Category Archives: Revision

3 tips to master manuscript clutter

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Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Collage by Vicky Lorencen

Learning  to live clutter-free is quite a “thing” these days. How-to books make it sound possible to sort, organize and donate our way to a serene and less stuff-y life.

Maybe we writer types can take a hint from this trend toward simplicity.

My little miniature eclairs, I don’t know if I ever mentioned that I was once a freelance newspaper reporter. I got the fun, fluffy assignments. Right from the start, my editor told me, “Write tight and bright.” I liked that. Tight was easy to understand–watch your word count. But bright? I took that to mean, make sure your writing is not only polished, but also free of, you guessed it, clutter.

Am I master of my clutter? Ha ha ha. Still, please consider these tips to produce manicured manuscripts.

  • Read your manuscript out loud–or better yet, let someone else read it to you. Oh, golly. I’ll warn you. This can be painful, but it will prove to be a productive process. If someone is reading to you, have a copy of your manuscript in hand. You can make notes and circle or edit the repetitive words or phrases you need to extract. (And be sure to offer to return the favor for your reader, or give them a treat, or both.)
  • Use the Find/Replace function in Word to sniff out clutter. We all have crutch words. Mine is “just.” Chances are you have a word “that” you lean on too often as
    Collage by Vicky Lorencen

    Collage by Vicky Lorencen

    well. Find those prosey parasites and pinch ’em.

  • Toss those metaphorical single socks, chipped china cups and empty pens. Systematically review your manuscript, focusing on one of these categories at a time:
    • Purge adverbs. They aren’t the devil (sorry Stephen King), but adverbs aren’t angels either.
    • Pluck passive voice. Again, not the devil, but would you say–The road was crossed by the chicken. Uh, no. Aim for active voice. And smooth elbows.
    • Clip clichés. You have stunning imagination muscles. Flex them. Don’t rely on stale, trite, predictable, yawn-worthy expressions when you can blaze your own trail. Oops. I mean, mow your own path, pave your own lane or carve your own groove.

Okay, my little Word Warriors, remember, you have a mouse trap where your heart should be. You’ve never heard the word mercy. You carry red pens, and you’re not afraid to use them. Now, get out there and clobber that clutter. And then, yes, you may have a cookie.

Out of clutter, find simplicity. ~ Albert Einstein

a fine use for bullets

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I hate outlining

I hate outlining

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” Right you are E.L. Doctorow. I can’t argue with you.

Up until recently, I’ve been a writing pantser–someone who flies by the seat of her pants like a magic carpet. Weeeeeee!!! It was a fun, exhilarating, spontaneous, surprising, unfettered, chaotic, halting, sputtering, who-knows-how-the-heck-I-got-here way to write.

When I’ve considered a popular alternative, outlining, my skin literally crawled. No kidding. It wriggled clean off muh bones. (See why I can’t outline? I can’t even write without doubling back and making silly asides.) SO, anyway, outlining was not attractive to me. What a time and fun-sucker. Why not just jump in? I wanted to be surprised! At the same time, I liked the idea of pre-planning as a means of making steadier writing progress.

But as a card-carrying AntiOutlineist, I yearned for a way to enjoy the benefits of outlining without actual doing it. There were plenty of alternatives involving Post-it Notes, index cards or oversized sheets of paper, but I wanted something even simpler. It if could involve my adoration for list-making, that would be a bonus. That’s why I chose bullets. Round. Simple. Readily Accessible. Inexhaustible in supply.

Now, my little warm cinnamon crumb cake, you know I mean these kinds of bullets. . .

  • Yes,
  • I
  • knew
  • you
  • would.

When I recently approached an extensive novel revision, I chose bullets to help me compile the sequence of events and actions of my characters. I didn’t write long descriptions of each scene. I wrote just enough to ensure I’d have what I needed when I returned to my list later. As I compiled this list, naturally, I’d identify roadblocks. But then, I could easily scan back to see, and then change, the sequence of events to release that blockage. I was able to think through each character’s actions or responses and their natural consequences. I could think proactively about how to crank up the story’s tension or humor or tenderness.

And now, armed with my bullets (hardy har har), I’ve had an easier time approaching the revision process. Plus, I’ve felt energized and encouraged because the bullets serve as an assurance that it’s going to be okay. Keep going. You know you can work this out. You’ve already untangled your plot and mapped out a path for your characters. And I know they won’t fail to surprise me, so there’s still fun to be had.

E.L. Doctorow is right–we can’t just yack about writing, we need to actually do it. But, before you do, see how you like writing with a batch of bullets by your side. G’head. Give it a shot. (Ouch.)

