Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Stuck on Repeat

As writer’s it’s easy for us to get stuck in a groove or a track. Round and round we go. But unlike the view from a merry-go-round, we don’t want our readers seeing the same scenes or words over and over. If we repeat, it should be intentional.

So, what constitutes unnecessary repetition?

Repetitive Words

Reading the same word too close together or too often is boring. This doesn’t include really common words. “The more common the word, the more leeway you have in repeating it,” Brian Klems says. But for other words, it’s a danger. For example, there are many words to indicate eating. I might munch, crunch, gulp, slurp, etc. We bite, chew, swallow as part of the process. If every time my character eats, the word used is always the same, a reader may get annoyed. The more unusual the word, the more obvious overuse is. The shorter the piece, the more an overused word will stand out.

Overuse of Names

Be aware of how often you use a character’s name in dialogue.

“Bob, when you’re at the store…”

“Yes, Marge?”

“Will you pick up lettuce, Bob?

“Yes, Marge.”

“And, Bob, don’t forget tomatoes.”

“Okay, Marge.”

Sounds unnatural, doesn’t it? And there’s no action.

Repetitive Information

“This is redundant” is a note I put on a student lesson when the information has already been given. I often find it with the same wording. It’s like the writer forgot she wrote it. This means she is probably not spending enough time revising.

“Trust the reader to get it” is often in response to the writer showing the reader, then telling the same thing. For example:

            Jordan pulled his cell phone out of his jeans pocket and tapped the screen. “Come on, come on. What time is it?” The phone lit up. “Four o’clock! Leo’s gonna kill me.” He shoved his feet into untied shoes, and laces flapping, raced out the door.

Jordan was late to work.

The first paragraph shows Jordan’s late for something. We don’t know what, but when he shows up at work, we’ll get it. “Jordan was late to work” is telling. Not as interesting, besides being unnecessary.

How do you find overused words or repetitive information in your own writing?

  • Check common overused words and see if they are culprits in your writing. Here’s a short list: about, actually, almost, like, appears, approximately, basically, close to, even, eventually, exactly, finally, just, kind of, nearly, next, practically, really, seems, simply, so, somehow, somewhat, sort of, suddenly, that, then, utterly, very, well.
  • Read your writing aloud. Or you can have your computer read it to you. You’ll probably hear a word or two that occurs too often, and hopefully information that you’ve already told the reader.
  • If your manuscript isn’t too long, use an online tool to catch words. You’ll copy the text and paste it in. I’ve found several options:
    • A word counter, such as https://wordcounter.com/ literally counts words and shows the results. You can ask it to exclude small words.
    • A word cloud maker. The larger the word shows in the resulting image, the more often it has been used. Here’s a generator I’ve tried: https://www.wordclouds.com/ Of course, you’ll probably see your main character’s name a lot as well as common words. But what else are you seeing?
  • Get feedback from others. Use a critique group or beta readers.

Fixing Overused Words

Some can simply be eliminated. A writer I knew called them “weasel words”—they slip their way into your writing. Removing them doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.

Consider taking an adverb and weak verb and replacing both with one stronger verb. Did she slowly climb the tree or did she inch up the tree? Same idea for adjectives and nouns. Is that big dog a Labrador or a Great Dane? See how these latter examples give you a better picture?

Think about other words you could use—we all know a lot! Ask yourself if you are using the best word. “It’s cloudy” could refer to an overcast day, a storm about to cut lose with rain, or a hurricane, but each would be very different to experience. A thesaurus is a useful tool if you get stuck, but choose words you know. Or consider how to say the sentence differently.

It can be difficult to find out where you’re stuck on repeat—that’s why using different methods is helpful. But once you become aware of your common patterns, you can use find or search in your word processor to track down the sneaky words.

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Posted in Craft, It's Not Just Books, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Short Story Revision

Years ago a magazine editor responded to my initial submission with a letter requesting me to make changes and to resubmit the story on spec. Excited about her interest, I made the changes, cutting the manuscript from over 700 words to less than 500.

The editor wrote again: “You’ve done a great job on this revision! However…” and she went on to say how part of the story wasn’t realistic. I politely wrote back expressing why I thought it was realistic, but also offering to revise it.

The editor’s next letter began: “Sometimes the simplest stories are the trickiest to get right! We like this a lot, but…” She then pointed out a problem that made me say “OUCH!—I should have seen that.” I fixed it and sent the story again. This time my reply was an acceptance!

Of course, the editor could have sent a letter saying, “No, it still doesn’t work for us.” If that had happened, I’d have been disappointed, but still would have sent the improved manuscript off to another market.

