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A Fresh Look at Our Writing

refreshment-438399_1280.jpegI was once again reminded how important a fresh look is on a manuscript. This week a writer friend asked me to look at a picture book manuscript that her agent had said was "too mean spirited." It was a retelling of an old story--good guys against a bad guy--with a very modern twist. I thought it was hilarious. I'd seen several versions and really couldn't see much to tone down. Then yesterday she showed it to a mutual critique partner who had not seen the story before. She pointed out areas that would soften the story. This third writer had fresh eyes and was so right in her suggestions.

I love this imagery from Arthur Polotnik: "You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what's burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke." When we are writing our own view is hindered by smoke. We're excited about what we're creating--in love with our characters, our words. Setting aside the manuscript and coming back to it later when the fire has cooled, let's some of that smoke of infatuation clear.

When we've looked at a manuscript over and over and over, we get blind. It's too easy to skim because we "know" what it says. Suzanne Paschall says it this way, "Tired eyes become blind to errors that jump out to fresh eyes..." Somehow we need a splash of water in the face to wake us up.

Right now I'm going through my own manuscript using comments from my critique group. Mine is a novel in verse and once I gave the complete manuscript to my partners, I've didn't look at it until I got their feedback. (I also tried not to think about the story at all.) Their questions and comments are helping me see it afresh. It helps me see what I know but didn't put on the page. It helps me see where I wasn't clear or left out details that will add to the story. It challenges me. And I know it is making my story better.

Soon, I'll reread the whole story again to get it ready to send out on submission. This time I'll probably first change the font so it looks different to me. This trick can help fool our eyes into seeing the words afresh.

Do you have other tools you use to look at your writing with fresh eyes? If so, please share in the comments.


Run Away Words

runners-373099_1280.jpegEver met someone who can't seem to stop talking? He always has something to say. She may or may not be interesting, but has words for every topic. If there's silence, this person is more than happy to fill it. Perhaps, overfill it.

Ever been sidetracked in a conversation? It definitely happens to me. I start telling a story, then at some point realize my words have run off the road. I'm not sure where I took the detour that got me from the original topic to where I am now. I might lamely say something like, "I'm not sure what the point of that was..."

Writing is neither about simply filling the page with words nor about letting words run away. Sure, a rough draft may work that way. But even with a rough draft, we hope we are headed in the correct direction. Our intent isn't simply to spit out words.

Recently when editing someone else's novel, I found myself marking "redundant" on information. As a reader, I already got that point and didn't need to be told again. But as I writer I know how easy that is to do. We want to make sure our reader doesn't miss something important. We want to keep a reader grounded in the setting. We have good intentions. However, we need to trust that the reader will understand without us over explaining.

I find it easy to let my words run away when working on a picture book manuscript. And it isn't only about word count. I have to go back and look at my text and see what should be left out because the illustrator will take care of it.

Sometimes run away words are simply a bad habit. "Everyone" says them and we use them without thought. I found this site that lists 200 Common Redundancies in English. It's actually rather entertaining to read. The words in parenthesizes are the ones to leave out.

Clichés are similarly not good practice in our writing. I like how this article, 681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing, calls them shortcuts. Peter Selgin says, "The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting." This article suggests interesting ways to remove clichés: Replace Cliches with Phrases That Move.

If you have tips or suggestions on other ways we writers let words run away, feel free to comment below. (If you cannot see the comment box, click on the title above, which will take you to the post itself.)



Novel-sized Problem

boy-984313_1920.jpegIf your story problem can be solved quickly and easily, it's probably a magazine story. But if your main character has multiple things going on (subplots) and is going to have a lot of "doing" or action before the end of the story, then you have a novel-sized problem. Some problems are novel-sized just by their seriousness--death, grave illness, other big losses, abuse, etc.

