Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?

Puzzling

First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

Book Deals Come from Rewrites & Revisions

Last month, I got to finally announce my book deal. It was one of those days that you dream of for years and years and it was amazing. THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC is the second novel I’ve ever written, but the book that finally sold to a publisher is totally different from that first draft I started typing two and a half years ago.

I shared on Twitter that it took three rewrites for me to get an agent with this book and three large revisions after that to get a book deal. That tweet got shared a lot and I had a few people want more details about what those revisions were.

So, in the spirit of honesty, and because I feel it’s important for other writers to see what deep revision looks like, I thought I would give you the short version of how my book changed from first draft until now.

We get the job done..png

First Draft

My story started out as a light paranormal about a girl whose two dead grandmothers come back as her guardian angels to help her win back her best friend and find her dad and bring him back home.

I wrote it in about two months and as soon as I typed “The End” I knew it had potential.

What it didn’t have was VOICE.

Rewrite #1

So I let it rest for a couple of weeks, maybe a month and then rewrote the entire thing from scratch. This time with a strong, clear voice that had only shown up occasionally in the first draft. Funny thing, that voice came out in second person. Weird. But I went with it.

After I finished that rewrite, I realized it was in second person because it was a series of letters this girl was writing to her dad. I also had beta readers tell me that the last half was awesome, but the first half was slow and I needed to add more of a goal to give it some direction.

Revision #1-3

Change each chapter into a letter. Add a goal. (If she does well on her math test, they’ll ride horses on the Mist Trail at Yosemite for her birthday.) Try to speed up the beginning.

I spent several, several revisions trying to fix my tension issues in the beginning. I worked on it from May-August

Then I got a second chance at Pitch Wars and a team of three volunteer mentors who were going to help me with my book. I sent it off to the first mentor feeling pretty confident. She got back to me pinpointing exactly why I was having tension issues. The guardian angels had no real purpose for the first half of the book. She said I needed to give them goals. But then made a gentle suggestion that maybe my book would work better a straight contemporary.

I thought that she just must not have gotten my book at all and wasn’t the right audience for it, blah, blah, blah. But she told me it made her cry and she loved the heart of it and I couldn’t get that suggestion out of my head. So after a week of thinking about it, I decided to give it a try.

Rewrite #2

No more guardian angels. One grandma with early dementia. A new idea to tie the story together. The three rules for creating the Everyday Magic behind friends, forgiveness, family, etc.

My CP loved it. My mentor loved it. But it still needed work.

Rewrite #3

Rewrite #3 was more like a series of two or three big formatting revisions that felt like a rewrite by the time I was done. See, I still had this problem of no tension in the beginning of the book. My first mentor suggested it was because all of the letters are written at some time in the future after the story had happened. So I rewrote the letters to being written as the story played out.

Then I sent it to the next mentor and she gave me probably the hardest revision note of all.

The letters weren’t working for her. They were too long and started feeling like regular prose and then all of a sudden went back to sounding like letters. She suggested I change it to a prose story with letters bookending each chapter.

My CP’s and first mentor didn’t agree. They thought I could make the letters work. They LOVED the letters.

***Side Note*** I rarely toss aside a revision note, but it’s so hard when you get conflicting advice. And this whole business is so subjective. How do you know what advice to follow? I have no great advice. All I can tell you is that one of my CP’s who read the earlier drafts of this book told me that she was still sad I got rid of the guardian angels. That she had really loved them. See? Subjectivity. This is hard! It’s okay if you don’t always know what to do.

I decided to try it for a few chapters and then run it by people to see which version won out. I got at least ten beta readers for the first couple chapters.

The version that was only partial-epistolary won by a landslide.

So I changed it and that was a really big revision. Then my mentor suggested I change the prose from past to present. So I did.

Phew! See what I mean about how this series of revision is rewrite #3 in my mind?

But guess what? That tension problem in the first half was so much better. Not totally, completely solved. But so much better.

Thorough Line Edits

Querying

Agent!

Post-Agent Revision #1-3

These revisions were a lot of character deepening for side characters, making certain ones more important, having some show up more, making my mom character more involved, making the bully less stereotypical.

Rewriting my first chapter.

Then two revisions focused on connecting the reader to my main character more. This required a painstaking line edit by a friend with a sharp, sharp eye who pointed out every single place in the manuscript where he felt disconnected from my character or like he didn’t know how she was feeling. It was beyond thorough. It was amazing. But also a lot of work.

