Where I’m At, What I’m Doing, Why It’s All Good

If we’re connected on social media beyond the confines of this blog, you may have noticed I’m kind of quiet lately. I’ve taken the past two weeks off Facebook and plan to take one more. It was mostly because I found myself mindlessly scrolling through the same old stuff, not getting much joy out of it, and wasting my time. Plus, what better time to take a break than during the weeks leading up to and the week of a contentious election?

What have I been doing with that extra time? Hiking, of course, plus cleaning my office, doing yardwork, recovering from the fall crud, watching movies with my boys, and doing the groundwork needed to revamp a story line in a novel manuscript I had long since considered done.

That’s right. Instead of using National Novel Writing Month to work on my newest manuscript, which is what I had been planning, I’m taking two huge steps back to rework part of the story on The Bone Garden. I’ve mapped it all out. Now all that remains is the execution. Some characters will be combined, some will be altered, some will disappear, one will be brought out from obscurity and into an important role. It will be a big, complicated job, but I can already tell it will make that story line so much stronger and more compelling. And all the answers to my problems were right there in the text itself, waiting for me to discover them.

I wrote the first words of this book nearly three years ago, and I started the research for it four years ago. If I’m lucky and it gets contracted next year, it might be out by the end of 2018, nearly six years since I started the work on it. With the exception of my garden, I’ve never tinkered with anything this long, certainly not any creative endeavor. I’m more of a “get an idea and execute it within a month (sometimes within hours)” kind of person. But a novel, especially one as layered and complex and interwoven as this one, with its three time periods and three protagonists whose lives intermingle in many ways, is a behemoth of a project.

I’ll be popping back onto Facebook in not too long, but most of my screen time (beyond my “real job”) is going to be spent in my story. Hopefully by the end of this year I’ll have it all tied up in a bow and ready to send back to my agent so I can get back to what I had originally wanted to work on as we headed into winter.

I’m trying to be content with the timeline I’m on, to live and work in this moment rather than always anticipating the one ahead. So as I get out from under this fall sickness and I can get myself up in the early morning darkness to work on my story, I’ll try to remember how thankful I am each morning to get to work on something I love.

I’m sure the coffee will help.

Fear, Courage, and What Makes Your Writing Stand Out

My workshop at the Breathe Writers Conference was on rewriting and revision. I had so much I wanted to cover and not enough time to do it, thus I was forced to truncate my closing remarks. I’m sharing them here in full.

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Sometimes as we are revising, we run across something in our own writing that makes us uncomfortable. A bit of truth that slipped out when we weren’t watching. Maybe we let a character say something shockingly true. We read it later and are stunned that it came from within our minds and hearts. We think, “Maybe I shouldn’t say that, shouldn’t let my character say it.”

In the novel I’ve been working on this year, the overarching theme is the really the sovereignty of God—that everything that happens, including the tragic and awful, happens within His will and is part of His plan for our lives for a reason. That theme is played out in the stories of three women. Two of these storylines focus heavily on race, one during the Civil War, another during the Civil Rights era. In writing about the way white people in this country have viewed and treated black people over the decades, in writing about prejudice and lynching and rioting, and in writing about interracial relationships and marriage, I have had plenty of opportunities to censor myself. There have been many times I’ve thought, “People think this way, people say things like this—but will readers think that’s me? Will they think I think that way?” No one wants to be seen as racist.

And on the other hand, there was a powerful pull to remain politically correct, to treat black characters only as victims. Besides the fact that this is an incredibly demeaning label to put on an entire race, when you look at individual lives, not everyone in this world is a victim. (And victims often make the most uninteresting characters in fiction.) One of the climactic scenes is of the Detroit Riots of 1967. As a writer I could not escape from the fact that that scene included young black men destroying property, stealing, swearing, and even shooting at firemen who were trying to keep the neighborhood those same young men lived in from burning down. But a privileged white woman writing about poor, unemployed black men committing crimes? Is that allowed? Or can only African Americans comment on such an event? I was in high school and college during the 1990s, so I have to fight against near-constant “political correctness” indoctrination rearing its head, because all the PC movement ever did was bury issues under a veneer of civility where they continued to fester, ready to explode because they are never resolved.

