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.

Lyrical Writing vs. Purple Prose

I have always been a line-level writer. I live for poetic prose, for dazzling descriptions, for the sentences that make you feel like you’re sipping something delightful as you read. I love writing that makes you see the world differently, that pulls you so deeply into its narrative that you can’t seem to leave that fictional world once you’re done. I love authors like Laini Taylor and Maggie Stiefvater, who have such a deft touch with phrasing that their books are not only engaging, they are positively delicious.

Recently I got into a discussion with some friends on Twitter about how to find the line between pretty prose and purple prose. Purple prose, in case you haven’t heard the phrase before, is—according to its Wikipedia entry—”text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.” So how, exactly, do you know when you’re writing something that would be classed as literary or lyrical, and when you’re veering into purple prose?

 

1. Lyrical prose uses a light touch.

If you’re trying to write lyrically, it’s important to realize one thing: quality over quantity. True lyricism is a mix of plainer, more serviceable lines with lines that stand out and sing. If each line of your book is filled with metaphors, descriptions, and ten-dollar words, your story will quickly sink under its own weight.

Last month I read and loved Sandhya Menon’s bestselling young adult debut, When Dimple Met Rishi. One of my favorite lines from the book was this: “His eyes reminded her of old apothecary bottles, deep brown, when the sunlight hit them and turned them almost amber.” Can’t you just feel that description? Yet Menon’s followup is much simpler: “Dimple loved vintage things. She followed a bunch of vintage photography accounts on Instagram, and old apothecary bottles were a favorite subject.”

Notice how that first line is deeply poetic, verging on the fanciful; it uses description, an unusual metaphor, the striking image of sunlight through brown glass. But immediately, Menon grounds us back in the real world, with short sentences that give us the information without any adornment. If those lines had been as long and vivid as the first one, it would have taken so much longer for us to get to the actual crux of the scene—which would have brought us perilously close to purple prose, because…

2. Purple prose takes us out of a story.

The goal of truly great writing is to make the reader forget that they’re reading a book. As authors, we want our readers to be fully present inside our stories, to be so immersed in our characters’ worlds that we’ll feel disoriented when the book ends. Vivid, lyrical writing is a fantastic tool in our arsenal when we’re doing this—but if we overdo that vivid writing, it has the opposite effect, yanking us right back into the real world. Have you ever been reading a book and then found yourself stopping and thinking something like Good grief, I didn’t need to know that much about her dress or What does that scene even have to do with anything? Chances are, what you were reading could fall under the umbrella of purple prose.

I’m a highly descriptive writer, but I’m also a firm believer that description should be part of the lifeblood of your novel, not something that you intentionally break from your story to spend time on. Each time you use a descriptive passage, ask yourself: What is this accomplishing? Good description does more than just telling us what a person, place, or thing looks like. Good description heightens the book’s atmosphere, or gives us insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings, or even hints at character backstory. There are a lot of things that never really need to be described in a book—character clothing rarely matters, the precise layout of a house isn’t usually important, even what a character looks like can be mostly left up to the imagination. Vivid description, like poetic prose, is best used like salt: A sprinkle here or there to bring the flavor out on food, but not enough to overwhelm. Our readers shouldn’t spend more time noticing our descriptions than they do living in our novels.

3. Prose turns purple when you set out to impress.

Look, we’re all writers, right? And as such, it’s likely that we’ve spent a fair bit of our lives reading, building extensive vocabularies, and taking classes that have taught us all manner of cool literary devices. And let’s be honest: Sometimes it can be tempting to show all that off. But when we write with the intent to impress—even sometimes if we write with the intent to innovate—we often end up producing things that no person in their right mind would want to read. For an extreme, but still relevant, example, I turned to a source of unending purple prose… stuff I wrote as a teenage girl. Back then, my best friend and I played frequent letter-writing games, the first of which was a story between two Regency girls who wrote letters that were, well, about what you’d expect from two fourteen-year-olds trying to write in a Regency style.

Here’s a gem from one of those letters: “Our dear windowseat, I feel, will be such a place of endearment that when it comes time for us to spread our wings, we will shed many a tear over the parting of it and ourselves.”

Ridiculous, right? I mean, what I was angling for there could’ve been substituted with a simple “we really like this window seat, we’ll miss it when we get old.” But while I’m grateful to think that most mature writers won’t fall prey to quite such flights of fanciful language, the things in this sentence that make it ridiculous are sins of which seasoned writers can be just as guilty. When we replace words, drag our sentences out mostly for the sake of having longer sentences, or try to write in a way that neither feels nor sounds natural to our own writer voice, we fall victim to the dreaded purpling of our prose.

4. Prose can also become too purple if our authorial voice dominates our character voice.

Last week I got some editorial feedback from my marvelous agent on my latest book. One of the things that she mentioned was that she felt there were a few times where my writer voice leaked in to my character’s voice a bit too much—the book is about an eleven-year-old who can be described as lower middle class as best, and who isn’t shown to have a particular gift with words, but I have occasional moments like the one where she describes a fellow student’s hat as “unfathomable, in this kind of heat.” Though I totally hadn’t noticed it before my agent pointed it out, that is much more the kind of thing that I, not my protagonist, would say. When we allow our own vocabulary and aesthetic to interject when they’re not consistent with our character’s attributes or worldview, our attempts at lyricism fall flat and pull the reader right out of the story.

