Wordy Wednesday: Keep the Reader Connected

Finals season has begun.

I turned in my first term paper yesterday and a term paper proposal today. Tomorrow I have a presentation and a choir concert. One week from today I turn in that second term paper and take a final exam. Then after that I have a portfolio due in one class and two more finals to take.

Today I registered for my winter semester classes. I’m going to need to begin applying for summer internships soon.

So, basically, right now things are insane.

Anyway though, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. (Thanks go out to Ariel for the idea!)

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Have you ever been reading a book and the plot’s super interesting, and you like the characters, but you just can’t quite get into it? I have a theory that sometimes this is because the author is inadvertently distancing you from the story.

I was reading a book over Thanksgiving that should have had me enthralled. Like, everything about it was great. But every once in a while the author would phrase something in such a way that would remind me I was reading a book and the characters were just characters. And I realized*: It’s not about what you write, but how you write it.

You need to keep your line-by-line writing active and realistic in order to keep the reader invested. Active, because active writing is inherently more interesting. Realistic, because writing that draws attention to the fact it’s writing also draws the reader out of the story.

So: things I’ve learned to avoid thanks to the books I wanted to love (but couldn’t).

1. Don’t write about feelings.

Really, writing “about” things at all makes for weak writing, but feelings are probably the most dominant example of this issue. When a character feels something (i.e., “She felt sad.”), you take the reader out of the scene because you’re telling instead showing (writing “about,” vs. writing). And do you ever truly “feel sad,” or does the pressure grow behind your eyes, and it gets difficult to breathe, and maybe you hug your arms around yourself?

2. Minimize figurative language.

On the topic of writing emotions: Be careful with figurative language like similes and metaphors. It’s really easy to go over the top with these and come across melodramatic, and they’re another way of distancing the reader from what’s happening. While figurative language isn’t outright telling, it definitely slides more that way than showing. So instead of something like “He was a spool of thread unwinding” (unfortunate, actual example from a draft of a novel I’ve been revising), try actually describing what that feels like. Maybe the room spins. He stumbles. He screams between clenched teeth.

3. Avoid thoughts and realizations.

Yet another way to put a wall up between your reader and story. Thoughts (“He’s right, I think.”) and realizations (“I realize the house–it’s going to explode.”) are another form of inadvertent telling, because, like, when you’re thinking in your own head, do you think, “He’s right, I think,” or do you just think, “He’s right”? Likewise with realizations. So instead of including the unnecessary telling tags on these things, go straight to what’s actually going on.

Still, when you want a character to realize something, you want it to be attention-catching, right? I generally do something like include a description of what the character physically does up on realizing it, followed by the realization (“My eyes widen. The house–it’s going to explode.”) or include some kind of exclamation before the realization (“Oh my gosh. The house–it’s going to explode.”)

4. Write in the present.

I don’t mean that you should write using present tense but like, I don’t know, stay in the moment. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read that have fully given away what’s about to happen by saying something like “Three things happened before the bomb went off.” This distances the reader by turning the accepted way events progress (A, B, C, D) on its head (so instead: D, A, B, C, then D again). Also, unless your character’s looking back on things from the future, he wouldn’t know in advance that D was going to happen after A, B, C anyway. So that in itself is unrealistic to your character’s experience.

Instead of: Three things happened before the bomb went off.

Try something like: Larry the Man-Eating Hamster cackles. His henchman reaches for me and I dodge to the right. We run for the door. A beep echoes throughout the laboratory. Everything explodes.

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So, those are my tips for keeping your reader invested in your line-by-line writing. However, note that I’m not saying to absolutely never use any of these things; just know what you’re doing when you do. (Por ejemplo: In the novel I’ve been revising, my protagonist “thinks” things sometimes, but I try to limit these to when she’s telling herself things, like to convince herself of something she knows isn’t true, rather than general thoughts.)

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

*Notice the irony in my phrasing here. But in my defense, this is a blog post. What I’m doing is telling you things.

Wordy Wednesday: How to Not Go Insane While Revising

Whoa. Look at that. It’s Wednesday again. (Funny how that happens.)

Midterm season has drawn to an end, which of course means it’s not even Halloween yet and already my professors are yelling at me to get term paper drafts done and it’s suddenly cold enough to warrant a coat on the way to class.

