Posts Tagged ‘#amwriting’

Air horse illustration

We’ve all read or written in first-person (I) and third-person (he/she), but where is the elusive second-person (you) novel?

Second-person seems to be exclusively the realm of the choose-your-own-adventure novels (which had their heyday in the 80’s), Internet fan fiction, and instruction manuals.  There is one notable literary exception: Jay McInerney‘s Bright Lights, Big City. In this novel the narrator is actually talking about himself from a distance to separate himself from his own trauma.  Whereas in the choose-your-own-adventure books and most fan-fiction, the “you” in the story is the reader, who steps into the role of the hero.

So, there are specific examples, but they are so specific and far-between (and non-commercial), that writing in second-person has become kind of a trick, a gimmick, a badge of being different for difference’s sake.  And yet….

As a children’s author, the notion of writing an adventure (in which I will do the choosing, ahem) has much appeal.  As readers, children are much more forgiving and willing to experiment than are most adults.  Children expect the unexpected, and are drawn to books that are unique in their own way, be that in the setting or characters, the shape of the book itself, or in how the story is presented on the page.  My gut tells me that an adventure story featuring a young person solving puzzles, getting into wild scrapes, and being heroic would be a natural fit for second-person narration.  Particularly if written in such a way as to allow readers to immerse themselves in the story even further than traditional stories allow.

Consider the following (rough) opening paragraph, for example:

The young pearl-diver gulped another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, he told himself.  He had seen her!  He kicked and swam his way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in his lungs burning.  The pouch at his hip slapped his thigh with every stroke, reminding him of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now he had the enchanted ring, and soon … even his very dreams.

Now in first-person:

I gulped another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, I told myself.  I had seen her!  I kicked and swam my way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in my lungs burning.  The pouch at my hip slapped my thigh with every stroke, reminding me of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now I had the enchanted ring, and soon … even my very dreams.

More intimate, right?  You feel like you’re more inside the diver’s head, as opposed to just a distant observer.  But second-person goes even further.  And by putting it in present tense instead of past tense, the story becomes immediate:

You gulp another great lungful of early-morning air then scrambled again for the bottom of the ocean.  The mermaid has to be here, you tell yourself.  You saw her!  You kick and swim your way down toward the sunken hull of the ancient ship, the pressure in your lungs burning.  The pouch at your hip slaps your thigh with every stroke, reminding you of the wicked gull woman and her terrible price.  But now you have the enchanted ring, and soon … even your very dreams.

Did you find yourself holding your breath?  Do you think a child might?  I said my gut tells me such a story written in second-person present tense would be a natural fit for a kid’s book.  Unfortunately, agents and editors are all adults, and while many of them represent (and adore) children’s books, they are only willing to represent something they believe will sell.  And there is no historical market trend for such a book.  It’s a risk — as much for me as for a prospective agent and any subsequent publisher.  Plus, it screams “gimmick.”  Is it enough simply to write a book in an almost entirely unique style, or is there some reason this particular book must be written in that style?  Jay McInerney found such a reason, but that reason isn’t going to work a second time, and it isn’t going to work in a book for 10-year-old readers.

So this particular unicorn eludes me.  But I haven’t given up the hunt.  I may find an approach that makes second-person irresistible and absolutely necessary.  And when I do, I’ll be willing to risk it.

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Rugged Book 1

A year or so ago I told you about the nifty keyboard case I got for my iPad mini, essentially turning it into an “iBook Nano.”  It changed me life.  By putting it into a zippered padded pouch with pockets for pens, charger, note pad, etc., I had a handled “briefcase” no bigger than an average-sized hardback book, which I took everywhere.  Because I use Word integrated with Dropbox, the latest version of all my files are always at my fingertips and ready to work on in seconds.  I could spend 12 minutes of a 15-minute break actually writing.

The thing about the Zagg Slim Book(c) is that because it is so thin, it is rather fragile.  Hence the padded pouch.  But there is one spot on the case, where the speaker and charger cutouts are, that will crack very easily.  Fortunately, Zagg has an outsanding return policy, and as long as you register your purchase online, they will replace your entire product with a brand new one at zero cost to you.  I did that twice.

