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 :).

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Movies, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE SWAP by Megan Shull

Last fall I watched a Disney TV movie called “The Swap” and thought, Wow, I wish I could read that as a book. Turns out it was based on a book! (Also, have I mentioned before how it’s my dream to have one of my books made into a Disney TV movie? Because, honestly, that’s the type of book I write.) Anyway, when I spotted Megan Shull’s THE SWAP at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, I immediately threw it in my shopping cart. (Yes, a literal shopping cart.) Interestingly, the movie was aged up from middle school to high school, but I can understand why. The story is completely appropriate for middle grade readers, BUT it is not a book I’d recommend to younger kids reading up due to some of the gender-swapping content. For example, my six and eight-year-old kids watched the movie and thought it was hilarious, but my son would be freaked out reading about the boy in the girl’s body learning about a girl getting her period for the first time.

Yeah. Not ready for that talk. Moving on. Here’s the description for the book.

The Swap by Megan Shull

ELLIE spent the summer before seventh grade getting dropped by her best friend since forever. JACK spent it training in “The Cage” with his tough-as-nails brothers and hard-to-please dad. By the time middle school starts, they’re both ready for a change. And just as Jack’s thinking girls have it so easy, Ellie’s wishing she could be anyone but herself.

Then, BAM! They swap lives – and bodies!

Now Jack’s fending off mean girls at sleepover parties, while Ellie’s reigning as The Prince of Thatcher Middle School.

As their crazy weekend races on – and their feeling for each other grow – Ellie and Jack begin to wonder if maybe the best way to learn how to be yourself is to spend a little time being somebody else.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The premise – I already had a thousand scenarios of how this premise would play out in a book after I watched the movie, and it was different in the book. References to puberty aside–and really, how could that be avoided?–it’s all handled very tastefully and hilariously.

2. The voices – I have to be honest here. Half the time, I had no idea what Jack’s brothers were saying. They have their own language, but I applaud Ms. Shull. I think she actually exaggerated it for the purpose of showing how different the two characters are, but it works.

3. The character arcs – It’s hinted at in the description, so I’m not giving anything away by saying that Ellie and Jack discover themselves by being someone else. I love how they learn more about who they are inside while they’re taking a break from being themselves on the outside. It’s rare to get a glimpse of how others see you, but that’s what the magic of this story allows.

4. Ellie & Jack’s relationship – Not only do they get to know themselves, but they also get to know each other, since they’re living each others’ lives for a weekend. It was fun to watch how close they become, and how they can use that knowledge to help each other.

5. The humor – I tried to find a good example to post, but they’re all too long. Mostly the humor is situational and related to Ellie or Jack being completely confused about what’s going on in the other’s life and having to wing it. I was laughing out loud through much of the book.

I highly recommend this one, but as I said, if you have a younger MG reader, be aware there is talk of bodily functions related to puberty–for both boys and girls–in case you haven’t had those discussions yet.

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Hello there!

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever been away from the blog this long. Sorry about that. Almost immediately after I finished drafting, I started working on a revision that has completely consumed me. And as for reviewing, well, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. It’s not that I haven’t read anything good. I have, it’s just that I’ve been so focused on revising that reading–and thus reviewing–haven’t been a priority.

Until now. Because this book? It was so fantastic that I wanted to get back to it while I was revising, so obviously it deserves a review. And since it’s been sooo long since my last review (Oct. 17! Yikes!), I’m not waiting until my usual Monday.

It's Not Me, It's You by Stephanie Kate StrohmAvery Dennis is a high school senior and one of the most popular girls in her class. But a majorly public breakup with the guy she’s been dating causes some disastrous waves. It is right before prom and Avery no longer has the perfect date. She runs the prom committee, how could she not show up with somebody?

Post-breakup, Avery gets to thinking about all of the guys that she has ever dated. How come none of those relationships ever worked out? Could it be her fault? Avery decides to investigate. In history class she’s learning about this method of record-keeping called “oral history” and she has a report due. So Avery decides to go directly to the source. Avery tracks down all of the guys she’s ever dated, and uses that information along with her friends, family, and even teachers’ thoughts, to compile a total account of her dating history.