I’m one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I’m very good at doing that, but I don’t like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out.  ~ Neil Gaiman

how to give your writing shine, volume and manageability

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

You’ve seen the commercials. There’s a woman with limpity blahsville hair. Her shoulders, schlumpy. Her eyes, rolled. She blows a puff of air upward from her lower lip and ruffles her scruffy bangs–the universal breath of disgust. Then, some product whooshes onto the screen. It’s a bottle of glamorous, sexy-smelling hope for hair. Ms. Lackluster snatches the wunderproduct, suds it through her sorry locks and voila! Cue the fans to blow a mane so magnificent as to make Fabio throw in the towel.

What if there was a “product” that could do the same–give shine, volume and manageability–to your writing? Good news! There is. It’s called Critique Group.

Here’s how this amazing product works:

Shine. Nothing will give your writing that dazzling sheen you desire like a robust critique. Your group can help you snip those dry, split ends created by worn or useless verbiage, identify stronger verbs and methodically polish your work.

Volume. Receiving regular feedback on your work helps to fuel your momentum, which hopefully, results in higher word counts and more pages than you may have accumulated as a solo act. So luxurious!

Manageability. Critique groups, regardless of how you arrange them, typically come with a schedule for sharing your work. Knowing you have these deadlines can help you plan, set goals and make the whole writing process more aimful instead of aimless.

You say you don’t have a critique group of your very own? Instead of pulling out your hair, let’s find you a group ASAP.

Consider these ideas for either starting or connecting with an established group:

  • Use social media. Let Facebook friends or Twitter followers know you’d like to join or start a group.
  • Visit discussion boards and search “critique groups” to see who’s seeking. For example, you could start with the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and explore the Resources section.
  • Talk with your local children’s librarian or a writing instructor at your local community college about your desire to form a group. You may learn about others who have expressed the same. If there’s a public bulletin board at the library or community college, post a “Want Ad” there.
  • Go to writing conferences or take writing classes and do a little friendly snooping to find out about the groups of your fellow attendees. Who knows, they may be hoping to add a new member.
  • Ask other writing friends for ideas. Ask how they decided between joining a face-to-face or online group (and the advantages/disadvantages of each), how their group is structured and if they know of a group with an opening. If your friend is groupless, ask about starting a new group of your own.

If you’re already in a group and have more ideas, tips for how to structure or improve a critique group, please share.

Wishing you gorgeous “hair” days ahead!

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children. ~ Madeleine L’Engle

looking for front stabbers

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

You trust someone, and then you’re stabbed in the back. Hurts, doesn’t it? Ever thought of inviting someone to stab you in the front? Sure, that’d hurt too. But it’d be a constructive versus destructive brand of pain. Okay okay, I know that sounds strange, maybe even a little creepy, but please stick with me for a few more sentences, and I’ll explain as best I can.

See, even though writing by its nature is a solo sport, that doesn’t mean you can’t invite others to join your team. By others, I mean other writers who can give constructive criticism–aka stab you in the front, to hit you where it hurts most–right in your writing.

Losing weight, staying on track with an exercise regime, even cleaning out the garage, are all easier if you have at least one person to come alongside you support, encourage–maybe even push–you. Why should writing be any different? If you’re frustrated with your lack of progress, either in term of pages or improvement, consider opening yourself up to a good, ol’ fashioned front stab.

[At least] three things are certain:

1. Someone pushing you without your permission will only make you want to push back.

2. You need to ask someone to hold you accountable. Nobody volunteers for that job, but most people will say yes if you invite them, especially if you’re willing to reciprocate.

3. You will make better and faster progress with accountability and input, than you will without it.

This is why I am so grateful for my critique group. They’re a friendly bunch of front stabbers who want me to become a better writer and I’m happy to help them do the same.

If you feel stuck with your writing, let me encourage you seek out your own critique group (ask around on Facebook, via your SCBWI chapter list serve or your local library). If a group isn’t already in place, start one. And remember, you don’t have to let geography limit you. Online critique groups can work very well and can include writers from all over the planet, if you like. (I suggest keeping your group Earth-bound. Anything beyond that can get too complicated.) If joining/starting a group sounds like too long of a leap, consider partnering with another writer and setting up a regular schedule for exchanging pages.

Connecting with other writers for criticism and accountability will make a positive difference for you. I promise.

G’head. Take a stab at it.

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. ~ Psalm 27:17

My thanks to Ben Redmond, Director of Student Ministries at the Hub, for inspiring this post. He’s a wise man.

top 10 questions to ask an agent

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen

You’re right. I sound presumptuous. But I want to be ready when I get “the call” from a literary agent.

