Posts Tagged ‘#amediting’

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In the past, when I’d finished a revision and adjusted my query to reflect any plot changes or important new points of focus, I’d eagerly send it off to a fresh batch of agents, certain that these latest changes would make my manuscript irresistible.

That has thus far proved untrue.  And each time I send out another batch of queries, the total list of agents to which I can submit dwindles. It has made me more cautious.  The rule of the industry is that once an agent has rejected a manuscript, they will not look at it again — revised or otherwise.

You know the expression, “Youth is wasted on the young?” It is also true that querying is wasted on the inexperienced. The longer you query and revise based on feedback, the fewer agents are left to query. You start to get very careful.

It has been 10 months since I last queried an agent.  And since then I have done two complete revisions, including cutting 4,000 words. But I’m not the eager, fresh-faced writer I was, itching to blanket the world with queries. I have to be deliberate, selective, confident … careful. I am going to get as much free feedback as possible and polish any rough patches before I risk crossing any more agents off my list.

I’m taking the slow but steady path of the tortoise. I’m playing it safe.

Crash Diet

Posted: May 4, 2017 in Writing
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I reached my goal!  I actually managed to cut 19 pages out of the first 50 of my daughter’s and my manuscript. That’s over 5,000 words.

That’s huge.

In the past I have compared cutting scenes and major revisions to brain surgery — you have to make sure all of the nerves are properly connected or the basic motor functions fall apart…. You get the analogy. But this was like a tummy tuck. I scooped out a whole bunch of filler then stitched the loose edges together, and without much else in the way of “maintenance” I was done.

Why was this revision different? Well, the key is that I didn’t have 357 threads to reconnect. The very fact that I could remove those pages without much affecting the rest of the book is a dead giveaway that they were unneeded pages. Naturally, there are things on those pages that I revisited later in the book, but not one of them was irreplaceable. I either introduced the missing concept a bit later, or removed all future references to it.  For the amount of fat that got cut, it was surprisingly easy.

I encourage you to try the same thing, but they key to success is clearly identifying those elements that are not explicitly vital to the rest of the book. This does not include scenes you “like” or set-ups for later punchlines. If you can cut the joke in chapter without hurting your story, then you can cut the scene in chapter two that sets up the joke — and does nothing else. In my case I had constructed a whole series of cascading motivations just to justify my main character sneaking into the garage at night and finding something. I realized I could just have someone give the thing to her, and all of that stuff became irrelevant.  So I yanked it.

And now I have a much leaner, more focused and better paced opening. The inciting incident, which didn’t take place until page 30, now happens on page 10.

I kind of feel like celebrating by writing a decadent, sugary scene, but I’m watching my weight.

Cutting Deep

Posted: April 28, 2017 in Writing
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Sometimes, the advice you get from your beta readers or critique partners just feels right.  Not always!  If you’re like me, or even newer at this game, you meet most advice from critics with a blank stare. “How dare they suggest I change that word? Don’t they know how long I agonized over it?”  It gets worse when they give more sweeping advice, like changing a character or adding an emotion.  Calls to cut out entire scenes? Forget it.

But eventually, your skin thickens and your reticence declines as you loosen your death grip on your manuscript, and you begin to actually see the merit in some of these suggestions.  And you dip your toe into a revision and discover that the change really did make that scene better.

I’m dancing with a new group of CP’s right now, and there appears to be some consensus on this new revision of mine that the “good stuff” doesn’t really begin until the end of chapter three. Well, yes I knew that, but it had to be that way, because reasons. Plus, can’t you see how much I have obviously agonized over those first chapters, shoe-horning in extra motivation and tension and foreshadowing? It’s flipping brilliant is what it is, and you’ll all agree just as soon as you get the end of the book.  You’ll see.  And then I’ll say I told you so.

Only this time, one of the readers said something nobody else has actually said before. “You should cut everything else and just start at the end of chapter three.”

The really funny thing about that was how I didn’t clench up. In fact, I started feverishly making notes. I found a use for those fancy Moleskine notebooks I bought.  I plotted and rearranged and made lists, and at the end of my frenzy I saw a way.  I am going to cut the first three chapters — some 40 pages — down to about 16. And I’ll have to add a page or so back in later, to introduce a character who’s original intro scene is being cut.  But I can do it.