There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to avoiding purple prose, and some of it simply comes down to taste. Some readers and writers prefer stories that are told simply, with clean, spare writing that avoids fancy devices. To these readers and writers, anything that ventures into the realm of the poetic is going to feel over-the-top. More than once, I’ve heard somebody criticize a book that I loved by saying it was guilty of purple prose.

Still, for those of us for whom vivid language and careful wordsmithing is just as important as crafting a strong plot, it’s worth giving the matter some thought! A few resources I found helpful as I prepared for this blog post:

Purple prose definition on Wikipedia

http://thewritepractice.com/purple-prose/

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Being the Language Police

There is a cute cartoon I’ve seen that shows an old lady using spray paint to correct a billboard advertisement:

Got milk?

\She changes it. Have you got any milk?

An English teacher gone rogue. She’d had it with incorrect phrases like that.

But I feel her pain. I’m one of those people who winces when good and well are interchanged. Or when may and can get confused.

Case in point. One of my children will say, “Can I eat a cookie?”

My eyes grow wide and I speak in exaggerated tones. “Can you eat a cookie? Of course you can eat a cookie! You have muscles in your jaw and teeth in your mouth and if you chew it, you most certainly can eat a cookie.”

As you can imagine, I get an eye roll and an exasperated sigh.

May I have a cookie?” they say correctly.

“Oh, you are asking for permission? Yes. You may have a cookie. Thank you for asking.”

My husband has put up with this for twenty years, the poor man, and it might be cause for his canonization someday. He grew up in a home where English was a second language for each of his parents. His mom is from Germany and his dad is from Italy. Good and well are thrown about without distinction. I give them all a big pass, though. It’s infinitely easier to resort to good. Such a useful, all-around word.

He did good on his test.

Argh. Nails on the chalkboard to me.

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Early in our marriage, I’d correct him until I realized that there were bigger things to work on. Like who was going to do the dishes after dinner.

But two decades in, he knows me well. He can read my silence fluently. Apparently, as a mother knows the meanings of her infant’s different cries, he knows exactly what I’m thinking even as I keep my mouth shut.

He did well on his test, he’d correct, knowing that it was grating on me.

My proudest moments are when my family uses correct grammar. Really. My heart swells.

But I have an admission. I have my own trouble spots.

Lay and lie. I don’t know why, but for the life of me, these twist my brain into knots.

Did she lay on the bed or did she lie on the bed?

The axiom is People lie, things lay.

So I understand the rule, but I still have to think about it. Forty-one years into speaking the English language, I am repeatedly stopping myself and applying it so that I can say my sentences correctly.

My other nemesis is toward/towards. All my life, I have used the version with an “s” at the end. But after my edits on my last book, my overworked editor, who earned every cent she made on it, had a zillion corrections to point out about this very word. I was so embarrassed! I pride myself on having grammar down pat! I admire the book Eats Shoots and Leaves! I am a proponent of the Oxford comma! How could I have missed the boat so thoroughly on this one?

There is another rule in life. It says Pride goes before a fall.

All my years of correcting the grammar of my family caught up with me. I had pie on my face in front of my editor. My 7th grade English teacher was rolling over in her grave.

So the moral of the story?

If you’re going to sit on your high horse, you’ll have to make your bed and lay in it.

Lie in it.

Lay.

Lie.

Yea, lie.

Oh, and don’t overuse clichés. But that’s for another blog post on another day.

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unnamed Camille Di Maio is an award-winning real estate agent in San Antonio who, along with her husband of 19 years, enjoys raising their four children. She has a bucket list that is never-ending, and uses her adventures to inspire her writing. She loves finding goodies at farmers markets (justifying them by her support for local bakeries) and belts out Broadway tunes whenever the moment strikes. There’s almost nothing she wouldn’t try, so long as it doesn’t involve heights, roller skates, or anything illegal. “The Memory of Us” is Camille’s debut novel. Her second, “Before the Rain Falls” will be released on May 16, 2017.

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.

Writers, Keep Your Promises

Hello writers! Nice to see you again!

During November I did NaNoWriMo, (National Novel Writing Month), as I have for the last four years. But something different happened this time.

See, as I draft, I’m usually also leaving notes for myself. My first write-through is ridiculously messy. Brackets all over the place, bits of outline here and there, cut scenes left behind so I don’t forget what I was doing when I come back to it. It’s completely unreadable by anyone’s eyes but mine.

I call this my Draft Zero. It is choppy, and sparse, and almost never does what I want it to. But it’s the bare bones of my story, and having it helps me go back to revise later, rewrite, move things around, and clarify things.

As I wrote this time, I tried to be more aware of a couple of things. I’m a big fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and they often talk about Scene/Sequel format, and Promises to the Reader. I attempted to work a Scene/Sequel awareness into drafting, but it just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t ever sure if I was doing it right, and I felt too much pressure to make something blow up. (Thanks a lot, Howard.)

