MYC: Editing the Big Picture

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we talked about the importance of Writing with EmotionThis week, we’re stepping back and looking at the Big Picture.

One thing this MYC series has taught me over the last few weeks is that there is no one way to write a book. Each of us Pennies has our own individual approach to getting the words on the page and then making those words sing once they’re there.

My revision process consists of several passes through the manuscript, each time looking for different things I need to fix. And one of my first passes involves looking at the Big Picture.

Usually, this involves reading through the entire novel making notes about each chapter, how the tension is building, how the plot unfolds, where it drags, and how the characters’ emotional journeys are playing out — your basic quick-read, impressionist take on the overall story.

I’ve used a few different methods to tackle this pass. Once I printed my manuscript and put it in a three-ring binder, using tabs to mark the chapter breaks (Ooooh, the office supplies I bought!). I made notes right there on the manuscript itself.

Other times, I have read onscreen while taking notes in a special notebook purchased just for that novel. And with my current WIP, I’m saving trees by using the note feature in Scrivener.

Once I’ve got my Big Picture sense of what’s working – and what’s not – about my first draft, the fun starts.

So what are some of the things I look for during the Big Picture editing phase?

  • The first thing I usually notice is when scenes or chapters are in the wrong place. As I read through my current WIP, it was clear to me that a conversation that happened midway through the book really needed to come earlier – too much of the later action stemmed from that conversation. And I don’t think I’ve ever written anything where I started drafting from the exact right place. This time I found my opening about four chapters in.
  • Reading through after a good break is a great way to see plot holes that I swear were not there when I drafted. For me, since I write short drafts, it’s usually a matter of having skimmed over a key scene or difficult conversation. By coming at it with fresh eyes and reading all at once, I usually catch those spots.
  • I often have spots in a first draft where I make a note to myself: “Fight scene TK” or “Double check this character’s last name”. The Big Picture round of edits is a great time to fill in those blanks and confirm the facts I didn’t want to stop my flow to look up in drafting stage.
  • I also use my Big Picture read to find errors in continuity. That time I accidentally changed a character’s name for a chapter? A scene that started at the coffee shop but ended at the beach with no transportation  or acknowledgement of a change of venue? Or that backstory detail I dropped in chapter one and then never referred to again? These are easy fixes that make a huge difference in readability.
  • The Big Picture edit is a great time to spot pacing problems. Are there a couple of chapters where nothing seems to happen? Maybe it’s time to condense those events into one concise scene. Or does my emotional climax feel rushed? Time to give that pivotal scene all the love it needs. (And if you have more questions on pacing, check out our previous MYC post!)
  • One of the biggest things I look for in my Big Picture Edit is the emotional progression of my characters. Are the main characters changed at the end? Did that change happen in an organic way, or is it forced? Do their feelings evolve in a way that is understandable? I want my characters and their emotional journey to drive the story forward, so I pay close attention to this at every stage of revision. (And if you’re looking for more nitty gritty information on writing emotion, see last week’s MYC post.)

Each of these areas will likely get another pass later in my editing process — there’s always room to refine them! But my Big Picture Edit is essential for me to really understand the story I am trying to tell and how I can best tell it.

However and whenever you take a look at the Big Picture, try to enjoy it! After all, you’ve completed a manuscript! And now you get the fun of shining it until it sparkles!

Now that the Big Picture is taken care of, it’s time for some fine-tuning. Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at perfecting dialogue!

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Four on 400 August Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

 

No More Magical

Chapter One

If magical was like milk and went sour after the date on the carton, then Gracie Emily Everett’s had expired. Her magical world disappeared the day her daddy did. Her heart didn’t sparkle anymore; it was as dull and flat as a mud pie.

“When you see something ordinary transform into something extraordinary before your very eyes, pay attention, Gracie,” her daddy always told her. Like a spider web with which-way patterns that shimmer in the sun, she thought. Magical was how you saw the world. Or maybe it was how the world saw you. Either way, it was gone and she certainly wasn’t looking for it.