Also: internship apps, and NaNoWriMo prep, and did I mention that November’s bringing lots of big announcements? Like I’ve been working on a lot that I haven’t been able to share with you BUT NOVEMBER IS THE MONTH. (Don’t get too excited. This in no way involves an agent or book deal or trip to Mars or anything. But still: Exciting Stuff.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

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I’m currently in the midst of doing the line edits round of revisions on one of my novels and, as expected, it’s basically torture.

Most of revising I don’t have a problem with. I actually really enjoy pulling the novel apart, switching things around, adding and getting rid of stuff, then putting it back together again. But line edits involve sitting down and reading the entire thing straight through in order to ensure it all works. And by “it all,” I mean not only the changes I made earlier in revising, but also checking flow, and fixing awkward sentences, and nailing down phrasing and character development and SO MUCH MORE.

It takes a ton of energy and attention, and because of this can be really difficult to get through.

But I’ve got a few tricks to getting it done.

Revise by Scene

I used to revise by chapter instead of scene. (Meaning: I’d take a break and give myself a pat on the back when I finished a chapter.) But then sometimes I’d be in the middle of a scene at the end of a chapter, so I’d come back after a break and have no idea where I was supposed to be tonally, and of course some of the details wouldn’t be as clear in my head anymore, and yeah. Now I don’t let myself stop until I’ve reached the end of the scene I’m on, instead, and it really helps to keep things focused.

Procrastinate by Revising

A couple weeks back, I got about a week ahead on my homework with the idea that doing so would leave my weekend free to revise. It had been difficult juggling schoolwork with bashing-my-head-against-a-wall-over-line-edits. However, the instant I no longer had something I wanted to do even less than revising (like reading about WWII propaganda films for my film history class), suddenly I had no interest in revising either. So I ended up spending the weekend binging on Gilmore Girls.

Moral of the story: If revising isn’t your favorite activity ever, it’s possibly actually good to be dividing your time between it and another activity you like even less. It’s amazing how productive you can be when you’re using that activity to procrastinate from another one. (Also: I clearly make good life choices.)

Set Short Term AND Long Term Goals

Setting goals while revising should be obvious, but it’s a step I forget about sometimes. And you not only want to have goals like “finish Long Action Sequence #1 by midnight,” but also “finish first third of manuscript by Friday” and “send draft to critique partners by end of month.” It’s these layers of goals that help keep you on track and motivated.

And on that note:

Use a Reward System

Goals don’t mean much if you don’t get something for reaching them. Maybe if you meet your revising goal for the day, you get to have a bowl of ice cream. Or you can go to the movies with your friends.

And for larger goals, you should also have larger rewards. I generally let myself buy something semi-expensive off ModCloth or purchase concert tickets or (wow, I really need to stop using spending money as rewards).

Make Time to Relax

This is the biggest thing, for me. If you burn yourself out trying to get your revisions done super fast, they aren’t going to turn out well and you ultimately are just going to make more work for yourself. So take time to sit back and watch an episode (or three) of Gilmore Girls. Hang out with your friends. Read a good book. It’s okay to take a day off here and there, as long as you don’t lose momentum.

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Thanks for reading!

 

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday (Tightening Your Writing)

If you want to know how my week is going, just know that I am currently starting this post at 3:30 AM and I have class in less than seven hours. Because that is how busy I am. Because, it turns out, seventeen credit hours are actually quite a lot (who knew).

The winning category for this week is “writing process,” so I’m going to share some of my tips for tightening your line-by-line writing.

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Don’t “Start” to Do Something

Let’s think this one through–do you generally start to complete an action, or do you simply do it? Find phrases like “he started to run” and rework them to “he ran.”

Avoid Progressive Tenses

A progressive tense is something where, instead of saying “he ran,” you say, “he was running.” Progressive tenses have their place–obviously, they exist for a reason. However, they have a knack for weakening writing if used often and incorrectly. So find all of your “she was puking due to the annoyance caused by inappropriate progressive tense usage” and fix that right up to be “she puked.”

Progressive tenses are only appropriate when an action is in the process of completion at the point of its mention within a scene. This means that setting up actions that have already begun before a scene has, for example, is a good reason to use progressive tense. (Slipping into a series of progressive tense sentences in the middle of a scene for no apparent reason, however, is not.)

Don’t Be Passive

Passive voice is, arguably, one of the biggest and easiest errors writers make. (I say “arguably” instead of “definitely” because several of my friends adore passive voice and basically bite their thumbs at me whenever I complain about it.)

