Multiple Tools for Revision

I started my current novel with an idea, a scene, and a sense of an ending, and then began writing. I finished that draft and while technically I could label sections as beginning/middle/end, I knew it wasn’t strong enough structurally. It didn’t feel done. So I outlined what I had, and then worked to devise new plot points, scenes, characters, motivations, to bring it into a more classic three-act structure.

And then I did it again.

And then I did it again.

But I finally got to the point where I felt like the big moves were all there and it was time to tighten, refine, and revise. My novel was created and lives electronically (I heart Scrivener), but I printed it out for this last stage.

Because I felt like I wrote the drafts of my novel in a slightly haphazard fashion, I wanted to be very methodical in the revision process itself. I used, will use again, and advocate for, a dual process – one on paper and one on computer. Because while there are many things you can do on either platform, there are some things I believe you can do so much better on one vs. the other.

I began on paper with a small pile of highlighters and a pen. I decided there were certain things I wanted to look for, and by highlighting I could see at a glance how often various things were occurring.

  • Orange = adverbs, because I had too many
  • Green = sounds and smells, to make sure I had different senses included in description
  • Pink = related to the world-building (my novel is a fantasy)
  • Blue = use of figurative language

After reading a section, I flipped back through the pages. This gave me a strong visual as to how often things were appearing, how much white space appeared between repeat highlights, and what I needed to change based on what I was literally seeing. For example, I often saw instances of orange tightly grouped. I would reread that section, determine which adverbs were most important to the reader understanding how people were moving, talking, or feeling, and replace or cut the others.

When I found something I wanted to revise electronically, I didn’t pause and turn on my laptop. I didn’t want to disturb the flow of my reading, and I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself – changing things that appeared later in the book and therefore having my paper copy already be out of date. So this is where another form of paper came in handy – my notebook, to jot down items on my ‘to do’ list.

The main tool I used on my computer was word search, not only to find where I was in the text but also how many times a given word or phrase appeared. A simple Find (crtl-F in Word, the search bar or Text Statistics in Scrivener) can tell you how often you use a word, or phrase, and where it appears in the text. I used this function a few times.

Sometimes I used it when a word or phrasing jumped out at me. As I read through, I realized that more than once, something in my novel was ‘perfectly still.’ The phrasing stuck with me, so I decided I could use it only one time. I used search to quickly find where it appeared and zipped out the extra occurrences. I also used search to distinguish character voice. For example, I decided one character would be the only one to say “just” or “practically.” Rather than keep that in my head as I read on paper, at the end I found every instance and replaced it if had hopped into other characters’ speech.

I also used it to look for instances of “I look,” “I see,” etc. This novel is in first person, so I don’t need to write “I see an apple tree.” That type of writing is distancing, and the readers knows the character saw it (or else how can they tell them about it). Rather than trying to find it as I went, I used the find function to locate those places in the text and then decided what edits to make.

I may have gone a little overboard. Although it is satisfying (to me) to create a list and check things off one by one, looking at pages and pages of things you still need to do is overwhelming. Revising via highlighter is not for the faint of heart. It is a slow process (cap/uncap, cap/uncap) and, surrounded by colors, at times I needed a cheat sheet (what was green for again)? But I will always plan to review my novel in both mediums, paper and electronic, to create new ways of looking at and revising my work. And I should be done soon…

Writing Goals – 2016 Edition

It was my second flight solo-parenting my four-year-old twins. <Bear with me, this will be about my writing process.> We got to the airport in plenty of time – one and a half hours before our domestic flight. But it took a long time to check bags. And make a trip to the bathroom. And get through security. And ride the airport train to the last stop. And walk all the way to the farthest gate (the moving walkway was under construction). And they had started to board early. So for the first time in my adult life, I was the last person on the plane. Not necessarily a problem, but it was a Southwest flight. Which means open seating. Which meant there was no row available for me and my little boys.

The flight attendant made an announcement, offering drinks and such. Nobody moved. I walked to the middle of the plane, saw rows with empty middle seats, and no way for me and my four-year-old kids to sit together. I promptly burst in to tears.

Back to writing. My goal for 2016: “Get an agent who reps and sells in my genre.” Now, I’ve done a lot of goal-setting in my personal and professional life. Make that goal a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable/action-oriented, realistic/relevant, time bound). Make it aggressive, but attainable. Make it within your sphere of control.

