Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

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While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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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.

 

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.

Being Slush Pile Reader & A Writer

Whenever people find out that I’m a slush pile reader, they usually have one of two reactions. The first is “I would love to get paid to read books all day” while sighing wistfully. What those people really mean is “I would love to get paid to read good books all day,” which would be nice, if that’s what I did. The truth is that most of what I read is stuff I wouldn’t read under normal circumstances, and much of it isn’t very good. There’s a reason we call it “the Slush Pile,” and not “the Super Happy Terrific Pile of Wonder and Goodness.”

It’s the second reaction I get from people that I want to talk about, because it usually involves a healthy mixture of distrust, anger, and abject horror. Their smile suddenly becomes much more forced, their eyes a bit more steely, and there is an edge to their voice as they say, “Oh, that’s . . . nice,” which translates roughly to “Oh, so YOU’RE the one who rejected my manuscript and dashed my dreams forever. Hope you sleep comfortably at night, you monster!” I might as well have admitted that I like to kick puppies in my spare time. These people have met the enemy, and he is me.

I understand where this reaction comes from. In the writing world, there are two distinct camps, the writers and the publishers, and never the twain shall meet. The writers toil daily in the salt mines of storytelling, laboring to appease their individual muses with appropriate sacrifices of time, energy, and tears in exchange for the least bits of inspiration. They attend classes and conferences at their own expense to improve their craft and hone their skills. They wake up early to squeeze in a few more words before the kids wake up, and then stay up late to review and revise. They endure the slings and arrows of tough-love criticism from their writing partners and groups, and make wholesale perspective changes from third to first person because it’s what the story wants. It’s about magic and love and creativity, and most writers do it all not just because they want to, but because they need to. Because in many cases, it would kill them not to. And in the end, after months or even years of literary gestation, the writers give birth to their story. It’s a brand new life all its own, and is cared for and loved by the writer with the fierce protective sensibilities of a Kodiak grizzly for her cubs.

And then the writer hands off their precious little story to the publishers, which feels like tossing their newborn into a woodchipper. Because to many writers, publishers are seen as giant, faceless corporate entities that only care about making money, and are devoted solely to the crushing of dreams. They imagine publishers lounging like the gods of Olympus, sipping ambrosia and not giving two thoughts about the lowly writers struggling beneath them. Or they see them as rabid, salivating beasts with glistening fangs and hunger in their otherwise dead eyes. Indeed, nothing tastes better to a publisher than a fresh manuscript served medium rare with a side of the artist’s soul.

Welcome to the machine.

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I sympathize with the writers, because I am one myself, and know firsthand what it takes to produce a completed book. I also have worked in the publishing world for a very long time, so I know something of what goes on behind the scenes there. With a foot firmly in both camps, I have to maintain an uneasy and delicate balance that, at times, feels like trying to navigate a no-man’s land of misconceptions.

Let’s just throw out some uncomfortable facts and stare at them for a moment, shall we? First fact: writing is a business. Publishers do, in fact, want to make money, and base many of their decisions on financial grounds. This fact upsets a lot of writers, but here’s another simple fact: writers want to make money too. The very act of submitting your story to a publisher means that you are hoping to sell your literary baby to the highest bidder. It’s okay to admit that, and it doesn’t cheapen or diminish the magic of writing one bit. (Just so we’re clear, I am not advocating the selling of actual babies to the highest bidder). Larry Correia frequently says that writers should have “get paid” as part of their personal mission statement, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t dream of being able to quit their day job and write full time.

