Character, Writing

What I Learned Re-Reading the First Manuscript I Queried

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m not really referring to the first manuscript I ever queried. Because that one was ten years ago, and it was this crazy adult time-travel Christian romance that I didn’t even let anyone read before I queried it (I know! Rookie move!). I had no idea what I was doing, and so I don’t consider that for real. What I’m talking about here is one you can see here on my blog–THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES.

I wrote this book like seven (or eight?) years ago now, and I started querying it on July 11, 2011. So when you see those milestone posts on my blog about how many years I’ve been querying, it’s this manuscript that started it all. The reason I’m re-reading it is because I’ve decided to self-publish a copy as a Christmas gift for my nine-year-old. I mean, it’s officially shelved for any real publishing purposes, but my son will love it.

I thought it would be interesting to share what I learned about my growth as a writer while reading this old manuscript. Overall, I still thought the story was fun, and I got a lot of things right, but the issues I spotted are issues many new writers encounter, even with the help of critique partners and beta readers. For most writers, it just takes time to learn the craft and trust your gut enough do what’s right for your manuscript (you’ll understand what I mean by that second part when you get to point number four). And for the lucky few who get published on that first manuscript, I salute you!

1. I hardly used any interiority.

There are action beats and dialogue tags, but if I really wanted to whip this manuscript into shape, I’d add a lot more thought from my main character. There’s some interiority (and if you don’t understand what I mean by that, check out Mary Kole’s post here), but I wanted so much more emotion and explanation from him.

2. So many questions!

When my main character does have interiority, he’s constantly asking questions. It’s okay to use questions sometimes, but in general it’s better to rephrase them into statements. They’re stronger and more active.

3. The story is so plot-focused there’s not much depth to the characters.

This goes along with the first point but also applies to the supporting characters. I gave each of the characters one or two things. The main character has an anger management problem. His sister is brainy. His best friend is bubbly and supportive. But other than that? There’s not much. I could’ve done so much more with it.

4. The early chapters are rushed.

I did some minor edits to the manuscript as I read through it–nothing major, just cleaning it up as I went. When I got to chapter six, I felt like the story had skipped way ahead. And I know why. I was new to working with readers for this manuscript, and the critique I received was to ruthlessly cut five chapters.

So, here’s the thing about that critique. I was new to critiques, and it sounded like good advice. In all actuality, the sentiment behind it–that I was starting in the wrong place and my pacing in the early chapters was too slow–was valid. However, in retrospect, just all-out cutting those chapters was not the right thing to do. As a more experienced writer, I’ve learned how to accept a critique, examine what the actual problem is, and find the right solution for my manuscript. Sometimes it’s exactly what the other writer has suggested, but often it’s an entirely different solution that I come up with–because I know my manuscript better than anyone. But as a new writer I didn’t understand that, and this manuscript suffered as a result. It wasn’t that other writer’s fault. She spotted the problem. I just didn’t apply the critique correctly.

My point with this is not to ignore critiques, just to incorporate them in a way that’s right for your manuscript. Because when it comes to pacing and story structure, you need to ensure your story makes sense and the reader feels grounded. As for my son? I’m sure he’ll just go with it :).

5. There’s too much summarizing.

There are a lot of passages where I summarize what happens instead of actively showing it, and that takes away from the experience. It still gets the point across, but I know it can be so much better. I think this is another area where as a more experienced writer I can tell the difference between when I should tell vs. when I should show.

6. Who’s talking??

This manuscript features three kids on an adventure, and in an effort to avoid too many saids, I apparently just deleted a bunch of dialogue tags. But as I was reading through, there were several times I wondered which character was supposed to be talking. If there are more than two characters, you need something, whether it’s a dialogue tag, an action beat, or an internal thought to signify who’s speaking. Even when I did have beats or tags, they were often after the dialogue when they should have been before. I did a lot of shifting for those. There’s not a set formula for this, but it does need to be clear who’s talking. I just try to find a good balance of tags, beats, and thoughts in a conversation.