Avery discovers some surprises about herself and the guys she’s spent time with just in time for prom night.

Here are the five things I loved best.

1. The format – I love unique formats, and this one was especially unusual, told as a record of Avery interviewing her past boyfriends, with assistance from her best friend, her lab partner, and various people around them. I especially enjoyed her editor’s notes, commenting on what people had said as she gained new perspective on her own past.

2. The voices – It’s hard enough to master one or two voices, but this book had maybe twenty? I didn’t go through and count them :). But they’re all unique, and there’s heart in so many of them. I love how Avery’s best friend, Coco, is obsessed with JFK; her lab partner, Hutch, is full of science references; and his friends are all into the tabletop role-playing games.

3. The humor – I laughed out loud so much at this book, and that’s a main reason why I had to review it right away. There were many passages that got me, but here’s one I made a special note of.

HUTCH: Let the record show that this clown made a horrible kissing noise that was audible over a transcontinental phone connection, like a cartoon chef presenting a plate of tortellini.

4. The boyfriends – I loved all the boyfriends, especially the one in the band, the Italian, and the one with the secret hobby. Each one showed how Avery grew, which I think was the point of the project for her :).

5. The romance – I came across this book on a list of romantic comedies, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying there’s a romance. I love how the process of cataloguing Avery’s failed relationships gives the reader an inside look at a developing relationship. It’s absolutely adorable!

By the way, I picked this up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, along with an unusually large stack of books. I bet I’ll have many more reviews from my haul in the coming months! And if I don’t have another review before the end of the year, I will definitely post a roundup of my favorite 2016 reads before the end of the year.

Writing, Writing in Reverse

Writing in Reverse: 25,000 Words from The End

I started writing my new project at the beginning of October as planned, and I’m now 25,000 words in (or back?), so I figured it was time for an update on how this writing in reverse method is going. As I mentioned in my pre-drafting post, I prepared to write in reverse by creating a much more detailed outline than I’ve ever used in the past. I structured it using K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL. First I placed the three acts with the major plot points, then I layered in the scenes within those major plot points, working backward from the resolution and climax. Yes, that means I outlined in reverse as well. I found thinking backward very helpful from the standpoint of figuring out what needed to happen to get to the climax.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far and some predictions as well.

There’s less pressure writing those first sentences. Well, obviously the end of the novel is important, but it doesn’t have to grab the reader the way the opening lines do. By starting with the end, I didn’t have to worry about what backstory should be loaded into the first words I wrote, how soon certain characters should be introduced, etc. Instead, I got to wrap everything up (because you all know I don’t like sad stories, right?). It was a much easier place to start.

It takes time to get in a groove with your character’s voice whether you start at the beginning or the end. I fill out character worksheets before I start writing. I’ve been doing that for the past few manuscripts, so it’s not new to this one. But even with that prep, it still takes a while to get into a groove with the character’s voice. I was feeling her out in the closing few chapters, but writing her is familiar now. By the time I get to the beginning, I’ll have the main character’s voice down so well that those opening pages should really flow. And when it comes time to revise, it will be much easier to fix any inconsistencies at the end.

I’ve already figured out my character’s issues. This point sort of goes along with the one above, but when I outlined the story and filled out my character sketch, I had a particular character arc in mind for her. As I wrote the end and started working backward, I realized there was another issue she had to work through. If I’d started at the beginning, I wouldn’t have laid the foundations for that flaw, and it would have been something I had to solve in revision.

The first draft is going to be short. I always write sparsely in a first draft, but thanks to my detailed outline, I see that I’m not going to be anywhere near the word count goal I set. Which is fine. I’d rather know that everything I’m putting in this draft is essential to moving the story forward–which is what my outline tells me–than be trying to figure out what scenes have to be cut later. And that’s what I’ve had to do with every manuscript in the past, I think partially because I didn’t outline enough, but also because I was working toward a word count goal and thought I needed to fill the space. Looking at my outline as I draft, with the major plot points in front of me, I’m not tempted to try and fill the MS with unnecessary scenes that won’t add to the forward momentum of the story.

