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

Tidying Up

While tidying the house, I remembered a comment the buyer (male) said to my brother-in-law about their home, “How does she keep it so clean?” Like it’s only my sister’s (or the man’s wife’s) responsibility? Grrrr.

But writing is a bit different. Everything in my novel manuscript IS my responsibility. Yes, my critique group can help find mechanical errors or ask good questions such as “What’s the purpose of this chapter?” or “Why would your character do that?” However, I need to do my own homework first.

What does that include?

For me the first step is setting a new chapter aside for a week or more. That allows me to reread it with a fresh eye.

When rereading I check for big picture items first:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Do the characters actions feel realistic? Is their motivation clear?
  • Is there a good balance of action, thoughts, description, setting?
  • Does the chapter move the story forward?
  • Are the stakes clear? Or do I need to ramp them up?
  • Do secondary characters have lives of their own?
  • Is the ending a page turner?
  • What’s the emotional tone? Or how does it change?

What big picture questions or comments do you hear from your critique partners? Is it that there’s not enough sense of setting or character’s thoughts? Or too much telling? Recently, one for me was about emotions being all over the place, hence the latter set of questions.

Next, I tidy up line-by-line items:

Think about those things you often hear from your critique partners. Is it run-on sentences, or misplaced modifiers, or too many adverbs? Add those to your checklist and challenge yourself to find them yourself.*

After I fix any problem areas, I read it again. I may let it sit another week or more and repeat the above before presenting it to my critique group.

The Critique Process

During my verbal critique, I often find there are issues critique partners bring up that really resonate with me.

  • They may be easy fixes than can be changed immediately.
  • Others take more time and consideration. For example, I get what the person is saying, but either I’m not sure how to rewrite or it’s going to take time to make all the changes affected by this one change.

Some, I may disagree with. However, if more than one partner brings it up, I know I must do something about that issue.

Often, I make a few changes before I get the written feedback emailed to me. But more work happens when I open the critiques and consider each comment. This is usually a few days later.

  • I compare opinions and suggestions.
  • I rewrite and reread and ponder if the changes addressed the problems.
  • If I’m stuck on something, I set that suggestion aside and come back to it later.

If the chapter has major changes or additions, when it’s ready I probably have my group critique the rewrite before moving on to the next chapter. Which causes additional revision.

I reread and revise my material countless times. As author Michael Crichton said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it…”

*If you have trouble finding grammar issues yourself, try some of these options:

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

Three Commonly Overused Words in Fiction

Overuse of “look” or as Deborah Halverson aka DearEditor says, “Stop Looking!” A character looks up, looks down, looks around, looks another character in the eyes, looks at his watch, looks in her mirror. Some try to replace “look” with “gaze,” “stare,” etc. But the problem is deeper than that.

Looking is not as descriptive as other possible actions. It’s fairly passive. It doesn’t provide sensory details. Sometimes, it is distancing the reader.

Here are a few examples:

  1. John looked out the window.
  2. Leslie glared at her daughter.
  3. I looked at the paper on my desk.

Stronger possibilities:

  1. Out the window the Ponderosa pines were swaying in the wind. If John is the main character, we will assume he sees this.
  2. Leslie’s eyes narrowed emphasizing the hated wrinkle between her eyebrows. If her daughter is present, it will be pretty obvious that Leslie’s not exactly pleased with her.
  3. The paper on my desk said, “Don’t come back.”

I always suggest using Find in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) to see how many “look”s there are. Usually it’s a surprisingly high number.

Then start replacing them with more dynamic content. Of course, you don’t have to get rid of all of them, but changing many and getting out of the lazy “looking” habit will definitely power up your writing.

Too many feelings. Using “feel”, “felt,” and “feels” often are telling instead of showing.

Here are a few examples:

  1. His legs shake and he feels an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifling his mind.
  2. She felt sad. What does that look like?
  3. I felt sweaty and the mosquitoes were biting. Definitely telling!

These could become the stronger:

  1. His legs shake and an overwhelming blanket of anxiety stifles his mind.
  2. Her shoulders drooped to match the shape of her mouth. Now that I can picture.
  3. I licked sweat off my upper lip and smashed a mosquito on my jeans.

The fix. I do a search in Word (Control F for PC, or Command F for Mac) for the correct verb tense of “feel” in my story.

I change them one of two ways:

  • Rearrange the sentence to share the same info without the word “felt.”
  • Make it more active by helping the reader experience what is happening.
  • Show and add sensory details.

You may ignore it in dialogue.

Write seemlessly (pun intended). Avoid “seem,” “seemed,” “seems.” Often used with “to.” You are the writer and creator of the story, so you know whether something happens or not. You should be sharing what happened—not guessing what happened. “Seemed” indicates uncertainty.

Here’s a simple example: It seemed to be raining. It’s either raining or not raining, isn’t it?

Look at these two:
She seems to remember many of the other cousins and there were a lot of them.

The walls seemed to lean toward me.

The fix. Remove “seem” forms in your narration and correct the verb tense. Tighten if necessary. The two above could become:

She remembers many of our numerous cousins.