I can't conceive of a whole children's novel at once, whereas I can a children's short story. I can visualize the problem, the steps the main character will try, and the solution for a short story and be pretty accurate that it will happen that way. For a novel my conception is more fluid. Yes, I have ideas of a problem, but not all the problems my character(s) will experience. I have ideas for solutions, but that's not necessarily what the main character will end up doing. My idea of the final solution may change drastically as I write. I like what Greg Hollingshead says, "The primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene." This takes us back to the problem. Novel problems matter more than short story problems. They affect the character's whole life in some way not just a small piece of it. Problems that are big enough for a novel won't be forgotten by your character next year. A short story problem once solved could be forgotten next week.

I recently read an outline for a children's short story where I told the writer it was more of a novel problem. My first hint was the depth of the problem. My second was the character was making a decision about something and I wasn't going to get to see the result of that decision. Hard to explain without getting into details for that specific story, so let me come up with an example. I've never watched The Bachelor, but what if there was a scene where he said, "I know whom I'm going to marry." He even says the name. But we don't get to see him ask her and see if she says yes. We'd feel cheated. If what NEEDS to be shown won't fit in your short story, think novel. Or maybe you're starting in the wrong place--too soon in the story.

There's satisfaction in writing both. Short stories offer a more immediate sense of accomplishment. Novels can offer a longer lasting sense of accomplishment. T.C. Boyle says, "The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow."

So part of determining whether you have a short story or a novel problem is how strongly you feel about the main issue in the story. Is it something you are willing to spend some time on? A few hours, a few days, maybe a week? Or is it something you're willing to devote months, often years? A novel will take the latter.

Let me conclude with this lovely statement from Elizabeth Sims: "...in a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel." (Go here to read her complete article.)


Emotions and Feelings

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Look at these images. Do I need to put a label on them so you know what the character is feeling? No. Why not? Because these are well-drawn and the emotion is clear. It's shown.

The same goes with writing. We don't need to label characters as annoyed, happy, in love, scared, shocked, etc. We need to show it. (Picture books are often the exception to this rule.)

Let's take Ms. Bunny above. She looks shocked to me. So what happens when a person is shocked (I don't mean the electrical kind)? Eyes go big or widen. A hand might come up to cover an open mouth. Someone might take a step back or sit down suddenly. A face might pale. The person might gasp. If you describe your character experiencing being shocked, you won't have to use the "shocked" label.

I love the image of the annoyed penguin. We know what is annoying him and what he plans to do about it. What do you when something is flying around you and it is annoying? First, perhaps wave the insect off. This is almost a subconscious reaction. But after a few times it impinges on our consciousness and we get annoyed. Now we might be slapping at the bug. Making noises of irritation. Then finally get up to get something to kill it.

Mr. Frog is obviously scared. He's jumped up. His heart is probably pounding (although this is so easy to overuse). He might be sweating. Eyes dilate. Breathing rate could increase. A hand/paw/webbed foot might go to the throat. A body can shake; a hand tremble. If one is like the fainting goats, one might pass out.

So next time you are tempted to write something like "Sam was happy." Instead think about what that looks and feels like. Observe yourself and others and write was happiness does to a person. Show the reader that instead of telling a "label."


Sensory Details

blind-men-1421406_1920.jpegYou may have heard "use all five senses in your writing," but I disagree. Use all six senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and temperature in your fiction.

Sight is the sense that seems to come easiest. We might talk about the blue dress, or the rain, or the black and white cat. We might describe the style of the dress--its length, fit, and neckline. The rain might be sheeting down or lightly sprinkling. The cat could be short or long-haired, skinny or fat, etc.

But we may forget to think about what we hear. In the three examples above what could you possibly hear? With a dress it depends on the fabric, but the skirt might swish or crinkle. Rain can pound on the patio cover or spatter on the window. That cat may have tiny feet which can be silent pawing across the floor, but at other times can thump louder than seems possible. Or is she a loud purrer? The stray cat we've been feeding is half the size of our own cat, but her meow is three times as loud. And rather harsh and gravelly as if she's been a long-time smoker.