I also added a cat. Because kids taking care of cats, I mean, that makes you love a character, right? These were my thoughts.

Submission

R&R from an editor!

This revision was a rewrite of probably 30% of the book at least. I added 3 or four new chapters to the beginning, a lot of memories that became kind of a tiny sub plot, I completely overhauled the bully character into someone who I felt barely registered on the mean scale. I did a lot more that I can’t even remember because I ended having to do it on a very tight timeline (10 days!) It’s kind of a blur, honestly.

Resubmit

Wait Anxiously

Book Deal!

Celebrate!

More Revisions!

You guys, my first round of revisions were a doozy. I had to rewrite about half the book. My beginning and ending were both too long, the beginning was still too sad. My bully was still too mean. I had to find ways to show how my MC was similar and different from her mom to draw out the tension and connection there more.

And then she asked me to cut stuff. All that stuff that I’d added to kind of be a bandaid for my tension and connection issues? My editor is so good, she saw right through it. She didn’t know that I’d added the subplot with the math test and the birthday in Yosemite so my MC could have a goal. Or that I added the subplot with the cat so readers would connect with her more. But she picked both out and said, “These are extraneous. You don’t need them. Take them out and you’ll find something else closer to the very heart of your story to replace it with.” Then she suggested something that had just barely come out of all those memories I added in the last revision that I hadn’t even thought were a big deal. She wanted me to focus more on that.

So, that’s two subplots cut. Another character overhaul on the bully. Three or four chapters deleted, two or three new chapters in their place. I cut the ending length in half and added a subplot that served to show my MC’s dad fall further and further into depression. I changed the timeline of the story from six month to four weeks.

It was a huge revision.

And you guys, it’s so much better.

But guess what I’m going to get soon?

More Revision Notes

This is publishing.

Writing is rewriting is probably the most truthful thing ever written about writing.

Not every book that gets published has to go through this many intense revisions. But mine did. And that’s okay. Don’t quit. Don’t get discouraged. Keep working and trying and rewriting.

You’ll get there.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

4 Tips for Decluttering Your Manuscript

This week was my Spring Break, and I spent the time getting my affairs in order. Spring is most definitely in the air (at least it is where I live), and decluttering is something I’ve been putting off, but this week I threw open my windows, rolled up my sleeves, and dove in(to my closet).

I also took the opportunity to declutter my WIP, a process that I dreaded but wound up enjoying. (What?)

When revising, you should go through your manuscript and declutter by cutting unnecessary words.  Yes, sometimes those words amount to an entire line. Or a scene. Or a character. Or an entire subplot. Yes, most writers find it painful to cut thousands of words *cries* when we invested so much to get to that high word count. However, a meandering story or pointless dialogue will not engage your readers, and if any of your words do not serve your plot or your characters, they need to go. (For super useful information about when and why you should be ruthless at cutting words, I highly recommend Elaine Vickers’ post on The Reductive Revision.)

declutter

If either your house or your manuscript is beginning to feel like fodder for the producers of  Hoarders, here are four tips on how to declutter your life…I mean, manuscript:

