MYC: Wrap-up

This week’s MYC post is going to be a bit different because instead of focusing on an aspect of writing a novel, this week, we’re focusing on YOU!

So, THANK YOU for following along on our series, which addressed everything from finding a big idea for your story, to honing in on voice, to charging through that first draft, to tightening your manuscript and getting feedback. (Whew!) We had a blast putting this series together, but knowing that you were reading and commenting and pointing us to new resources really made MYC hum.

If you missed any of our posts, you can easily search all of our MYC entries using the search tools to the right. We tried to keep things roughly in the order that you might use them while you’re writing a novel, so just keep scrolling through. And if you can’t find what you’re looking for, let us know! We’d be happy to do some supplementary MYC posts down the road.

Questions about posts we’ve already written? Ask away in the comments. If you need a deeper dive, we’d love that, too!

And of course, MYC is not done because there is more to cover — now that you’ve come up with an idea, done your pre-writing, drafted and edited your novel and gotten feedback…what’s next?

After a short end-of-year break, MYC will be back in the New Year with posts on writing queries and (the dreaded!) synopses, along with advice about polishing your novel for agent submissions.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for MYC review posts, which will pop up on Wednesdays throughout the next couple of months.

Again, THANK YOU for checking in each Wednesday, for letting us know what you thought, and for sharing our MYC posts so widely. You ROCK!

MYC: Do You Need Feedback? Yes!

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 Writing with Your 5 Senses  This week, we’re discussing feedback.

Writing is a lonely business. We joke about our “co-workers” being animals and cups of coffee, and for the majority of the work, such as drafting and querying, that is true. But there comes a time when we need to get out of our pajamas and reach out to others. Critique partners and feedback are necessary parts of the writing life. Let’s face it, writing is hard, revising is hard, and rejections are heartbreaking. We can’t, and shouldn’t, bear those alone. Today three Pennies, Richelle, Halli, and Gita, are here to help.

Where Can We Find Critique Partners?

Richelle: A good CP who gets your work makes a huge difference. Conferences, online contests, and message boards are all great places to find them.

Halli: I found my first CP’s at an SCBWI conference and others through the SCBWI discussion groups. (See a pattern?) Some work, some don’t, but CP’s should offer the right amount of support and honesty for you and your writing.

Gita: Conferences are a good place to look—that’s where I found my first two, who have stuck with me through all sorts of stormy weather. Contests, too. In terms of qualities to look for, you need to have readers who will both call you out and cheer you on.

When Should We Seek Feedback?

Richelle: I usually get one or two people to read my first coherent draft. I may send a couple of chapters out for spot checks at any point during writing. I do another round once I’ve got it basically “done”. And I usually ask for a few volunteers to look at the first 3 chapters right before I query.

Halli: I wait until I have a pretty decent revised draft. When I have a good hold on where the characters are going and what they want to see out of their story. That way when feedback comes, I know if my vision is clear.

Gita:  I’ll ask for readers on a pre-draft query or synopsis, then a long synopsis outlining my story (15,000 words), followed by a few readers reading the first draft and, then, finally, I’ll ask for feedback on what I think of as the second-to-last draft. Phew! I’m lucky to have CPs who are willing to read twice. They are GOLD.

How Much Feedback Should We Get?

Richelle and Halli: For us, 3-5 trusted readers are the sweet spot for the whole manuscript. The list gets longer when you figure in those who might help with the first couple of chapters, a query, a tricky spot, or a specific issue about which they have expertise. We find too much feedback overwhelming, but we need enough to get a sense of what’s generally working and what’s not.

Gita: I like to do a few rounds of feedback at different stages of the drafting process. The number of people reading in each round may vary—sometimes it’s just one person, sometimes a few at once. Getting several responses at once can feel overwhelming, but it’s also useful, because if a few people say a certain character isn’t working, I’ll know I’ll have to deal with that!

When is it Okay to Ignore Feedback?

Richelle: I usually ignore comments that either really didn’t get what I was trying to do or that are the opposite of what other readers are saying. But even then, I mull them over. Sometimes they’ll spark something later on.

Halli: I group my critiques together and see what the majority says about a certain issue. If the majority understands (or doesn’t), I will put aside the random comment. But only after I make sure to look at the CP’s life experiences that may have influenced their comment.

Gita: I never ignore feedback. My reader took time to respond to my work and I will always ponder what they have to say. Sometimes a comment—especially one that’s proscriptive, telling me to do x—may not at first seem to be useful, but if I dig down to the “deep” comment below the “surface” comment, there’s often something there.