I’m adding as I go, but it’s ok. Usually when I draft I don’t allow myself to go back and revise any chapters I’ve already written, but I’ve been more flexible with this one, and it’s entirely due to the reverse nature of the drafting. I find that I’ll write a new scene, and because of something that happens in that scene, I now need to add to the later scene. But because I’m writing in reverse, it’s not really an edit. It’s more that I left something out of the later scene because I hadn’t written the earlier one yet and didn’t realize the character needed to reflect on a particular incident or hash something out with another character. Because even with my outline, there’s still flexibility for little incidents to be added. I’m sticking to my guns about not changing any text that’s already there, but adding more totally works. Plus it helps with my sparse draft :).

I’m less likely to give away information too soon. I noticed this benefit within the first few days of writing. When you’re writing forward, you’re planting seeds for a later reveal. Writing backward, you get to just put it all out there right away, and it’s a lot easier not to talk about it the further back you go because you know you’ve already written it and the characters either don’t know or can’t talk about it yet. I love this! I already feel like things are being revealed at the right times to produce the most conflict, so as I keep working toward the beginning, I’ll be creating more tension as I find ways for my characters to stay in the dark. Plus, I’ll know exactly where to plant those seeds.

I still look ahead (or behind) when I begin writing for the day. I worked with a much looser outline in the past, but I would glance ahead to see what I was working toward before I started writing each day. Since I’m writing backward, I look at what I’ve planned for the scenes leading up to the ones I’m writing each day. That way I have an idea what the characters were doing immediately before the scene began–what their emotions should be, where they physically are, what they’re working toward. I thought this might be trickier working backward, but with the outline, I’ve found it only takes me a few minutes to get in the right mindset for a new scene.

So, with the manuscript close to halfway drafted (at least according to my outline–I said it was going to be short!), I’m pretty sold on writing in reverse. Now, I’ll be completely honest. I still don’t love drafting. I have to make myself sit at my desk and do it every day, and I stop when I reach 2,000 words, even if I’m on a roll. I do that because if I’m in a great place, it will be easier for me to start again the next day. I don’t think I will ever be a writer who loves drafting, but at least this method is helping me feel good about where this draft is headed.

Have you ever tried drafting in reverse? If so, how did it work for you?

Character, Critiquing, Giveaways, Querying, Revising, Synopsis, Writing

New England SCBWI Conference: So Worth the Trip!

This past weekend I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Spring Conference. It wasn’t my first SCBWI Conference. I’ve attended the Missouri conference multiple years, and it’s been very valuable. However, the IMG_2576New England conference is significantly larger and offered the draw of my long-time critique partner, Kip Wilson, who I’d never met in person–until now!!!

Here we are, together at last. We had a fantastic time, staying up way too late discussing our various projects, the conference, and the angsty “what should I do about this” kind of conversations that take much longer over the back-and-forth of email :).

I met a ton of other amazing writers and published authors I’ve chatted with over Twitter as well, including several whose books I’ve highlighted here on the blog. I mentioned a few of those in my blogiversary post earlier this week. I made a point of picking up signed copies of MONSTROUS by MarcyKate Connolly and THE SECRETS WE KEEP by Trisha Leaver to give away. There’s still time to get in on that. Just click here. I also met many new writers and illustrators whose careers I will now be following.

So, on to what I learned at the conference. In a nutshell: fantastic presenters with exceptional content. But here are some of the highlights.