The third time my case cracked, however, I discovered that Zagg had discontinued my particular product.  This is the point where Zagg really earned a gold star in my book.  They offered to upgrade me to the new Rugged Book keyboard case at no cost.  The Rugged Book retails for $139.99 on Zagg’s site, but you can find it varous places, including Amazon, for much less (I was still working my initial $37 investment of that original Slim Book I bought on sale).

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This new case lives up to it’s name — rugged.  The upper case has a rubber seal on all sides, and you would have to try awfully hard to break it.  It’s designed for outdoor use — camping, construction, surveying.  It still has the same great features as the Slim Book: function keys, keyboard backlighting, a full year of charge, bluetooth connectivity, and the keyboard feels like full size. Now I don’t have to wory about the case cracking, and if anything does go wrong, Zagg has generously restarted my warranty … to make up for the “inconvenience.”

61CuEP+QTTL._SL1500_To round out my portable office, I purchased high capacity portable charger with a nifty build-in charging cable.  I got the 5000mAh pocket charger by Kolumb through Amazon, for $19.99.  I can recharge my iPad to full with this, and my iPhone 7 to full twice over.  It charges fast, too, and fits in the pocket of my case without hardly making a bump.  It’s not quite as thick as my iPhone, and only about a quarter of an inch longer.  The adapter allows it to charge both Apple and Android devices.

 

For anyone who has trouble finding time to write on a busy schedule, this is an affordable, workable solution that I have found invaluable.  Now get writing!

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I recently completed a major revision to my daughter’s and my current manuscript.  This wasn’t the first; experience tells me it won’t be the last.  However I did something during this last revision that I’ve never done before.

I systematically eliminated a wide range of “weasel words.”

wea·sel word
noun
1) a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position. 2) a vague qualifier that weakens one’s writing, used to avoid making direct statements. 

EXAMPLES:
    saw
    noticed
    heard
    thought
    knew
    touched
    wondered
    realized
    watched
    looked (or looked like)
    seemed
    felt (or felt like)
    could
    decided
    sounded (or sounded like)

Spotting weasel words (also referred to as “filter words”) in your own work is difficult.  It takes a particular mind-set.  And even when you have that, it fades quickly when you read your own stuff.  I had to keep re-learning what I was looking for, because — in my case, at least — adding these words into my writing was an organic part of my style.  Far from waving red flags, they tended to fade into the background as I read, because they were a part of my voice.  

Compare these two paragraphs:

Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse back at the cafe across the street. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection at the end of the block.

Sarah’s stomach sank. Her purse – she’d forgotten it back at the cafe across the street. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked impatiently. Could she make it across the road before someone took off with her bag? She ran past the impenetrable stream of traffic, toward the intersection at the end of the block.

See the difference? All the talk about “showing, not telling” and “active voice, not passive voice” is really about this.  Sarah felt a sinking feeling is passive.  The writer is telling you that she had a sinking feeling by turning the verb “sink” into a description.  Sarah’s stomach sank is active. “Sank” is the verb.

I can’t speak for other writers, but for my part, I developed these kinds of weasel phrases as a way to avoid using “was.”  Somewhere in the dim past of my writing career, someone told me (or I misunderstood) that “was” was passive and/or boring, and that I needed variety.  So She was hungry became She felt hungry. What I taught myself to do was to trade one passive verb for another passive verb.  Instead, I should have taught myself to write Her stomach rumbled.  

BE AWARE, the words above are not evil. You aren’t expect to never use them.  Sometimes “felt” or “saw” or “realized” is exactly the active verb you want.  But not always.  A simple find and replace is not going to work.  Use find/replace to locate each time you used any of those words, but judge every case individually.

The moment my eyes were opened was when I read a comment by a very helpful critique partner, who finally explained what others had simple noted as “wrong.” Here’s the life-changing comment I received:

I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that guy in the Hawaiian shirt was really an ogre.

I spotted him through the dusty window, leaning against the sign that advertised our shop and gnawing on a big, greasy turkey leg. He had long hairy arms and a hook nose and one big eyebrow all the way across his forehead.

I like your description of the ogre. Very vivid. However, I notice your writing sometimes slips into a mode of filtering the action through the MC’s eyes. So she does a lot of “spotting” things and “glimpsing” things and “seeing things.” This creates a bit of distance for the reader because we are reading about what the MC sees, rather than seeing it for ourselves. For example if the paragraph were changed slightly:

I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that guy in the Hawaiian shirt was really an ogre.