  1. Put things in their place. I always feel better when everything is stored away in its place. There’s no reason to keep all of those hair scrunchies in my writing desk drawer, after all. Laundry, while functional in its basket, could be hung, folded, and put away, I suppose. As applied to writing, I like to organize the work that I have left so I can systematically put everything in its place. Scrivener has a handy feature where you can mark your chapters/scenes as “To Do,” “First Draft,” “Revised Draft,” and so on. I love this feature because I can tell at a glance where I need to be when I’m revising. Just like making a chore list at home (my kids do this, and yes, I also do this for myself), I also leave myself document notes for what I need to change in my drafts. As I complete those tasks, I cross these off one by one, and it’s even more satisfying than putting all of my winter clothes away for the season.
  2. Put things in storage. Not sure if you’ll wear that trendy jacket next year but not ready to get rid of it because you bought it this season? Put it into storage. Likewise, if you’re not sure if you need that scene or dialogue that you cut from chapter three, put it into storage. I save all of my extraneous scenes in a separate section in Scrivener called “Saved for Later” (you could do the same with a separate word processing file). If I do need those words, I know exactly where to find them. Sometimes I resurrect these words, but more often than not, I *gasp* don’t, which brings me to #3.
  3. Throw things away. My storage room in my basement has bins for toys that my kids don’t play with anymore. Occasionally they dig around in them and play with an old favorite, but the ones that are not touched within six months wind up being donated to charity. I also have items stuck away in that storage room that makes it to charity on a semi-regular basis, but a few pieces of this “favorite” junk have made the move with us to multiple houses. Similarly, I admit to carting around those deleted scenes and lines for multiple manuscripts. But here’s the thing: I’ve never used these words. When I’ve tried to insert something that I cut from one manuscript into another or even to a different version of a manuscript, it feels like trying to shove a puzzle piece into a space that doesn’t fit. I have to restructure these words so much that it would have saved me time and emotional energy if I’d just written them from scratch. Holding onto cut words and characters is primarily an emotional decision (in my opinion). If you’re holding onto them from project to project, evaluate whether it’s time to let them go. *clings* *says goodbye*
  4. Take a moment to admire all the things. The best thing about this week is that I’ve rediscovered the floor of my closet. Just kidding. I mean, I did rediscover the floor of my closet, and yes, the carpet is still the same color. But I’ve also rediscovered the joy in my story. It feels strange for me to say this, but I think I have been so focused on fixing my manuscript that I had fallen slightly out of love with my overall writing. Matt Williams posted earlier this week some great ideas on how to add voice to stories, and it inspired me to convert the chapter I’d been working into a .mobi file and drop it onto my Kindle app. As I read it, I was happy with how my changes translated to the page, and I was able to quickly bookmark one or two things that made it onto my to-do list. By decluttering, organizing, and shining up my characters and their scenes, I also have a better view of where they need to go from here. And I have a better appreciation of my writing, too.
  5. Have some chocolate. Technically, I said I would share four tips, but I find that a reward is always appropriate for good work. If you’re not a chocolate fan, choose your reward accordingly. ❤

Do you have any spring cleaning tips for your manuscript (or life)? I’d love it if you could share them in the comments!

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

Tips for Getting Through a Revision

I love to draft stories. I love the freedom to play with ideas, to go wherever my imagination takes me, and the lack of pressure that comes with that messy first draft.

Revision? Yeah…not so much.

I expect my first draft to be terrible, so I’m not undone when it isn’t amazing. When I revise, though, I start to expect that the story is going to be good, but it often isn’t, at least not right away, and I get all dramatic and woe-is-me about it.

Lately I’ve been working on revising a project. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever worked on, but it’s also taught me a lot. So even though it often feels like this revision is going to eat me alive, it’s been a very valuable experience.

What I have learned so far:

Tips for Getting Through a Revision.png

1. Don’t give yourself an out

As soon as I tell myself I don’t have to do it or I let myself start to dabble with that shiny new idea, I’m lost. The shiny new idea takes over and soon I have another messy new draft that needs to be revised and the cycle begins again. I can’t let myself even think about not finishing or I won’t do it.

2. Break it down into manageable parts

One of the biggest problems I faced with this revision was knowing where to even start. There was so much that needed to be fixed that I was completely overwhelmed. (And, yes, there may have been a couple of days of sulking.) I finally identified a couple of the bigger issue things that were, in my opinion, the most important to fix and started there. When I get ideas for one of the other issues I still need to fix, I write it down, but don’t stress about getting it done yet. This allows my brain to focus on solving the problem at hand instead of bouncing all over the place.

But, seriously, write the other ideas down. I’d forgotten about a couple of things until I found notes to myself on what I wanted to do. They were good ideas, too, but ones I never would have remembered had I not written them down.

3. Point out what is working

Often in a revision I spend so much time looking at what is wrong that I forget to think about what is right. I get caught in a negative spiral and soon I start to wonder what’s the point of revising. I mean, the whole thing is so terribly, irredeemably awful, so why bother trying?

It’s not a helpful mindset.

Instead, when I come across a sentence that flows well or an idea that I like, I try to acknowledge it and that positivity helps me keep going.