In fact, in order say anything worth saying about the reality and experience of racism in the North, I had to avoid both extremes of piling on the white guilt and portraying black characters as victims. That’s been done to death. And in between those two extremes is where we find truth—and truth is never without tension. There’s a lot of fear in writing about explosive topics like race, war, the sanctity of human life, the sacredness of the union of husband and wife. And yet those explosive topics are important. And if we censor ourselves in the public square or the intellectual square, we allow others to set the trajectory of our culture.

In revision, sometimes the things that you feel most strongly that you should delete are the things you should keep. When you feel you should censor yourself because of what a reader (often a very specific one, like your mother or spouse or a friend) might think of you, that’s when you should stop, take a deep breath, and move on. Leave that bit in there. That’s what makes your writing interesting, original, individual, and worth keeping. Deep down, we know that the things that frighten us a little or surprise us—those are the things that actually are saying something. The moments we allow ourselves to really say what we mean—those are the things that really need to be said.

Betsy Lerner, in her excellent book The Forest for the Trees, said it this way:

“If you dream of having your work stay alive beyond your tenure on earth, if you hope to see it beside the unforgettable voices that are part of our literary diaspora, then you must be fearless in every aspect of your writing. . . . Most important, give up the vain hope that people will like your work. People like vanilla ice cream. Hope that they love your work or hate it. That they find it exquisite or revolting…‘Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.’ Throw off the shackles of approval. . . . if your book causes a commotion, even the negative kind, you will have made a platform for yourself, something very few writers ever attain. . . . You cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes through half measures.”

Yes, if you run across a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter that you realize just doesn’t do anything, chop it out of there! It’s dead weight! But if you feel the pull to remove something because it’s uncomfortable or you fear the criticism of others, and yet that part of your work does further your story and does give your reader deeper insight into a character—or into the human condition—be brave. Keep it. Leave it in. That’s the thing that readers will remember. That’s the thing that will make readers sit up straight and listen—because you are someone with something important to say.

Don’t edit out of fear. Don’t edit to protect yourself. Edit to make that shocking truth, that encapsulation of reality hit home even harder. Edit to make that meaning crystal clear.

Because things that need to be said are often those things we wish to hide–about ourselves, about others, about our glorious, messed-up world.

Now Available in Paperback! The Intentional Writer

If you’ve been waiting for the paperback edition of The Intentional Writer, this is your lucky day. If you don’t even know what I’m talking about (and you’re an aspiring author) this is still your lucky day. If you’re neither of these, indulge me a moment while I explain.

Intentional Writer CVR FINAL

The Intentional Writer is some of my best advice for beginning writers who wish they had more time, space, and inspiration for their writing. It offers lots of tips and tricks for carving out time to write, courting the muse to keep your ideas flowing, and prioritizing writing so that you can stop making excuses and start finishing things.

Every piece of insight I have to offer comes from my own experience as a writer looking for a sustainable writing rhythm that would keep me creating regularly, but wouldn’t saddle me with a load of guilt if I didn’t meet a certain word count every day.

As I formatted the paperback edition, I’ve added new content and updated existing content to reflect further developments in my own writing journey. I plan to update the Kindle edition soon to reflect those changes.

It is my hope that the things I’ve learned can help many other aspiring authors. Click here to purchase!

I’ll also take this chance to let you know that I will be speaking again at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference this year. Last year I spoke on the topic of finding your writing rhythm. This year I’ll be giving out great revision tips and advice to bring your writing to the next level. I would love to see you there! Check out the schedule of speakers and register for the conference on October 10-11.

Revising Your Manuscript: Sifting through All That Good Advice

Back in March after I finished the first draft of my WIP, I talked about getting the most out of your beta readers. But what do you do with all their comments and advice? Most especially, what do you do when one person’s feedback conflicts with another?

So far, I’ve had ten lovely people give me feedback on my manuscript. Three more are reading now. With that much feedback, you’re bound to get some comments more than once (and that’s when you should perk up your ears and seriously consider their advice) and you’re bound to get a few things that don’t mesh.

My WIP is really three stories in one. Three protagonists. Three time periods. Lots of connections between the three. Inevitably when you have an ensemble cast, readers will likely gravitate to one character over another. So I’ve had champions for each of these three characters as well as critics for each of them. One reader thinks the book is really about Character A and rushes through the chapters that don’t include her. Another reader can’t stand Character A and knows that the book is really about Character B. Another adores Character C but can’t connect with Character B. And so on. And most readers have ideas about how you could improve the parts of the book they didn’t like as much.