How Can You Survive Feedback?

Richelle: When I started out as a copywriter, I had a boss who marked up my work with red pen and labeled it “AWFUL!” or “BORING!!!” (with triple underlines and big, fat red circles). So I am pretty Teflon when it comes to criticism. That said, I prefer working with people who critique in a positive and cheerleading manner. If you struggle, try to remember that when people critique your work, they’re not saying you are bad, they’re saying that you have the power to make your work better.

Halli: This is one of the places you need thick skin. It’s hard not to take critiques personally because we’ve put so much energy into our stories and I have been known to scream, cry, and sulk after reading them. I do try to read the comments and take a step back. A day, two days, a week while I let my brain process the meaning. Then I dive back in.

Gita: Unless I know what to do right away, I print out the notes, write my responses in the margins, and then let the feedback sit for a week, or more if I have time. Everything looks more doable after a little time has passed.

What was the Best Feedback You Received?

Richelle: My two best moments of feedback came at at a workshop. An agent rebuked me for being too prescriptive in some feedback I was giving in a small group, which was a lightbulb moment for my own writing. Now I ask myself questions instead of dictating ideas, and it makes a huge difference in how I develop characters and plots. And another agent gave me the feedback gift of completely understanding and articulating what I was trying to do with my novel.

Halli: The best feedback came just recently from an agent’s first reader. It was glowing. All of it. She got me, my characters, and our story. It was a dream come true review.

Gita: This wasn’t feedback per se, but more of a meta-comment from my agent about dealing with her feedback. In a preface to her notes, she told me that her edits were not instructions, but suggestions—even if they didn’t sound that way. This is really important to remember.

What was the Worst Feedback You Received?

Richelle: I received some editor feedback last year on a pitch that was complimentary, but very vague. I had no idea what she wanted to see, and I’m not sure I succeeded in implementing it at all!

Halli: The hardest feedback I received was also one of the best writing lessons. “Your book starts in chapter three. Toss the rest.” I didn’t understand at first because it was the backstory that set up my character’s personality. You see where I’m going right? First chapter and backstory should not be in the same sentence.

Gita: I find structural changes—hey, move this chapter closer to the beginning—the hardest to implement, because even a “small” structural change like that can affect so much of the manuscript.

We hope this post helps you understand the good and bad of feedback. It’s a necessary evil, but one that will allow you to continue growing as a writer. For more information on finding critique partners, being one, and dealing with feedback, check out these Winged Pen posts: Finding Critique PartnersMore on Finding Critique Partners, The Seven Stages of Writerly Grief, and How to Give a Good Critique.

See you next week for our Master Your Craft post on Editing.

 

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Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses

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 Ten Steps to Tightening. This week, we’ll discuss Tasting Your Words: Writing with Your 5 Senses.

We are physical beings who experience life on this planet through our five senses. It’s true that our minds love to time-travel, pulling us out of the present moment, to worry about something we said in the past or to look forward to something about to happen in the future. Our characters, like us, do the same thing in their internal dialogue, which is good because it makes them real.

But the reader must also feel them living and breathing in the real world. Not only does this make your character more real, but it engages the reader by making them experience the same sensations. If your character smells burnt brownies or he chooses bubblegum mouthwash at the dentist, we don’t intellectually absorb that, we feel it with your character.

I struggle with this, too, because I don’t want my characters stuck in a sensory deprivation tank. I think it’s about feeling our way into our character’s body and environment, and not overthinking it. Some call it getting into the zone or entering a trance like a shaman writer. The physical experience of being on a subway is very different from the waiting room at the spa. The air, the light, the smells, the sounds and even the tastes are  different. But it’s even deeper than that, because the subway is different in the morning rush hour from late at night, and the zen spa is very different from the one at the mall.

The more mindful we are in our daily lives, the more we can bring that mindful experience to our writing. This means noticing how our bodies react to the physical world around us. Sometimes it’s easy to go for the standby descriptions, but if we tap into what we really, really feel, then our writing becomes  more authentic, and our readers will feel it.

Feeling Your Words
Instead of waking up with “bleary eyes,”  we can bring own unique experience of waking up tired. How do our eyes feel? Are they scratchy or is the skin around your eyes tight?

The next time something scares you, notice: what happens in your body? Instead of the usual “heart racing” and “shiver ran down spine,”  you can bring your own unique experience. Does your body clamp tight like a drawbridge? Does your hair prickle on the back of your neck or on your forearms? Does your heart pound, hammer, race, thud, pulse or beat in some other way?