Could I go back and fix these issues if I really wanted to? Sure. But as fun as it was to go back and read this manuscript, I don’t have any passion for it anymore, and that’s a necessary ingredient to whip a project into shape. So for now, I will just anticipate the joy on my son’s face when he opens his present.

Have you ever gone back and read your first project? If so, what did you learn about how your writing has improved?

Contests, PitchWars, Revising, Writing, Young Adult

Tackling a Major Revision, or How I’m Revising for Pitch Wars

In addition to promising to talk about my Pitch Wars mentors’ books (I’ll feature Kristin Smith’s books next week!), I said I’d share my revision process, so here goes.

A week after the Pitch Wars announcement, I received a thirteen-page edit letter from my mentors, as well as an invitation to view a Google Doc with line edits on the full manuscript I submitted for consideration. Neither of these documents were really as overwhelming as they might seem. I have two mentors, so the length of the edit letter had a lot to do with two writers making comments on it, I think. Both mentors wrote an introduction, followed by comments on chapters as they saw issues (some chapters didn’t have comments–yay!), and then there were character notes and miscellaneous thoughts at the end. As for the line edits, they’re super helpful as I’m revising because many of them point out places my mentors love and I should definitely keep, not just areas I need to fix.

So how have I approached this?

1. A huge sigh of relief. My mentors are amazing! I knew this manuscript wasn’t there yet. It’s why I entered Pitch Wars. Kristin and Beth’s recommendations for enhancing my manuscript and taking it to the next level were fantastic. We emailed back and forth on a couple of suggestions where I had reservations and brainstormed alternate solutions. But the thing was, I wouldn’t have come up with alternate solutions if they hadn’t pointed out they had an issue with the way things currently stood.

2. Create an outline listing how I proposed implementing the suggested changes in the manuscript. The nice thing here is that I already had all of the outline information in my Scrivener file. I set it up before I drafted the novel, so all I had to do was export my outline and update it according to the changes I planned to make.

In addition, I included extensive revision notes. For the few new chapters, the revision notes were pretty much a step-by-step guide through the chapter. This outline took me about four or five days to complete. Here’s an example from an early chapter, since I don’t want to give too much away :).

3. Send the outline to my mentors for approval. Even though my outline addressed all of my mentors’ suggestions, either incorporating them or explaining why I felt another solution worked better, sending in the outline had me biting my nails. Was I suggesting enough? Would I need to go back to the drawing board and come up with different solutions? But it turned out I had nothing to worry about. My super-supportive mentors loved my outline, and while they had a few tweaks and additional suggestions, they gave me the go-ahead to start revising.

4. Input the outline changes and revision notes into Scrivener. It may seem like extra work to output the outline and then put it back into Scrivener, but it took maybe an hour of cutting and pasting, and I like to have everything in my Scrivener file as I’m working. So as I’m revising, that same chapter you saw above looks like this in Scrivener. (When I’m tackling a revision on my own, I skip straight to this step and put all my revision notes into Scrivener, except with this particular manuscript I did go through this outline-with-revision-notes process on an earlier draft with two of my critique partners. That’s how I knew it was such an easy way to approach explaining what I planned to change.)

5. Start revising! Once I had my Scrivener file all ready to go, I started revising chapter by chapter. My system is:

a. Tackle chapter revision notes.

b. Incorporate line edits from my mentors.

c. Complete a repeated word search for the chapter. Yes, this slows down my revisions a bit. However, everyone who’s read this manuscript has commented on pacing as a strength, and I think one factor is that I weeded out repeated words chapter-by-chapter early in the revision process. Since I’ve done it before, I’m not doing it as detailed during this revision, particularly on the chapters that don’t have a ton of changes. But for the brand-new chapters (I’ve already written two), you bet! Because I still tend to use the same words over and over, and searching for those repeated words ensures each character sounds unique and that I’m using the best word in each instance. Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now, but you can refer to my post on why you might want to change a word, even if you only use it twice in a chapter.

So where am I now?

Making great progress and excited about how the changes I’ve already made are positively impacting the manuscript. This process is fantastic, and no matter how the agent round pans out, I’m confident YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME will be a much stronger manuscript. I’m so thankful for Kristin and Beth’s insight and support, as well as all of my CPs who got me here in the first place.