On a smaller scale, you may have different readers mark the same little bit of prose with an underline and a smiley face, or a double strikethrough and a skull and crossbones. A member of one of my writing groups recently had that very experience with a descriptive dialogue tag and was at a loss about how to edit or if she should change it at all.

So what do you do with this conflicting advice?

First and foremost, consider your true audience. What’s your genre? Who is going to gravitate toward this book and snatch it off the shelves? Is the reader who gave you feedback someone who generally reads in your genre? If not, pause a moment to consider whether their advice on this particular problem is coming from a place of ignorance.

That doesn’t mean there’s no point in having them read and comment. After all, my book is geared toward the women’s book club crowd, but male readers (I’ve had four of them) are essential because there as many male characters as there are female. But if one of my male readers advises me to change a female character’s reaction to a situation because he doesn’t think women act that way or doesn’t understand why women act that way, I’m going to give it some serious thought, pat him on the hand, and say, “Nope, a woman really would do that, even if you don’t understand it. Women readers will understand that completely.”

But if the same male reader advises me to change something a male character says or does because he thinks that no man would act that way, then you had better bet I’m listening close and following his advice. In fact, that often makes for better conflict because the male characters aren’t behaving the way I as a female writer would like them to, and so now my characters have to deal with it.

Sometimes advice doesn’t hinge on audience. Sometimes it’s a matter of clarity versus obscurity. I tend to not like to explain things too much in my writing because I resent being talked down to in any area of life (which is why I hate getting my oil changed). I’m intelligent enough; let me figure it out. And if I can’t, let me struggle with it and discuss it with others. I’m sure this has something to do with being an English major.

But not all of my readers will have been English majors. Not everyone is on the lookout for obscure symbolism–or even overt symbolism! So when a beta reader completely misses an important plot point because I was worried about making it too obvious, it’s time to reread from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been thinking about the plot of this book for over a year. Come at it with fresh eyes. The best way to accomplish this is temporal distance–spend time away from your manuscript. Put it away for a month, then reread the notes from your beta readers, then reread your manuscript through the lens of a first-timer.

The side benefit of spending that time away is that any anger or anxiety you felt when reading over the notes that your beta readers sent to you will have dissipated. Items that seemed like a crisis at the time will suddenly seem very doable. Things you bristled at when you first read them will now seem quite sensible. And the task of revision will be at least partially divorced from the task of creation. You’ll accept that this novel you wrote is, in fact, not perfect. And that that’s okay. That it’s all part of a longer process by which you will slowly, slowly chip away the things that are not your story so that you can uncover the thing that is your story.

Above all, when you are considering conflicting advice–or any advice at all for that matter–there is a balance to be struck between being true to yourself and your vision and being faithful to your potential readers. If you’re writing to be published and read, you do need to consider your audience. But remember that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, please everyone. When you change Character A so that Reader A will like them more, Reader B will be furious.

So how do you like Character A? Does she serve the story? Does she evoke some kind of emotion in the reader? Does she struggle and change and mess up? If you’re uncomfortable with Character A, change her. If not, don’t.

Stories that get passed around and talked about are not necessarily the ones where everyone has the same opinion on every element. After all, if everyone thinks the same way on something, there’s really nothing to talk about, is there? So leave us a little complexity, a little controversy, a little mystery. We might be frustrated sometimes as readers, but it’s a sweet frustration indeed.

 

Revising Your Manuscript: Clarifying Motivation

Last week I shared the story of a shooting near our house. If you haven’t read that post, hop on back and read it first, then move on to this one.

When the dust settles after a tragedy in which the human will was involved–as opposed to a natural disaster–the very first question we ask ourselves is WhyWhat drove the villains of innumerable wars and genocides and school shootings and kidnappings and murders to commit such heinous acts? We want a reason, even if it’s an inadequate one, for the crime. And when we don’t get it, it makes the tragedy more frightening. Whatever the reason, it is so much easier to process and understand if it isn’t random.

When it comes to storytelling, motivation is key to understanding characters, accepting the plot, and fully immersing ourselves in the story. If there’s no clear reason for an action, the reader will be continually on the lookout for it. Now, if we want to make unclear motivation part of the tension for a while, that’s fine. But if we never manage to explain to a reader why a character, say, betrays his brother or cries when he sees a field of ripe wheat or sabotages his best friend, we’re betraying their trust in us as storytellers.

