writing. A reminder, I am a plotter, so my first draft has some surprises (you can’t anticipate everything the muses offer), but I have a roadmap moving forward. I have learned to trust that, and keep moving.

Editing is an art. As a writer, you can do a lot yourself. Here are some of the layers of editing I’ve discovered.

Developmental. This layer of editing is big picture, first reader editing. Does the story make sense? Are there plot holes? Are the characters consistent? Does the scene order make sense? Do things need to be shifted around? I have a trusted first reader who is a friend, knows the genre I write in, and gives me some tough love. I find this to be a vulnerable time in my process, so I have chosen this first reader carefully.

Structural. I had a tendency to make leaps of logic that make sense to me while I am writing, but I don’t always connect the dots for my readers. Or I make a change in my story (he becomes a she, he goes from married to single, her cat becomes a dog) and the change isn’t consistent throughout the novel. Maybe a subplot needs to be fleshed out, and interwoven with more elegance. This phase of the editing makes sure the frame of the story is strong.

Enriching. He said. She said. He said. They did. All great for scenes. But add some physicality to the scene. She’s making dinner. He’s folding laundry.  That grounds the scene. Add descriptions. Help the reader understand your intention not by telling them, but by showing them. This layer is where the art comes in. For my most recent manuscript, I was thinking about the theme of the novel, and how each scene supported it. Then I realized that one of the subplots could be tweaked and would better serve the overall theme. It was fun adding that layer to the work.

Polishing. Final layer of editing is cleaning things up. Spell check. Reading not for content, but for words. Checking grammar. Triple checking punctuation. Doing a “find” for words that you overuse, and getting rid of them. (This blog post is a big help in finding some of those words.)

Final step? Letting it go. There comes a point where you need someone else to look over your work. You can get an editor at any one of the above stages. But you will need to know when to let your work go, either for querying to an agent or submitting it to your editor. I try to stop working on my manuscript before I screw it up. Sounds like I am being funny, but I’m not. Tweaking and adjusting becomes addictive, but at some point practically perfect becomes a hot mess. Let it go before it gets to the hot mess stage.

Spend time on editing–all phases of editing. It is where the fun of writing lives.

Dear readers, do you prefer one phase of editing over another? Where do you bring in others to help?

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As Julianne Holmes, Julie writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. The second book in the series, CLOCK AND DAGGER, will be released on August 2.

Our Summer Vacation: Using Your Voice

OUR WRITING ROADMAPTwo weeks ago we started our writing summer vacation by talking about plotting. Today, I want to address how you are going to tell your story–what voice are you going to use?

I write my current series in first person, from the point of view of amateur sleuth Ruth Clagan. I only use first person. The pros of this choice? She is my protagonist, and first person lets her voice ring out loud and clear. She sets the tone for the scenes. Cons of this choice? She has to be in every scene. If she isn’t present, then a scene needs to described to her, which can be very boring since it doesn’t allow her to experience it.

First person also does something else–it gives the reader the perspective of the narrator. Her prejudices are passed on without editorial comment. There is always a perspective involved, and that impacts the reader expectations.

The other choice is third person. Even then there are choices. Close third person still slants towards a specific perspective on the story, since it will often focus on one character as the center of the narrative. Omniscient third person is like a camera that doesn’t use close ups. Everyone is always in the frame. There is no specific point of view.

You can change points of view within a novel. Jessica Estevao’s new book, Whispers Beyond the Veil (due out in September) is told in first person and third person. Agatha Christie used third person, moving from close to omniscient. Murder on the Orient Express is a great example of that technique. First person doesn’t mean the narrator has to be the center of the story–see how Nick Carraway tells The Great Gatsby, and the effect of that choice by Fitzgerald. Always remember, writing is a craft that is honed over time. Playing with points of view will come easier over time. Or, maybe, it will be less scary.

Your choice of point of view determines your story in a lot of ways. One thing I’ve found is that when a story isn’t working for whatever reason, I change the POV and that usually helps. I’m not going to say one is easier or better than another. What I am saying it that one choice is the correct one for your story. It’s up to you to figure that out.

Given the plot you’ve worked out, how are you going to tell that story?

Friends, there is a Goodreads Giveaway this week (through July 9) for my next novel. You can enter to win here at the link.

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Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. She also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors, and starting in July will appear on Killer Characters on the 20th of every month. Her next novel, Clock and Dagger, will be released on August 2.