While I’m applying this process to Pitch Wars revisions, it could be used to tackle any major revision. As I mentioned above, I used it with my CPs when working through some issues on an earlier draft. Also, if you have a revise & resubmit with an agent or editor and they’re open to seeing what you plan to do with the revisions before you start on them, you could use this sort of system. It just depends on how much detail they want.

Now I’d better get back to revising!!

Contests, PitchWars, Revising, Writing

I’m a 2017 Pitch Wars Mentee!!

Based on this title, some of you are probably wondering whether I’ve been drafted into an a cappella group (I was tempted to break into song) or some sort of strange cult. Don’t worry–well, the a cappella group wouldn’t be cause for concern–it’s an amazing, wonderful, exciting opportunity! (I could continue adding on adjectives, but I’ll stop.)

Basically, Pitch Wars is an annual contest to which writers submit a not-quite-there manuscript to mentors for consideration. These mentors are industry professionals (usually agented and/or published authors or editors) who provide detailed feedback on the manuscript and work with you to get it ready for querying. But not only that, there’s an agent showcase at the end of two months, and because of the mentoring aspect of the contest, it holds a lot of weight with agents.

Friends, I am so thrilled to be selected this year with YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME. I’ve tried before, with three of my previous manuscripts, and I’ve gotten close. I know because I received emails afterward from mentors telling me I was among their top choices. I even had a potential mentor tell me I should probably go ahead and query, and that project ended up getting really close with agents too, but as any of you who follow my blog know, I haven’t yet found the right fit. So I’m absolutely ecstatic to have this opportunity.

Even better, I get to work with TWO fabulous mentors–Kristin Smith (CATALYST and FORGOTTEN) and Beth Ellyn Summer (AT FIRST BLUSH). I can’t wait to see what plans they have for my manuscript, but I know I’m in good hands because I read their books (technically still reading Kristin’s sequel :)), and you should too! Don’t worry, I plan to tell you more about their books later because, of course, that’s what I do :).

I’m sure I’ll end up blogging about the revision process too, because that’s also what I do. For now, I’ll leave you with a picture of my new puppy, Rey, playing with bubbles. Because why not?

Revising, Uncategorized, Writing

Why You Might Want to Change That Repeated Word

I just finished a chapter-by-chapter repeated word search of my manuscript, and it was brutal. I started at the end of March and have been working on it diligently since then. That’s right–for six weeks! You may think that’s dedication, but I would never have had the patience for it if I hadn’t been participating in a weekly chapter swap with another writer.

I’m not sure how you would do this if you’re working in Word, but I described how I went about the actual process for Scrivener in an initial post titled Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter. As I mentioned in that post, previously I searched the overall manuscript and spent about two weeks weeding out my crutch words. This process was so much more in-depth. It took me about three hours per chapter because I searched almost every word that appeared even twice in a chapter to ensure that it actually needed to be there twice. Often it did. I’m not by any means suggesting that you should only use a word once per chapter–heck, sometimes you need to use a word fifteen times in a chapter!–just that it’s worth the effort to examine every word and make sure you’re using the best word. Because as writers we all have a tendency to fall back on familiar words, and they may not be the words that are most appropriate for our characters or the particular scene.

Here are some reasons you might want to change a word, even if it only appears twice.

It shows up within two paragraphs, and it’s not for emphasis. This happened quite often in my chapters. A word I’d never have noticed otherwise (like “interrupt”) would appear in one paragraph and then again in the next. Particularly if it’s not that common of a word, it really stands out if you repeat it too close together, even if you aren’t using it the same way.

Two different characters use the same term, and it fits one voice better than the other. Think about the voice. Maybe it’s an innocuous enough word that both characters would say it, but perhaps there’s a stronger choice for one of them.

Characters are shrugging, sighing, laughing, nodding, etc., more than once. I check for beat words in an overall manuscript search, but they were thrown into sharper relief in a chapter search. It forced me to carefully observe each character’s movements within the chapter to ensure I wasn’t doubling up on them–or if I was, that it was purposeful.

