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Comps – the Highs and the Lows

If you’re preparing a query, you’ve probably read a thousand times that you need comps: other books to compare your own with and set it alongside. And there’s varying conflicting advice on this too. Many people say it’s best to go with titles published in the last two years, to ensure you’re current and your type of book is selling right now (as opposed to ten years ago). But it’s not always that simple. Finding comps for my Austen-inspired dystopian romance has proved a road full of ups and downs, and I thought I’d share my journey with you.

To give you some background, dystopia was a genre that featured heavily in my reading in my formative years through high school… Mainly because my awesome English teacher was VERY into it. His reading list for the summer for me contained ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’… It was a happy but bleak summer! He had taught me HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ for coursework and this is probably one of the earliest dystopian novels. The basic idea with dystopia is that it’s set in the future, and it’s bad. OK, that’s simplistic. Whereas Utopia depicts an idealised society, dystopian societies tend to be overly restrictive and toxic antagonists for any free-thinking protagonist.

But my genre of choice has always been romance. I love Austen, Gaskell, George Eliot… and their books are more than simple romance plots. Their novels are about the growth and maturity of female protagonists – often in the Bildungsroman structure of innocence to maturity.

So it was only natural that when I plotted out the story I most wanted to write, I found myself taking the bare bones of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and putting it into a very different setting: a dystopian society where there’s only one hundred people left on Earth. With the high stakes of humanity being on the brink of extinction, a system is put in place to ensure that young people are paired off for breeding. But secrets about the world are about to be uncovered…

I happily bashed out my first draft, with a fairly clear idea in my head of what I was trying to achieve. I wanted the pacing and tone of ‘The Hunger Games’, the Austen-style historical feel and slow burn romance, but elements of a world like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Simple, right?

Well, I thought so. But there’s a lot of advice which says don’t use big classic titles for your comps. Hmmm: so maybe Jane Austen meets ‘The Hunger Games’ isn’t the best pitch, then. I like the way it says immediately what I’m trying to do. But neither title is ‘current’ and this suggests I’m not really up to date with what’s happening in the industry right now.

Cue searching for YA dystopian romances. Oh my word, there’s a lot of them. And the biggest blow was really seeing how many similar threads were in other stories (which I hadn’t even read) – and so it might look like I copied them. Argh!

So my comp journey began. I made a list (helped a lot by Goodreads, which is teeming with information like this), looked at the premises (the short description that you would read on Amazon), and downloaded free samples of everything which looked vaguely similar or had points of connection with my story. You can tell a lot about a story from the free sample. Usually, in YA, the first few pages include some life changing event or inciting incident, and the whole premise comes to life immediately. You also get a good sense of the ‘voice’ and character. The low points for me included seeing aspects of my story in someone else’s, and realising how my opening was not pacy and sharp enough to tick all the boxes. It hurt, but it was good. I took notes on the opening pages, then went back to my own, with a fresh sense of what I needed to do. I needed to get a much better balance of anchoring the reader in the world of my story, of creating enough mystery or interest that they had sufficient motive to read on, but also showing without telling the basics of who my protagonist was, and what their world was like.

With the comps that seemed to have the most in common with my story, I downloaded the full text and burned my way through them. Then I made notes on what I felt were the USPs (unique selling points) of my story eg. historical feel rather than tecchy. I learned from what was good, and I learned from what wasn’t so good too. It’s true that there’s a lot of stuff out there, that’s been published traditionally or self-published, that at times feels pretty ropey when you read it. But this then helped to build my confidence. If some of these stories can gain the readership and following they have done, then there’s space in the world for my story too. That’s given me hope and courage when writing and rewriting has felt slightly doomed by how saturated and out of mode dystopian romance is at the current time (oh, and did I mention coronavirus? Which apparently lessens people’s appetite for dystopia even more).