In high school I was in a number of plays and musicals, and beyond the very obvious difference of one having musical numbers and one not, I noticed a very pronounced difference in stage direction. In a play, if I stood up and walked to another spot in the “room” for no apparent reason, the director would call me on it. I needed to have a reason to change my position beyond me just feeling like the audience would be bored if I sat the whole time I was delivering these lines. In fact, it was so ingrained in me that it has affected my enjoyment of other productions! A common problem when memorizing lines and movements for a play is to answer the question What’s my motivation? because, of course, as an actor you are given lines and stage direction in a non-organic matter. To you, they did not arise naturally. Someone else wrote them out and you have been tasked with performing.

In contrast, the director of the musicals needed little reason for movement beyond the need to get people into the proper spots to start the next dance number. If you’re manipulating events in your manuscript just so you can get to the next scene that you planned, step back a moment and examine each character’s motivation. Would someone really act that way, say that line? Why? What would drive them to do that?

Using my example of the recent deadly shooting from the post on tension, after the shooter was taken into custody our questions changed from Who? and Where? to Why? Why the pharmacist? Was the shooter attempting to steal drugs? Was he under the influence of drugs? Why his neighbor? Had they been at odds?

The day after the shooting I was attempting to organize my desk (because deeper thought eluded me, preoccupied as I was with the events of the day before). This process involved going through a stack of items to be read and filed, including several issues of The New Yorker. I was flipping through them for articles and stories and comics I wanted to rip out and keep when I ran across an article about Adam Lanza’s father. I didn’t want to read about Sandy Hook, especially after the experience of my son’s school being on lockdown. But for some reason I began to read anyway. The article essentially attempted to explain what created a killer and a scenario like Sandy Hook. It talked about Adam Lanza’s childhood and teen years, his slow descent into a mental prison, the enabling actions of his mother, the frustration and despair of his father, everything, it seemed, except personal motivation. And that’s because that’s all we’re left with when a mass murderer kills himself and leaves no explanation. We’re left to grasp at wisps of clues and will never know the full truth.

But as writers, we must know why our characters are behaving the way they are, doing the things they’re doing, saying the things they’re saying. Read through each scene of your work in progress. Are the motivations of your characters clear? You don’t have to tell the reader outright why someone did something. You just have to make it easy enough for them to figure out on their own.

In my current manuscript, I wasn’t happy with one aspect of the ending. A young character committed a heinous act because I needed another character to suffer the consequences of their actions. The only problem was, I didn’t give this young character enough motivation. I tried adding a bit here and there, but what he did was so awful, my sprinklings of motivation were not enough, and I knew it. Rather than change the ending so that my other character didn’t suffer the consequences of her actions, I simply switched the young man’s target and made the consequences to the other character accidental. Problem solved.

Not everything needs an explanation of course. You don’t need to tell us why your protagonist rescued a dog from a shelter. It’s a pretty common thing humans do because most people like pets. However, you might have a reason for your protagonist choosing a large and imposing dog rather than a little yippy one. Or choosing a dog rather than a cat. That may factor into the plot or it may simply tell a reader something about the character that’s important.

Remember, if your character moves stage left, there had better be a reason for it or the spell you are trying to cast will be broken. Your audience will remember that they’re reading a book. And that’s exactly what we don’t want them to do.

Revising Your Manuscript: Increasing Tension

As I was headed to the post office late Monday morning in the pouring rain, I couldn’t help but notice half a dozen police cars and twice as many police officers in an otherwise empty parking lot in front of Rite Aid. Yellow police line tape cordoned off both the parking lot and the building, which is situated uncomfortably close to my house. Uncomfortably, because of what had happened there to necessitate the police presence.

I got to the post office in East Lansing and called my husband for a phone number I’d forgotten to write down and mentioned the strange situation at the Rite Aid. As we do nowadays, he proceeded to look up what information could be gleaned from online sources. Very little, as it turns out. A pharmacist, a kind man who had filled prescriptions for our family, had been shot in the face 30 or 40 minutes earlier and died. The shooter fled on foot into a residence on a nearby street, a street we used to use daily when our son was younger as we took him to daycare. There the shooter had apparently shot someone else just fifteen minutes later. Several schools were on lockdown. But my son’s school, closer in distance to the now supposed location of the shooter then the other schools listed, was not on the list. A call to the school went unanswered.