Seeing Your Words
With visual descriptions, it’s about picking out the one or two things that stand out and are most important for us to understand the character or setting or whatever it is you’re describing. The reader can imagine the rest.

I loved Joanne Harris’s #TenTweetsAboutColour, in which she says, “In fiction, the objective is not so much to describe the color accurately, as to convey a feeling to the reader.” We can describe the  “blue sky” with any other synonym for blue, from azure to indigo to slate, but doing so is more clever than evocative. Instead, she suggests linking colors with a feeling or a sensation. She says: So: “ice-white” conveys something different to “milk-white,” or “bone-white,” or “moon-white,” or “ash-white.” Often even these color descriptions can become cliche, so we can add a feeling to the color like “blameless blue sky.”

And, of course, the same can be done with eyes. Instead of “piercing blue eyes” or “sparkling eyes,” try something different, depending on the feeling you’re trying to evoke. Are they “arctic blue eyes” or “forget-me-not blue” or “Hollywood-blue eyes”?

Hearing Your Words
This can also be applied to sound from a character’s voice to the sound of the wind through the trees. When you’re away from your desk, notice the timbre and tone of different voices, and if the sound of the wind is different blowing through the birch tree compared to the oak tree.

Smelling Your Words
Smell is our oldest sense. “Even a single cell animal has ways to detect the chemical composition of the environment,” according a researcher at Columbia University. Smell is such an evocative sense and brings the reader more quickly into your world than perhaps any other sense. You can describe a smell as acrid, sour, sharp, cloying, or you can evoke a feeling with it, like flowery, comforting, or repulsive.

Her skin smelled like chlorine from the pool.

The subway air was damp with the scent of humans, which neither their stringent deodorants or perfumed shampoos could hide.

Tasting Your Words
When I was a children’s yoga teacher, I would do a mindful eating exercise in which each child would get a raisin. They would observe it, smell it, touch it, listen to it as they shook it in their hand. They would share what they experienced through each of these senses. Then they put the raisin in their mouth, feeling it first before biting into it. I would ask them if they tasted anything? Where on the tongue do they taste it? Is it sweet? Grapey? Sour?  Do they chew it one side or both sides?  How long is it chewy for? Does the taste linger? You get the point. I don’t think we have to go into this much mindfulness every time we eat, but if we can bring a little noticing, it will enrich our writing! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

With that I give you all permission to go eat and smell and taste and hear and feel the world!

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Editing Tools.

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Tightening

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 Sentence, Paragraph, Chapter, and Story Length. This week, we’ll discuss Ten Steps to Tightening.

One of the important steps in the revision process is tightening. This is a multi-level, multi-step process, but oh so important to make your writing sparkle. This task is a bit tedious, so I normally save it for the end, just before sending it to betas.

1. Cut unnecessary words!

  • Eliminate as many of these as possible: very, really, just, back, up, quite, rather, start, begin
  • Eliminate “that” (but be careful with “that”––sometimes “that” makes a sentence much more readable). That phrases can be tightened. Example: The house that sat up on the big hill… becomes… The house up on the big hill…
  • Eliminate “of” when it follows all, off, outside
  • Check “up” and “down” when it follows a verb. Chances are you don’t need it. Example: Sat down at the table. Stood up.
  • So” and “such” are unnecessary: so tired, so lovely, such injustice, such beauty
  • Look at “but“. Sometime it’s a good conjunction and sometimes you can use it to start a sentence as an emphasis word. Often you can cut the “but” and write two separate, more powerful sentences. If you use “but” to start sentences often, it loses its punch.

To eliminate these unnecessary words, in your Word document, type the word in the Find function. Go through the entire document and delete as many as possible. Then move on to the next word.

I’ve found that after going through the exercise of doing this on several manuscripts, I’ve trained myself to use these words less often in more recent WIPs.

2. Cut unnecessary dialogue tags!

Said, answered, asked…

You can definitely do this, especially if you are paragraphing your dialogue appropriately so that it is clear who is saying what.

Example:

“Pass me that tomato,” Dad said as he grabbed the cutting board and a serrated knife.

“Pass me that tomato.” Dad grabbed the cutting board and a serrated knife.

3. Cut filtering verbs!

These include overused seeing verbs and thinking verbs: heard, saw, felt, knew, imagined, wondered, pondered, thought, understood, realized

For the sensing verbs, the sentence is normally stronger without the filter. Example: She heard the car door slam against the garage wall. Replace with: The car door slammed against the garage wall.

For the thinking verbs, just deliver the information or ask the question directly.

Examples:

She thought about all the people like her who had failed to finish college.