He was just outside the dusty window of our little shop, leaning against a lamppost as he gnawed on a big, greasy turkey leg. Didn’t anyone notice his long hairy arms, hooked nose and that giant eyebrow that stretched all the way across his forehead?

In the example above the reader is the one seeing the ogre (in essence, we become the MC). This creates a closer POV, rather than saying “I saw him…” Because in that case the reader is seeing the MC…and then the MC is seeing the ogre. That’s filtering and it creates distance from the character.

There are several ways this could be fixed.  I went a slightly different direction in my final edit, making “gnaw” the active verb:

Right outside the dusty window, he gnawed on a big, greasy turkey leg and leaned against the sign that advertised our flower shop. He had long hairy arms and a hook nose and one big eyebrow all the way across his forehead.

Here are a few other examples:

NOTICED:
I started to climb in when I noticed there wasn’t any place left to sit.
I started to climb in, but there wasn’t any place left to sit.

WATCHED:
I sullenly scratched my sunburned arm and watched little flakes of my pale skin fall off.
I sullenly scratched my sunburned arm. Little flakes of my pale skin drifted down like snow.

FELT:
I felt a smile slowly lift my mood as I thought of Dad coming home tomorrow.
My mood slowly lifted as I thought of Dad coming home tomorrow.

The other great thing about this process is that I cut very nearly 1,000 words from a 64,000 word manuscript.  That’s huge.  I found that once I got firmly into the mindset of spotting these weasel words, I started seeing other examples of filtering outside of this list, just places where I could tighten and improve and make the action more up-front. This is always a good thing. Eventually, I hope to be able to alter my voice to avoid weaseling when I write, so I don’t have to work so hard to remove them later.

I recommend you put your manuscript through this regimen, regardless of what stage you are in.  It’s like putting your manuscript on a diet and toning its muscles. You’ll find afterwards that you story is leaner and has more energy.

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I started working on my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, PRINCESS MATERIAL, around four years ago (it was originally called The Last Princess).  We finished the first draft about two years ago.  Since then we have been deep in the trenches of querying, workshopping, and revising.  So much revising.

So, I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to feedback.  I’ve talked about that.  You need to develop an ear for what advice is worth following … and not.  But if you’re honest with yourself and are truly committed to improving your craft and your manuscript, you have to push through your resistance to radical or brutal advice.  In other words, you must learn to embrace bad news. Because that’s where improvement originates [insert allegory about omelets and broken eggs].

That being said, I don’t think writers ever outgrow their need to receive praise.  For writers with unfinished projects, the only real way to get that is through beta readers and chapter critiques.  And this can be the biggest source of angst, because unless you write flawless first drafts the purpose of beta readers and chapter critiques is to highlight what’s wrong* with your manuscript.  So when you’ve lovingly polished your manuscript, rolled it up, and put it in a bottle, your feeling as you watch it drift out to sea is that you hope people will like it, that they will tell you it was good, that they will justify all of your choices and the product of your blood, sweat, and tears.  Typically, the thought at the front of your mind when you hit “send” is not, “Oh, boy! I sure hope they rip it to shreds.”

The thing is, it probably should be.

I’m currently in the middle of some big revisions (read my last few posts to hear about my experience working with an editor), and while this is the blazillianth time I’ve revised chapter one, this is the first time I’ve been really excited about the outcome.  By this time, I’ve developed a kind of filter through which I view the advice I receive — especially the early advice because as good as it seemed at the time, much of it clearly didn’t resolve the issues at hand (or else it created new issues). This is part of developing that ear I mentioned up above.  But at the same time, I have recently received some stunningly good advice involving big changes (hence these major revisions), so I know the system works.  It’s still blindingly obvious that quality feedback is as essential to the writing process as knowing your alphabet.  So I ran my newly-revised chapter one through the critique mill at Critique Circle and waited eagerly for the responses.

It has been awhile since I ran earlier drafts of this particular manuscript through CC. So every one of the six readers who provided a critique were brand new to the story.  The responses were — almost universally — positive.  One or two very minor word-choice suggestions, and one paragraph where a reader misread a description.  That’s it.  Closing comments were all full of praise.  And utterly devoid of advice.