I finished my business at the post office, ran through the downpour to my car, and headed for his school. Thankfully when I got up to the front door, the building was locked. The principal let me in, I quickly made sure they knew what was going on, and then I left.

In the tense hours that followed, news was sketchy. “Isn’t this what Twitter is for?” I wondered in frustration as my husband and I scanned every news site, every feed we could think of, reloaded articles every two minutes to see if anything had been added. Robocalls from the police department and the school came ten to twenty minutes after events had already been reported on the Internet. We got the call that the school lockdown had been lifted, but still could find no indication that the police were positive that the suspect was in the residence that they had surrounded with cops from three cities, S.W.A.T., a U.S. Marshall, K9 units, and armored vehicles.

I second guessed myself for leaving my son at school. Why didn’t I ask if he could come home with me? What if he’s in danger? With every half hour that passed by with still no updates, anxiety mounted within me. A headache came on. I erupted in tears a few times (folks, I rarely cry). I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was steadily losing it.

Let’s pause this story here and take a look at the facts.

By the time I drove by the Rite Aid and saw the tape and the cops and the cruisers, everything except the apprehension of the suspect had already taken place. Two men were already tragically dead. The shooter was already barricaded in the location of the second shooting and surrounded by law enforcement. The only thing yet to be decided was whether he would give himself up, go out in a hail of bullets, or shoot himself. He was contained.

But I didn’t know that. And my baby was not home with me.

Tension–severe and almost unbearable tension–can happen even when nothing is actually happening. Tension stems from uncertainty–not knowing someone’s true identity, not being able to predict what someone will do next, not understanding why something is happening, not knowing if a loved one is safe, not knowing when something will end, not knowing how someone will react…not knowing the end of the story. In our writing, tension is as much about what is not apparent to a character as an immediate physical threat to a character. Stories with absolutely no big action can have more tension than the most explosive big-budget Hollywood shoot-em-up ever made. Yes, there’s Speed, but there’s also Phonebooth.

Inside the Rite Aid, there was a brief moment of tension. An argument perhaps, the sight of a gun. But when that poor pharmacist died, the tension for him ended.

Outside the Rite Aid, every parent in two cities was terrified and anxious and even hysterical for over three hours. Each child in those locked down schools was wondering why their teachers were so tense and why they had a Code Yellow. People at work or at home within a five mile radius of all the action, including the campus of Michigan State University, were told to “secure in place,” stay inside, lock the doors. For tens of thousands of people outside, though they were not directly involved in any of the tragic events of the day, the tension worsened with every moment that passed with no information and no resolution.

Tension kept my husband and I reloading scant articles online. Tension keeps a reader turning the pages. And if tension stems from uncertainty, as writers we need to keep readers in suspense as long as possible.

It can be uncomfortable to write like that. We naturally desire resolution. Even a song that ends on an unresolved chord can drive us nuts. But in order to keep a reader engaged, we need to resist the desire to explain. Tension is in the pauses, the silences, the moments before the Moment. Have you ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls? That entire book ends on an unresolved chord! And it’s the ending that makes the rest of the book worth reading at all.

Take a look at your work in progress, scene by scene. Do you allow tension to hang heavy in the air? Or do you resolve problems as quickly as possible? Is your story lacking tension of any kind? How could you add tension? How can you increase the uncertainty of a situation? Raise the stakes? Make the consequences more dire? Give the character (and the reader) less information? End a scene sooner? Pay special attention to the ends of your chapters and try to end each one with an unresolved chord. Compel the reader on to the next chapter by leaving them unsatisfied in this one.

That’s what makes a thriller a page-turner. It’s not the action itself. It’s the uncertainty. And you can use that to your advantage even in a quiet book.

Back to Rite Aid. When my husband left the house to pick up our son from school, word filtered through that the shooter had given himself up. He was in custody and the threat had ended. I texted my husband to let him know, to ease his anxiety and break the tension. It took me the rest of the evening to truly recover from the day. And in the light of the next morning, the big question became one of motivation.

As I said, this story is still developing. Here is a good article about the first victim and here is one about the second, men who had dreams and families and were made in the image of God, cut down in the prime of life. Why? We don’t know. And that is the subject of my next post on revising your manuscript…

Revising Your Manuscript: Solving Plot Problems

You know when you watch a movie and you find yourself asking “but why wouldn’t he just…” and you can’t enjoy the rest of the show because everything hinged on that one thing that doesn’t make a lick of sense?