Right again. The call could be a long way off. But being prepared is smart. And besides, I love list-making.

Here’s why I think this preparation is important: it’s easy to focus on what an agent may expect and need from you. But an agent/client relationship, at its best, is designed to be a true business partnership. As an equal partner, you need to think about what you want and need from an agent too. (I shall not digress into tales of wah from eager author wannabes who closed their eyes, asked no questions and became human ankle bracelets for the first agent who expressed interest. You are far too dear and sensitive for such horror stories.)

And so, here’s a list of questions for you to consider as you do your agent homework.

Disclaimer: Please think of this list as a guideline. You’ll want to customize it to suit your style and situation. That’s what I did. Some of these questions are my own, but I also adapted questions from a list used by my generous friend Kelly Barson (who found a wonderful agent!). Also, keep in mind, you may find the answers to some of these questions online (like the answer to question 6). This will give you room to ask other questions instead.

Get your question list ready. Then you’ll be ready when the agent pops the question: do you have any questions for me? (Whoa. I feel dizzy. I wrote myself into a circle there.)

1. If you work within a house, would I be considered your client or a client of the house? (In other words, if the agent moves on, are you connected to that house or will you move with him/her?)

2. Do you offer a representation contract or a verbal agreement? (Some writers might be uncomfortable with formal contracts, while others would feel too vulnerable with a verbal agreement. You need to ask for what’s best for you.)

3. You’re basing a decision to represent me on one work. What if you don’t love the next project? Do you refuse to send it out? Do you try to find it a home anyway? Do I have the latitude to branch into another genre (e.g., from MG novels to picture books)?

4. What will my working relationship with you look like?

5. How far do you typically go editorially? Do you request in-depth rewrites? A little tweaking? None at all?

6. Are you a member of AAR? (The Association of Author Representatives member agencies agree to abide by a code of ethics.)

7. How much communication do you provide? And how will you typically provide it–email, phone, telepathy? (Some agents only talk to you when there’s a deal to discuss or if there’s a problem brewing. They leave you alone to write. Others are more hands-on determining the next project, checking in during the writing process, giving feedback, updating on submissions, etc. You need to decide how much autonomy you want or if hand holding through the initial stages is exactly what you need.)

8. Will I be dropped if my work doesn’t sell right away or are you committed, no matter how long it takes? Is there a time limit? At what point would you ask me to move on to something else (or to someone else)?

9. What are your greatest strengths as an agent? (If you’re feeling brave–ask about weaknesses too, but be prepared to answer the same question about yourself!)

10. Could you describe your ideal client?

BONUS NEWS . . .

Not quite ready to begin your agent search? Here’s a fabulous opportunity to learn the fine art of revision. You’ll know how to make your work as polished as possible before you start your hunt.

Revision Retreat 2014 with Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson

In this working retreat, Harold Underdown and editor Eileen Robinson will teach proven techniques for self-editing and revising and work with writers on their manuscripts. Mornings will be dedicated to revision techniques and afternoons to model critique groups, individual meetings, and writing time.

Hurry! Spaces are limited to allow for individualized attention.

I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide. ~ Harper Lee

the magical manuscript diet

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Photo by Vicky Lorencen

Photo by Vicky Lorencen


I can’t take too much credit. I discovered it by accident really.

Here’s how it all went down . . . I wanted to read the entire first chapter of my middle grade novel at an open mic night. The trick? I had to limit myself to three pages. My chapter was four pages.

Drat.

Short of inventing Spanx for manuscripts, I commenced with some serious word whittling. I chopped. I reworded. I juggled and massaged.

Au revoir to adverbs!
G’bye to gerunds! (words ending in ing)
Adios adjectives!
Toodles to too much backstory!

I made every word plead for its life. When I was done, I’ll be darned if I didn’t even miss what was missing.

Eureka!

What if I went through my entire manuscript with virtual Ginsus, slicing and dicing like a Benihana hibachi chef. I became a knife-wielding word Ninja. A word whopping warrior princess. A slasher of syllables. I laughed in the face of paper cuts. I was, phew, I was exhausted.

But in the end, my manuscript was tighter, brighter and more focused. The Magical Manuscript Diet worked because I was willing to do the work.

How about you? Let me challenge you to revisit even one chapter in your current work in progress. See if you can shave off a page.

That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.
~ Kelly Barnhill

does this novel make my butt look big?

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frog in pocket

Talk about subjective. Are we comparing my backside to War and Peace or Charlotte’s Web? (No need to answer.)

And what about our crazy winter weather? Earlier this week, it was a frigid -12 where I live. And then this morning on my way to work, it was a balmy 27 degrees. I didn’t even bother to zip my jacket. It’s all relative.