She stirred her cereal and watched the flecks of sour milk cling to the Cheerios. “Gracie,” her mom yelled, “don’t forget to feed Wilbur and water the geraniums. Walk to the library, young lady. No bike riding.”

“Don’t worry,” Gracie yelled back, pouring her breakfast into the sink holding her nose. “I know the drill!” Doesn’t mean I’ll follow it.

They bumped in the hallway, her mom fumbling with her phone. “We’ll do something fun later, I promise.” Reaching out to kiss Gracie, she dropped her phone, her kiss disappearing into thin air.

“Sure, Mom.” Gracie stomped back to the kitchen. Lately, it was always the same. Same reminders. Same promises. Trying to balance without tumbling over, she squatted like her mom’s Yoga pose and poured kibbles into the MEOW dish. Wilbur rubbed her legs with his velvety fur. At least Wilbur loves me, she thought, groaning as she stood. These library books are heavy.

“Got to go!” Gracie rushed through the living room. “Time for Book Club!” The screen door slapped her backpack as she scrambled down the front steps. Wilbur snuck out with her, scampering off into the woods.

“Be careful!” Mom shouted out the door.

Daddy’s bicycle helmet hung from the rusty nail on the garage. Gracie pounded past as hard as she could, hoping her heart wouldn’t notice, but her breath caught like tangled twigs and gave her away. Oh, snark, don’t cry now, she thought. She scooted around the ruts and rocks on her gravel driveway, focused on one thing. Her bike. She knew she’d never make it to the library on time, even with her running skills. “You can do this,” Gracie told herself. At the end of the driveway, she whirled around. The coast was clear.

Halli: Thank you for sharing! Let me say how much I love the opening paragraphs. They are so full of voice and wonder and sadness, with just enough setting detail for me to get a basic visual without overshadowing Grace. It reminds me of SAVVY by Ingrid Law. I have two additional comments about this piece. First, in the sentence starting with Reaching out to kiss Gracie, she dropped her phone… I know what you are trying to say but I stumbled over it. This is such a powerful revelation, I would hate for it not to have its desired impact. Second, I am not sure what the problem is with her bike. Why is she forbidden to ride it? Did something happen? It seems significant so I’d like just a tiny teaser. Thanks again. Good luck!

Gita: I loved the beginning of this story! Your writing is lovely and immediately compelling—magic being lost is something that will definitely keep me reading. You’ve got a lot going on in the beginning—as you should!—so I’d encourage you to slow down a bit and take your time. This doesn’t mean to let go of the tension around your protagonist’s scattered mother and the missing father, but to consider how to balance the urgency of the different things you want to tell us. Specifically, if your MC is dealing with issues around her parents, I’m not sure that additional tension around getting to book group on time is necessary. It feels like too much, too early. I see that it provides a reason for her to have to take her bike—but it also may direct the reader away from the other concerns already in play. I think you may need to choose what you want to show right up front and what you can hold off on until a little bit later. Thanks for sharing this with us! Happy writing!

Karin: Your writing is strong and vivid and immediately pulled me in! I just have a few comments. In your first paragraph you introduce several metaphors. In the last sentence, you say her heart is “dull and flat as a mud pie” –even though this has a nice rhythm, I think it would be stronger if you tied it to the sour milk metaphor and said something like “Her heart didn’t sparkle anymore; it had curdled the day Dad….”  I am sorry but when I hear the name Wilbur I immediately think of Charlotte’s Web. Finally, I didn’t understand why Gracie’s mom didn’t want her to bike to her book club. At first I thought it was because it wasn’t ladylike, but then when Gracie sees her dad’s bike helmet, I wondered if it was because he had been hit by car. Great beginning! Good luck!