Congratulations! You’ve identified a plot hole. Spend much time on IMDB.com and you will find thousands of threads about plot problems in popular movies. Some of them are little, and rabid fans quickly explain them to the not-so-observant watcher. They’re the potholes, something we Michiganders are intimately familiar with this time of year. They make the ride clunky, but they’re not going to ruin the trip altogether.

Others are, well, like this.

li-ott-sinkhole620

For the pothole type, you probably just need a patch. You find a reasonable explanation for why this character did X or why Y caused Z and you work it into the story. For the sinkhole type, you may need to do some intensive structural repair and rerouting.

The sinkholes are the things we wish we could ignore because fixing them could alter everything else in our story. So we pretend they don’t exist, convince ourselves that we’re worrying about nothing, and in the meantime they swallow up the whole story because no one can get past them. Sometimes we need others to point them out to us, so we know–for sure, now–that yes, this is tripping up everyone else as well.

As painful and labor-intensive as they may be to fix, they must, must, must be fixed. And here are a couple ways we can approach them:

1. Go back to the beginning and prepare us.

Want to keep that plot device? Then you need to go back and lay out for the reader why it has to happen that way. Give the reader signposts and clues and reasons. If adequately done, then when we come back up to where that sinkhole was, you may find that it’s disappeared. Everything makes sense and falls into line and we go trucking right along to the next chapter.

2. Go a completely different direction.

Just can’t get your mind around how to salvage your plot and not fall into the sinkhole? Turn around and go another direction. Choose that direction according to the natural flow of the story. What would really happen next? And next? And next? Make that happen. Maybe you’ll get to the place you had wanted to be in the end anyway. Or maybe you’ll discover an even better ending in this new direction. I like it when the latter happens, because those are the endings that can both surprise us and still feel inevitable. They never feel tacked on.

What about you? How have you handled big plot holes in your own work? Do you find they tend to pop up in the same places, like the muddled middle or the ending that you just never quite thought through until you found yourself there and had to wrap this blessed tale up? I’d love to hear from you!

Revising Your Manuscript: Cutting the Fat

When it comes to revision, writers have a lot to say about what to leave in and what to leave out. Kill your darlings is a common way of describing the process of cutting out the parts that are pretty or clever but do not move the story along. But there are other things to cut out as well if we want our writing to sing–the boring stuff, the repetitive stuff, the needless stuff.

Long exchanges in dialogue that you might have in actual life, but that no one wants to read about.

Words we all use when we speak, like um, well, yeah, so, but, etc. that slow our dialogue down and require all sorts of commas (which also slow the reader down).

Words that happen too often. In my current work in progress, it was “ma’am.” I think I cut about a hundred of those out after a beta reader pointed them out to me!

Overexplanation of the setting. This may be hard to gauge, but consider that, in most cases, your reader doesn’t need to visualize a room or vista exactly as you do to understand what’s going on. None of us goes into a room and then catalogs in our heads everything in it. Pick one or two features that make a place unique or represent a place’s ethos that a character might notice. Need an example of overdoing the setting? Read the first chapter of A Separate Peace. Mr. Knowles, we get it! It’s a private school in the Northeast with old brick buildings. Now put away the map and move on.

Needless physical description of characters. Eye color, hair color, height, weight, body type, manner of dress. Does it matter? Sometimes. But sometimes it is plain overdone. What do readers have to know in order to understand your character? Can they see it in action as a character changes? I’m of the opinion that a reader can identify more with your protagonist if they are not over-described. Because the moment a protagonist is a willowy blonde with “eyes of violet that changed with her moods” I think, well, this person is certainly nothing like me. Or anyone. Because eye colors may look different depending on the color of someone’s shirt, but seriously, it’s not an optic mood ring.

How do you tell what needs to be cut? Usually, you need other readers who are not so close to the story to show you where you’re making them yawn or sigh or scream in exasperation.  Each sentence should serve to move the plot forward, help readers understand something about a character or the setting that is truly germane to the story (and in most cases it is more engaging when you can show it rather than tell it), or speak to the story’s theme. When you (or your reader) find something that can be removed with absolutely no harm to the story, it’s probably not needed.

Cutting the fat is how you get your story down to its true essence, which helps the reader better interpret and understand the point you are trying to make. None of us will ever do it perfectly. But try to keep it in mind as you read through your manuscript. You may be surprised by just how much you can lose without losing your story. And once all that dross is consumed by the fire, what’s left shines all the brighter.