So many others like her had failed to finish college.

She wondered why she’d been successful when so many others had failed.

Why had she been successful when so many others had failed?

4. Question your adjectives! 

I’m not bashing adjectives here. They can stir emotions and visual images that are comforting and make the story come to life. But sometimes ,the description is excessive and takes you right out of the story.

Do you really need to say a “bright, warm, cloudless, sunshiny day”? I think not. Think about how your character would describe it and keep it simple.

5. Also question your adverbs!

We already got rid of “really” and “very”, but carefully scrutinize your -ly words to make sure they add value to each sentence. Sometimes an adverb is just a signal that you need a more precise verb and. Example:

She spread butter thickly on the toast and quickly put it in her mouth on the way out the door.

She loaded the toast with butter and stuffed it in her mouth on the way out the door.

6. Eliminate redundancies!

She nodded her head and shrugged her shoulders.

This can be simply be written as: She nodded and shrugged.

Another example:

Emily began eating her soggy bagel. Three boys ran into the cafeteria and started yelling, “Everyone, go outside. Now!”

“Began” and “started” are redundant. Skip them both.

Emily ate her soggy bagel. Three boys ran into cafeteria yelling, “Everyone, go outside. Now!”

7. Check for “was”! 

A high density of “was” in your writing normally signals that your sentence structure doesn’t have much flavor and is likely very passive. Often this means you aren’t using active verbs. Active verbs reduce wordiness and pulls your reader in.

Examples:

I was envious of your grade on that last test.

I envy your grade on that last test.

At the party, she was dressed like a fairy and had wings and a wand.

She wore fairy wings to the party and carried a wand.

We were at the party, but there were so many people we had to leave early.

We left the over-crowded party early. 

8. Check your fall back words! These are your words that you tend to overuse, often when you’re trying to convey what your character is feeling.

Only you know what these are for you. Mine are breathed, shrugged, nodded, heart raced…

Seeing the same reactions repeated over and over will make your story flat. Mix it up by finding new ways to express that your character feels relieved, frustrated, excited, or scared. One of the best resources that I’ve found for this is the Emotional Thesaurus. It’s filled with thousands of different emotional responses that will help set your story apart.

9. Check for “stuff” and “things” and make them specific!

There was so much stuff swirling in her head that she couldn’t think of the answers to the questions on the test.

The history facts swirled in her head, making it impossible to answer the test questions.

10. Eliminate unnecessary phrases!

I notice these when I look for “that” in my manuscript. Sometimes the that seems necessary in the sentence, but really you just need to get rid of the phrase accompanying it.

Example:

Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up examples that had nothing to do with the topic.

Maria became furious as Allison kept bringing up unrelated examples.

 

Additional Resources:

10 Overused Words in Writing

30 Filler Words You Can Cut Out of Your Writing

43 Words You Should Cut From Your Writing by Diana Urban

44 Overused Words and Phrases

 

We’d love to hear your suggestions for tightening in the comments! Come back next week to read our discussion about Using All Five Senses.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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MYC: Make Your Story Fit Your Reader

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 Creating Interesting Dialogue and Description. This week, we’ll discuss making sure the content and sentence, paragraph, chapter, and word count work for your reader.

As you are revising, one important step in the process is to make sure that you wrote a book that “fits” your reader. Below, I’ve attempted to attach some numbers as rough estimates based on my own browsing and research about books in these categories, but please, please, please do you own research too. The point of this post is to make sure you’re thinking about content and sentence, paragraph, chapter, and story length as you revise.

Chapter Book

These are for kindergarten through fourth grade. But, of course, that’s quite a spread in reading ability. Some chapter books are for beginning readers and others are transitionary, getting the reader ready for middle grade fiction. Often these books are about family relationships and friendship.

Beginning-level Chapter Books: In terms of vocabulary, they are similar to the level 3/4 books in the popular I Can Read leveled readers. The plot is normally simple and the sentences are short and uncomplicated. These early chapter books are typically published with a large font and are color-illustrated, often with a picture on every page. The art typically supports the texts, meaning it is important to the story because it shows things that don’t have to be described, much like a picture book.

Examples: Princess in Black series, Mercy Watson, Captain Awesome, Ivy and Bean, Heidi Heckelbeck, and Dragon Masters.

Sentence Length: Generally short (<10 words) with a few longer sentences.

Paragraph Length: Less than six sentences. Some are single sentence. Lots of white space. Normally less than 50 words.