Summer Writing Vacation: Plotting

Two weeks ago I proposed spending my summer blogging spots talking about my process for writing a novel. Note, this is my process, developed afteOUR WRITING ROADMAPr years of classes, workshops, books, and practice. It works for me, but that doesn’t guarantee it will work for you. Perhaps it will give you some ideas, or help you get unstuck.

I am a plotter. I’ve talked about that on this blog, and others. What that means is that I map out my novel (or story) before I start to write. Actually, I count my plotting time as writing time, since it frees me up considerably and is the only way I can work full time while writing a mystery series. That doesn’t mean I don’t deviate. Right now, for example, I am rethinking the denouement of my 3rd clock shop mystery. But the map got me to where I am going.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser (write by the seat of your pants), the dramatic arc of a story remains the foundation to making the novel work. Here is what I think about when I am plotting my books.

The background of the story. Where is it set? Who are the major characters? What is life like for people? “I want to write a story about an advertising agency” is a good example to start. Think about the agency. Think about the people in it. Where is the agency set? Build the world of your story. You’ll fill in more and more details as you keep writing. For your own sake, keep track of those details in a “bible” so you can recall them easily.

The inciting incident, or why are you telling this story now? What has “disrupted” the normal of your world? Inciting incidents don’t have to take place within your story frame, but they are the driver of your story. Examples for an advertising agency: a lost client, a fight over creative control, the selling of a partnership. The inciting incident sparks the story you are going to tell.

Dramatic StructurePaula Munier wrote a great book called Plot Perfect that outlines narrative structure. I have also read The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, which is a 52 step process for writing a book. Both of these books are well worth reading and highly recommended. But let me boil down what I mean by dramatic structure, narrative arcs and plot points.

You want to take your reader on a journey, with a rising sense of tension that compels her to keep reading. In order to keep the tension rising, you need to engage her by unpending expectations. These twists are called plot points–the first plot point is roughly 1/4 of the way in, and the second plot point is roughly 3/4 of the way in. The midpoint (halfway through) also needs some sort of action to drive it forward. Then you work towards the climax of the novel, then the denouement.

While planning your novel or story, don’t worry about your plot points at the beginning. Instead, make a list of what happens in your novel. (Scenes.) Use the “this happens and then” to move the story forward. One or two sentences on 3×5 cards for each scene. Now that you have your story laid out, think about the dramatic structure of the story. How’s the pacing? Are your plot points separated? Do you build up to each? Is the middle of the book a muddle, or does it keep driving the story? If your plot points come right on top of each other, can you add more scenes? Or a subplot?

Sometimes you will be driven to tell the story as you write, which is fine. Some of my best friends are pantsers. But think about dramatic structure in the editing phase, and see what you can do to keep the reader on a ride.

The final thing to think about in this phase is the theme of the novel. This may come later, but it can help you shape your scenes in interesting ways. The theme of my first book, Just Killing Time, is healing. Clock and Dagger is about redemption. Subplots and the main story all work to support that theme. Or that’s the attempt. The theme of the novel or story may become clearer as you are writing, and may help you in the editing phase.

This is a lot, but a good roadmap for moving forward. Remember what is the story you’re telling, why are you telling this story now, what happens, and why should your reader keep going?

Thoughts? Questions? Let me know! See you in two weeks for the next leg of our summer writing adventure.

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Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. Book #2 in the series, Clock and Dagger, comes out August 2.

How Julie Writes A Book, aka Our Summer Vacation

red-hands-woman-creativeOn Sunday night I had the great good fortune to be a guest on The Writer’s Chatroom, hosted by our own Lisa Haselton aka Lisa Jackson. I loved answering questions about my writing process and the publishing business. Though hardly an expert, I do know a fair amount. Right now I am deep in the weeds of writing book #3 in the Clock Shop Mystery series (working title, Chime and Punishment). It is due to my editor at Berkley on July 15. Book #2 in the series, Clock and Dagger, is coming out August 2. That means I need to get blog posts prepped for guest spots, work on a social media campaign, and possibly plan some public appearances.

I am so, so fortunate to have a publishing contract. But with that good fortune comes the pressure of producing a book a year for three years in a row. Though at this point in the process, the pain of forcing those words out of my brain onto the keyboard is real (my friend Hallie Ephron said it is like putting a log through a meat grinder) I’ve done this twice before for this series, and three times before for books that haven’t been published. I know I can do this. It may not be pretty, and I may not sleep for the next five weeks, but I can do this.