This is a deep cut.  Because I now can see how I’ve been shoring up this house of cards from the very beginning. I needed an excuse for my MC to sneak into the garage and find a diary. So I had Mom get mad at her for being immature and take away her beloved books. But I needed a reason for Mom to get mad, so I invented a whole scene were the MC’s little brother runs away while she’s babysitting.  But then I needed a scene showing the MC trying to deal with Mom’s anger and failing.  So I added a scene with her best friend giving advice. And all of this is now replaced by simply having someone give the the diary to the MC.  Now all of the rest of that is utterly unnecessary.  Sure, there are a million threads suddenly flopping in the breeze, but I can tie most of them up pretty quickly, to later scenes, or by yanking them out altogether.

It’s good.  It’s working.  And when I’m done, I’ll have a mean, lean opening, where we get to the “good stuff” right away.

And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?

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They say with age comes wisdom. I’m 53, and I’m still waiting for mine.

But I’ve been a serious writer for much less time. I wrote in high school and college, and even eventually (20+ years) finished a Dungeons & Dragon’s-inspired novel, but I didn’t get serious until about 4 years ago, when I embarked on a middle grade novel with my daughter. For this novel I approached it from the very start with the intention of being traditionally published. I already had a good foundation of how to write good dialogue and descriptions and pacing and tension and all of that. But this time I wanted to end up with a novel that somebody else might actually want to read.

So I got busy.  I took online courses and bought books about plot and downloaded lectures on the 7-point story structure. I found the online writing community and became an active participant in a critique group. I discovered the universe of writing hashtags on Twitter and jumped in with both feet. I figured out how to access my manuscript on my smartphone and bought a portable keyboard so I could write anywhere or anywhen. I kept my enthusiasm at a constant slow roiling boil, and was always working on some aspect of my book or its plot or its characters or the world-building or the query or the synopsis.

And when I thought everything was ready, I went into a frenzy of querying agents.

I wasn’t ready. Actually, the manuscript wasn’t ready, but both statements are equally true. The thing about querying is that for the most part, once you’ve queried a given agent and they pass, you’ve pretty much burned that bridge. There are exceptions where an agent might ask for a Revise and Resubmit, or tell you the manuscript isn’t quite ready but please keep them in mind if you decide to revise it on your own. These are pretty rare. And while there are hundreds of agents out there seeking books in any given genre, the list isn’t infinite. If you’re not careful you will eventually run out.

In the past, whenever I managed to get some feedback on my full manuscript, I typically endeavored to revise as swiftly as possible so I could get right back to querying.  But now I’m a bit more philosophical (if not not yet wiser). I’m realizing I don’t want to cross off another swath of potential agents by sending out a manuscript that isn’t ready. So I’m developing some patience. I’m taking my time to make sure these latest edits are going to stick and solve the problems pointed it by readers. I’m realizing I don’t want to do this forever, and I’m realizing the end of my list of potential agents is not that far away.

Maybe I’ve gotten some of that wisdom after all.

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Okay, I’ll admit I’m trying to up my cred as a children’s author by inventing my own word. Spread it around.

PREINFORCE. It means foreshadowing. Only, the thing is, “foreshadow” isn’t actually very descriptive or evocative of it’s function. I just feel like, as writers, our own tools ought to embody our art, and not simply be flowery. Amiright?

So. Russian author Anton Chekov is famous for having said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The point he was trying to illustrate is basically don’t put anything in your story that does not eventually serve a purpose. This concept is known widely as “Chekov’s Gun.”

In broad strokes, this is an excellent rule.  But Chekov was talking about plays, not novels. In novels, writers often add a line of dialogue or a sentence of description simply to evoke a mood or to create a beat in the pacing.  There will inevitably be things mentioned in a novel that are never revisited.  Particularly in this age of writing in anticipation of the eventual sequel.

The other thing about this kind of thinking is that it occasionally leads a writer to make up a reason to justify something they really like earlier in their book, just so they can keep it. I’m not too proud to admit that this exact kind of thinking led to the villain in my and my daughter’s WIP.

But this is not actually the same thing as foreshadowing. The art of foreshadowing requires a skill for thinking backwards every bit as much as thinking forward. In fact, to be really effective, the actually event you are foreshadowing should be fully established in all its glorious minutia before you go back and sprinkle in all of the supporting details. The process of adding in those details on a later pass is what I call “preinforcing.” Like all good words, it means precisely what it sounds like — you are reinforcing in advance. Burying clues along the way that do not look like clues.