4. Don’t be afraid to tear it apart and put it back together

One of the hardest things for me is the fear that I’ll make the WIP even worse through the revision. I’ve done it in the past and revised the life out of a piece, so it’s not an unreasonable fear. But it is one that haunts me and keeps me from moving forward. With this revision, I made a copy and then deliberately messed it up. I changed things around and then left it like that for a while to see if it worked. And it did! But more than that, by ripping part of it up, I freed myself from the fear of making it worse. It wasn’t perfect, but I could see that it was getting better. This fear was holding me back, making me afraid to even start, but by messing it up on purpose, I was able to acknowledge the fear and work through it.

5. Deadlines

I’m fortunate to have a due date for this revision and knowing that someone else is expecting to see a revision and will hold me accountable makes a big difference for me. If you don’t have an agent or editor or professor or whatever, find someone who will hold you accountable for getting the revision done.

6. Bribery

And, yes, when all else fails, I resort to bribing myself. The hardest part of a revision for me is starting it. After that, the second hardest part is finishing that last 15%. When I’m so close that I can see the end, I find myself doing a slapdash job just to race to being done. But that’s not actually finishing, not when it’s a revision. So, yeah, I bribe myself to slow down and do it right.

What about you? Do you prefer to draft or revise? Do you have any other revision tips you can share with me?

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Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

The First Rule of Improv/Revision

improv

There are some excellent posts on revision in the TTOF archives, including Rosalyn’s post just last week. Today I’m hoping to add to the canon by sharing one of my own rules of revision.

The title of this post comes from Tina Fey’s hilarious and smart book, Bossypants. The whole book is excellent, but my very favorite part on page 83, where Fey outlines her “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat.”

“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE…Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” ~Tina Fey, Bossypants

In terms of improv, this means that if your partner says, “It sure is stinky in here,” and you say, “Nah, it smells fine to me,” then the scene is over and it wasn’t funny. But if you take what they say and run with it–“Yes, I’m filling the whoopee cushions. Want to help?” or “Yes, I notice you’re wearing your cheese hat again.”–then you’re getting somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

This idea of starting with YES has all sorts of implications in all areas of life, but what does it mean in terms of revision? Should you make every change suggested, even by the most trusted editor or critique partner? Absolutely not. But if you approach every critique with the attitude of “Yes”–as in “Yes, that might work” or “Yes, I see why you’d feel that way as a reader” or “Yes, I’ll at least give it a try”, then you’ll really get somewhere. Then the magic can happen.

It can be hard to lean toward YES, especially with the big stuff. “Take this plotline back and bring the other one forward. That’s your story.” “These characters need to meet sooner and share the page more often.” “I know this story all started with the doll, but…can you get rid of the doll?” (Best advice ever.) You can resist these kinds of suggestions flat-out, or do a half-hearted move-the-food-around-your-plate attempt until it looks like you’ve done what you were supposed to do–or you can say YES and see where it takes you.

My most recent experience with the power of YES happened when I sold my first foreign rights for my debut novel (!!!) on the condition that I cut the word count by 20% (?!?). I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wondered if it would be too much of a compromise, whether I could kill quite so many darlings and still be true to my story. But I said yes, and I tried it. And it totally worked.

The beauty of computers is that you can save a new copy of your manuscript and try anything on it, and if your YES crashes and burns, there is literally no harm done to your story. It’s still there in its original form! A wise author clued me into this trick. “Yes. I’ll try this thing my editor/agent/critique partner said, just so I can tell her/him I tried it. I can always go back to the old version.”

Do you want to know the best part? When it comes to the big stuff, I have only ever once gone back to the old version. Saying YES in myriad ways has made my stories infinitely better. I have never once regretted an answer of “Yes, I’ll give it a try.”

P.S. For an actual TTOF post about improv, see the excellent  “7 Things Comedy Improv Taught Me About Writing Better Scenes” by Erin Shakespear. And HUGE thanks to Erin “Cheese Hat” Shakespear and Helen “Whoopee Cushion” Boswell for their excellent improv lines above!


profile-picElaine Vickers is the author of LIKE MAGIC (out now!) and PAPER CHAINS (coming fall 2017) from HarperCollins. She loves writing middle grade and chapter books when she’s not teaching college chemistry or hanging out with her fabulous family. You can find her at elainevickers.com on the web, @ElaineBVickers on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, or generally anywhere there are books and/or food for her consumption.