But the more I wrote, the more I’d find myself seeing things as a reader might. A little revelation of, “Wait, if I introduce this really cool thing here, I need to make sure I use it at the end.” Or, “Oh wait, they don’t know what that thing is…I should foreshadow it more before I use it like this.”

To be honest, I’d never considered Reader Promises in stories until I’d heard these authors talk about it. And the thing was, it made sense in a logical way, but I’d never seen it in practice, or looked for it. So it took hearing it repeated many, many times before I started seeing it. Once I knew what to look for in my own reader/viewer reactions, I started to notice it. Whenever something felt off, or I didn’t like something about a story, I would try to figure out why. Almost always, it came down to an unfulfilled promise.

Example: I just watched NOW YOU SEE ME again the other day. I LOVE that movie. Mostly. I love the mystery element of it, because the twist is one I never saw coming. The only problem I have with it is the very, very end, and I’ll tell you why it bothers me.

We spend the entire film watching four magicians pull tricks, follow anonymous instructions, build these amazing acts, and they are followed by another magician who shows us exactly how they did it. The entire first ninety-eight percent of the movie is all about telling us how magic is done, and how easy it seemingly is to make the rest of us believe that magic is somehow real.

And at the end? That last two minutes? They tell us magic is real. There was zero foreshadowing for that. Nothing in the whole rest of the movie even hinted at magic being real.

It was so anticlimactic it made me forget about the movie for months until I saw the DVD in the $5 bin at the store. I immediately remembered how much I hated the end, but also remembered how much I loved the first ninety-eight percent, so we bought it.

All this is to say, as writers we need to make sure we’re telling the story we promise to tell. If you begin a story with a murder and end it with a couple kissing and not discovering who the murderer is, you’ve either started or ended with the wrong thing.

How about an example of the right way to do this? In STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson, (my apologies that I keep talking about it, I’ve been rereading this over and over for two months because it’s helping with my draft) the main character, David, is terrible at metaphors. If that were it, it would probably come off as kind of weird and maybe not every reader would catch it and it wouldn’t really make sense. But Sanderson makes it a point to tell us about it in more ways than one, throughout the book. David not only knows he’s bad at metaphors, but is constantly trying to think of better ones, impress others with them, and explain them when they don’t make sense.

And so it’s immensely satisfying when, at a point about two-thirds of the way through, he gives us a metaphor so ridiculous that it actually does make sense. And it succeeds in impressing a certain other character. Just thinking about it makes me smile, because the moment is perfect.

Keeping track of the things you’re promising takes practice, and beta readers. You can practice by looking for what your expectations are as a consumer of media, and then watching for how the creators fulfill (or don’t) that expectation. And when your beta readers say “oh, I hope THIS happens!” that is a good sign that you’ve foreshadowed something. If you want to foreshadow it, leave it. If you don’t want to, take it out, or make it more subtle. You don’t want unnecessary foreshadowing to get in the way of the main story.

Try it out! Maybe, if you’re going to see STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS this week, you have some expectations already. Maybe you don’t? Maybe your expectations will be blown away in the first minute of the movie. But whatever the case, try (though it will be difficult) to keep track of what you expect to happen.

Where did that expectation come from? Where and how was that promise made? And how, if at all, do the creators fulfill it for you? Is it satisfying? Does it make you feel happy? Sad? Bittersweet? Or does it make you grimace in dissatisfaction?

Let’s hope there’s none of that last, though okay?

Whether it’s with STAR WARS or some other book or movie you’re finishing this week, try this. Let me know how it goes.

May the Force be with you,

-DC

Doing Something Different

So I think after you’ve been drafting, revising, editing, querying, drafting, revising, editing, querying for a while, you can fall into a routine.

I’ve found myself there. So I’ve decided to switch it up a bit. Move outside my comfort zone. Do something I haven’t done in a VERY long time.

I mean, we all know that saying. I looked it up, and found that it was Henry Ford who said it.

And in all honesty, what I’ve been doing hasn’t been working the way I’d like it to. I want different results. Which means I need to do something different.

So I’ve decided to revise my next manuscript, which is drafted and has been edited by “normal” way a couple of times. I’ve had a few betas read the first few chapters.

Now it’s about to get crazy.

I’m going to print it. I bought 5 highlighters in different colors. I’m taking some independent study courses from Margie Lawson — basically, I pay the $22 fee and I get to download all her course notes. (Click on LECTURE PACKETS if you’re interested to see what she’s offering.) I’ve purchased three of her lecture packets, and I’m working through them with some writing partners.

And I’m almost ready to start putting highlighter to paper. I haven’t edited on paper for YEARS. It’s much slower, if I remember right. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a system quite as detailed as what I’m about to try.

But then again, I’m hoping that I’ll get a result that I’ve never gotten before.

Have you ever done something radically different than normal? What was the result? 

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Liz Isaacson writes contemporary and inspirational romance when she’s not teaching. She is currently revising her inspirational romance manuscript and blogging about writing, reading, and life. She lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and two children, where she serves on her community’s library board and attends various writing conferences around the state.