Here are ten tips to help you with your next revision:

  1. Refresh. Set your manuscript aside for several weeks.Don’t look at it or even think about it. When you return to the manuscript, your goal is to read it as if you’ve never seen it before.
  2. Reformat. Change the font size or style, before rereading. Even simply changing margins will help you see the manuscript differently.
  3. Have someone else read it aloud. It’s amazing the mistakes I hear in a manuscript despite having silently read it over and over again. I also hear where the reader stumbles or doesn’t give my desired emphasis—both hints that I need to work on those sections. I may even realize I can’t decide who is talking without the visual cues of new paragraphs.
  4. Get your writing reviewed by other writers and listen to their critique with an open mind. Don’t automatically shut out ideas and suggestions. Even if they don’t work for you, looking through another’s eyes can stimulate your mind. However, if several point out a problem, you know you haven’t reached your target yet.
  5. Don’t stifle your own reactions. I don’t know how many times my inner voice responds to someone else’s comment with, “You knew that wasn’t quite right, didn’t you!” I also like asking myself if my story came full circle. If I can’t give myself an honest yes, I have more work to do.
  6. Request help. Sometimes, I know something isn’t working, but don’t know where to go next. Another writer may make a simple suggestion that turns the light on for me.
  7. Re-examine. Ask others what they think the theme or premise is. If you’re writing is working, their answer should be close to what you envision. Tell them what emotion you’re hoping to evoke in a scene and ask if you accomplished it. Ask them to state your story problem. If your reaction is “Wow, they didn’t get it,” it probably means you didn’t give it clearly.
  8. Renovate with viewpoint. Not just from 3rd to 1st person, although that can make a difference, too, but change who is telling the story. Make that boy a girl. Or see it through her best friend’s eyes instead of her own.
  9. Reshape. Changing the form sometimes purges the dross. Try writing poetry instead of prose, diary entries, or a newspaper report of the events. You may discover the story takes off on its own in another format.
  10. Rewrite. All the thought stirring usually motivates me to get to rewriting. Sometimes it’s with excitement; sometimes with frustration at how I’ve fallen short.

Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember how revision took my manuscript to published short story in Highlights for Children (April 2000). That makes it much easier for me to revise.

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Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Revising a Novel

typewriter-584696_1280.pngI’ve seen writers propose the 5-draft novel writing process. Others talk about how many drafts they’ve been through before the book goes to their agent/editor. What draft am I on? I never know because I revise as I go. Some writers will tell you this is wrong, but I’m not alone in my process. Jared Reck says, “I write a few scenes by hand, then go back and type and revise, then back to hand-writing — the first finished draft of A Short History of the Girl Next Door was pretty polished; it just took me four years to get to that point.”
Revising During the Writing Process – How it Works for Me
When I get ready to write a new scene or chapter after a break in writing, I read the previous one or ones. This gets me back into the story, and yes, I will make changes and additions. Typos, misspellings, or wrong words annoy me, so if I notice any, those are fixed. (I write on a computer.) Then I move forward with the story. My break could be stopping for lunch, quitting for the day and coming back the next, the weekend off, or even longer depending on what else is going on in my life.
After I’ve made some progress on a novel (more than a couple chapters), I create a novel timeline or story ladder that is unique for each novel. You can read about that process here. This helps me have a quick overview of the story anytime I need one.
I also begin to share a chapter at a time with my critique group. This reading aloud helps me spot more typos or awkward phrasings. My critique partners are good at pointing out where I need more, have confusing areas, etc. Of course, this causes more revisions. Sometimes what they say means I create a whole new scene. If that new scene requires changes elsewhere, I’ll do that during this time, too.
Then I move forward with the story again, repeating these processes until I reach the end.
Meanwhile
Meanwhile, I am always learning. I learn by attending workshops, conferences, retreats and other writing events, by reading blogs, newsletters, and articles, and by reading novels in and out of my genre. These often make me think about my story and I go back with new insights which most likely mean I need to add to my story. (I have a tendency to underwrite.)
I also learn from what my critique partners are working on. It may be what they are doing well. Or it may be something not working that I or someone else notices which makes me wonder if I’m doing the same thing.
Revisions Once the Story Is Complete
After some time away, I try to read the whole novel quickly with the purpose of thinking about the big picture of the story. I make notes on the major problem areas to work on. I also note bumps (where I stopped reading, felt something wasn’t quite right, etc.) When I’ve read the whole manuscript through, I attack the areas I’ve noted. When done, I wait a few days and reread the revisions to see if they are working.
I may ask myself questions. Sometimes, I ask my critique group the same questions about my story. E.g. Is the ending satisfying? Was the problem solved too easily? Did this scene feel realistic? Are the beginning and ending as strong?
Polishing
I have several stages in polishing. Some add to the text, such as making sure I’m using sensory details in scenes (post here). Others take words away, which includes tightening, cutting overused words, getting rid of passive verbs, etc. (my post here). But whether adding or subtracting, these methods are meant to make the writing itself stronger.
Querying
I also revise after feedback from agents I’m querying.
In the End
Is my method the best? Probably not. But it works for me. Writing a novel is not a one-size-fits-all process, so please don’t let anyone try to convince you it is.