It was a bit of a let down.

I’m dead serious about this book, now. Driven. Devoted. Committed. I wanted to be told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what was wrong with this so-very-important first chapter so I could fix it. I didn’t get it. I took my book-baby out in public and all I got was this stupid praise.

Old me from two years ago would have been doing an embarrassing happy dance with a sloppy smile plastered on his face.  Because stupid old me would have been lulled into a false sense of security and confidence that the chapter was “good,” was “ready,” was “done.”  Okay, sure, I’m obviously pleased at the response.  I’m still human, after all.  I’m a writer, for cheese sake — we eat praise for breakfast (and go hungry most of the time).  Yay! People like what I wrote!  This is good!

I just don’t trust it.


*By “wrong” I mean missing, weak, confusing, or inconsistent. The stuff your readers judge need to be changed.

Postits

So … I’m going through a series of edits on my manuscript.  I say series, because unlike in the past when I’ve made all of my revisions in one massive, thoroughly entangled pass, this time I am making them one at a time.

I’ve been sitting on these revision notes for awhile, letting them cook, researching details, collecting inspiration with a butterfly net. So, all of these ideas have been percolating, fermenting, running together.

I’m enjoying the less intense process of layering these revisions.   For example, right now I’m changing the main location. I can concentrate on only this and go through the whole manuscript with just this one change in mind.  The only problem is, I keep seeing paragraphs, lines of dialogue, bits of description, that I know I’ll need to change at some point, and ideas for replacements spring instantly to mind while I’m in the groove.  But I’m determined not to head down those rabbit holes.

It’s not easy.  I need to keep reminding myself of my priorities.  Right now, that’s placing the story in a new location.  I’ve polished this same paragraphs over and over, because they ground me in the present task, and since they are in the first chapter, they have to be perfect:

The Ferry Beach Boardwalk was like a carnival, a mall, and a craft fair all tossed into a giant blender and spread out along two miles of the Maine coastline. Sand and the smell of the ocean got into everything. But as I clomped along the boards past brightly-painted storefronts, I liked to pretend it was all Princess Catherine’s personal kingdom. I fancied the blonde lady who sold wooden flutes was an elf, and the little toothless man who took tickets for the Sooper Loop roller coaster was a goblin in disguise. I was pretty sure the ladies at the cotton candy stall were pixies. And I’d bet my allowance the fat dude on the beach with the metal detector was a troll who lived under the old pier.

The Sky Wheel, “the tallest Ferris wheel in Maine,” spun lazily right across from the entrance to the pier, but as I stepped into the ride’s shadow I glimpsed more sparkles out of the corner of my eye. I almost dropped the bowl as I stumbled and stopped – was it the guy in the Hawaiian shirt again?

No, these twinkles surrounded a red-haired girl my age standing in line for the Sky Wheel. She turned to look right at me, and I swear the glitter around her legs swirled into the shape of a fish’s tail. I could even see the scales shimmering like a rainbow trout in the sun. But with my actual eyes and not just my imagination.

I blinked and the sparkles were gone, along with her tail. She waved to someone behind me.

What was happening to me? Why was I suddenly seeing actual fairy-tale people? Had I overloaded my imagination and broken it? Maybe Mom was right – maybe reading fairy tales was bad for me.

Okay, I am not going to end up the crazy cat lady who talks to the wallpaper. I’m not! Only insane people saw imaginary creatures walking around in broad daylight. Right? I am not nuts, I told myself firmly. No more Princess Catherine today. I took a deep breath and stepped onto the pier, shading my eyes from the late Spring sun with one hand.

As I threaded my way between tourists and the narrow, weatherworn shops, the garlicky smell of Pier Fries made my stomach gurgle. Underfoot, a pair of seagulls fought over a fallen fry, the loser crying foul. I was well out over the water and past the surf by the time I got to the end of the pier, and I spotted the little bald man hunched over the workbench in the middle of his tiny shop. Mr. Goldschmidt was a clockmaker, but he could fix anything you put down in front of him.

“Caserine? Vat have you got there?” Gold teeth flashed through his beard as he spoke with a thick German accent.

Dark and Story Night

This is where we start the actual “editing” part of the writer/editor relationship. During our phone call, I took extensive notes. Because while I had my editor’s edit letter — which  was efficiently organized by plot, pacing, world building, character development, and writing style — it was during our phone call that she was able to elaborate and we had time to discuss possible solutions.

