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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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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MYC: Playing with Language

Master Your CraftWelcome 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 continued our series on revision with a look at first and last pages. This week, we’re diving into making your language shine.

After the long slog of drafting and re-drafting and revising and editing, it can be hard to remember what you even liked about your book in the first place. When I get to this stage, I like to take a pass at my manuscript that’s all about play.

This is one of my favorite rounds of editing, and it was born way back in the days before streaming television, when my husband bought me the DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three as a gift. I watched all the episodes, of course, but the DVDs were also great because of all the extras. (Did we have more time back then? Did I call in sick to work?)

Anyway, one of the DVD extras was an interview with one of the Buffy writers, Jane Espenson, who talked about writing and editing and workshopping and polishing a script until it gleamed. She’d hand it to the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, who would go through the script and take all the best lines and find a more unique way to say them.

She said she learned quickly to try to turn her dialogue on its head wherever she could.

That story has always stuck with me. Whether it’s because I too suffered under an uber-controlling, perfectionist boss who always knew better than me what word to use where, or because I just enjoy playing with language, but I’ve grown to love this editing pass on my novel, where I search out my time-worn and clichéd phrases and trade them out for something delightful and fresh.

Of course, you can be too delightfully fresh with your language. No one wants to read a book that is written so creatively you have to pause every sentence to figure out what the author means. So here are a few dos and don’ts for hacking away at your stale phrasing:

DO…look for the expected and see how you can change it up. Do you describe a sunrise as a symphony of pink and orange? See if you can tweak it a bit by trying something more like this:

Pinks and oranges played dueling themes across the lightening sky.

DO…take your character and their interests into account. Is your character into computer programming? Maybe she would describe a sunrise in those terms:

Bits and bytes of pink and orange arranged themselves into perfectly programmed layers.

Pro Tip: Writer Emery Lord keeps a vocabulary list for each of her major characters based on their interests, backgrounds and dialects. A reference like that would come in super handy for this pass.

DO…check in on your dialogue. Can you tell what character is speaking without dialogue tags?

See if you can give your characters their own distinct voices. If you open up any of the Harry Potter books and see that a character is saying, “Bloody hell!” you’d have a pretty good idea that Ron was speaking. Or, to borrow again from TV, Chandler Bing from Friends wouldn’t be the same without his trademark, “Could this sunrise be any more pink?”

DO…consider where your story takes place and where your characters are from. I have yet to hear my Oklahoma in-laws utter the word “car” – it’s always “vehicle” with every syllable distinctly pronounced.

Even sprinkling in a few region-specific words will give your readers a feel for the where of your story or character, which deepens the reading experience. Consider how a few of the people I know say “hello”:

From England: Howya?

From South Africa: Good Day!

 From Brooklyn: Hi, hi.

From Oklahoma: Howdy.

From Oregon: Heeeyyyyy…

DON’T…go overboard. This is an easy step to get carried away on, and that leads to passages that are overwritten and dialogue that sounds stilted or over-the-top. Your reader shouldn’t need a decoder ring to get the gist of your story. So if you find yourself editing your sunrise into purple prose like this:

The sky blushed as his lover the sun eased her way into the sky, draped in a negligée of glorious rose and peach…

…then you’ve gone too far! Step away from the keyboard and save your creativity for another story!

When I’m drafting, I’m so focused on telling the story that I need to just get words on the page. Too often, this leads to a few turns of phrase that are drier than stale toast. By adding in an editing pass specifically for playing with my language, it not only helps me polish my work, it also helps me recapture the fun and joy of creating a new world with words.

We hope you’ll come back next for next Wednesday’s MYC post to learn about Chapter and Sentence Length.

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.