  • Editor Aubrey Poole, speaking on killer openings: Your first line should present a question in a way that is unique to your story. Maybe that’s a voice the reader has to hear more of, a spoiler missing critical details, two facts contradictory enough to intrigue, or a statement that sets the stage for the entire story. Most of all, don’t be boring!
  • Author Erin Dionne on critique
    • On receiving critique: You have to know the core of your story before asking for feedback—not what it’s about but the heart of the story and what you consider sacred.
    • On giving critique: Grammar and wordsmithing are important but not your number one job as a critiquer. Also, ask where the person is in the process and what level of critique they want.
  • Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette on taming the synopsis: One of your primary goals in a synopsis is to avoid questions. You want to bring in your internal story arc in addition to the plot; you may have to go out of your way to include it.
  • Author AC Gaughen on antagonists: The antagonist is not necessarily the villain. It is something that gets in your character’s way; it doesn’t have to be a person but anything, even themselves. Stories are most satisfying when we can see the character arc of the antagonist.
  • Author Jo Knowles on characters: Dig deeper for what your character really wants. Try to go five stages deep. Also, secondary and tertiary characters give complexity to your main character and help establish the world.
  • Author Padma Venkatraman on voice: Go with your heart and your unique pair of ears—or eyes, because most of the time we’re reading. As you begin to write, listen to your voice. We all have one voice. Give yourself that space so only you can write that novel.

I’ve already started applying many of these tips in the manuscript I’m revising (that one that won’t let me go). I shared a few others on the #NESCBWI16 hashtag. I gained so much insight from talking one-on-one with other writers, listening to the keynote speakers, and participating in the more intensive sessions. I highly recommend this conference if you’re in the New England area or have the resources to travel. If not, find an SCBWI conference near you. It’s worth the investment of your time and money!

 

Revising, Writing

How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice

As I have my manuscript out with another reader, it occurred to me that in addition to not doing a voice check since an earlier round of edits, I also hadn’t done a check for repeated words. Although my reader may give me some line edits–she doesn’t have to :)–that’s not the main focus at this point, so I decided to do a final check for overly repeated words.

The funny thing is, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve managed to weed out some of words I used to have issues with–something, one–but I still overuse common words like think and know. Who doesn’t, right? Ooh, there’s another common word–right! Often taking a careful look at the use of any of these words will cause me to realize that another word would be stronger or perhaps I need to rephrase the sentence entirely. And in other cases I decide that it should stay exactly as it is. Sometimes you don’t need to fix what already works!

Anyway, I wrote last year about how crutch words affect voice, but I think it bears repeating since I just did a voice check and I’m now going through it again. So here are some common words and some things to think about–ooh, or consider!–before you swap those words out for a synonym. Since I’ve already gone there, I’ll start with think :).

Think

  • As I was reading, I discovered one of my MCs frequently says “You’d think I had … ” and proceeds to give some type of metaphor. I didn’t even realize this was part of her voice until I did this search. Obviously I couldn’t swap that out! A lesson in when not to eliminate a repeated word.
  • On the other hand, there were several instances of dialogue where an adult was speaking to one of the MCs, and based on the tone of the conversation, they would be likely to use a word like ponder, assume, believe, consider, contemplate–or even a phrase such as be under the impression.
  • Sometimes it’s stronger for the character to imagine, expect, suspect, anticipate, or consider than to think. It all depends on the context. Sometimes they should just think.

Even

  • Um, this word is now in my second sentence, but I’m not even removing it. I think even is a particularly good voice check word as it’s a word that adds emphasis. Do you need that emphasis? When I went back through, I discovered that often it was unnecessary, or the sentence could be restructured. However, when not abused, it can have impact in a character’s voice.

Know

  • Know is especially hard to get around from a voice standpoint, particularly if you’re writing young adult. There’s no easy swap for I know. You might be able to use I get it a few times or I understand, but your choices after that become I’m aware, I’ve been informed, I realize, I sense, etc. There might be a few instances where you can get away with these in a teen voice, but mostly they’ll come off as phony, so you either have to write out the knowing altogether or leave it and ignore the repetition. On the bright side, if it’s within adult dialogue, the adult could be aware or informed.
  • Then there’s the other form of I know–the people I’m acquainted with, the people I’m friends with, the people I’ve met. Yeah, those are all better for voice than just saying the people I know [sarcasm].
  • If you’re using I know as in I’m positive or I’m sure, well, there are a couple of options to substitute.
  • I don’t know could be I’m not sure, but keep in mind these aren’t exactly the same. The first statement is more definite.
  • Do you know could be Have you heard.
  • Do your characters say, You know? Mine do. And a lot of the time, I left it–because that’s how they would talk.