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Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

Unique Character Names

“Hi, my name is…”
rural-boy-2756313_1280.pngI just went through a student assignment where most character names ended in the E sound. Some were spelled with a Y; others with IE. Not only does it get confusing with the same endings, but Gracie, Vicky, Lorie, Murphy, Bobby are also the same number of syllables. At least they started with different letters.
Varying your character names will help your reader keep track of who’s who.
But don’t just think about beginnings and endings, or number of syllables.
Think about different cultures and ethnicities.
Look at this fact: “The proportion of non-Hispanic white children in the U.S. has declined from 61 percent of all children in 2000 to 51 percent in 2016.” More from the same source here.
What about where you live? Or where you are setting your story? Who are the people there? When my daughter’s family moved to southern Georgia, my white grandchildren were the minority among a sea of black children. Where we raised our girls there was a significant Asian population. We spent a year in a town in New Jersey that had a large Jewish population. Where we live now there many people from the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
I’m not suggesting you appropriate anyone’s culture, but surely in your main character’s classroom or among his/her friends, not everyone will look/be just like your character.
Don’t forget religious influences.
Names may be inspired by parents’ faith or customs. Biblical names are often popular in our country. Although the US has often been called a Christian nation, that has changed too. Read some of the statistics here from 2016. And again it varies state by state. As the above link states: “No state is less religiously diverse than Mississippi.”
Popular culture can contribute to unusual names.
This site has 100 unusual or surprising baby names of 2018. Some come from TV; while others are from history; and others are names of fruit. Those children may be off to school in four or five years.
Here’s a fun resource: popular baby names by birth year.
Place names are popular.
I’ve met both boy and girl Londons. There’s Paris and Brooklyn. Austin and Hudson. Here’s a list of over 100 place names.
Consider the meaning of names.
This can be helpful in creating character traits or the ironic opposite. My name means graceful lily. I’ve never felt particularly graceful or flowerlike, but I learned the meaning when I was a kid. Your child/teen main character probably knows the meaning of his/her name, too.
Scifi and fantasy often have made-up names.
And some authors seem to go overboard into making them hard to pronounce. Sometimes names just have unique spellings. Here’s an article about fantasy name generators. Science fiction writers don’t have to feel left out–here’s one for scifi character names.
Names that almost weren’t.
Some names become household words. For fun and inspiration look at these twelve who almost were something less.

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Posted in Craft, The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing

The Rudolph Effect

christmas-928328_1280.pngI know the holiday season is over, but I’m sure you remember this story. Santa’s reindeer won’t let poor Rudolph play any reindeer games. “Then one foggy Christmas eve…” those hypocrite reindeer suddenly liked Rudolph because he was useful. (Summary my own.)
I often see this theme in bully short stories in my student lessons. The picked upon main character saves the bullies, saves the day, or does something so great that now the bullies like him. Have you had that happen in real life? Me? Not so much. Neither have children. What’s that phrase? Haters will hate.
Bullies usually pick on isolated kids–the new kid, the different kid, the loner. Why is that? Because those isolated kids don’t have others to stand up for them. No support group in this situation. It’s like a pack of wolves against a lone rabbit. Scary! And because those bullies have issues of their own. Though sometimes mob mentality is in play too.
Good bully stories focus on how the main character deals with being bullied. (Without immediately going to parents or teachers. Even though we tell kids to go for help, we also know that bullies often plan retribution.)
-Some are tough and don’t react no matter what.
-Others fight back.
-Some run.
And what else?
New bully stories need to have something fresh about them.
There are lots of bully stories out there. Look at this one library’s Pinterest board of titles for young readers. Here’s a list aimed at tween and teen girls from a mighty girl. I’m sure we could find tons more.
Resources for writing about bullies:
“Advice & Tips On Creating & Writing Bullies”
“How do I write a believable, violent, and manipulative school bully?”
“Avoiding the avoid the cliched bully”
“Character Type: Bully”
Do you have other thoughts on this issue? Share them in the comments section.

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