It highlights a vague word/phrase that you could make more specific. I’m not sure how to best describe what I mean here, but I found that highlighting these commonly used words made me really think so that I’d dig deeper and improve on vague phrases. Often it was when a character used words/phrases like “something,” “what we’d done,” “thing,” “everything,” etc., in thoughts or dialogue. Sometimes those catch-all words were appropriate, but in other cases I needed to replace them with a more specific description. For my current manuscript, it was often a lot funnier for my characters to say something more specific. For example:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you what had happened.”

Became:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you we ran away because we’d lost our dead babysitter.”

You’ve used the exact same phrase more than once in the same chapter. Maybe I would have caught this in a broader manuscript search for common words, or maybe a CP/reader would have noticed it, but it definitely stood out when I was searching within a single chapter. Since I fast-draft, I generally write a scene and/or chapter within a day, so it’s not surprising an exact phrase would pop up more than once. And when you’re just reading through, it’s easy to skim over it if it’s a common phrase. By completing this concentrated chapter-by-chapter search, I’ve eliminated these types of brain blips :).

A WORD OF CAUTION: I always include this caution because it’s very important. When searching for and replacing commonly used words, it’s easy to get happy with the thesaurus and write out voice. So my next step after completing this process is to read through the whole manuscript again. I expect that I’ll change some of these words back to the original words I’d used, even if it results in some repeated words. Sometimes that’s necessary for voice. I recommend reading the manuscript aloud for a voice check, either reading it yourself or having the computer read it. I do both at some point while revising.

How detailed do you get checking for repeated words?

Critiquing, Revising, Writing

The Benefits of Weekly Chapter Swaps

First of all, there’s still time to enter my fifth blogiversary giveaway for a $25 Amazon gift card, so if you haven’t done so yet, check out my post here (ends at midnight 5/11)!

While I’ve been blogging for five years, I’ve been writing for many more years. The beauty of this journey is that I’m continually learning something new. My process with gathering feedback in the past has always been to carefully revise the full manuscript and then send it to critique partners and beta readers. I’ve never sent first drafts to anyone–probably because I’m too much of a perfectionist :).

However, when I participated in WriteOnCon this year, I was in a unique position timing-wise. I was finishing up a revision of the project I’d been querying and getting ready to revise the first draft of my new project. I met a writer in the forums whose writing appealed to me, and we started a conversation about swapping chapters weekly.

Now, I have to say that this has never appealed to me in the past because it is a sloooow process. And I’ve mentioned before that I am not a patient person, right? Added to that, I’d be sending off chapters when I hadn’t even revised the chapters that came after. This was a bit intimidating to me–the idea of sending off unfinished work. But here are some benefits I discovered from going through this process. I should mention that we didn’t stick with one chapter per week as that would have taken fooorever. My patience only extends so far :).

It prevented me from rushing the draft. I finished my regular pass of revisions through the draft about five weeks before I sent my last chapters, so I started checking the manuscript for repeated words. Normally I don’t do this until a later draft, but it’s mainly because I’m in such a hurry to get feedback. Since I was already getting feedback, I could take the time to do this really well. See my initial post on checking chapter by chapter for repeated words. I’m actually not finished with this (six weeks later!), so I may post more about it.

I received detailed feedback on each chapter/section. I have excellent critique partners and readers who often give me line edits and detailed chapter notes. However, it’s different when someone’s reading a short selection every week. Whereas in an overall manuscript a chapter that flows well might get skimmed, in this setup it still gets special attention and thought because it’s the only thing the reader has to critique for the week. The reader is looking for areas that could be even stronger.

It weeds out all the plot points that don’t make sense. Obviously this type of critique happens when someone does a full read-through, but it’s nice to have someone point out an issue in chapter two and you can fix it before she reads chapter six.

The reader knows your characters almost as well as you do. After so many weeks swapping chapters, I feel like we know each other’s characters really well–because we’ve been going through it so slowly and methodically. It’s different from when you read a manuscript within a couple of weeks and send it back. You’re revisiting them every week, so when they act out of character–as mine did–the reader notices.

