Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: Chapter Swap


Late last summer, Brian Sargent proposed a question to our group: Anyone interested in drafting or revising a project using a chapter swap? We started with five members but soon there were three -- Brian, Ella Schwartz, and Jean Giardina.

The rules were simple. The first rule of chapter swap was don’t talk about chapter swap.

*is handed note*

Sorry, wrong rule. The rules were: email one chapter to the group on Monday, everyone reads and provides feedback by Friday, repeat until your book is done.

We named ourselves the Swapperz and have hung together through the ups and downs of the last nine months. Here’s our story:

Describe Your Project and Why You Wanted to Try a Chapter Swap

Jean: I had an idea and an outline for an X-Files-inspired middle grade contemporary. What I needed was accountability. I draft slowly and a weekly due date seemed like a sensible approach. After all, it’s only one chapter per week. How hard could it be, right? (Spoiler: it’s very hard.)

Brian: My project is about everything. Or at least it has been about everything at one point or another. And that’s why I wanted to do the swap. I could not pin this manuscript down to one cohesive idea. I knew if I was submitting the chapters to other dynomite* writers, I’d have to commit to one idea. And it worked!

Ella: I had a completed first draft of a soldier book I’d written for NaNoWriMo two years ago which was in desperate need of some attention. Vomiting all the words is easy for me but revisions are painful. I needed a kick in the butt to sit down every single week and chip away at this book one chapter at a time.

*Please do not correct me. If you believe dynomite is actually spelled any other way, you are wrong and your penance is to watch more Good Times.

How Similar are Your Stories and Writing Styles?

Jean: Not similar at all and I think that is one of our group’s greatest strengths. What we do have in common is a similar critiquing style. Our feedback to each other is very direct and honest, but filled with humor.

Brian: One of the biggest challenges for me is that we have a YA/NA romance-ish book in the mix, and I have absolutely zero experience with those. But it has explosions, too. Sometimes I think Ella puts in the explosions just for me. Thank you, Ella!

Ella: I totally do, Brian! Every time I write a scene where guns are fired or grenades are thrown I think to myself, “this will make up for the kissing scene I tossed Brian last week.” Then I throw an extra grenade, just for good measure. But Jean is right, our books are so vastly different and I think that’s what makes our group so special. Jean is writing a fun alien book that takes place in the country, and being a city girl, I love all the images of pickup trucks, wheat fields, and bicycles zipping down dirt paths. I’ve started using the word ‘hankering’ in my everyday vernacular.

What Is the Biggest Challenge?

Jean: The swap forces me to get over attempted perfectionism in my first draft. Typos? Plot detours? They are all there in their fetid glory. Some weeks, I write a chapter and press send without much time to consider my work. I feel like I am shoveling garbage directly into Brian’s and Ella’s inboxes. But the world keeps spinning and their feedback is just the encouragement I need to move forward.

Brian: For the record, Jean has never shoveled garbage into my inbox. For me, the biggest challenge was finding the right partners. I’ve written in isolation for a long time because every writing group I’d ever joined before had been way too positive. I needed to find writers I could trust to tell me when something wasn’t working. Lucky for me, I did.

Ella: My biggest challenge was getting over my insecurities and hitting the send button. The first couple of weeks I was TERRIFIED that Jean and Brian would throw me out of the Swapperz saying my writing was just too awful, or they weren’t interested in my story. I’m pretty sure I sent the group a long disclaimer when we started this journey which said something like, “I have this book which probably sucks and you probably have no interest so if you don’t want to read it won’t hurt my feelings.”

What Is the Biggest Surprise?

Jean: The weekly feedback is more important than I ever imagined. It is instant course correction. One week, I wrote a chapter and both Brian and Ella came back with the same feedback: “No way.” And they were right. For the next week, I rewrote that chapter from scratch. It’s as if they shot a flare just as I was about to drive my plot off of a cliff.

Brian: I’ll share a similar story. About three chapters into my project, Jean sent me feedback that said something like, “I can’t wait until the next chapter! I can tell you’re about to reveal something really big!” But I wasn’t. Not even close. My big reveal was still many chapters away. Many boring chapters away. But I knew she was right. It was time for a big reveal. And so I cut a huge section of my book out and changed the pace dramatically. That’s the joy of instant feedback.

Jean: The technical term for what I wanted to see from Brian is called the Chapter 3 Poop Fan. We Swapperz are a classy bunch.

Ella: What Jean and Brian said! The instant feedback has been so important. But I’ll add another surprise: The friendship that has grown between the three of us. When you’re swapping every week you’re choosing to trust your writing partners and with that trust builds friendship. Brian and Jean have become dear friends. I don’t know where I’d be without them. Look, sometimes life gets in the way of writing. The three of us had a tough winter with sick kids, family tragedies, and snow mountains. When life got tough, we leaned on each other.

Has the Swap Changed Your Writing Process?

Brian: Absolutely. It made me commit to an idea and see it through. Instead of turning around and rewriting the beginning every time I hit a roadblock, the swap forced me to push through the challenge and get to the next chapter, even if sometimes I had to ask my readers to simply pretend I’d fixed something when I hadn’t. Yet.

Ella: Yes! The accountability forced me to make writing part of my weekly schedule. I try to write a little everyday now. I’ve also become a better writer. Jean has helped me eliminate (most) of the pesky filter words from my writing.

Jean: Completely! The swap has made me a more confident writer because I know that I have two amazing people in my corner. And when I don't deliver my words on time, I can count on harassing emails.

What Are the Positives or Negatives of a Chapter Swap?

Brian: By their very nature, chapter swaps are small picture critiques, and it’s possible to write perfect chapter after perfect chapter, but still not have a great book. Big picture items can sometimes be overlooked in crafting the individual chapters.

Ella: That’s a good point, Brian. We’re always so focused on reviewing a single chapter that sometimes we don’t pay attention to the big picture.

Jean: There can certainly be a forest and trees issue when working on projects chapter by chapter. But I think we’ve countered that with the friendship and trust part. On several occasions, a chapter critique has turned into long email chains about brainstorming solutions to big picture problems. Once, I even used math to make my point (my apologies again, Ella).

How Invested Are You in Your Writing Partners’ Work?

Ella: So invested! I think about Jean's and Brian’s characters all the time! I’ll be sitting at the soccer field and all of a sudden have an idea for their stories and I need to shoot off an immediate email. Their stories aren’t my own babies, but I sort of feel like the favorite aunt.

Brian: It’s funny because in a way, Jean and Ella have become my surrogate writers. With a few keystrokes, they are able to fix stuff that has been bothering me for months. I can only hope I’ve done the same for them. Every week or so, one of us will write a long email that begins “Feel free to ignore me, but…” and then go nuts outlining awesome ideas for the other writers to react to. They don’t make a dedication page big enough for the thanks I owe them.

Jean: 100% agree! I'm so committed that I named two of my kids after Ella's characters (this will be my official story when she is on book tour).

Readers: Any experience with a chapter swap? We'd love to hear about it in the comments.

#Swappers4Lyfe

Brian, Ella, and Jean

5 comments:

  1. I love this! So glad it's working out so well. Now I'm thinking I need a chapter swap buddy...

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    1. I bet there are some MGBetas who need a buddy. ;)

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  2. Anything that gets you to use 'hankering' on a regular basis is obviously something awesome!

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    Replies
    1. I'm also trying to get Ella to use "Sweet Biscuits of Mercy!" as an exclamation, but it isn't happening. Yet.

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    2. If I can add an expletive to the end of that phrase then I'd totally use this in my everyday speech. Totally!

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