Kristi: I too was really taken in with so much of this! I’m a big voice person and I love a good metaphor so I really fell for this! I have to say the Wilbur thing also took me out of the story. I think it’ll work if we know Gracie loves the book or her dad read it to her over and over–something that gives it a reason to be there. Also, when her mom didn’t want her to ride the bike I actually thought this might be set in the 50’s or something, then you mention her Mom’s phone and I was jolted back to the present. I’d also be sure there is a reason for this– or at least hint at it. Does it remind her Mom of Dad or is it how Dad disappeared? The other thing was while I loved the metaphorical reference to sour milk, when Gracie really had sour milk in her bowl it struck me as too much. I know Karin commented above that she wanted a reference to it again at the end of the paragraph and I can see that working, but as long as it’s all metaphorical, not real. I don’t know why it seemed overkill for me. I wish you all the best with this! I want to read more!

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Pixar, CREATIVITY, INC., and Learning How to Fail

Failure is not a word I would associate with Pixar.

Over the last couple of decades, the animation pioneer has created some of my family’s favorite movies, including Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Not a bad track record!

But when I read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar (with Amy Wallace), failure was one of the recurring themes.

Catmull says early on that wrote the book to reflect on Pixar’s success and offer a blueprint for business administrators who manage teams of creative professionals on how to maintain a successful creative company over the long haul.

But I found the book to be so much more than another entry in the business self-help genre. Instead, it was a fascinating peek into a visionary company that put story, creativity and excellence at the center of everything they do…which is what I aspire to do every time I sit down to write.

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.”

Catmull believes that one of the things that dooms creative companies (and by extension, creative people) is refusing to risk failure. He spends an entire chapter — and a significant portion of the book — talking about the various failures he and his company faced as they reinvented animation for the computer age.

And even though I’m not an animator, it all really resonated with me. Because in my work as a copywriter and in my second life as a fiction writer, I have found that my very best work walks hand in hand with failure.

When I started out writing, I didn’t feel the same way – at all! I vigorously avoided anything that might lead to failure. I tried to keep plots simple, thinking that being too ambitious was a sure road to failure. I relied on tropes because they had led to success for so many other writers – and success was something I wanted.

Fear of failure can be incredibly debilitating. I know writers who have honed and polished their work for years, never querying for fear that they will be rejected. I know writers who send a few queries, get a few rejections, and abandon their project because they don’t want to know that the project of their heart has failed. And I know writers who refuse to budge from the plans they’ve laid out for their work or their career because they think to do so would mean they have failed.

At one time or another, I’ve been those writers, too.

But over the years I’ve learned that when I try an idea that seems too bold, too big for me to handle — when I risk trying something that might fail — I usually end up creating something more interesting than I ever thought possible.

“While planning is very important…there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

For me, one of the scariest things about taking a creative leap is the fear that I might not be able to pull it off, that I might fail.

As writers, we can’t control how our readers respond. Or whether an agent will resonate with our work. Or whether a publisher will choose to add it to their list.

Even once we get agents and publishing contracts and sales, our control is minimal, and failure is inevitable. How we respond can make all the difference between getting stuck and moving on.

In essence, I think welcoming failure into your writing is a letting go of control. And most of us writers – I’d argue most of us people! – don’t enjoy not being in control.

In CREATIVITY, INC. Catmull has a few suggestions on how to deal with the failure and loss of control that are inherent to the creative process:

  • Embrace it. Once you can start to see failure as part of the gig, you’ll have an easier time moving past those moments when you inevitably fail to meet your goals.
  • Share it. Get feedback at every stage of your work. As Catmull says, “I do not believe creative products should be developed in a vacuum.”  And having support on your journey can make those failure moments sting a lot less.
  • Realize that failure helps you. The bolder and fiercer your work, the closer you walk to failure. If you’re failing, it means you’re pushing yourself.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid of failure. It’s there to help you become the best writer you can be.

And if you’re interested in Pixar, animation, or how the creative process works and is nurtured at one of the most enduringly creative and successful companies in the country, definitely check out CREATIVITY, INC.