Here are some links to other sites with great advice on cutting useless words in particular:

Common Redundancies

Five Tips on Cutting the Clutter

Five Words You Can Probably Cut Altogether (Mostly)

 

Revising Your Manuscript: The Importance of Patience

After my two-month drafting frenzy in January and February, I was deliriously happy. Now I could finally stop thinking about it. Two months may not seem too long to think about a novel you’re writing, but of course I didn’t start thinking about it when I started writing it. I’d been thinking and reading and researching and outlining for many months before that. And getting to the end of the first draft meant that I could finally, for the first time in perhaps a year, think about something else. I closed the file, backed it up in two places, and went on with life.

Two weeks later, I was ready to start thinking about revision, my favorite part of the writing process and the subject of several upcoming blog posts over the coming month or so.

There’s lots of advice out there on revising and editing. Lots of great books about same. Just earlier this week, Kristen Lamb mentioned the importance of writing a quick draft and not getting bogged down in edits (and accidentally throwing out something that might blossom into something beautiful) along the way. She’s spot on. And the patience doesn’t end with the words “The End.”

Have you ever tried to bake bread that you haven’t left to rise quite long enough? Or been in a hurry to eat your homemade pad thai and thus not allowed the rice noodles to soak long enough before adding them to the pan? (Am I the only one to whom this has happened?) Or tried to enjoy an avocado that just was not ripe enough? It’s always a disappointing experience. Certain foods need time to just sit before they’re ready for consumption or else you’re going to have a heck of a time chewing them.

Likewise, our drafts need to sit awhile before they’re ready for revision. When we’ve been working closely with our characters and setting and plot, we need a little distance, a little time apart, before we can honestly assess them, before we can chew on them. Giving a story time to ripen and soften, allowing time for all the different threads and characters and subplots and symbols to get friendly with each other, like leaven working its magic in a lump of dough, and, most importantly, allowing our own minds to move away from the story for a while into something else–like reining in the out-of-control laundry situation and paying the bills–can give us the kind of clarity we need to honestly assess our work. Even stepping away from the computer for a couple weeks can help.

After two weeks away, I reexperienced my story (with the help of my friendly cyborg voice, Crystal) and did a thorough edit, exchanging good words for the perfect words, clarifying characters’ intentions and emotional states, adding important symbols earlier in the story, making motivation clear, and lots more (which we’ll unpack in other posts). I rewrote the ending to be more satisfying for the reader. I removed some pointless descriptions and smoothed the rough surfaces.

During this first revision, I had some fantastic epiphanies that make the story even better. But if I’d immediately started editing after I finished the first draft, I don’t think my mind would have been clear enough to see the possibilities that lay beyond the book I’d already written. The distance was essential in that.

The distance also allowed my mind to start wandering toward what I’ll write next. The day after I came to the end of the first draft, a plot for a new novel began to coalesce in my mind, and now I’m off and running on that one, doing the background reading I’ll need to do in order to plot it out. I had to get out of that earlier story world so I could start thinking about the next one. I’ve found a writing rhythm that seems to be working. I’m excited about the year ahead. A year that will be filled with waiting for readers, then editing, then waiting some more, then editing, then querying. And while I’m busy with that part of the journey for one novel, a little baby idea will be slowly gestating, ready to be birthed into a new first draft, perhaps round about the same time of year this last one was.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to be patient when it comes to revising your work? Does your eagerness to get everything perfect as you go keep you from finishing? Join the conversation below.

How to Take Criticism Like a Pro

This post on professionalism in writing is so good, I had to share it with you. The perfect follow-up to my post on beta readers. What do you do with that criticism you hope to receive? Read on…

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

One of the greatest blessings of being an author and teacher is I meet so many tremendous people. I feel we writers have a unique profession. It isn’t at all uncommon to see a seasoned author take time out of a crushing schedule to offer help, guidance and support to those who need it. I know of many game-changers, mentors who transformed my writing and my character. Les EdgertonCandace Havens, Bob Mayer, James Rollins, James Scott Bell, Allison Brennan are merely a few I can think of off the top of my head.

J.E. Fishman is another, and he offers a very unique perspective because he’s worked multiple sides of the industry. He was a former NYC literary agent, an editor for Doubleday and now he’s a novelist. His newest book A Danger to Himself and Others

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