In the past I have done several major revisions to this full manuscript, including a Revise and Resubmit for an interested agent.  In those cases, many of the changes were global and required that I trace each thread through all of the chapters, keeping a careful eye on consistency.  In most cases, several of these threads were in effect simultaneously — such as changing my main character’s motivation throughout while also adding a new source of tension.  Or I may have cut a major scene altogether which was referenced a number of places later on, while at the same time adding a new scene elsewhere to replace some of the missing elements.  This required a lot of planning and outlining.  All of the changes had to work in concert, so everything I revised had to be part of this master plan.

Not so much, this time. The changes my editor suggested were all specific and fairly contained.  Which, to my unending delight, means I can tackle each of them in turn. For example, my favorite suggestion is to change the setting for the novel.  Not every setting, but the main setting, where the key action takes place.

Most of the scenes take place at home, at summer camp, at a sleep-over, etc.  There is a scene at soccer practice, another at the mall, yet another at a restaurant.  None of these have to change, or not much. But the main action takes place at the family business — a booth at a local craft fair and farmer’s market, where the family spends their weekends and makes their living.  This is where the story starts, where the inciting incident happens, where the villain makes his moves, and where the climax takes place.  Aside from the family’s booth, several other important characters also reside at the fair, and our hero learns about her destiny and works toward her goal by visiting — sometimes secretly — these other characters.  It’s important that there are lots of people and activity.  But in my ongoing efforts to streamline the beginning of the book and strip out every superfluous word or sentence, my descriptions of the scenery fall a bit flat.  There is no real sense of “place.”  And no weather or seasons.  It’s just a backdrop.

I immediately saw what she was talking about, and based on our conversation I settled on a brand new setting.  Before, the book took place in the made-up town of Rockford, in no particular state — or even region — of the United States.  I thought it might be good to let my readers imagine the story took place near their own town.  Now, it’s going to take place in Rockford Harbor, Maine.  This is still a made-up town (which my editor and I agree is best, since I’ve never been to Maine, and would never be able to accurately describe a real place).  It is on the southern coast of Maine (near the real towns of Rockport and Rocklin).  Specifically, it will take place on the Ferry Beach Boardwalk and Pier, which is modeled after the real Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

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This is where the family business will be — on the boardwalk, tucked in among the amusement rides and crab shacks.  And the old lady who tells our hero her destiny will have her shop at the end of the pier.  There will be the sounds of rides and arcade games, the smell of the ocean and lobster rolls, crying seagulls will fly overhead, and there will be tourists and sand everywhere.  It will snows in winter when business is slow, and the crowds will come when school lets out for the summer.  My setting will come alive.

And I can go through the book, scene-by-scene and revise the settings where needed, leaving many of them — home, mall, restaurant, camp — exactly the same.  Then when I’m satisfied with these changes, I can move on to the next item on the list.

I’m in no hurry.  Eager, but not rushed.  First I need to research the Old Orchard Beach Pier, as well as the state of Maine. It needs to feel real, especially to people who have been to these places. But I am more excited about this change than any other I have made so far.  Because without having to alter the story (much), I will be adding a rich, new layer that will be evident from the very first sentence, and will give readers a whole new reason to want to turn the page.

Michelle Millet

If other freelance editors are like Michelle Millet of Write On Editing, the writing community is in good hands.

Not only did Michelle offer me exactly the level of feedback I needed for my project, but her turn-around was remarkable.  I already outlined in part 1 and part 2 of this series, how and why I chose Michelle from all of the other freelance editors out there, and some of the feedback she gave. But the best part of the whole experience was the follow-up phone call, which was part of the editing package.