That’s the difference between foreshadowing and preinforcing. With foreshadowing, a writer puts something in their story in anticipation of a later event which has not yet been written. Or, as I’ve already talked about, they put in something that they later decide to expand upon. Preinforcing, on the other hand, is deliberately preparing your reader to properly experience an event you’ve already written.

How does one do this?  Well, the fact that all of the details are already in place makes it much easier to be subtle. Foreshadowing before you’ve written the later scene must necessarily be done in broad strokes. Whereas going back and seeding subtle details is really only possible when the tiny details have been established. Then, you can evoke a mood or a color or a scent early on which will fit in so smoothly that it never suggests it is planted to foreshadow some future event.

In our WIP, our main character discovers in chapter 15 that she is descended from trolls. One of the qualities of pure-blood trolls is that sunlight turns them to stone. Having established that, I went back and preinforced this by giving her a sunburn and flaky skin, which she is still experiencing when she puts 2 and 2 together. I preinforced that by having her forget to put on sunscreen and worrying about her skin in the previous scene. And I preinforced that by having her mother tell her not to forget sunscreen because she burns so easily, way back in chapter 1. In every one of these cases, those little bits of additional information fit perfectly into the tone, mood, and pacing of the moment. In the middle scene, she has decided on the spur of the moment to sneak out of the house, hop on her bike, and ride across town to confront her nemesis. On the way, she realizes that in her haste she forgot to put on sunscreen and on top of everything else she’s going to have to deal with a sunburn. Later, when she is depressed because things did not go well, she sullenly scratches her sunburned arm and notices the flaky skin. So when she starts to pile up the evidence that she is troll-born, her sensitivity to sunlight has already been well and subtly established. It is not something that had been presented early in the story like a pistol displayed on the wall.

The best foreshadowing is the kind you never see coming. And to achieve that, you have to set it up carefully and deliberately. You can do it in advance, but to do it with finesse it is usually better to go back and add it.

Say it with me: “Preinforce.” Spread the word.

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Unless you’ve studied Charlie Chaplin’s films, you may not immediately see what I’m getting at.  If you can find it, there is an amazing documentary in three parts from 1983 called Unknown Chaplin, which breaks down his creative process and shows for the first time lots of his unused film.

But failing that, let me give it to you in a nutshell: Chaplin worked to his own schedule, refusing to let studio execs tell him what to create or how long it should take.  He often puzzled over a single “gag” for months without shooting a second of film, while all of the cast and crew sat around and waited.  He once re-shot almost an entire movie after recasting the leading lady. He never threw away an idea. And once he was satisfied with something, the finished product always looked utterly effortless.

That’s the key.  When you write make it look effortless, no matter how long or how hard or how many reams of paper you went through to get there.  One mistake writers make is to show how clever they are and make it obvious how hard they worked to get their story on paper — pages of in-depth backstory, obtuse and lengthy set-ups, flowery, purple descriptions of scenery or weather or location — all there to demonstrate the writer’s dedication to research and the richness of their invented world.  Chaplin’s best work was silent, with almost no dialogue, and in back and white.

There’s a scene in City Lights, in which the Tramp buys a flower from a blind girl, and she mistakes him for a rich man.  How did he do it?  No long set-up or clever dialogue. To avoid a cop while crossing the street, the Tramp climbs into a parked car and gets out at the curb.  When the transaction is done, the car’s owner gets in and drives off, leaving the Tramp standing there waiting for his change, which he never gets.  Smooth, natural, completely organic. Effortless.

Chaplin spent weeks filming that one 2-minute scene.

If you take this kind of no-excuses approach, and strive for these kinds of simple-but-sublime results, you should go far as a writer. Pick every word carefully. Make every word count. Rather than “a picture worth a thousand words,”  try to find those words that are worth a thousand pictures.

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I’ve noticed something pretty significant about this latest revision my daughter and I are doing on our middle grade manuscript.  With every revised paragraph, we are tying together tiny loose ends that previously dangled.  Many of these were not noticeable or even an issue, but in the process of writing any story things get invented and added on page 157 that you hadn’t considered on page 3.  And nobody expect you to go back and reference every nuance throughout the book in the first chapter.