Taste is more than eating, although it definitely includes that. Have you accidentally breathed in hair spray? It doesn't taste good. Neither does your mouth if you don't brush your teeth for several days. But then there are wonderful flavors--melted butter and honey on fresh homemade bread, the tang of a slice of orange, chicken tikka masala, the burst of bubbles in your carbonated drink. What is a normal taste in your character's home may be different from something your readers have experienced? I remember reading books and wanting to try something the characters ate because it sounded so good. And some of those were fictional food items. (But they didn't feel fictional.)

From the good to the bad, and the downright ugly, smells affect our lives and should affect character lives, too. I like subtle smells of flowers, fir trees, and clean sheets. I love the smell of spaghetti sauce simmering, or a beef roast in the oven. Sometimes my dog has bad gas that I'd willingly skip, but she doesn't give me the choice. The smell of exhaust can make me choke. My husband tells the story of the time his mom decided to cook up some horse radish--everyone but mom left the premises because the smell was eye-watering intense!

Touch. Right now I have a jagged fingernail that keeps catching on things, including my own skin. I've got a soft fuzzy crocheted afghan in my lap, which my cat usually has to knead before sitting down. Sometimes my healed broken ankle aches, and when spring hits, my eyes may itch from pollen. But let's go back to my first three examples with sight and how to think about the tactile aspects. Does that blue dress have a satiny texture, or is it that bumpy seersucker fabric? Or maybe it's coarse homespun. And the rain coming down--how does it feel when I go out in it? Pelting rain that stings my skin? Or a soft mist that is like a creamy moisturizer? Do I want to pet the black and white cat or is her fur mangy and dirty? Definitely no for the latter.

Temperature, a sixth sense. Are you cold and goose-bumpy, overheated and sweating, or somewhere in between? I often don't mind being caught out in a warm rain, but will hasten in out of the weather when it is cold. Stepping barefooted on sun-heated asphalt can make one leap for the coolness of lush grass. Is that breeze warm, hot, cool, or cold? Or how about the temperature of the pool, river, or lake? And is summer the dry heat of an arid area, or the hot-steamy bathroom feel of a humid climate? Again, your characters should be affected by temperature, just as you are.

For some stories, temperature might have to move to seventh place as the traditional "sixth sense" of intuition, or some psychic or magical sense is important to the story.

Does every scene have every sense? Not usually. But scenes should have three different sensory details. And the sensory details can be about a variety of things in your character's world. Be as specific as you can. And if those specifics are sometimes unusual that will add interest. The sensory details you include will establish setting and help bring your characters to life.


A Fresh Look at Our Writing

Run Away Words

Novel-sized Problem

Emotions and Feelings

Sensory Details

Taglines and Beats

Rhyming Picture Books

What Should I Describe?

Magazine Story or Picture Book?

Nonfiction Writing

Swift Fiction - The Short Story in Focus

What Stops Me Reading!

Distancing Your Reader

Overwriting

Reducing Word Count

How to Stand Out

NAMING CHARACTERS - FROM MARY'S NOTEBOOK

The Right Number of Characters

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

Naming Your Character

Say What?

Writing Process Blog Tour

Truth in Fiction

Plodding or Plotting

Raise the stakes, honey!

BACK UP!

175 Proof

He Thought to Himself and Other Excesses

The Hero's Journey for Magazine Writers

Altitude and Attitude - Adult or Child?

Slow Down, You Move too Fast

Kidz Only! Adults Keep Out!

Do you struggle with grammar?

Illustrator Resources

Nancy I. Sanders on Writing Nonfiction

Perfecting Dialogue Punctuation

Do as I Say

Professional Problem Maker

4 Ways to Make Your Characters "Talk Different"

Picture Book Month

Picture Perfect Picture Books

Picture Book Resources

My Favorite Online Resources

Do as I Say

Attribution or Action?

Turning Ideas Into Stories - Workshop

Theme and Premise

Self-Editing Tips

The Story Ladder or Novel Timeline

Showing Versus Telling

Read, Read, Read

The Power of a Good First Line

Hooking your Reader

Listen to the Voices

DIALOGUE TIPS

Viewpoint in Children's Fiction

Making Friends: Character Development