Some of the comps I read through compulsively. I may not have esteemed them of great literary value, but they were very readable and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Whenever I came across something that didn’t work for me as a reader, it helped me to think more clearly about my own story. The best ones I read gave me loads of inspiration. Ultimately, when you read the premise, you can easily panic and think that there’s too much overlap to warrant the need for your own story. But each story has its own voice. Just think of the different ways you could tell the story of Cinderella. As I’ve read comp titles, I’ve gone back to my own writing, and I’ve been better equipped to hone my own voice. Sometimes if even from knowing what I don’t want my book to be like!

One comp title leads to another. I finished Ally Condie’s ‘Matched’ trilogy, and then I read Kiera Cass’ ‘Selection’ trilogy. I read ‘Branded’ and ‘Only Ever Yours’. I’ve got a bunch of unread stories on my kindle, and I’ve branched out into other YA genres, which has given me a much better feel for the tone and pacing. Last year I went to a YA author’s talk and she mentioned reading hundreds of YA books. I’m not there yet but my reading stats have sky rocketed! (OK I know only Goodreads cares about this but hey). I feel I’ve got a better awareness of what’s been published and when. I still struggle to keep my reading really current because the dystopias I’m seeing right now are pretty gritty and bleak. I’ve read ‘The Power’ and ‘Vox’ (neither are YA, but both are feminist dystopias influenced by Atwood) and I need to get hold of ‘The Grace Year’ (did I mention my book budget has sky rocketed too?). I signed up to BookBub which has been pretty good at notifying me of 99p kindle bargains in the genres I’m interested in… But as I’ve blogged before, I tend to go in waves of reading and then waves of writing. I struggle to do both! I recently finished redrafting (for now) so I’m in a wave of reading. On my TBR (to be read) list (and did I mention how awesome the collection function is on kindle? Like the ‘shelves’ in Goodreads, you can just pool your dystopias into one happy place): ‘Eve’ by Anna Carey, ‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer, ‘A Curse so Dark and Lonely’ by Brigid Kemmerer, ‘Night of the Party’ by Tracey Mathias, ‘Burn’ by Patrick Ness and ‘The Places I’ve Cried in Public’ by Holly Bourne. Some are dystopias, some are YA, and some are just there because I love the author (I’m very in awe of Patrick Ness). If I get discouraged, I remind myself that this is actually a pretty fun task and comps don’t have to be an exact match. You can say ‘elements of’ something or ‘in the vein of…’ If you can find just the right combination of anchoring your work in its genre, but giving it a ‘twist’ with a comp that’s unexpected or surprising, then you’re onto a good elevator pitch that will whet an agent’s appetite for reading your story!

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Why reading helps me write

Stephen King famously said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I have to admit, I struggle with the busyness of life to do both at the same time! Work takes up a huge chunk of the day, then of course I want to spend time with my family, time to cook meals and eat together, bedtime routine… So all in all, there isn’t much left by the time all that’s done. I know from my Twitter feed that most writers struggle with exactly the same problem. We’re all squishing our writing time in – it’s like precious gold, and you only find small nuggets amongst a lot of dross.

This being said, I’m a great believer in the phrase ‘You make time for what’s important to you.’ As much as life gets busy, there is always some space – however small- for doing what you love. I find I go through cycles of reading and writing, and this is how reading helps me.

Firstly, reading helps me ‘place’ what I’m trying to write. When I finished my first draft of ‘Bell Time’, a contemporary rom-com, I binge-read a couple of other contemporary rom-coms, so that I could see what was working, what was similar, and what was different. Reading Sophie Kinsella’s ‘I Owe You One’, Mhairi McFarlane’s ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and Beth O’Leary’s ‘The Flatshare’ in quick succession really helped me to piece together the ‘feel’ of this genre at the moment. The kind of language, the ‘voice’, use of POV, and plot point markers – I definitely found rom-coms didn’t quite fit as easily into the structure models I had used before. Reading other people’s work doesn’t make me want to change stuff just to copy, but it does help me see my own work in a different perspective, and how readers will receive it compared to the other books they’ve enjoyed.