But there is something very … mature … about a manuscript in which it is clear the writer clearly knows what’s coming.

It has always been my practice when writing to make every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, and as many individual words as possible accomplish more than one thing.  Why use a sentence to just describe the weather, when with that same sentence you can also establish a mood, give a glimpse of the setting, tie in the character’s motivation, or hint at some detail that will be revealed in full later?  Beginning writers often have difficulty smoothing out info dumps in their writing, because they can never figure out how to bury that information in the rest of the text.  This is how; you spread it out and dribble it into your text little by little.

Here’s an example: On the first page of our book (in this new revision) our hero thinks she sees an ogre hanging out at the fair.

I sat perfectly still while my heart thudded. Ogres were the ones that ate children, right?

Except that nobody in the crowd seemed to notice him. Magic dust or something sparkled all around him, but everyone else walked by like he was just some random guy hanging out at the fair. I didn’t know what was scarier – the fact that I was looking at a real live ogre, or the fact that I was the only one seeing the freaking ogre. Was I a few crayons short of a full box? I held my breath and squeezed my eyes shut … then looked again.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was just a guy. No sparkles or anything.

I blew my breath out slowly. Get a grip, Cat. Rose told you not to read those fairy tales right before bed the other night. Right. Like I’d ever actually do school work at a sleepover at my best friend’s house.

Which was why I was doing my homework now. Feeling guilty, I looked down at the paper in front of me. I was homeschooled, so Mom would be the one reading my report – and the only thing I’d written so far was, “Catherine Brökkenwier, age 12.”

Look at the paragraph in red.  In these two lines, while ostensibly describing Cat’s reaction to what she’s seeing,  we also introduce Rose, the fact that Cat reads fairy tales, the fact that she was at a sleepover, as well as transition into the next action — her homework.  We also introduce Cat’s voice and the way she talks to herself in her head.  In the final paragraph, above, we give you Cat’s age and full name without “telling” it to you.

Okay, so with this tool in hand, what’s so significant about this latest revision is the fact that we can now do this with full knowledge of what’s to come — not just plot, but emotional arc, little details, jokes that need to be set up, hints about things that won’t be revealed until the end, and details to support conclusions that Cat draws about her circumstances later in the book.  And we can fold them in subtly, almost invisibly, as we smooth over the manuscript.

And that’s why it’s called “polishing.” All of this smoothing.  Instead of unsightly lumps of info dumped her and there, we can level them out and at the same time tie up all kinds of tiny loose threads poking up everywhere.  This is the part where we make the manuscript even, silky smooth … where we make it shine.

If you know anything about woodworking, you know, you can’t sand your table to a mirror-like finish before you attach the legs.  Polishing is the last thing you do.  And it only works when all of the pieces are already in place.

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Here’s the thing about being a writer with a goal of becoming a published author: the target keeps moving.

Okay, sure — the prize is always to get your book published.  But there are lots of steps along the way.  And not all of them are baby steps; some of them are ginormous steps.

  • Coming up with a novel-worthy plot and compelling characters.
  • Finishing a complete manuscript.
  • Learning how to give and take useful criticism.
  • Nailing a killer beginning.
  • Learning to get comfortable killing your darlings in the revision process.
  • Writing a 2 page synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Writing a 2 paragraph synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Writing a 2 sentence synopsis of your entire novel.
  • Sending out your first query.
  • Receiving your first rejection.
  • Taking the plunge and entering a pitch contest.

Every time you hit one of these milestones, you’ve accomplished something big in your career as a writer.  Each of these milestones is something you can build on to help you get to the next one.  Like way points on a long mountain-climbing expedition.

Here’s another thing about being a writer with a goal of becoming a published author: you have to know you might never actually get there.  Yet, for every published author, this did not deter them along the way.

So, what does “success” look like?

Have you ever climbed a mountain?  No, me either.  But I’ve seen a lot of movies and stuff.  It seems to me that along the way up the mountain, when you stop on those scenic way points and put down your pack, you can take a moment to look over the vista from your new vantage point.  Look back on where you came from and all you have passed through to get to where you are.  Assess your progress.

That is what success looks like.

