Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing

I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books.  I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas. 


This summer, I took two classes on revision. 

We posted our writing for feedback.  Writers were experienced and got mostly positive comments, but occasionally we'd see this:  "I love your writing but can you make it a little crisper?"

Crisp writing.  What is that?  Tight, toned, well paced, fairly bouncing off the page.  Stands out to a reader, an agent, an editor. 

Easier said than written, I think! 

Crisp doesn't usually appear in early drafts (if it does, you might be holding back too much, wordsmithing too soon!).  Early drafts are about content and structure, exploring what you want the writing to say, what flow you're after.  It takes a while to get these two aspects solid.  In books, even longer.  I find about 80 percent of total time with a book, from idea to publication, is spent on content and structure.  So if you're still there, don't worry too much.  Take your time--you need to get this part right before you begin to work on tightening the prose.  Otherwise you'll have beautiful sentences that mean nothing.

But once you're ready to crisp it up, here are some global searches that help me a lot:

1.  Search for "was" and "were" and "are"--any form of the verb "to be."  E.B. White who coauthored the famous book The Elements of Style, talks about this being a blah verb, one that doesn't provoke imagery or excitement in a reader.  It's true--and when you do a search for "was," and begin to see how often you use it (was staring instead of stared, for instance), you'll be stunned.  Replace with more direct, active, vivid verbs.

2.  Then search for "-ing."  Again, this form of the verb denotes progressive movement, rather than anything sharp and decisive.  You'll need it sometimes, but writers use it a LOT more than they should, IMHO.  Replace where you can.

3.  Look for repetitive sentence patterns.  My unconscious pattern is groups of three actions in one sentence (they sat, ate, then left).  Find yours--easier with feedback from a close reader.  Then vary, vary, vary!

4.  Watch out for your use of sentence fragments.  These are great little punches every now and then but like any device, they can be overused. 

5.  Cut some of that imagery, especially as "stage set" at the opening of a chapter or scene.  Do you need to set the stage?  Can you just jump right into action?

6.  Search for "-ly" words, the dreaded adverb which Stephen King rails against in his writing-craft book On Writing.  Delete whenever possible. 

7.  Search for "suddenly," "finally," and "at last"--these can create melodrama, so be sure you need them when you use them.  I'm guilty of three to four "suddenly's" in one page!

There are more, but this should give you a good start.  You will be amazed at how much your writing crisps up!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Tips for Surviving a Manuscript Read-Through (The Essential Last Step before You Send Out Your Book)


Most of my students and coaching clients know about the read-through.  It's a full-manuscript read that you do at several stages in the book journey:  after your draft is complete and before you revise, and before submitting your manuscript to an editor or agent.

The goal of the read-through is to see your work as a first-time reader would.  That's important because most writers wear blinders.  We mentally skip over stuff in our own writing.  We just don't catch it all.  Reading as a reader would, allows you to see your manuscript from completely different eyes.   But it requires several steps.  All are vital to making this work.

1.  Move your manuscript out of Word or Scrivener.  Within a text-editor, it's nearly impossible to read as a reader.  Print it out or send it to your e-reader.  I use Pages on my ipad. 

2.  Set aside time to do this.  It's onerous.  I find it usually takes me two weeks. 

3.  Read aloud if you can.  You'll catch a LOT more this way.

4.  Don't edit as you go.  I can't emphasize this enough.  Just mark the spots that catch your attention and may need fixing.  In Pages, I highlight the word and click on comment, but leave the comment blank.  It creates a yellow highlight on the page, which I come back to when I'm ready to fix.  If you've printed out the manuscript, even easier--use a colored highlighter and make a slash mark in the margin.

Many writers cringe at this guideline.  They feel they'll forget what idea or fix they had, when they come back later.  In my experience, this rarely happens.  I always seem to remember why the sentence or word didn't work. 

If you start editing, you slip back into writer mode.  You have to start over as a reader.  Trust me on this one.  I have read many manuscripts from clients or when I worked as an editor that lost their juice midway.  I suspect the writer did well in the read-through until this point, then got seduced into editing and never regained the reader viewpoint.

5.  It's best to read the entire manuscript before going back to edit individual chapters.  You'll catch chapter-to-chapter transitions this way.  If you only look at individual chapters, you'll miss this and your book may feel like separate anecdotes rather than a sequence of chapters.

Once you've completed your read-through, take a break.  Several days, a week, even.  It's been hard work, so relax that brain. 