How to Show the Passage of Time in your Novel

Last week, I went with my oldest to meet with his school counselor and to select the classes he would take his junior year of high school. When we were called back, we both stood, and then he stopped to let me go in front of him without a look or prompt from me. He gave me a hug when the appointment was over, with his arms wrapping around my neck with ease (and as I’m six feet tall, that’s saying something). He has just finished his driver’s ed course, may be looking at a possible prom date this year, and it has made my internal time teller go all wacky.

Time has been even more topsy-turvy because over Thanksgiving, I was able to snuggle with a two-month old niece and a four-month old nephew courtesy of my two youngest sisters.  It was fun to calm them down, to be still while the weight of infant slumber rested against me. And it seems cliché, but it really does seem like not that long ago that I did the same with my kids.

Of course, it was also really nice, when the baby became inconsolable, to pass him or her off to the appropriate mother.

The combination of these two things has brought to my attention, again, the way that time is inconsistent. This comic sums it up perfectly:

zits-long-days-short-years

The tricky thing for writers is how to demonstrate that. Part of the problem is that the whole “show-don’t-tell” mantra permeates our very writing existence and we are caught in the trap of thinking we need to show EVERYTHING. Truth be told, when creating that first draft, every detail may be necessary for you to be able to figure out the story. But the reality is all of us have experienced days where time speeds by and our glances at the clock are continually shocking because how can it be that late? And I’m certain we’ve all had the days (or parties, events, conversations, etc.) that take such a long time and yet it’s only minutes, or worse, seconds.

I have thought of a few kinds of cues that writers can utilize to help stories transition through time.

how-to-show-the-in-your-novel

Routine Cues:

  • Bedtime: As my children have gotten older, it is sometimes difficult for my husband and I to resist trying to get them all in bed by 8:00 like we used to be able to. There’d be mutiny. But for a mother of young kids, the routine for bedtime can be a proverbial light at the end of the day. It’s also the time to show what kind of a day each person involved in bedtime routines had (whatever the appropriate routines may entail).
  • Meal time: not only mentioning “That night, at dinner . . . “ but also “Wally ate his dinner, twice” would allow the reader to understand the stage that Wally is in. This can be done with coffee brewing, trying to set the table for dinner, opening a lunch box, waiting in line at school with a tray, etc.

Physical Cues:

  • If you are showing the coming of age, growth, vocabulary, dismissal of “childish” things all allow the reader to understand what is happening. Also, commenting on change in voice, body type, and depending on the story, smell, would let the reader know what is going on.
  • Height: though you don’t know how tall my son is, putting HOW he hugged me and my height probably allowed you to envision what he might look like.
  • If someone is intentionally going through a physical change (body building, pregnancy, weight loss) but it isn’t the main point of the story, consider using a montage kind of storytelling, giving glimpses at the progress but not bogging the reader down with details that don’t advance the character arc or plot.

Seasonal Cues:

  • Is your story set in a place that adheres to the typical “four season” model? Nature is great for helping readers jump ahead a few (or many) months, and with one or two sentences, you can ground them again.
  • Consider the flavor options that are available at each time of the year as well. For example:
    • Pumpkin spice
    • Peppermint
    • Cotton candy
  • Drop hints based on what people are wearing. If they are decked out in stars and stripes or swimsuits, we picture something vastly different than mittens and scarves.

Celestial Cues:

  • This one requires you spend some time looking up. Where I live, the sun rising, even on a cloudy morning, has different hues than a sun setting behind a clouded sky. The absence of shadows suggests a different time of day as well.
  • Remember that the moon has a path it travels across the sky as well, and that the brightness of the stars increases as the night darkens.

Calendar Cues:

  • Holidays
    • Our modern society has helped solidify what we expect from each holiday courtesy of commercialization, but as a writer, you can use that to your benefit. Easter looks and feels different than Labor Day, and even something like Groundhog Day can ground your reader in time and setting.
  • Anniversaries
    • There are all kinds of these. Thinking Through Our Fingers just passed its fifth year. Wedding anniversaries can be both bitter and sweet depending on the status of the relationship. See also time markers for work, friendships, annual events, etc.
  • School year considerations
    • Just picture a time with these three options: spring break, finals week, picture day, graduation/commencement. Chances are decent you saw time and seasons and time of day and appearance of character without needing more.