First of all, I was nervous.  I’d paid for this call and I’m not going to be able to afford to pay for another, so I was nervous about getting all of my questions answered.  But I was also nervous because someone I trusted was going to tell me to my face (well, to my ear) what was broken about my book.  Unlike advice from beta readers or friends and family, when you pay hard-earned money for a professional critique, it is not easy to dismiss if you don’t happen to agree with it.*

I had no need to worry. Michelle was friendly, well-prepared, and had a slew of questions of her own. We methodically went down her list of items she felt needed work, and was happy to listen to my reasons for why I had made the choices I’d made. This was not me making excuses; it was a conversation about my book.  That was something I’d never really experienced before.  With the beta readers and critique partners I’ve interacted with, there is little back-and-forth.  I’ve gotten some outstanding advice, but sometimes you’ve simply explained something poorly or not emphasized something well enough, and your reader fails to get something important.  These are the times when you feel perfectly justified ignoring certain advice, because you know what you’re written is right, maybe just not clear. On my call with Michelle, I was able to discuss such instances, and found in many cases she agreed with me — “It’s okay to leave that in, then, just as long as you make this other thing more clear in the beginning.” Or, “Oh, that makes perfect sense, now that you point that out.  Maybe you should add in a bit of clarification so the reader gets what you intended.”  With advice I’ve gotten in the past, I’ve had to live with comments that simply say “Cut that thing because it doesn’t make sense,” and having to decide whether or not to accept or reject that advice.

Believe me — this is better.

Our 45 minute call stretched to an hour and a half (your results may vary). She was not willing to end the call until I had asked every question I could think of — several not precisely related to her critique.  Such as query etiquette or career advice.  Did this bargain-priced editing experience find everything wrong with my manuscript? Was it a silver bullet?  I won’t know until I study the extensive notes I took along with her comments, and dive into the revision process.  I will be making several substantial changes.  Because I went with a less expensive editor, I am not getting a second read-through after my revision (unless I pay again). That’s a big advantage with the more expensive, more thorough package deals out there.  Like me, you have to weigh your priorities.  For me, it was find an editor that fit my very limited budget, or do without altogether.

I highly recommend Michelle and Write On Editing.  They have many different packages available, depending on the kind and level of feedback you’re looking for. And more broadly, if you can afford it, I highly recommend hiring an editor in general. If you do, I hope your experience is as satisfying as mine has been. You know what to look for, now.


*This is not to say you can’t dismiss the advice of a professional editor.  You certainly can, and I would even say in some cases you should.  But it is like throwing away money, so t’s harder to do.

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There was a survey posted the other day on the front page of one of my favorite writerly websites:

You’ve decided to write your first novel. What’s the single best way to learn how to do it?

o Take a class.
o Join a writers group. Get some advice.
o Read a good book on how to write a novel.
o Just write! Tell your story as you think it should be told.
o Read some great novels, from a wrier’s point of view.

I’ve actually done every one of these things. And each of them has made me a better writer. I would recommend any of these as a way for a novice writer to improve his or her craft. Or all of them. But one in particular stands out in my experience as absolutely necessary.

Join a writers group. Get some advice.

All of the rest – even taking a class – are fairly solitary endeavors. And what you need to be a successful writer (besides good ideas, devotion to craft, commitment, and a better-than-basic grasp of your language of choice) is feedback from other writers. All of the theory in the world will only get you so far. You need people to actually read what you’ve written and tell whether it is working. It’s all well and good knowing you aught to have a hook at the beginning of chapter one, but it isn’t as if there is a list of them somewhere you can choose from. You have to craft it. And once you’ve done it, how do you know if it is any good? Just because you think so? You’re the novice, remember?

To quote Nanny Ogg, “There’s many a slip twixt dress and drawers.”

So it will serve you well to surround yourself with fellow writers, hopefully writers engaged in the kind of writing you yourself are pursuing – young adult, historical romance, science fiction, whatever. Otherwise they may not represent your target audience, and may not be able to render useful advice about whether or not your vampires are scary or if Penelope’s bosom is heaving properly. Plus the structure of meeting weekly or bi-weekly provides a tremendous motivation to produce pages of story, which is often hard to muster when one is only writing for one’s self.

There’s an even better reason to find a group of like-minded writers, a reason most novice writers fail utterly to grasp: the real value in the critiquing process comes from giving critiques. There are a number of reasons for this. Writers often reject sound advice if it means tossing out their favorite lines, ideas or characters. Critique groups are fallible; you may get conflicting advice, or your readers may simply not “get” what you are trying to convey in your story (although if they do not, that is in itself often a problem). But when you read the work of other aspiring writers and identify the problems – or triumphs – you begin to see what is working and not working with your own writing.