Ready for some more uncomfortable facts? It’s not easy to do all that. Very, very few writers will ever reach the upper echelons of financial security. I know plenty of writers who do very well, and even a couple who can do it full time. But most can’t. It’s like playing sports—not many basketball or football players will make it to the big leagues, and it’s not just about skill or talent. There’s also a fair amount of luck (or karma, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it) that has to break in your favor, and over which you have no control. The same is true in publishing. You can’t control what the market is doing, or what has already been submitted to a publisher before your story, or what the Next Big Thing will be. And what’s more, it’s impossible to predict what the Next Big Thing will be, because every Current Big Thing is almost always a surprise. I’ve seen books do really well that nobody expected, and I’ve seen books that were supposed to be the Next Big Thing fizzle and fade. No one can say exactly why Harry Potter, or Hunger Games, or even Twilight became the successes they did. Books like those are phenomenons, not business models. And yes, every writer wants to be the next JK Rowling, and every publisher wants to publish the next Harry Potter series, but no one knows exactly how to duplicate it. If they did, publishers would only need to put out four titles a year.

That sound I can hear are laptops being thrown across rooms everywhere in despair. Okay, so now that I’ve ruined your day, allow me to try and lift you back up again. Here’s a far more comfortable fact: I’m on your side here. I’m always hoping that every story I read will be a winner, and I’m always thrilled when I find one.

Here’s another: You should definitely keep writing. I believe that the ability to tell a good story is a divine gift, and the very worst thing we could do is to let that gift languish and die. So don’t give up. Keep at it. Try different genres and styles. Submit everywhere you can. Take no prisoners. I can’t promise you a publisher will knock down your door with the standard Rich and Famous Contract for you to sign. But I can say that publishers are always looking for everything, always. There will always be a need for a good story that is well written. And if you keep improving as a writer and artist, you can find your confidence as a person, and you can be happy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta get back to the slush pile. I think I see a manuscript with your name on it.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Writing Whiny Characters

I picked up a book the other day that sounded like it might be a really fun read and just the kind of thing I was looking for. But after struggling through the first chapters over a couple of days (which is unusually slow for me), I finally put the book down in puzzlement. Why was this book not working for me? The writing was fine, the situation was interesting, so what was the problem?

The problem was that the main character was so whiny. All she did was complain about her situation, how she didn’t like being the poor relation, and how it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. This made her really unlikable and not someone I wanted to spend hundreds of pages with.

It’s hard to have an unhappy character with legitimate complaints about their lives and still make them likable to readers. Or, if not likable, at least to craft a story that still pulls readers into it. Since there are times when you might need to start a story with a character like this, I wanted to talk about some of the ways I’ve seen it successfully dealt with.

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1. Add humor. Often a character can go from irritatingly whiny to someone readers like and cheer for by giving them a sense of humor, whether it’s self-deprecating or dry or whatever fits them best. Adding humor is a great way to make an unhappy character more likable.

2. Contrast them with another character. This is something J.K. Rowling did well in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Like the book I mentioned earlier, Harry is also a poor relative in unpleasant circumstances. Some of his unhappy thoughts are even voiced in the 3rd person narrative. But Harry (at least in this book) does not come across as whiny because he is in such stark contrast to Dudley. Dudley who is throwing a massive fit about only having thirty-six presents. Harry has much worse things to complain about, but because Dudley is being so awful about something so absurd—who gets thirty-six birthday presents?—readers identify with Harry and sympathize with his predicament.

3. Give readers another character to care about. One memorable example of this is the Korean drama The Great Doctor (or Faith, depending on where you’re watching it), which I’ve heard described as “A love story between a man with nothing left to live for and a woman who lives only for herself.” And the woman, Yoo Eun-Soo, in the beginning of the show is absolutely awful. Whiny, spoiled, selfish, and all that. But so many of the other characters (like Lee Min-ho with a sword…) are fascinating and so I was able to overlook my dislike of her in favor of them until she grew and changed into a strong, likable character.

(Not that all characters need to grow and change like that, but I do admire storytellers who can take someone I dislike and make me love and cheer for them as they struggle.)

4. Change the Point-of-View. The book I mentioned earlier was told in first person point-of-view, which be grating if you need to have your character in a miserable situation and so obviously unhappy about it. Harry Potter, in contrast, is in a third person point-of-view, which makes the unhappiness more palatable for readers since the complaining and unhappiness isn’t so close. So if you need to start your story like this and are struggling with making an empathetic character, consider changing the POV.