Sometimes you just have to tell:

  • If you get TOO detailed in the passing of time, your reader might start checking their own clock. Sometimes the best thing really is to say, “later that day” or “at six o’clock”.
  • You can do this with big jumps too. “The next summer” or “a few months later” or “when Scott turned ten” works to help reground your reader and stick with the character.
  • If you are doing a dual time narrative, putting the dates at the top of each chapter is the fastest way to convey what is going on to readers.

When trying to decide which details to share, and how to share them, think about the way you engage with the world, always trying to remember that time actually isn’t consistent in the way we experience it.

What are your favorite ways to show the passing of time? Have a book or movie that you think demonstrated passing time well?

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profileTasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

How to Hook your Reader

One of my favorite things to write is the very first line of a novel. It’s also the hardest thing I write.

Why is that first line so important?

The purpose of the first line of a story is to get you to read the next line. And the purpose of the first paragraph is to get you to read the next paragraph. The purpose of the first page? First chapter? It’s always to get you to keep reading. That’s why these firsts are so important. If a reader doesn’t like that first line, or in other words if the reader isn’t hooked, what are the chances they will keep reading?

Not only do you have to hook the reader in your first line, you need to grab them at all those points in which they’re likely to put down the book, such as a scene change, the start of a new chapter or section, or a point of view switch.

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Have you ever seen those ads on social media that say something along the lines of, This man tried to hug a lion; you won’t believe what happens next!? It’s total click bait, and you don’t want to do that in your writing. It’s bad form. You shouldn’t have to trick your reader into turning the page, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hook them.

A hook isn’t about holding back information to get the reader to keep reading, because that can get annoying really fast. It’s about revealing information at the right time. I personally believe if your point-of-view character knows something, the reader should too…or at least he better know it very soon. 

Try to start your book as late as possible. Sometimes after you have written your story, you may need to go back and cut-cut-cut until you reach the right moment to begin. The reader doesn’t need to know the detailed background of your character or world before you introduce the conflict or plot. You can weave those elements in as needed and ensure your reader will not get bored right at the start.

Try to begin each scene as late as possible as well. Writers often get caught up in trying to describe everything a character does. They wake up, brush their teeth, use the toilet, etc. It’s okay to leave those things out. The reader will assume your character eats his meals; you don’t need to describe it each time. Only include what’s pertinent to the story.

Take a look at this example of the start of a novel:

  • Charlie opens his eyes and sits up in bed. The red and blue comforter his mom bought him for Christmas is bunched at his feet, wrinkled with a drool stain on one side. He desperately needs to wash it, but that’ll have to wait until after school. After stretching his arms and yawning, he shakes his head out and slips out of bed, shuffling to the bathroom. He runs the water at the sink and splashes his face to wake himself up, then squeezes a glop of toothpaste onto his electric toothbrush. The bristles have started to splay, an indication of his brushing method more than the length of time he’s used it. After brushing and rinsing out his mouth, Charlie reaches for the hand towel to dry off, then glances up at the mirror and gasps at his reflection. He can’t believe what he’s seeing—the state of what he’s become. Not again, he thinks.

Does that start hook you? Does it make you want to read more of the story? Maybe. The writing isn’t terrible, and it gives us a little insight into the character. But it’s kind of boring, at least until the last line. But then it dives into a bit of that click-bait we talked about earlier—a trick to get the reader to turn the page.

Now take a look at this version of a start from the exact same novel:

  • Charlie’s shoulders slump in defeat when he realizes he’s dead. Again.

Which example hooks you better? Which version makes you more likely to turn the page? I think most readers would choose the second example. It’s void of click-bait and starts later in the story without unneeded backstory. Remember, holding back information doesn’t necessarily make a good hook. In this instance, it’s the revealing of the information that makes you want to keep reading.

Your first page should be an effective blend of character, story, setting, action, and a hint of conflict. How to write a first page is an entire post (or several) in itself, but remember that you don’t want to bog the reader down with any one of these elements. Instead, ‘hook’ the reader with those elements with a promise of more.

What are some of your favorite hooks?
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Ilima Todd was born and raised on the north shore of Oahu and currently resides in the Rocky Mountains. She never wanted to be a writer even though she loves books and reading. She earned a degree in physics instead. But the characters in her head refused to be ignored, and now she spends her time writing science fiction for teens. Ilima is the author of the REMAKE series (Simon Pulse/Shadow Mountain) and is represented by Lane Heymont of The Seymour Agency. When she is not writing, Ilima loves to spend time with her husband and four children.