Taking the Slow Road

Posted: October 20, 2016 in Writing
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So I’m doing a targeted and substantial revision of my daughter’s and my middle grade novel.  I mean, another one.  The first one was actually an R&R (Revise and Resubmit) requested by an agent who had read our manuscript, and for that one I felt compelled to get the revisions done in 2 months.  I wanted to have time to consider and polish the changes the agent requested, however I also didn’t want her to lose interest or think we were non-responsive.  If we were going to have a professional relationship with this agent, I wanted her to see us as professional and reliable.  And we got the revisions done in time.  The agent still didn’t sign us, which I understand is not uncommon.

This time, though, our revisions are based on some feedback from a CP (critique partner) and an editor who generously gave us a three chapter critique, which together pointed out some key issues and offered similar ways to fix them.  So, like many of you have done or will do, we’re holding off on querying for now and taking on a full-manuscript revision, chapter-by-chapter.

But this time we’re taking it slow.  It didn’t start out this way.  In fact, at first I imagined I could get the new revision done in few weeks — after all, I had already been down this road once before.  But the more I examined all the ways these changes in chapter one were going to affect all of the following chapters, the main character’s emotional arc, and the tone of the book as a whole, the task of revising stopped resembling cosmetic surgery, and began to resemble a brain transplant.

There’s a scene in the 1984 movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, where the hero is performing brain surgery, and says to his assistant, “No, no, no — don’t tug on that. You never know what it might be attached to.”  That’s exactly what this revision feels like. Except that I have to tug on things, and even rip them out completely.

Rebuilding is going to be a delicate operation, and I’m inclined to take my time at it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I think there is a perception in the writing community that you must produce all the time and get so many words down every day. And if you make your living entirely from your writing, yes, that may be true.  But for the rest of us, we need to get it right.

So if you are inclined to take your time but feel pressure or guilt, I’m here to support you. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s okay to take your time, as long as you continue to stay engaged.

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If what you’re looking for is a beta reader or critique partner who will tell you your book is wonderful no matter what, and spare your feelings — this isn’t that.

That is a unicorn.  I suppose you could find one, if you looked really hard.  But what would be the point?  It certainly won’t advance your writing skills, let alone your writing career.

No.  A sensitivity reader is a professional you hire who’s job is to read your manuscript with special emphasis on how you portray people from marginalized groups or key historical events that involved those groups.  Marginalized groups includes women, people on the fringes of the economic scale, people with disabilities, people in the LGBT community, and of course people of color.  Also, if any of your characters practice a faith, have weight issues, a non-traditional family arrangement, or are victims of sexual assault, they can be considered marginalized.  Historical events that affect those groups might include the Holocaust, the Civil War, 9/11, and so forth.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented and far-reaching change in the books we read and write, and the books agents and publishers want.  Books are becoming more diverse, and at the same time, people are more sensitive to the way groups they belong to are portrayed in literature.  Negative stereotypes are no longer ignored.  And that includes the stereotype that all characters in a book should be white, or all soldiers or superheros should be male, and so forth.

Which means, as you write your book, you will most likely be including people unlike yourself.  And in so doing, you begin to write outside your comfort zone.  Which is fine — you want to write outside your comfort zone.  That’s how you grow as a writer.  But if your book contains both men and women, people of difference races, and a gay person, chances are you aren’t 100% familiar with all of those cultures.  And through no fault of your own, even despite extensive research, you may write something in your story that inaccurately portrays a marginalized person or puts them in a bad light.  If for example one of your characters suggests that a person with mental illness is somehow weak, you are stigmatizing mental illness as a weakness, which is a negative and inaccurate stereotype mental health professionals have been trying to erase for decades.

A sensitivity reader will read your manuscript and point out places where you might want to revise to remove problems like this.  But like any reader you pay to evaluate your manuscript, be prepared to make changes — even major changes — to your characters or story line.  After all, you will have paid for their advice.

So where can you find a sensitivity reader?  Here is a links to get you started:

Writing In the Margins

Shop before you you buy.  You will want to find a reader who specializes in your particular topic — woman’s issues, gay issues, mental illness, etc.  At present sensitivity readers are not especially expensive.  Typically $250-$300 per manuscript.  Also be aware, these readers are looking for a rather narrow range of issues within your writing.  Don’t expect a sensitivity reader to serve the same function as a professional editor.

Good luck, and keep writing.