This summer I am going to write about my book writing process. I won’t make it genre specific, though I can write a post about that if it is helpful.  Posts will include how I plot, writing a series, the editing process, pitching your book, and promotion. What else would you like to know more about?

I post every other week, so two weeks from today we’re going to talk about plotting. I am a plotter, not a panster, and I’ll walk you through my process, how it helps get the first draft done, and what’ I’ve learned by putting it into practice.

Your homework, should you want to play along, is to think about the story you want to tell. Think about these questions:

  • Who are the main characters in your story?
  • What launches your story? “A Day in the Life” can be dull. “A Day in the Life After XYZ Happens” is a novel.
  • What is the overall theme of your story?
  • What else happens?
  • Where is it taking place?

Over the next two weeks, mull your story over. Think it through. Write ideas down. We’ll tackle plotting in the next installment of this simmer series.

Happy to hear any ideas you might have!

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ClockandDaggerJulianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mysteries. Clock and Dagger will be out August 2.

The New England Crime Bake

2016 social media squareI have been to all but the very first New England Crime Bake. The first year, I went with my friend Regina, and was totally intimidated. At first. But then the venue ran out of toilet paper, so Kate Flora stood outside the ladies room giving people sheets. After that, and after meeting the really terrific people who ran the New England Crime Bake, I realized I had found my tribe, and I went back every year. For the last four years, I’ve been on the committee, and was co-chair of 2014 and 2015. Registration is open for the 2016 New England Crime Bake, and here’s why I think you crime writers at any stage of publication should come.

  • The New England Crime Bake is intentionally kept small, and geared towards writers. It is put on by Mystery Writers of America, the New England Chapter, and Sisters in Crime New England.
  • The Guest of Honor this year is William Kent Krueger. He writes the Cork O’Connor series, and is also the author of the extraordinary Ordinary Grace. Go to his website and read the story about the follow up to Ordinary Grace. Don’t you want to meet someone with that much passion and principle?
  • There are Master Classes on Friday afternoon on a variety of topics, including marketing, editing, and self publishing. The classes cost extra, but are worth it.
  • The Saturday and Sunday panels are interesting, and well curated to give writers something to chew on as they do their work.
  • You can pitch your project to an agent or editor. Or both.
  • You can get feedback on the first page of your manuscript.
  • You can get a manuscript critique. Again, it costs extra, but you will get feedback on 15 pages of your work in progress from a professional writer.
  • You can learn from experts on different subjects.
  • You can find your people. And have fun while you do it.

The New England Crime Bake is November 11-13 in Dedham MA. We will sell out, and shortly, so don’t wait. I’d love to see you there.

Also, if you have a crime based short story, read the guidelines here and submit it to Level Best BooksLast date for submission is May 31, so get on it!

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Julie Hennrikus writes the Clock Shop Mystery series as Julianne Holmes. Clock and Dagger will be released on August 2. She is in book jail this weekend, working on Book #3, tentatively titled Chimes and Punishment.

Read Up

READUPLast fall I interviewed Elizabeth George at the New England Crime Bake.  It was a wonderful conversation, with a lot of advice to ponder. One piece of advice I think about is to “read up”. My friend Michele Dorsey and I were talking about it at Malice Domestic. (Michele is the author of No Virgin Island, a wonderful mystery set on St. John.)

“I’ve taken her advice,” Michele told me. “I’m reading authors who inspire me to write better.”

As writers, we need a balanced diet. We need books that inspire us. We also need craft books and articles (and blogs) that help build strong bones and muscles. But we also need an occasional guilty pleasure–low in nutrients, but high in pleasure. Pleasure books are just that–read purely for pleasure.

When I read craft books, my brain is retaining, categorizing, filing for future use. When I am pleasure reading in my genre, I am watching another writer’s craft at work. The critic “Julie” is also reading aspirational novels, trying to absorb tips and tricks that I can use. But once in a while, I stop analyzing and start zoning in on the storytelling.

Some pleasure books break through to become aspirational. Some aspirational (well written) books are torture to get through. The balance between the two is the sweet spot.

I hope that each book I write is better than the next. Sounds simple, but it is tough to do.

Friends, what are your “I wish I wrote that” books? Which writers do you aspire to write like?

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Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. She also blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.