Passive voice occurs when you leave the noun committing the verb out of a sentence. For example: “She was hit.” This is lazy writing, because it doesn’t answer all the questions a sentence should:

1) What the action is

2) What/who completes the action

3) What/who the action affects

Instead, we only get 1 and 3. So, fix passive voice by adding 2 back into the equation: Who/what completes the action? With our example, it would become, “The marshmallow hit her.”

(If you can’t figure out if a phrase is passive or not, try to “by zombies” test. If you can add “by zombies” to the sentence and it makes sense, your phrase is passive. Like: “She was hit by zombies.”)

Avoid “There Are” Phrases

This one piggybacks itself on passive voice. There are/is/was/were/will be/etc. aren’t as obviously passive as full-out passive voice, but they also omit one of the three things each sentence needs: #1, an action. Fix this by eliminating the “there are” type phrase, then finding a way to make the sentence make sense without it (so basically: add a real verb).

Example of a “there are” phrase: There are books on the shelves.

Example of a fix: Books line the shelves.

Don’t Be Unnecessarily Wordy

If you can legitimately phrase something in either three words or one, always choose the one.

Let’s say you want to write a sentence about books on shelves, like the one in the previous example. (I’m oh so creative at 4:00 in the morning, huh?) You start with this wording: “Books rested all along the shelf.” While this works, it’s cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately more interesting to write it as, “Books lined the shelved.”

Avoid Redundancy

If you explain a plan of action right before completing it, the reader gets bored because s/he pretty much just read the same thing twice in a row. If you will complete an action within the text, don’t explain it ahead of time. Let the action explain itself as it occurs, instead.

Don’t Forget the Oxford COmma

The Oxford Comma is beautiful. It’s the most beautiful comma in the world. And for some crazy reason, a lot of people seem to think they don’t need to use it.

If you are one of these people: Stop. You are wrong. And no, you cannot win this argument against me.

Let’s take a look at an example of the power of Oxford commas, shall we?

Say Mr. Rich Guy Bob dies and he has four children: Billy; Bobby; Robby; Roberta. He wants to leave a fourth of his money to each of them. So, in his will he writes: “I leave twenty five percent, each, of my fortune to my children Billy, Bobby, Robby and Roberta.” Without that magical Oxford comma separating “Robby and Roberta,” they become one entity. Which means that, between them, they don’t both get 25%–they have to split 25%. However, include the Oxford comma, and everyone gets 25% each as they should.

Basically, use ’em or lose your inheritance.

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I could go on and on with tips for tightening prose, but I am hoping to still get a few hours of sleep tonight before Wednesday officially begins, so I’ll leave it there.

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Do you have any tips for strengthening your line-by-line writing? Mind sharing?

 

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday (“The Practice of Learning”)

Before today’s Wordy Wednesday (whoohoo, a writing process post, what what!), one last reminder that the super totally crazy awesome WriteOnCon is going on right now. (CHECK IT OUT HERE.) If you’re a writer, you don’t want to miss this. (Please note that all the posts and videos will still be available after the conference is over, so even if you do miss it, you still, you know… haven’t actually missed it.)

Oh, and I got a Twitter. In case you want to be cool and follow me or something. (I’ll probably more than likely follow you back, if it’s looking like one of my more technology-savvy days.)

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I haven’t talked about it much in public, but for a little over a month now, I’ve been doing a pretty intensive round of revisions on Cadence.

If you’ve been here for a while now, you probably know what Cadence is.

If you’re new (Welcome! I love you!), Cadence is a young adult spy novel that I’m currently querying. (And if you don’t know what “querying” means either, you lovely non-writer, I explain it here.)

IMG_1875This is my kitchen table covered in a chopped up list of the scenes in Cadence. It was this way for about a week. My parents were ready to put me up for adoption.

Why am I revising? That is something for me to know and you to maybe, someday find out–if we are all incredibly lucky and pray really hard and the Writing Industry Fairies smile down upon us. (That exact combination of factors. It can’t happen without that exact combination of factors.)

However, what I will tell you is this: Revising Cadence for the past month has taught me a ton about writing. Which seems crazy, because I just began the first draft a little over a year ago–and I just finished said first draft in January–so how much more could I have learned already?

It turns out, quite a lot.