Chapter Length: Some have no chapters, but typically less than 12 highly-illustrated pages (note: this is as-published, no how it will be in your document)

Story Length: Ranges typically from 1500-6000 words

Higher-level Chapter Books: As compared to the beginning readers, the vocabulary is broader. There is less repetition. The sentence structure becomes more complicated by adding phrases and more adjectives and adverbs. The plot may be more elaborate, maybe by adding mystery or leaving out details to let the reader figure out on his/her own. The concepts/details may require a higher level of thinking. Perhaps the biggest change of all is that the font is usually smaller and, though the illustrations are still there, they aren’t usually necessary for understanding the story. Illustrations are often done in black.

Examples:  Judy Moody, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, early Magic Tree House series (the Merlin Missions are for middle grade readers)

Sentence Length: Usually less than 20 words per sentence. There are still many short sentences in between longer sentences, and this structure is ideal even for adult works. More complicated in structure and word choices.

Paragraph Length: Slightly longer than the early chapter books, but still generally less than 75 words. Still more white space than middle grade.

Chapter Length: Some have no chapters, but typically less than 12 illustrated pages

Story Length: Typically from 4000-15,000 words

Middle Grade

Middle-grade stories are typically for ages 8 and up. They deal with more complicated concepts and sometimes cover sad and more mature topics than you will find in most chapter books, like divorce, death, bullying, and risky behaviors. These books often give children a wider window into the world by covering these topics and they also often include characters that have different cultures or ethnicities. Often books help readers explore their feelings about issues with friendships and family through story, and they are great tools in helping children understand empathy and community. Romance, if any, is usually limited to hand holding or a quick, nervous kiss. These books have few illustrations and they are often confined to the chapter heading.

Examples: When You Reach Me, The Journey of Edward Tulane, Fourteenth Goldfish, Karma Khullar’s Mustache, Wish

Sentence Length: Readers are capable of tackle long, complicated sentences, but using a variety of sentence lengths is still important. Vocabulary should reflect the types of words you would expect these readers to know or be able to figure out with context clues. Though helping the reader expand his/her vocabulary is a fine goal, be careful that there isn’t a high density of challenging words in your sentences.

Paragraph Length: Mostly two hundred words or less with a variety of paragraph lengths so that you don’t tire your reader.

Chapter Length: There’s really no rule here. A young reader is often more likely to tackle the next chapter if it is less than 10 pages, especially if he knows mom/dad will let him/her go a few minutes over lights-out time for reading. 🙂

High action scenes may require longer chapters, but if the chapter is clocking toward 20+ pages, you may want to find a way to break it up. Short chapters with choppy sentences are great for when you need to increase the tension in the story.

Particularly important for this age, leave small cliff hangers at your chapter endings when possible.

Story Length: Stories that don’t require a lot of world building are typically 20,000-50,000 words. Sci-fi and fantasy can be longer, but generally those should be less than 70,000 words.

Young Adult

Young adult stories are mostly for ages 13+. Profanity, sex (not erotic), drug and alcohol use are okay, but it’s not as acceptable for books with a younger protagonist (<15 years old). In young adult books, the parents tend to have a less important role in the protagonist’s life because they are more focused on friendships and non-familial relationships.

Great resource by agent and author Marie Lamba about what’s appropriate in MG vs. YA.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-key-differences-between-middle-grade-vs-young-adult

Examples:  Across the Universe, The Sun is Also a Star, I’ll Give You the Sun, The Hate You Give, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Sentence Length: These readers often have adult-like reading skills and can handle complex sentences and vocabulary.

Paragraph Length: Less than 200 words for most paragraphs. A variety of paragraph lengths is best.

Chapter Length: Less than 25 pages generally with mini-cliff hangers to keep the reader turning pages.

Story Length: Less than 90,000 words unless complex world building is necessary for the story. For sci-fi and fantasy, this can be longer. See Maria Lamba and the post in resources for more details.

Resources:

Word count: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html

Page count (funny): http://100scopenotes.com/2014/07/15/all-middle-grade-should-be-192-pages-no-exceptions/

Chapter length:

https://kidlit.com/2017/06/05/childrens-book-manuscript-chapter-length/

http://writersroadtrip.blogspot.com/2009/12/wrt-rules-of-road-chapter-length-and.html

https://writers.stackexchange.com/questions/41/what-is-a-normal-length-for-a-chapter

http://allwritefictionadvice.blogspot.com/2012/05/chapter-novel-lengths.html

An excellent resource for finding out the word count for your favorite books: http://www.arbookfind.com

Thanks for reading this week’s Master Your Craft post. Come back next week when we’ll discuss Tightening your manuscript!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, an Indie children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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