5. Change the Tense. This worked well in The Hunger Games because readers only get the emotions Katniss feels at a particular moment in the present tense narrative. So even though her situation is awful and the story is told through her first person POV, it’s filtered through each moment so readers aren’t forced to deal with all of the years of pent-up anger and frustration dumping down on them in the first couple chapters.

What about you? What are some ways you’ve seen authors deal with whiny characters, particularly at the beginning of a story? Who are some whiny characters that you loved despite their flaws?

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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.

Imagination vs Observation

“It doesn’t really matter who said it, it’s so obviously true. Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.” — JOHN IRVING

“Write from what you know into what you don’t know.” — GRACE PALEY

As a person who has taught more university writing courses than I care to mention, I regularly hear some version of the following: “Creative writing? Isn’t all writing creative?” That question used to really get my goat, but I’m starting to feel like it’s actually a pretty important one, especially when it triggers thinking about whether the writing is supposed to be about something that happened or if the writing is supposed to be about something that did not.

I am a firm believer in the notion that there is no ex nihilo creation. It’s a very Law of Conservation of Mass kind of perspective, but I don’t think the imagination runs without some kind of fuel, and I think that fuel is experiences. In my life even events that feel a lot like inspiration are more about the miraculous connection of disparate ideas than they are about an idea coming to me out of nowhere.

Imagination is described as the ability to form new ideas, images, or concepts that aren’t present to the senses. Observation is process of perceiving something or someone carefully or in order to gain information or understanding. So, in a lot of ways these are opposite activities. Imagination traffics in what’s not there, while observation deals with what is.

So, to my thinking, writers have to start with an observation, with some kind of phenomena that has been either observed or taken in. Words are always referential, and even though I have experienced the sorcery of having ideas emerge from the act of writing, I have found it impossible to go from zero to words, or to have the words precipitate out of nothing. And still, even though writing begins with an observation in the world, the act of observing things in the world changes them.

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This concept is common in the scientific world. The physicist Neils Bohr has a marvelous little book from 1934 entitled Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. In his introduction, Bohr discusses the similarities between problems found in the theory of relativity and those found in quantum theory, arguing that in “both cases we are concerned with the recognition of physical laws which lie outside the domain of our ordinary experience and which present difficulties to our accustomed forms of perception.” According to Bohr, these difficulties of perception can be challenging but we can “by no means dispense with those forms of perception which color our whole language and in terms of which all experience must ultimately be expressed.” (5)

Basically we have trouble with perceiving things outside our normal experience and yet we can’t just write off the problems because our language as well as our ability to express anything are affected by perception. In a film class in college I heard this another way. John Greirson, the man who started the National Film Board of Canada once said, “Art isn’t a mirror, it’s a hammer.”

Quantum theory suggests all kinds of problems with observation. We know that observation changes the thing observed. This is a matter for physicists and psychologists. It’s also what made scientific understanding of exactly how a cat purrs to understand. The minute you hook sensors up to cat, it’s done purring. To make matters more complicated, Einstein has famously said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s difficult to divide out which matter more to the writer, the observation that must come first, or the imagination that shapes and forms the observation.

I’d like to argue that writers often blend imagination and observation together. I’ve noticed that my writing loops back and forth between imagination and observation. I start with some idea for a scene, chapter, or moment in my fiction, and I do my best to imagine it. Even when I feel like I’m making something up from scratch, I’m not. There are always ingredients, and they are always being changed and shaped by what I’m planning to do with them. Nothing is ever neutral.

The process is never linear, and now that I’m this far into my writing life, I can’t recall that distant first observation. In my memory, it has blended to become one thing.

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Works Cited

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature: Four Essays with an Introductory Survey. Cambridge UP (1934).

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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

On Writing About Sensitive (Trigger) Topics

Trigger warning: This post mentions potential trigger topics.