Of course, it helps that since January, I’ve taken an intro to short story writing class through U of M, attended the Writer’s Digest Conference East, gone to a couple of writing workshops, and oh yeah–it’s WriteOnCon right now. Not to mention reading a more-than-obsessive number of blog posts and articles on craft and revising and all that awful fun stuff.

But truly? Most of what I’ve learned–or at least, most of what I’m taking into account while revising–is stuff I’ve taught myself.

Reading articles and taking classes based on other more experienced people’s observations on writing is great, but the real learning has been coming from the things I observe and take note of myself. Like how, while rereading Divergent by Veronica Roth, I found that one of the things that helps establish her rapid fire pace is her short, snappy sentence structure; and after sifting through some of my other favorite YA page-turners, I found the same thing. So I was able to go through Cadence and work on pacing by restructuring my sentences to make them shorter and therefore punchier.

Other lessons came from my own writing. My short story The Things I Leave Behind won the children’s/YA division of the 82nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. I wrote that story back in January for the U of M intro to short story writing class (just a week or so after I finished Cadence, actually) and ever since then, everyone who’s read it has adored it. None of the other short stories I wrote winter semester garnered anything like the reactions I’ve gotten to that first one.

So what makes The Things I Leave Behind–which was just another story to me while I was writing it–so special? I finally just sat down and read through it the other day, from the perspective of someone who’d done far too much analyzing during AP English, and I realized: it’s the back story. At any given point in time, there are at least three layers of narrative occurring, one over top of the other: (1) what’s happening in the present, (2) how the narrator is reacting to it, and (3) how the bits of personal history she reveals affect both 1 & 2.

It’s because the story has layers. It’s because a good piece of writing is like an onion.

Snapshot_20130814_7Do I get a thumbs up for a Shrek reference?

Not to say that The Things I Leave Behind is good, per say, because believe me–I don’t want to pat myself on the back. But obviously something about it is working, if it’s been so successful.

While the industry pros are always going on about how there shouldn’t be too much back story, I’ve learned, now, that having too little back story can also be a problem. It’s important to develop your world and the characters within it–and then to share that back story. Not only enough for the reader to be able to understand what’s happening on the surface level (1), but also enough to understand why the main character and their supporting cast are responding the way they are (2).

Both learning that writing shorter sentence increases pace (and often tension) and that back story can be used as a device to better allow the reader to connect with the story are important lessons–and they’re just two of the many that I’ve learned and applied to Cadence during the past month of revising. I’ve also learned that using descriptions rather than dialogue tags to identify a speaker can make a scene more immersive, saying things like “I realize” or “it occurs to me” are distancing, and there is such a thing as too little foreshadowing (because while some surprises are good, others just completely throw the reader for a loop).

Cadence is the fifth novel I’ve completed. I began writing it just a few months after finishing my fourth novel, and I can tell you without a trace of doubt that my first draft of Cadence was a hundred times better-written than the most recent (ergo, best) draft of Dreamcatcher. And now my most recent draft of Cadence–the one that I just finished my intensive revisions on, and is now making the rounds with my critique partners–is the strongest draft of a novel I’ve ever written period. By far.

Although I’ve been writing for longer than I can remember, I’m still learning. Every day I’m learning. I learn from going to conferences and workshops and reading articles with tips and guides, and I learn from reading my favorite books with a critical eye. I learn from talking to people, going out and doing things, and studying my own writing.

Even revising has become a learning process–every time I finish a draft, I know more about voice and structure and plot and sentence structure and character development than I did going in. I have a better idea of what I want the novel (or short story or whatever) to be. And I know more about who I want to be as a writer.

IMG_2021Me being a Super Cool Writer Person in Chicago last week–because the kind of writer I want to be is one who does proper research instead of blindly rambling about a subject.

Learning, just like anything else in the writing industry, and life in general, is a developing, changing practice. It’s something I’m beginning to embrace more, now, as I get older and realize how much I truly still have to learn. And it’s a great thing to look forward to–knowing that while the Writing Fairies might not smile down upon me in the near future, they have at least granted me the the gift of everything I’ve learned over the past month or so. And that, in itself, has been worth it.

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~Julia

The Trials and Tribulations of Waiting to Edit

This is what I look like whenever I realize I need to edit something:

 

… But you know what’s even worse than that? When I try to follow that oh-so-popular rule of waiting to edit after I’ve finished a first draft…

… for TWO. FREAKING. MONTHS.

It’s been less than a week since I finished writing the first draft of my current novel, Dreamcatcher, and already I’m dying to get the red pen out.