So where does one find such a group, I hear you cry. Fear not; there are thousands of local writers groups of every genre and experience level looking for new members. Professional writers associations, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, will even help you form one if you can’t find one to your liking.

But, really, it’s even easier than that. You’re already on the Internet; just click here. This will take you to that writerly website I mentioned earlier, the one with the survey. The site is call the Critique Circle, and it has been around for over ten years and has over 3,000 members. The site is designed specifically for writers to submit their work for peer review, in categories ranging from children’s to romance and fantasy to horror. And the critique process works well because it is based on a point system – in order to submit your own work you need to earn points by critiquing the stories of others. People are polite, helpful, and for the most part able to render meaningful advice (in my experience). Plus there are dozens of writer forums where you can discuss your genre, your story, your premise, or your characters. You can ask questions in the research forums, and somebody is bound to know something useful. Many of the members are published authors, from all over the world. The site also contains a whole boatload of useful tools for helping your story along: a name generator, writing exercises, a word meter for tracking your progress, a submission tracker, and many more.

I personally filtered my entire novel through this site, to my very great benefit. I can say with complete clarity that the advice I received consistently improved my chapters and my story, and my finished manuscript would not be nearly as good had I worked on it alone.

Oh, and it’s free. And anonymous, if you want.

So if you’re serious about writing, particularly about writing a novel, find a critique group and dive in. The sooner the better. You have nothing to lose but poor writing.

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Over the last couple of weeks I have been detailing my experiences working with a professional editor (Part 1 and Part 2).  Since I received her feedback I have been thinking about her various comments and suggestions for about a week, now.

I had expected that by the time I sat down to write this post I would have already had my 45 minute phone call with her. However we were not able to schedule it until early next month.  So instead of sharing that discussion with you, let me share my list of questions (so far) which I plan to ask her:

  • Do you think I should change the name of the book?  Is the name boring, off-putting, or less enticing than it could be?
  • Did you see anything in the premise or early pages that would turn an agent off?
  • What advice can you give me on fixing the main character’s mom?
  • Would you categorize this book as Contemporary Fantasy or Magical Realism?
  • Should I mention in the query that I co-wrote this book with my 16yo daughter?  I’ve been told definitely yes, and definitely no.
  • Is the hint of romance too creepy? (She’s 12, he’s 15)
  • Are my comps* okay? What books would you recommend as possible comps?
  • Do I need more people of color?
  • Should I use fake names for real things — Carrie Mae Cosmetics instead of Mary Kay, for example?  Am I in trouble if I use real names and misrepresent them?

I may come up with more questions, and if I do I will share them, along with my editor’s answers, next week.  In the mean time, I have already made notes and scribbled ideas for solutions to several of the issues she raised, so I’ll talk about those, too.


* “Comps” is short to comparisons, which means the books — or movies, games or other pop-culture — you would compare your book to.  Such as: “TV’s Grimm for kids,” or “Alice in Wonderland meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Last week I discussed the pros and cons of hiring a professional editor for your novel manuscript, and my personal experience in choosing one for myself.  This week I’ll show you what you can expect from different kinds of editing services.

The muses aligned or the planets favored us (or insert your own supernatural reason) and the same day we hired a professional editor for my daughter’s and my middle grade manuscript, we won a free first ten pages critique through a contest.  In this case, the critique came from a past winner of #PitchWars, who had a manuscript good enough to be chosen by a mentor and who then went through the intense revision process that is the hallmark of that event.  So while he is not strictly an editing professional, he is certainly an experienced one.  And, because it was through a contest and not a manuscript swap between peers, he was not looking for reciprocation the way a fellow writer in a critique group might. Because this critique only covered 10 total pages, the comments drilled down to word level.  This is the kind of critique you may get with a Copy Edit.  Below is a screen grab from the middle of those ten pages, with comments from my editor:

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In this case my editor requested the pages in a Word document, in proper manuscript format.  This works well, because the comments and edits can be tracked, as you see above. Others prefer the online Google Docs, which have similar tools, however with Google Docs, you can see the edits live as they come in, and respond with comments and questions of your own.  A third option, Dropbox, is the best of both worlds, as you can share a link to a Word document in your Dropbox, and your editor can open that same document in his or her Dropbox.  This arrangement also allows for instant gratification and back-and-forth.  I prefer the Dropbox method, because ultimately the manuscript is going to need to be in Word, and I don’t want to have to copy and reformat the whole thing if I don’t have to.  But any of these methods will get the job done.