My goal is fairly SMART – “Get an agent who reps and sells in my genre in 2016.” It’s specific. Measurable. Action-oriented. Relevant. Time board. Achievable? Realistic? Up for debate. And that’s the crux.

Other writers have suggested I adjust my goal to “Query ten agents in 2016.” Because querying is within my control. I can finish and revise my manuscript and then submit a tight query letter to the right agents. I could definitely achieve this goal.

But back to my traumatic flight. My goal was to make it to the airport at least an hour before my flight. But as I stood crying in the aisle, I realized my *real* goal – be ready to board when it was my turn so I could sit with my kids. Similarly, querying ten agents isn’t my goal. It’s a milestone. It’s a step to make my true goal. But it’s not the goal itself. The goal itself is get an agent. If I met a kick-ass agent at a bar who had an amazing track record in my genre who asked to see my manuscript and offered me representation without my ‘technically’ querying  her – I would take it. I wouldn’t say, “Wait – let me send you (and nine other agents) my query letter.”

It’s scary to set a goal I can’t control. But there are things I can control. I can revise my manuscript multiple times, getting feedback from other writers and readers in my genre. I can research agents to make sure I’m not sending my query out to people who don’t rep what I have to sell. I can polish and polish. And I can cross my fingers.

But I have to be honest with myself. While sending out x number of query letters will definitely make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, it won’t be accomplishing “the” thing. So I’m putting it out there. Even if it means I won’t make it, I’m shooting for the stars.

Dropping Anchor – Details That Support Your Story

“Lizzie sat in her Algebra II class, trying to pay attention to what her teacher was saying. But she could see Brad sitting right there. She tapped her pencil. Focus, focus, focus. She saw Monica waving to her out of the corner of her eye. Monica mimicked writing in midair with her empty hand. Lizzie sighed, reached into her pencil bag, and tossed Monica a pencil.”

Ok, so that’s a quick little moment that could appear in a manuscript. In these 66 words, we have three characters who we likely place in high school (Algebra II) and we have an idea that we’re going to explore some relationships between the three people introduced.

But what this scene lacks is anchors: specific details that more accurately place you, the reader, in the scene that I’m starting to unfold. Weaving in those details, yes, at the expense of beloved brevity, gives your reader so much more about the scene. Let’s see how.

I told you nothing about the classroom. You could have easily assumed a large urban high school with at least thirty kids sitting in rows of desks, or maybe a small private school with fifteen kids in a u-shape. Even a lecture hall with stadium seating and a hundred kids. Does it matter? Well, it can if the action of the scene is going to reveal information to you about the characters (and it should!).

I told you nothing about where anyone is sitting. How does it change your opinion of Lizzie if Monica is sitting at the desk next to Lizzie… but Lizzie tosses the pencil to her anyway? Is Lizzie maybe making Monica pay a little bit for being forgetful? What if Lizzie is sitting across from Monica in the u-shape, so she had to toss it all the way across the room to get it to her. Is Lizzie just doing what she can to get a friend a pencil? In both instances perhaps “Monica fumbled to catch the pencil” starts off our next sentence, but what’s our impression of Lizzie (or Monica)?

Let’s raise the stakes even higher. What if in my writer’s mind, Monica is two rows away from Lizzie – and the person sitting between them is Brad. That’s possible, because given my explanation you have no idea where anybody is. Now Lizzie is tossing the pencil to avoid contact with Brad. But why? This could have hooked you in as a reader, made you curious about their relationships, but instead it’s an opportunity lost.

It’s important to find the perfect word, or to leave out unimportant details. Does it add richness to know that the pencil was a #2 Ticonderoga vs. a blue mechanical pencil? Unlikely, unless I have a theme about using natural elements, or Lizzie’s favorite color is blue. We do need to be on the lookout for extraneous information that can bog down a story and slow the pacing. But when the writer leaves some information out – the setup of the room, the placement and subsequent movement of the characters – the reader is missing out. And as a writer who wants to bring you into my story and have you get all cozy and comfortable, so am I.

Daily Word Goals

It would be an understatement to say that I’m a goal oriented person. I’m super-driven to get my to do list completed. I find great satisfaction at ticking things off the list. This is why I am now on my second Fit Bit.

 

I’ve just finished On Writing by Stephen King, and setting strict writing goals resonated with me. He does a daily 2000 – he recommended that those just getting started might consider a daily 1000. We talked about this in my writing class, and my teacher recommended a daily 250 – something really achievable that mirrors roughly a page of content per day. I’m splitting the difference (not mathematically accurate, but still) by shooting for 450 (with the idea that I’d really like to go over every day).