 

A Week for the Books

Wicked Cozy AuthorsI suspect this will be a week I remember for a long time, and a blog post feels like a good memory book. I hesitate about blowing my own horn, but we know one another. We touch base every couple of weeks. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Today my picture was in the Boston Globe. Twice. And not because I did something terrible. Instead, it was because I hang out with some fabulous mystery writers, and we blog together at the Wicked Cozy Authors. A reporter wanted to write a story about cozy mysteries, and someone pointed her in our direction. It is a story about the genre, and about our friendship. I can’t even pretend it isn’t a thrill.

As if this wasn’t enough for my writing week, Malice Domestic is this weekend. This is a huge fan conference that celebrates the traditional mystery. It takes place in Bethesda, Maryland. Now, I’ve been going to Malice for years. When I first went, I was barely admitting that I wanted to write a mystery aloud. In 2005 Sherry Harris sat at the same table as I did. She was moving to Massachusetts that fall, and I suggested she join Sisters in Crime New England. Cut to today, where we are both Wicked Cozies, and her third book was just released.

My first book, Just Killing Time, has been nominated for a Best First Novel Agatha. I’ve gotten to know my fellow nominees, and they are all terrific. On Saturday, either Ellen Byron, Art Taylor, Cindy Brown, Tessa Arlen or I will win the teapot. But honestly, this is a tough slate, and it is really an honor to be nominated. I know people always say that, but it is true. There were a lot of books to choose from, and I love that my debut made the short list.

Now, not all weeks in my writing life are this epic. In fact, most aren’t. All the more reason for celebrating this week. Then getting back to work on Book #3.

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J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. Just Killing Time is on sale now, Clock and Dagger will be released in August.

 

Putting It Together

killing timeI’ve written about this before–the difference between being an author and being published is vast. By published, I mean being engaged in the business part of writing. While it is, and remains, a thrill to hold a book I wrote in my hand, the business is fraught. Publishing trends, consolidation of publishing companies, e-books, making a living. I firmly believe that remaining grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given is the best path forward. However, I need some help navigating that path.

Help comes from many places, including Jane Friedman. She teaches, blogs, speaks at conferences, and offers a variety of services. Her blog posts are terrific. A recent post was called “4 Lessons for Authors on the Current State of Publishing“. It is definitely worth reading the entire post, but today I want to focus on one piece of advice she offered.

“An author’s online presence is more critical than ever to long-term marketing strategy.” She has a good deal of advice in this area, but supported one of the decisions I made early on. I don’t separate my online lives. J.A. Hennrikus short story writer and Julianne Holmes author of the Clock Shop Mysteries–you may take different roads to get there, but you will end up in the same place.

I am on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I have a url for J.A. Hennrikus and one for Julianne Holmes, but they both end up the same place. I blog here and at Wicked Cozy Authors, and both places I use both names. Am I doing this all perfectly, or even well? I don’t know. What I do know is that I am trying, and in this publishing climate, trying counts for something.

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J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series. Just Killing Time, the first in the series, has been nominated for a Best First Agatha award.

Words Count

WORDS (2)One of my jobs is running a non-profit arts service organization. This past week has been about completing some online profiles and doing a grant. Both of these require specific wordsmithing. Max 200 words here, 2600 characters including spaces there. My manuscript is contracted to be 80,000 words. This weekend, I am pitching a book, and I needed to write a 50 word blurb in advance.

In the case of my book, I write short and use the edits to flesh it out–adding descriptions, writing clarifying scenes, in some cases fleshing out a subplot. That is part of my process, and now that I have written a few books I know I can do it. My novel writing friends know well that the hardest part of writing a novel is starting. The second hardest part is finishing.

Honing my narrative to fit a specific text block is another matter all together. Free flowing prose is gone. Instead, well written, terse statements that nonetheless evoke feelings of generosity and an air of competence is the norm. Trying to cut 13 words, after having cut 100, is brutal. A great skill to master, but brutal.

The 50 word pitch was the hardest of them all. I am trying to sell a book. I love this book. Love does not make you rational. Or able to explain why someone else should love it in 50 words. This weekend I give the pitch–I’ll let you know how it goes.

Do word counts paralyze you? How are you at wordsmithing?

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J.A. Hennrikus writes short stories. Julianne Holmes writes the Clock Shop Mystery series, including the Agatha nominated Just Killing Time. Julie Hennrikus runs StageSource.