Then, when you're ready, come back to the printout or the e-manuscript and look at what you highlighted.  Let the ideas and fixes begin to pop into your mind.  Bring up each chapter on your computer and start repairing, expanding, deleting. 

I recommend a final read-through, after you make these corrections.  Sometimes, I do several more.  After all, I only get one chance with most editors and agents.  I want to make the book the best it can be.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're not ready for a full manuscript read-through, try a couple of scenes or chapters.  Print or send to an e-reader and practice reading as a first-time reader would.  Highlight, don't correct yet, and see what you find. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Using Pause Breaks to Strengthen the Pacing of Your Story

Right now, I'm working with a writer who is studying pacing:  specifically, how to pace her chapters.  She tends to deliver too much--too many images, too many ideas, too much happening--all at once.   It feels like a freight train coming at the reader.

So we're studying the writerly device of pause breaks.

Very simply:  in any genre of book, readers need time to absorb stuff.  They hate not keeping up.  They will vote by putting the book down, in all likelihood, if they get confused by too much coming at them.  You're not there to urge them to pick the book up again--"It gets really good in a couple pages!"--so as a writer you have to anticipate this.  By putting in those pause breaks.

In fiction and memoir, these are reflective scenes.  The narrator (main character) might take time to think about something, reflect on it.  And the reader can do the same.   If you're writing a novel, memoir, biography, or other narrative story, you can use reflective scenes as your pause break.

Nonfiction has three devices to create pause breaks:
1.  Story (illustrative anecdote)
2.  Exercise or practical application
3.  Visual change (sidebar, box, different font, cartoon, etc.)

In a chapter, consider the main event--action or idea--and ask whether you've incorporated any pause break.  Maybe not in every chapter, especially in a fast-paced story, but soon enough that the reader can take a breath. 

If you have too many pause breaks, there's a sense of stall-out.  That's something to watch for, as well.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Look over two or three chapters in your current manuscript--they can be rough or polished--and ask yourself where you've placed reflective scenes or another device that gives the reader a pause to absorb what's been delivered, what's just happened.  Do you need to re-flow any part of your chapter to allow for this?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Writing against an Edge: How to Push Your Intimacy on the Page


On Sunday, I'm heading to Madeline Island, a lovely spot in Lake Superior that happens to house an equally lovely arts school where I've taught every July for the past seven years.  Because I have a group of very edgy and wonderful writers coming for the week-long retreat, I've been thinking about edges.  How they exist in our writing and our lives.  How we push against them to establish our authenticity and intimacy on the page.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Where to Begin Your Book: How to Choose the Best Opening


Lots of writers struggle with the opening to their books, no matter what genre.  I'm working with one client in my retainer coaching program who is writing a very large story--it spans thirty years or more.  It's a memoir, and a lot has happened to her in her long life, so choosing the starting moment is very challenging for her.

We begin by asking what this book is about.  "My life," she answers, and that's true.  But I ask again, "What's it really about?" 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Summertime, and the Writing Is . . . Gone? Five Ways to Fit Writing into Your Crazy Life!

This week, try one of these five ways to fit writing into a busy summer life.  They've all worked beautifully for me--and I still get time to enjoy that camping trip!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Writing More Than One Book? How to Storyboard with a Sequel in Mind

Annette from the UK recently sent me this question:  "I'm currently reading Your Book Starts Here, plus I've been watching your storyboard videos on YouTube. You've helped me come unstuck after years of block with my half-written 'epic', which feels amazing!  I'm writing to you because I'm struggling with how to apply the W structure to a two-book story."

Friday, June 24, 2016

Time Markers: How to Keep a Reader on Track with Your Story


A few months ago, I began exchanging chapters with a writer who has an incredible skill with something called "time markers."  I feel very lucky to have her reading my chapters with time in mind.  She has caught my natural sloppiness the way a good editor might, saving me and my reader from going off track and losing the story thread.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Push to Do Risky Things with Your Writing

Risk is a place where many creative writers live.  We may not enjoy it but we have to take risks to grow as writers.  It's a risk every time we send our work to someone for feedback, take a class, approach an agent, or even when we finally get our books published.  

Each risk
takes us outside our comfort zone.  But I find risk an essential element in my writing life.  Without it, I repeat and repeat.  I never get better.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Seven Days to Getting Unstuck with Your Writing

One of my students recently emailed me about being stuck.  He's worked on his novel for several years now, relying on workshopping feedback to keep him accountable.  Recently he got some feedback from a hired editor and, although he totally agreed with the comments and knew the editor had nailed one of his manuscript's major weaknesses, he got stuck.