For the professional edit I chose a developmental editor, because our manuscript was well polished from a grammar and spelling standpoint, and it had already been read by scores of beta readers and critique partners, so I was confident the vast majority of the typos were cleaned up.  Likewise, I felt confident that line-by-line issues, such as awkward transitions, confusing sentences, and inconsistencies had been resolved.  What I paid for was a Developmental Edit, which covers  plot, structure, character, pacing, dialogue, world-building and writing style, presented in an overall critique letter, rather than line-by-line or even chapter-by-chapter breakdowns.

I chose Write On Editing, for their experience, their age-group focus, and their reasonable price.  I was ultimately won over by their fast and friendly replies and willingness to answer questions.  In fact, before asking for a dime, Michelle invited us to send her the whole manuscript so she could read it and tell us which level of editing would be the best fit for us.  She recommended the least expensive option, and even worked with us on the price. Here are some of the comments we received after about two weeks:

Plot:

You have a wonderful story line in THE LAST PRINCESS…. (a full paragraph detailing the things that Michelle liked and what worked).

There are a few points that I feel you might want to address however.

Cat seems to immediately accept that she will become the next princess without too much internal examination or obsessing about what that means for her, her future, or her family. A bit more internal dialogue would help readers to connect with that new-found responsibility. Also, what is Cat expecting to actually do as a Princess? She makes vague statements about wanting to unify the fae but what does that actually entail?

Cat’s time at Squirrel Scout camp is so much fun! The pranks were pretty funny and it was a great way for her to meet Hunter and learn new skills too. That said, pranking usually goes both ways at camp. Can her group plot or even prank other groups in what they think is retaliation? I would imagine these girls would be speculating nonstop about who was messing with them, but that line of thought seems pretty non-existent.

World Building:

Much as I like the plot, I feel like this is one of the weakest areas in THE LAST PRINCESS. I honestly have no idea what time of year the story is taking place. At the start, Cat is working on home school projects but shortly afterwards she is going away to camp for a week. Is school just getting out before summer? Giving more details about the timing will help the reader to place themselves more firmly in the contexts of your character’s lives.

Another facet I wasn’t too sure on was the family’s booth at the Rockford Fair. While reading, I was distracted trying to figure out if it was located in a travelling or permanent fairground. I think it’s the latter, but if so, how does that work? Fairs typically last for a short period only. Consider changing it to a small shop in a tourist type town that might have a carnival aspect (I kept imaging Coney Island, to be honest). Think about what makes it unique or special and why people come to visit.

Character Development:

Cat’s Mom: One of my main concerns is the unevenness of this character. I like where she ends up, but I was quite confused with her character for most of the novel. Cat emphasizes the fact that her mom expects her to be “little miss perfect” by getting good grades and avoiding things like fairy tales but I didn’t see much beyond those two points. In fact, she has her join Squirrel Scouts which seems the opposite of being success-minded since they go hiking and get dirty etc. (unless you incorporate something how she thinks it will give her leadership skills or something). And it doesn’t really match with her actions either. I couldn’t understand how a mom who runs a booth selling flowers and pottery at a fair would be so preoccupied with perfection, as she seemed quite hippy-ish. You might be able to keep the details as is, but make the mom a bit more OCD regarding Cat’s activities. She already is concerned about school work but you could add in scenes of her carefully scheduling out Cat’s every minute between scouts, soccer, school, and helping with the shop, for example.

Michelle rounded out her critique letter with a number of random thoughts:

– How did Thomas get over the mumps so fast? Wouldn’t he be quite weak after leaving the hospital, yet their mother takes the family out to dinner that night.

– On p.77 Cat tells us why she thinks her family is more poor than usual. Instead of telling your reader all at once, could this be broken up and inserted in little snippets throughout so it gradually builds?

Finally, the editing package included a 45 minute Skype or phone conversation, where I can ask questions and get feedback on possible solutions to some of these issues.  To get the most out of this, I’ve started a list of questions to ask, and will continue to add to it right up until the scheduled time for our call.

Next week I’ll discuss how I plan to make the most out of these critiques, and how several of the comments led to ideas on how to fix the issues.