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: Letting it Sit

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we looked at two Pennies’ thoughts on revising while drafting. This week, we’re talking about the very first step in revising your novel: letting it sit.

Congratulations! You’ve written the first draft of your novel! Yay you!

Now what?

You might have noticed that we actually had very few posts on drafting compared to pre-writing. That’s because at the end of the day, drafting is about putting your bum in the chair (or your feet on the treadmill at your standing desk) and doing the work.

Once you complete a draft, you are on the long (and for a lot of writers the very fun!) road to revision. And we’ve got a LOT of tips and tricks lined up to help you walk that road.

But there’s one crucial step I always take between drafting and revising: letting my novel sit.

It’s amazing what happens when I come at something I’ve written with fresh eyes. Typos I’ve been glossing over for weeks suddenly jump off the page. That place where I accidently switched my MC’s best friend’s name for three chapters is easier to see. Plot holes? Oh yeah, there they are.

I think most authors have their own time period for letting something sit. I need at least a month away from a project that’s in-process, and I’ve even taken a year between drafting and revising when I got busy with another project. Other writers might only need a week. (Writers under contract may not have the luxury of much “letting it sit” time, but even a couple of days out of your story world can help!)

With my current WIP, I gave it a month. During that time, I worked on pre-writing for my Shiny New Idea, wrote more for the Winged Pen, and wrote a picture book for fun. All that playing flexed my writing muscles and refreshed my creative juices so that when I sat down to start revising, I was immediately engaged.

And because I’d taken the time away, I saw so much better what needed to happen with my draft this time around.

I know it can be hard to wait, especially on a story we’re so excited about. But there are a lot of benefits to resting a project:

  • Better problem-solving. Problems always crop up as you’re drafting something. You know this needs to happen to move the characters from Point A to Point B, but how to make this seem natural? Your MC needs a reason to change a lifetime of behavior and finally go after what she wants…but how can you make that reason seems organic? Trying to figure that stuff out can sometimes seem impossible. But when you step away for a week, often the solution becomes completely clear.
  • Better voice. Outsiders can often hear regional dialects much more clearly than locals do, and the same is true for the language of your novel. Stepping out of your characters’ world can help you “hear” how they speak and notice the unique way they see the world even better.
  • Better plotting. It took me stepping away from my WIP to see that an important scene I had placed in the second half of the novel needed to be right up front. Without time away, it’s so easy to get attached to the way we have things happening that we can’t see how to make things better for the reader.
  • Easier editing. Your darlings become a lot less darling when you haven’t looked at them in a month. Which makes it a lot easier to kill them when needed.
  • Perspective. Things that seem brilliant in the moment — from too-similar character names, to that flashback that seemed so crucial when I wrote it, to the same old coffee shop setting that ends up in every book I write — can be seen in a new light when I let it sit.

In essence, time away lets us come at our own work more like the reader will – with fewer preconceptions and less investment in our favorite lines or characters. It gives us the chance to prove to ourselves that our story works, which in the end makes it easier for us to prove it to other readers.

Of course, there is a drawback to letting it sit: Procrastination!

If you find yourself making more and more excuses for why you’re not quite ready to pick that story back up – and those excuses are sounding less legitimate every day – then “letting it sit” time is over. It’s time to open that file back up and get to work!

But despite the risk of procrastination, I am a firm believer in “letting it sit” time. Like a farmer lets a field lie fallow for a season in order to replenish the soil, letting your novel rest can result in a more robust story later on.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at tension and pacing!

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: Two Opinions on Revising While Drafting

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we looked at the saggy middle. Today we’re tackling a somewhat controversial subject: revising while drafting.

Two of our Pennies sat down and discussed their different approaches to revising your manuscript while you’re still drafting it.