 

A recent discovery on Scrivener has completely appealed to my checklist loving personality. Under the Project Menu you will find “Project Targets” – complete with a bulls-eye icon. My eyes immediately popped open a little bit wider with the possible excitement.

Project Targets did not disappoint. I can set an overall target for my manuscript, a Middle Grade novel. 35k is the average, so that’s my first draft goal. It compiles words in the Manuscript section only – so my notes aren’t counting towards my Word count, but my actual text is.

But as far as daily goals go the dream discovery was session target. Each morning I click “Reset” and then away I go.

I can see exactly where I am both in my overall manuscript and in my daily goal, and an awesome color bar gives me an immediate visual.

ProjectTargets

Project Targets pop-up box in Scrivener

Do you set a daily writing goal? How do you motivate yourself to meet it?

Lose Those Dialogue Tags

Within 24 hours, I’ve heard advice from two published children’s books authors that removing dialogue tags is a best practice in your writing/editing.  “Really?” she asked. “’Tis true,” I replied.

Ana Crespo’s advice was personal – she was reading a picture book manuscript I wrote and said I had an opportunity to trim by cutting a lot of my tags. In fact, she said in a lot of the picture book industry there’s a drive to cut them altogether: let the nature of the statements and the illustrations clarify who is saying what.

Denise Vega’s advice can be found online – it’s #8 on this video. She talks about cutting tags and, when needed, replacing them with the ‘invisible’ tags (said, reply, and ask). Definitely check it out for the other 9 tips she offers.

I will say that the prevalence of dialogue tags in writing has led to my children using them in their speaking. My son will say (these quotes are in the right place) “It’s time to go, he said.” So we’ll gain tighter narratives, and we’ll lose a little adorableness. Luckily there’s no shortage of cute things that kids will say!

How often are you dialogue-tagging your writing? Do you have dialogue tags that need to be cut or given a cloak of invisibility?

Love

We were explaining love to the twins (they were early three). Jason and I met in our 30s – ok, my 30s. He was still in his 20s (but late, sheesh). Unlike Jason’s parents and his sister, who married their respective teenage sweethearts. We talked about how sometimes you don’t find the person you love when you’re younger – you might meet them later in life.

“Mommy and Daddy had to wait a long time to find each other,” I told them.

The boys considered this.

“Like I had to wait a long time to find Beta,” said Alpha.

It just doesn’t get any sweeter.

Creative play

Alpha and Beta are my twin boys. Alpha asked if he could dress up like Cinderella. The answer is always “Of course!” when we aren’t on our way somewhere else, requiring him to be in actual clothes. We have a costume box that the boys can access at will.

Alpha – I need a prince charming.

Me (Mom) – I’ll be prince charming.

Alpha – No, prince charming is a boy.

This is fascinating because the boys are frequently Cinderella, Anna, Elsa, etc. and gender has never come into it. They know boys and girls but this has never been a limitation of play.

Mom – Ok, I respond.

Alpha – Beta, can you be prince charming?

Beta – No, I’m Lightening McQueen. Prince Charming is at work. <meaning Dad>

Mom – Will that work Alpha?

Alpha – No, he needs to be here.

Mom – I offered to be prince charming. <gentle reminder>

Alpha – You can be prince charming if you pretend you are Beta being prince charming.

Mom – Deal

***

Do your kids have a favorite character to play, particularly one that crosses gender roles?

How I Ruined The Giving Tree

Now that I work part time, Tuesday mornings are spent with the twins at the library for story time. We all pick out children’s books to take home. During an early visit, I found The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. “Oh, babies, this is one of Mommy’s favorite books.”

The next morning, I started reading it to the boys over breakfast. As the boys were just shy of three, I explained the pages to the boys. “Look, she gives him her apples. Look, her branches.” Then the tree started to give things that could no longer be replenished. I started tearing up. I tried to explain it to the boys – “The tree loves the boy so much, that she gives him all she has, until there is nothing left, because she wants him to be happy.” And then I was bawling. Clearly when I had read this book in earlier years, I was identifying more with the boy (or watching as an observer just appreciating the tale). Suddenly, I was totally the tree.

And the boys started saying “Put it away! Put it away!” and describing it as “The bad book that made Mommy cry.” Sigh. We’ll try again in a few years.

***

Have you shared a beloved story only to have it go awry?