Like

  • I don’t just like, I love my similes and metaphors, so there are quite a few likes scattered through my manuscript. Sometimes they can be exchanged for as if or as though, but it depends on who is speaking and also how the sentence is worded. It’s both a voice call and a structural issue. You can’t just swap out like for as if or as though and call it a day. You’re often better off leaving it or, if there are two likes close together, rephrasing one of the sentences entirely.
  • On the other hand, if you have a rather formal adult–or pretentious child or teenager–you might want to slip in something even more formal than as if or as though. Perhaps an in the manner of, similar to, such as, for instance, characteristic of, etc.?
  • Don’t eliminate voice phrases. One of my MCs says It’s not like quite a bit, but since it’s part of her voice, I didn’t change it. However, when I noticed someone else saying it, I made a change so it would stay unique to her.

Get

  • Get away with, I get it, get out of–these are all phrases that come up frequently in my manuscript. The tricky part is that often these are already voice substitutes for other common phrases like I know (I get it). However, that doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be rephrased to something else. As with the previous words, be wary of switching out a more sophisticated phrase if it won’t fit the voice. Evade, abscond, or avoid might work in place of get out of–but they might not.
  • It might be fine for certain characters to obtain, acquire, land, procure, grab or score an item instead of get it. Just make sure whatever verb you use as a replacement is a good voice fit.

This post is getting–oops!–long, so I’ll stop there for today. I might continue with some more next week.

Keep in mind: just because the words are repeated doesn’t mean they have to go. Yes, if they’re repeated in close proximity, you should probably take a look and see if you can make a change. And even the act of going through and examining those common words will help you see where some words could be stronger, but sometimes–particularly if you’re on a later draft–the words you already have are what should be there. Don’t feel like you have to change all of your words or get fancy with a synonym to avoid too many occurrences in the manuscript. If it fits with your MC’s voice, keep it. Just be aware of the words you’re using.

What other tricky words do you hold on to/change for voice?

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee

Sometimes I have a book on to-be-read list that I keep saying, “I’ll read that soon.” UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee had been that book for months and months. Finally a friend of mine listed it among her favorite reads for 2015 and I made it a priority. Of course then I kicked myself for not reading it sooner :). I could not put this one down, folks. Here’s the gorgeous cover and description.

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – Girls disguised as boys! I mean, you know I wrote one of those, right? I never get tired of this premise, and there are so many ways to do it well. For Samantha and Annamae, the disguises are necessary for their own safety. Do they work? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out!

2. The writing – I love the way Ms. Lee weaves music into Sammy’s thoughts. It’s so gorgeous. Sammy often speaks to her father, who–small spoiler!–dies in the opening pages. Here’s an example.

“Father, you told me music is a world that measures virtue by grace notes, and truth by the vibration of pitch against your soul. Will I ever find my way back there? Or is that world gone forever, now that you are no longer part of it?”

3. The friendship – It’s clear in the beginning Sammy hasn’t had many opportunities for friendship. Although her Chinese heritage doesn’t brand her a complete outcast from society like Annamae as a slave, she is a curiosity and an outsider. The bond these two girls forge is beautiful.

4. The romance – Although the romance isn’t as much of a focus as the friendship, it’s still a major part of the story. And of course, when the girl is disguised as a boy, that complicates things. I like the way Ms. Lee handles it, with the question being as much, “Does he suspect the truth?” as “Is he upset he might have feelings for a boy?”

5. The hope – Despite a lot of ugly things that happened to Sammy and Annamae during the story, I felt hopeful at the end. In large part this hope originated with the three cowboys they traveled with, but also with other people they met along the way who demonstrated there was a better future in store for the country. Everything wasn’t resolved perfectly–there were a few questions I would have liked answered–but I was hopeful.

I highly recommend this book. I think perhaps I didn’t pick it up for a while because of the Western setting, but that was a mistake. It’s a fast-paced read with a well-drawn friendship and tension-filled romance. So worth moving to the top of your reading pile!