Richelle: When I say I revise while drafting, I don’t mean major revisions. Those I save for after I type “THE END”. But in an effort to ease myself back into my story world, I’ll often read over what I wrote before and do minor edits/cleanup on that section. I look for typos first and foremost, but also ways to make it voicier or fix pacing issues. I usually pace too quickly and have to find ways to slow down, which means I’ll sometimes expand setting or beef up emotional arcs. This usually takes up the first 10-15 minutes of my writing time, and after that, I dive into writing new. In essence, it’s like the warm-up song in spin class! Once I get my brain and fingers moving and coordinated, then I can get to the main workout.

I’m not alone in doing this! I’ve seen other writers talk about doing a light edit as a way to ease into their drafting sessions. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially to newer writers. The temptation to polish and perfect is strong and can easily keep you from moving forward, particularly if you’re in a stuck spot. Plus, chances are you’ll end up throwing out at least some of your first draft, and having to throw out a scene you spent hours on hurts a lot more than one you only spent fifteen minutes scouring for typos and inconsistencies.

I do have one major exception to my don’t-make-big-revisions-while-drafting rule. Despite my best efforts to pre-plan and hash things out before I draft, more than once I’ve realized halfway through a manuscript that I’ve gone wrong somewhere. If it doesn’t change the entire plot, I can make a big note for myself (REMEMBER TO FIX FIRST HALF TO SAY HER DAD’S ACTUALLY ALIVE!). But if my wrong turn sends me off a cliff, I may have to go back and do a big revision before I can move on. That actually happened to me recently when I realized 30K into my WIP that I was writing the wrong story…UGH! That was painful! But in that case, I had to go back and work through the first half of the story so I could write the second half.

Julie: Although, like Richelle, I sometimes read over the previous scene as a warm-up for my next writing session, I am fairly militant about not revising while I write. I am a fast-drafter (often drafting during NaNoWriMo and CampNaNo because I love the rigor of the daily word count goal), so it doesn’t take much tinkering with what I’ve already written before I’m way behind on my goal. And my inner editor is brutal, so I need to keep her silent or I might never finish a story. This latest work-in-progress was particularly hard to draft because I’d just finished revising for the first time ever with my agent, so of course my finished manuscript was highly polished after rounds and rounds of beta reads and lots of great agent feedback. That made completing the draft, no matter how rough, an important emotional milestone for me too. Because the doubt demons were hard at work telling me that this piece of junk first draft was never going to measure up to my previous project.

So unlike Richelle, even if I make a major change to the story while I’m drafting, I don’t go back. Here’s an example. I fast-drafted my next project, a middle grade adventure, this past April and realized the last week of the month that I had missed an opportunity for a mystery element to the story that would tie in really well with the main character’s arc. I was 32,000 words in to a 38,000 word draft when I realized this and the change not only required a bunch of tinkering with little things, but a whole series of new really fun mystery/problem-solving scenes that didn’t exist in the draft I had nearly finished. I literally jotted the new mystery subplot down in my Messy Synopsis document and kept writing the final 6,000 words just like I’d already made the change. That allowed me to get to the end of the month/end of the story, and reach my goal without being sidetracked by what will be a lengthy revision. Since I typically spend about six months doing the prewriting exercises for a book, I was surprised that this fun subplot didn’t occur to me until I was writing. But hey, plot twists happen in real life too.

One technique that has worked really well for me as I fast-draft is a revision spreadsheet. My brain is constantly trying to sabotage me brainstorm new totally fabulous plot bunnies, and having a place to jot them down gets them off my mind so that I can focus on the task at hand–writing the draft. The great thing about this is that when I get to the end of the draft, I already know what I’m going to work on for my first pass revision. I group the items on the list by theme and sort them by size so that when I do start revising, I can tackle some easy fixes first until I get into the flow. Does it sound like I play a lot of mind games with myself while I write? Because I totally do.

The Bottom Line: Both Pennies agree that whichever way you choose to move through your first draft, make sure that you keep moving forward. After all, the most polished half a novel in the world is still only half a novel.

Tune in next week when we start to look at the long, exciting process of revising your novel!