Relativity + Subjectivity = Confusitivity!

And that, my talented, perplexed friends, is every writer’s dilemma. We write. We seek feedback. We rewrite. We wring our hands and rack our brains (simultaneously!), yet how do we know when what we’ve written is worth reading? It’s such sticky, subjective business.

Now, what about feedback–the kind you get from your writer’s group or a paid critique with an editor at a conference. Given that opinions are subjective, how do you know who to believe?

Then once you’ve written something you hope is solid, you have to contend with a submission process swaddled in subjectivity. It’s not that editors are fickle or capricious (generally), it’s that they’re people with particular tastes and needs, like the rest of us. I love kalamata olives and black licorice (not together, mind you). You think that’s gross. You’re wrong, of course. But you are still entitled to your opinion because matters of taste are subjective. And so it goes in publishing.

Let me be brave/silly and try to take a stab at this subjectivity business.

When in doubt, try it out. Let’s say someone in your critique group suggests a subtle shift in your main character’s personality or a major interruption to your subplot. If you trust this person and your respect her work, why not give it a go? If your story is stronger for it, be thankful. If it’s not, then at least you’re affirmed in your initial approach.

At a recent writer’s conference, a Scholastic editor admitted that she’d asked an author to make a major change in her YA novel and then realized she was wrong. After reading the results of six months of stellar revision, the editor had to admit the author’s first take was actually better. I’m sure the editor and the author were both surprised! Scary as it sounds, editors can’t always be right. But I admired the author for following her editor’s instructions. I’m sure she learned a lot in the process–and gained a deeper respect from her editor for trying.

Don’t get mad, get even (better). In my second middle grade novel, one of the main characters goes to school with an aide hired by the girl’s mother to assist her. My writing teacher told me that would never fly in a public school. But I liked the aide and I didn’t want to sack her. I was perplexed. Then, at a writing workshop this fall, two writers, who are also teachers, suggested I change the school from public to private. Perfect! Not only did I get to keep the aide, the private school environment introduced a whole new set of challenges for my fashion forward girl character. I found a way to make it work, instead of being stupid and stubborn by plowing ahead in the wrong direction.

If the reader don’t git it, it ain’t gonna git got. See, that’s the tricky thing about writing. It’s supposed to communicate something. If the sender sends, but the receiver doesn’t receive, well then, no communication. I have to remind myself of this when I’m tempted to “explain” something to my critique group. Sure, I can tell them what the character meant by a particular comment, but I won’t have that option to follow a ten-year-old around to see if he has any questions. There’s no “what the author meant was” button on an e-reader (at least not the last time I checked!) When my manuscript critique-provider/reader is confused, I can’t pass their comments off as subjective opinion, I know I have some refining and polishing to do. Git it?

Hear! Hear!You’re smart enough to know you don’t have to edit your manuscript because one person said she doesn’t like girl characters having boy names. But what if you’re getting the same advise from multiple reliable sources? That’s right. You avoid them all in the future. Who said that? What I meant to say was the obvious–when you keep hearing similar feedback on a particular plot point, you’re wise to heed and re-read. Chances are, your gut was telling you something wasn’t right with it in the first place, you just didn’t know what. Now, everyone’s telling you what’s what, confirming your suspicions. A plot hole is like cellulite. You can try to ignore it, but it ain’t going anywhere.

And speaking of your gut . . .

What’s that, Mr. G? In the end, you have to trust your gut (aka, Mr. G). (You had a gut feeling I was going to say that, didn’t you?) But I think applying the suggestions of trusted, respected writers and editors is still smart. I believe actively seeking feedback and really listening with an open mind and heart is vital to growing as a writer. I accept that I have room to improve (so we’re clear, we’re talking a room the size of a major league football stadium). But, for better or worse, when it all comes down to it, I have to do what feels right to me.

For example, I have a picture book manuscript for very young children that has been declared “perfect” by a professional illustrator and an accomplished picture book author. When I entered it in a contest, it finished in the top 5 out of 750 entries. Does that mean it’s been scooped up by a publishing house? Noop. It’s had close calls several times and received some champagne rejections, but no acceptances. I have taken each editor’s suggestions to heart and made some modifications, but I finally realized I can’t keep re-writing this poor little 375-word manuscript until I don’t recognize it or love it. I’m going to have to embrace it and trust that someone else will too.

Well, at least that’s my subjective opinion.

The faculty to think objectively is reason; the emotional attitude behind reason is that of humility. To be objective, to use one’s reason, is possible only if one has achieved an attitude of humility, if one has emerged from the dreams of omniscience and omnipotence which one has as a child. ~ Erich Fromm