Secondly, reading inspires me. Since reading ‘The Hurting’ by Lucy Van Smit, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the idea of Wuthering Heights turned into a YA thriller (‘The Hurting’ was reviewed as a Nordic noir version of Wuthering Heights, which totally captured my imagination). This is my new idea I’m outlining and bashing out at the moment, but writing a thriller is new territory for me. Cue ‘TBR’ list of YA thrillers – any recommendations?

Thirdly, reading is just so therapeutic. I just feel so much better in myself when I can really relax and lose myself in the world of Non Pratt or Rainbow Rowell or (insert YA contemporary writer here). This gives me the ‘head space’ that I need sometimes to refresh, then go back to writing with a sense of renewal and energy.

So I’ll be honest: I don’t read every day, and I don’t write every day. But most days, I manage to do one of them. And I’m happy with that.

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First Draft tools

I’m chuffed that I recently finished my first draft of ‘Bell Time’, a contemporary rom-com set in a school. My main goal was to make sure it was much more tightly structured than my first novel, ‘The Day of the Dice’, where my first draft was 120k words. Waaaaaay too long! So I succeeded in this goal… but maybe a bit too much. My word count on this first draft is 42k words, which basically isn’t long enough really for a novel. And it’s too long for a novella. My husband’s opinion is that I’ve been super economical this time, and I can definitely afford to go back and extend it with more of the other characters and upp the comedy. So I’m hoping the editing process for this will be fun filled!

Anyway, I thought I would share some of the tools I was using to write this first draft. Some of them I picked up when I wrote ‘The Day of the Dice’ (some I really wished I’d had from the start of that process!), and some are new to this WIP (work in progress). I hope you find them helpful too.

  • Save the Cat Writes a Novel This is a great outlining tool which I used AFTER my first draft of ‘The Day of the Dice’ to whip it into a better shape. It helped to show me where some of the ‘beats’ of the story were not quite right. For ‘Bell Time’, I typed out a rough outline using the Save the Cat beat sheet- although I have to admit, the story took on a life of its own (as usual), so my finished first draft doesn’t stick to the original outline. But I did still stick to the principles of what the story beats should be.
  • The Secrets of Story Structure KM Weiland’s website is a Mary Poppins bag of extremely helpful resources in figuring out how the different parts of a story work. I used this series when I hit the 75% mark of my first draft, because I needed to go over what the final section needs to accomplish and how to do that well. Her site also has a database where people have submitted beats for existing films and stories, which I found useful, because this is my first time writing a rom-com and I found that some of the beats differ with this genre (for example, the inciting incident is usually where the couple meet for the first time).
  • StoryClock This is mostly used for film but I found it really helpful for finishing my first draft. The idea is that you plot out around a circle the key events. I found it helpful to then colour code them according to different ‘threads’ of the story. Then you can see how to make your story ‘symmetrical’ – where a story thread is introduced, and where it needs to come back into the story to make it ‘work’. This tool showed me where I had used a new character to function as a minor antagonist to create an obstacle for my couple, when I should have just used the major antagonist and not complicated the story further.

Overall, this process of writing a first draft has felt tidier to me because of these tools for structuring my story. There’s still loads I have to do in terms of editing, but I think if you have the right plot points in place, it makes everything so much easier. As much as you don’t want to be overly formulaic, there’s a reason why these structures work! The tricky thing is to give readers what they want, what feels ‘right’ for the story, without being predictable. Answers on a postcard please!

https://plotdevices.co/pages/how-to-use-the-storyclock-notebook
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#PitMad

On Thursday I took part in #PitMad, my second foray into Twitter pitching! Unlike #KissPitch, #PitMad is a broader pitching event, open to a wide range of genres. Quite a few of my Twitter friends were participating, and it was great to share our pitches, comment on them to help them gain traction, and retweet them.