The walls leaned toward me.

A possible exception. Sometimes a character expresses an opinion in dialogue or even in their thoughts. “You seem unhappy,” Jon said. If that’s how Jon talks, fine. Or perhaps he might say, “You look unhappy” or You sound unhappy.” But if Jon has an attitude and is more concerned about appearances that actual unhappiness, he might say, “Wipe that frown off your face!” It depends on Jon’s personality and the situation.

Of course, there are other commonly overused words and you may have some unique to your own writing. But go on a search and destroy mission with these three and it’ll give you a good start on self-editing.

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

A Fresh Look at Our Writing

refreshment-438399_1280.jpegI was once again reminded how important a fresh look is on a manuscript. This week a writer friend asked me to look at a picture book manuscript that her agent had said was “too mean spirited.” It was a retelling of an old story–good guys against a bad guy–with a very modern twist. I thought it was hilarious. I’d seen several versions and really couldn’t see much to tone down. Then yesterday she showed it to a mutual critique partner who had not seen the story before. She pointed out areas that would soften the story. This third writer had fresh eyes and was so right in her suggestions.
I love this imagery from Arthur Polotnik: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” When we are writing our own view is hindered by smoke. We’re excited about what we’re creating–in love with our characters, our words. Setting aside the manuscript and coming back to it later when the fire has cooled, let’s some of that smoke of infatuation clear.
When we’ve looked at a manuscript over and over and over, we get blind. It’s too easy to skim because we “know” what it says. Suzanne Paschall says it this way, “Tired eyes become blind to errors that jump out to fresh eyes…” Somehow we need a splash of water in the face to wake us up.
Right now I’m going through my own manuscript using comments from my critique group. Mine is a novel in verse and once I gave the complete manuscript to my partners, I’ve didn’t look at it until I got their feedback. (I also tried not to think about the story at all.) Their questions and comments are helping me see it afresh. It helps me see what I know but didn’t put on the page. It helps me see where I wasn’t clear or left out details that will add to the story. It challenges me. And I know it is making my story better.
Soon, I’ll reread the whole story again to get it ready to send out on submission. This time I’ll probably first change the font so it looks different to me. This trick can help fool our eyes into seeing the words afresh.
Do you have other tools you use to look at your writing with fresh eyes? If so, please share in the comments.

Posted in The Nitty Gritty of Children's Writing, You Are Not Alone

Cut in the Critique

princessdiariesToo long, needed to more quickly get to the point, didn’t add to the story, wasn’t enough of a comeuppance for the bad girl… The comments by the director about the deleted scenes for the movie The Princess Diaries (2001) are valuable reminders for editing our own stories. (Watch them on the DVD.) As I did, you’ll probably find yourself agreeing, yes, that scene wasn’t necessary. Or, yes, it’s a stronger story without this one. The director even cut some of his favorite scenes to make a better movie.
Enabling us to produce better manuscripts is why critique groups exist. Watching the director commentary was almost like getting a bird’s eye view of a critique from start to finish: the pre-critiqued version and the tightened, more focused version. For me, it gave me additional tools for looking at scenes in my own fiction. I learned these questions*:
• Does this add to the story?
• Does this get the emotional reaction I want?
• Am I getting to the main point here?
• Will the reader care about this?
• How does this make my main character appear?
• Is my antagonist getting what he deserves?
• Is this the right time for this relationship/problem to be resolved?
I shouldn’t just ask these questions of myself, but ask my critique group to respond, too.
Does this mean I might have to cut a scene I like? Yes. Does this mean I’ll have to do rewriting and reordering? Yes. Will it be worth it? YES! If my story goes out to an editor stronger, clearer, better focused, my odds of acceptance are increased.
*Variants of these questions may also be useful when critiquing others.
• What is the emotional reaction you want from this scene?
• Your main character seems rather useless here, is that what you want me to think?
• Do you think your villain is getting what he deserves here?
• Should these characters be getting along so well in this scene?
In addition to being more thought provoking, critique questions can also make a nice variation from “too long,” “need to get to the point more quickly,” etc. statements.
Got any other movie examples that help remind us what to edit in our own stories? Feel free to share them here.