Overall, this has been a great process, and I’m glad I went through it. My manuscript is much stronger for it. Have you done weekly chapter/section swaps before? What did you like/dislike about it?

Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter

I’ve posted before about checking my manuscript for frequently used words (How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words; How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice). Some of these are crutch words–thought, just, really, very, etc.–and others are words that crop up in the course of an individual manuscript because of its focus. I usually do this after a second or third draft, mainly because I know so much of the sentence-level writing will change after I receive feedback from readers. But this manuscript is a bit different. I’ve been trading chapters weekly with another writer, so although I’ve just finished my first pass revising the last chapter on my own, the first half of the manuscript is already more like a second draft based on the feedback I’ve received.

Since I won’t be through the swapping process for several weeks, I decided I’d start weeding out overused words. I’ve always dumped the full text into Wordle to create a graphic representation in the past, but I remembered there was a feature in Scrivener that tracked word frequency. I did a search and happened upon an article that had an interesting suggestion: to check word frequency by chapter instead of overall. To do so in the Mac version, you open up the chapter, select Project –>Text Statistics, then click the arrow next to Word Frequency.

Here is the screenshot from one of my chapters before revising. At the chapter level, I care about a plethora of the word “was” or “had”–I want to fix passive voice–but I find it equally as interesting if a word appears twice. Because if a word shows up two times in a single chapter, it deserves a closer look. In this particular sample, I will definitely be addressing those two sighs, and unless it’s for emphasis, one of those ideals will probably go.

Note: A couple of weeks into this process, I started sorting by Word, then Frequency. I found this sped up my search. Often similar words–“want” and “wanted”–would both show up twice.

What I like about checking repeated words at the chapter level is that it forces me to look more closely than I generally do when I execute this process at an overall manuscript level. I’m less likely to skim over some of the words because they aren’t appearing that often. We all have words that we fall back on, and there are so many more out there that could better convey our character’s point. As always, though, I caution you not to write out your voice just to avoid a common word. Sometimes it’s still the best word, even if you just used it in the sentence immediately before :).

Revising, Writing, Writing in Reverse

Writing in Reverse: The First Draft Read-Through

When I finished drafting this manuscript in November, I said I intended to let it sit until after Thanksgiving. That plan changed drastically when I received an R&R (revise and resubmit) on another manuscript the same day I wrote that post. I think it came about an hour later. Talk about timing! I don’t know what will happen with that project, but I do know the longer you let a draft sit, the better.

So, instead of a few weeks, this manuscript stewed for more than ten weeks. I finished re-reading it yesterday, and I’m very pleased with what I have to work with as a first draft. It’s by no means ready to send off to readers, but I expect it won’t take me long to get it there, and I’m giving credit to two things: writing in reverse and advance planning. Here are a few things I noticed in my first draft read-through.

The first chapter still needed work. I said before that I hoped writing in reverse would making writing my first chapter easier, and it did in many ways, but from the first words, I was still mentally polishing it up. I’m not sure it’s possible to nail a first chapter in a first draft, no matter how you approach it. I do think, however, that I started the story in the right place this time. Of course, that’s ultimately up to my readers to tell me :).

The pacing feels on target. As I was reading, I felt like the pacing moved along well. In the past, I had a tendency to start meandering around the middle (is that just me??). But writing in reverse, I was always looking at what had to happen right before that scene to get there, so there’s nothing extraneous. If anything, there are a couple of scenes that might be a bit abrupt and I need to add.

I will be killing many darlings. I mentioned in my 25,000 words from the end post that I’d decided to add a twist I hadn’t planned for in one of the early chapters. Reading through again, I know this twist is the right call for the story as it will greatly increase the tension throughout. However, when I got to the later part of the story where it wasn’t incorporated, there were so many great lines that I now won’t be able to use. So I guess that’s a downside to writing in reverse, since if you’re writing forward, a later twist might not affect what you’d written earlier. But it’s ok. If I managed to write such fun dialogue how it was originally, I’m sure I can switch it around to accommodate this change :).

Overall, my first draft read-through left me feeling very pleased with the results of writing in reverse. I will definitely be using this strategy to draft my next project as well. Now on to the revisions!