As one of my NZ friends pointed out, it’s really tricky participating in Twitter pitches that are in a different timezone. #PitMad uses EDT and while you can schedule Tweets using Tweetdeck, it’s still frustrating when you feel like you miss out on some of the live action. It’s really exciting to join in when the pitching is live because you can see new tweets popping up everywhere. I’ve found this really helpful to find other writers to follow and connect with, because as we all know, the Twitter algorithms often mean that many of us tweet but are ‘invisible’.

The best thing for me about #PitMad was that it demonstrated the #WritingCommunity at its most supportive. It’s tempting to view Twitter pitches as a competition, and I know my own tendency is to be unhelpfully competitive. I found KM Weiland’s blog post about ‘Writer’s Envy’ really helpful. Here’s what she says:

I believe it is an absolute truth that when one artist succeeds, the rewards belong to all of us. When a good story (or song or picture) is given to the world, and then given a platform from which it can be shared with the greatest number of people, that is one of the most perfect things in life.

In short, on a purely artistic level, there is no competition. There is only cooperation. Your art makes my art better. My art makes your art better. And we all benefit.

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/writers-envy/

If you think about it, reading a fantastic book doesn’t make you think: ‘Great, I’ve read a brilliant book. Now I never need to read again.’ No! It makes you want MORE! I finished the Hunger Games, then I was recommended Divergent, and the rabbit hole of YA dystopia continues on and on! Reading well written stories gives you an appetite for more great stories, and of course helps you as a writer to continually hone your own craft. Writers have to be readers first.

So if you build healthy, co-operative friendships with other writers on Twitter and other platforms, you are actually also building a future readership for that day when you are published… But even if that never happens, you’ve found a community. Creating stories is often a lonely and frustrating process, and I’m not sure you CAN push through without encouragement, support and the help of others’ critique.

I really enjoyed #PitMad; if nothing else, I get to tell more people about my story, and I get to see all the other great ideas my writing friends are working on. I look forward to reading them!

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#KissPitch 2020

On 14th February, I took part in a Twitter pitch aimed at Romance writers. This is where you post up to four tweets over a set time period (9am – 9pm EST), using the hashtag #KissPitch, and literary agents who are interested in finding new romance writers will ‘like’ your tweet if they would like you to query them with a first chapter and some more details about your story. This was the first time I’d taken part in a Twitter pitch, and it was such a great experience, because it forced me to come up with four different ‘elevator pitches’ for my story, to condense the complexities of plot, theme, character and setting into 240 character Tweets. It’s not easy! But it does really help you to focus on the core elements of your story, and what your story is really about.

This was my most retweeted Tweet, and it was really exciting to see people reacting to my story. I tried to convey something of the tone, genre, world, the goal of my protagonist, and the conflict she faces. I wanted to emphasise what makes my story unique and different; most dystopia I’ve read is set in a futuristic setting with advanced technology. My story is based around a community of 100 people who are post-apocalyptic survivors, so they don’t have factories, mass production, much available technology or electricity or all the infrastructure that’s needed for those things to be possible. That’s why it ‘feels like the past’ – the characters ride horses, make their own clothes, grow their food, and sort of live an Amish kind of self-sufficient existence.

The key problem my protagonist faces is that, because they are ‘survivors’, they have an enforced child-bearing policy where young people are paired up for fifteen years when they come of age. Elise’s mother died in childbirth, and so did her grandmother. She dreads having to take part in something which potentially will kill her.

Elise discovers that there may be a way out, a way of escape… But she doesn’t expect to fall in love. Leaving is not going to be as easy as she thought.

There are various Twitter pitches throughout the year, such as #PitMad and #DVPit.

If you’re a writer, why not take part? If you’re querying anyway, it helps you find agents who are actively looking for new submissions, and it can help you get to the top of the slush pile.