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

Self-Editing Tips

Need ideas on how to edit your own manuscript? Here are some ideas to try. First, let your chapter or manuscript sit for a couple weeks, so you can see it afresh. Read it aloud.
Do you . . .
. . . stumble? It may mean your sentence or word choice is awkward. Or if written in verse, that your rhyme is forced or your meter is off.
. . . hear the difference between how your characters speak? If not, try this–highlight all of each character’s dialogue in individual colors, then using the color key, read through a single character’s words. Does his speech sound consistent? Can you tell who is speaking without taglines? Do each of your characters sound realistic? Aren’t lecturing? Sound age appropriate?
. . . see the setting? It may not need to be highly detailed, but especially in novels, the reader needs to know where the character is. (i.e. a child playing in a parking lot, or an abandoned lot, gives quite a different picture than a child playing on a playground, or at the video arcade.)
. . . use all five senses? Sight and hearing are pretty easy, but don’t forget to use taste, touch, and smell.
. . . feel emotion? If not, perhaps your characters aren’t quite alive yet. Show us what she is feeling, to help us feel it, too.
. . . doubt whether something is working or not? If in doubt, work it out! Don’t ignore those troublesome spots. Check with other writers if not sure why it isn’t working.
Check for . . .
. . . passive writing. Your biggest clue is use of ing. i.e. She was standing becomes the more active She stood.
. . . excessive adverbs. Are you overusing “ly” words? Instead of using a weak verb and an adverb to modify it, replace both with an active verb. (i.e. I walked quickly to I raced or I sprinted or I scurried.)
. . . weak adjectives. Use adjectives that really make a difference. (i.e. white snow tells a reader almost nothing, because snow is usually white. However, dirty snow or packed snow or yellow snow each create a different picture.) Don’t forget you can use similes and metaphors occasionally, too.
. . . specific nouns. Don’t be vague and you may not need to use adjectives with your nouns. (i.e. instead of He fed his pet, try He fed his dog or He fed his Great Dane. See how getting more specific, gives a clearer picture?)
. . . overuse of prepositional phrases, especially those beginning with “as.” Actions can be shown one at a time and are often clearer, than trying to show two actions at once. (i.e. As Benny walked to school, he saw . . . could become On the way to school Benny saw . . . or Benny had almost reached school when he saw . . .)
. . . overuse of flashbacks. Flashbacks pull the reader out of the present action. Use sparingly. Consider telling the story in chronological order and see if that improves the flow of your story.
. . . heavy sections of black text. Reader’s like some white space. This can be provided by using dialogue, shorter paragraphs mixed in with long ones. Breaking up narration with action. Eliminating unnecessary description.
. . . scenes that don’t move the story forward. Sometimes we write too many details, when instead we need a brief summary as a transition between scenes. (An example would be the details of what a character had for breakfast, who with, and how long it took, when this really is just filler between the important idea he had when he woke up and his action to use the idea after breakfast. When Lee woke up, he knew what he had to do. After breakfast, he raced next door . . .) Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does this add to the story?
  • Am I getting to the main point here?
  • Will the reader care about this?
  • How does this make my main character appear?

. . . clear transitions. These can be brief (i.e. the next morning), but the main purpose is to show we’re not in the same place and/or time.
. . . a strong beginning. Did you start with the moment that is different? Did you start with action, not background info? Does your reader soon know what the main character’s problem is?
. . . a satisfactory ending. Does your story come full circle? Is the problem presented early on resolved? (Doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending or all questions answered.) Did your character change and grow? Did your antagonist get what he deserves? Was this relationship/problem resolved at the right time?
. . . varied sentence structure. Don’t always use noun verb subject order. (i.e. Dolly washed her hair and sat down to do her homework could be changed to After washing her hair, Dolly sat down to do her homework.)
. . . varied sentence length.
Short sentences create more tension. Longer ones, a more relaxed feel. You can even have sentence fragments where the subject and verb are understood, not stated or use them for emphasis, i.e. CRASH!
. . . correct spelling and grammar.
You did use your computer spell check, right? And rechecked after editing? And checked visually? Spell check can’t catch “their” instead of “there,” but it can catch many words. Your grammar checker can help where spell check doesn’t. It is not an infallible tool–it especially was not aimed at fiction–but if pops up, make sure you understand the “rule” it says you are breaking.
. . . correct punctuation
. A great favorite resource is Errors in English and How to Correct Them by Shaw. It helps with word usage and grammar, too. If you have someone in your critique group, who readily spots grammar and punctuation mistakes, ask them to read over your manuscript.
Weed Out Weasel Words
They are those words that just slip their way into your manuscript. Often they are used again, and again, and again. The examples below may or may not be a problem for you, or you may have others to add to this list.
seems, seemed
Agent Rachelle Gardner has an even longer list on her blog.
Or because of your subject matter, you may use the same word over and over. Find other ways to say it.
One well-published author, Peg Kehret, looks at each page and tries to eliminate 3 words per page. Pretend you have a word count limit per chapter or scene. When forced to reduce text to make word count, you often see unnecessary words or sentences.
Repeat as Needed
Make your changes, again let the manuscript set for a time. Sometimes it helps to print it out in a different size font. Reread it and see if more changes are necessary. Repeat as many times as needed. When satisfied that is as good as you can make it, take it to a critique group or do a manuscript exchange. After the critique, you’ll probably be making more additions, deletions, and corrections.
Pay Attention to Comments
Pay attention to critiquers’ comments that you receive frequently, i.e. show don’t tell. If you have good critiquers, this is an indication you have a weakness in that area. Do your best to not hear that comment again by educating yourself to spot it yourself. If you don’t understand what they mean, find out!
If you consistently get personal rejections that comment on one problem, that problem may cross into other manuscripts as well. Learn as much as you can about strengthening your skills in your problem area.