I love writing happily-ever-afters (HEAs) for my characters, but in order for them to get there, they have to go through quite a lot. The following quote from one of my favorite reviews summarizes this nicely:

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My stories always include hard and stormy issues (This post explains why it helps to write darker topics for my characters). Some of these issues may be trigger topics: subjects that generate strongly negative emotional responses. Triggers could be related to a damaging experience in one’s past (e.g., war, sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic abuse, eating disorders, suicide, hate crime, bullying, racism, sexism, and more). Triggers may also be deeply rooted in a phobia of varied or unknown origin (e.g., fear of dying, fear of blood or violence, fear of spiders, fear of being alone, and more).

Given the wide range of experiences in your readers, I posit that there’s no way to predict all of the elements of your stories that may serve as triggers. However, you might reasonably assume that what you’ve chosen as characters’ primary struggles or fears will resonate on a very personal level with some readers who have had similar or at least analogous struggles or fears. Ideally, isn’t this what every writer wants, to have our readers be deeply affected by our stories? Readers are more sensitive and also more vocal than they were fifty years ago, and this is a natural result of social media and increased social connections. But it’s also because of an increasing social presence and conscience. Voices in our society rise with the call to address lingering social problems such as rape culture, racial inequality, gender discrimination, and mental illness (just to name a few).

You may decide to write about some of these trigger topics because they are part of life. If you do these topics justice, your readers will respond accordingly. Wendy Jessen had a great post with tips on how to write these tough topics. First and foremost, you need to pick your characters’ issues with knowledge and sensitivity. If you’re going to write about a sensitive topic, do your research well. Also draw upon real people’s experiences — perhaps this is you, or if not, seek out the perspective of someone who has gone through the storm.

In addition, here are three tips about emotional preparation:

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  1. Deal with the emotions. Make sure you understand your own emotions as you write about these sensitive topics. Channel that understanding to your story so your characters deal with their emotions as they work toward a resolution. You need to also accept the fact that you will have some readers dealing with their own emotions as they react to these issues. If this manifests as anger, know that this is their right. I have seen authors become extremely defensive or (worse) respond directly to a review that is strongly negative about their book with a justification as to why people shouldn’t take offense to how they wrote it. Every reader will take away something from a story, and it is their right to love it or hate it. It is natural, of course, to have your own emotional response when someone reacts strongly negative to something that you’ve written. However, find a healthy way to cope with your own emotions — go for a walk or a run or journal or paint or meditate or hit a punching bag — and then move on and keep writing.
  2. Know your place. This probably goes without saying, but I need to say it. If you craft a character that lives with a mental illness, this in and of itself does not make you a professional counselor. If your character is a survivor of sexual assault, this does not automatically qualify you as a victim’s advocate. Both of these are professional positions with specific qualifications. I have had readers write to me about their connections to something traumatic in my character’s backstory. (In these cases, these have been strongly positive responses, but as I stated in #1, anything is possible.) As an author, thank your readers for sharing their own stories, but it is not your responsibility (in fact, it would be irresponsible of you) to counsel them further.
  3. Trust in yourself. When we craft stories, we risk putting a very personal part of ourselves out there. When we write about highly sensitive issues, this risk of putting ourselves out there increases even more.  But if you want to write these stories, you need to shelve your self-doubt and instead trust in yourself and your abilities to represent your characters’ stories to the best of your abilities. I debated a handful of times whether I should include one particular element into my YA character’s backstory before deciding that yes, this was part of who she was. Like everything that has happened in my own past/backstory, this has influenced my current actions, and so was it with her. As I look back now to some of the vocal responses of my readers (both positive and negative), I do not regret my decision. If you decide to write sensitive topics, above all, you need to trust yourself to guide your characters through that storm and then back out again.  

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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 urban fantasy 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 upper YA MYTHOLOGY trilogy and new adult contemporary romances. You can find out more about her books at www.helenboswell.com.

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.)

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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.