I swear I’m about to have a mental breakdown.

What do you think about waiting so long between drafts? Is it a good thing — because it allows you to better separate yourself from your work — or do you think it would be better to start right away so you know that all of your ideas are still fresh in your head? Let me know in the comments!

~Julia

Editing Tips

Originally I was going to do this as my Wordy Wednesday (1-18-12), but I’m up early and can’t think of anything else to write about, so:

Editing Tips.

I wrote the novel I’m currently editing during my freshman year of high school (it was actually a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program project, but that’s another story). I then did a base edit of the story during my sophomore year, decided it was perfect-beyond-perfect, and sent it out to a bunch of literary agents with a crappy query letter and no prior writing experience for my bio paragraph.

Needless to say, I got rejected by all of them.

Question: Why? Why was my perfect-beyond-perfect novel rejected without a single full manuscript request???

Answer: Because it wasn’t perfect. Because it was too long, poorly constructed, and riddled with typos and errors that were so glaring that I’m lucky a satellite didn’t fall on me in response (like, really lucky).

However, since my sophomore year publishing exploits, I’ve (thankfully) learned a lot more about Publishing and its very important little sister, Editing. 🙂

  1. Don’t edit while you write. I know, I know. It’s difficult. You want to go back and fix all of the grammar in that scene at the end of chapter two while you’re writing chapter five. DO NOT DO IT. Unless it’s something that’s extremely pertinent to the plot, like changing a character’s name or something, do not edit while still writing the first draft. Editing Mode and Writing Mode are two very different things and you can’t be in both of them at once.
  2. Write quickly, edit slowly. Whereas while you’re writing it’s good to get everything out as quickly as possible in order to maintain focus and not lose your inspiration, it’s good to let yourself take breaks and think things through while editing. It’s that whole “write for yourself, edit for the reader” thing. Don’t rush it.
  3. Let it sit. As I just said above, don’t rush it. Let your novel sit for a couple weeks, maybe even a couple months between drafts. While you don’t want to lose interest in your story, you also want to give it (and yourself) some breathing room.
  4. Get help from other people. If you ever find yourself thinking, “THIS IS HORRIBLE AND I’M NEVER GOING TO SHOW IT TO ANYBODY EVERRR BECAUSE IT’S AWFUL AND IT STINKS LIKE MEDIEVAL STREET SEWAGE AND I’M GOING TO DIEEE!” then it’s probably time for you to send a copy to your writing friends to critique for you. At one point or another, you’re going to get sick of your story and sick of your writing and just sick of yourself, and at that point you need to let your story go for a little while and let somebody else deal with it. When your writing friends send it back, you’ll have had the time and distance away from your novel you needed, along with a fresh insight into your story.
  5. Edit as many times as you can bear! Never be satisfied until you have no choice but to be. Don’t feel like you’re going to throw up if you read your novel ONE. MORE. TIME yet? Then you aren’t done editing! The only reason you should ever stop trying to improve your writing is because you can’t stand to do it anymore (and believe me, I’ve been there). You just need to keep pushing through, and bend until you break — you’ll thank yourself for it later.
  6. Be open to suggestions. Back to what I said about getting help from other people — they’ll offer you fresh insight into your story. Sometimes you’re not going to like that insight. Sometimes the change seems pointless, or stupid, or like it wrecks your story. But sometimes it saves it too, and you just have to be willing to listen to what your writing friends are telling you. (But if it’s something like, “Ehmmm, well, I don’t like that Harry ends up with Ginny instead of Hermione, so you should def change that, yeahhh!” then you probably shouldn’t take that advice. While listening to your readers is good, it’s also good to think on your own two feet. Don’t let somebody else change your plot because you don’t want to offend them or you think they’re a better writer than you or something. Don’t be a pushover, stand your ground. You’ll know if something’s worth fighting for.)
  7. Be okay with not being perfect. Face the facts: Your novel is never going to be perfect. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be good, it just means that you’re going to have to accept that there will always be mistakes and there’s nothing you can do about it. Try to make them the smallest, tiniest, most miniscule mistakes possible, obviously, but understand that you’re going to make them and you’re just going to have to suck it up and live with them.

Got any editing or writing tips of your own? Share them below! 🙂

T-minus 5 days to the Writer’s Digest Conference!

~Julia

(Heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho, now back to the world of editing I gooo…)