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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Need Stronger Backstory for Your Characters? The Emotional Wound Thesaurus to the rescue!

Bookcover for The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Psychological TraumaAt The Winged Pen, we’ve written about Angela Ackerman’s and Becca Puglisi’s wonderful writing books before. So we’re super excited to tell you about their newest one:

The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma.

Yay!!!!! *shoots off rockets*

A wound, in the writing world, is the hurt the main character carries around that keeps him or her holding onto a lie.

A few examples of wounds from The Emotional Wound Thesaurus:

  • Being Bullied
  • A Speech Impediment
  • Failing to Do the Right Thing
  • Witnessing Violence at a Young Age

A lie can be anything that the character uses to protect that wound from getting bumped again. The same lie keeps the character from moving forward and achieving his or her goal.

Replacing the lie with a healthier truth gives the character partial healing. Transformed, he or she can win the battle or the soulmate, seize the prize, or lead the team to victory.

Where do authors find the lies for their characters to confront? Like all other aspects of story, lies are all around us. Unfortunately, the flaws in our characters (and in our own character) that are perfectly visible to everyone else—friends, enemies, readers—are flickering, distorted images for us. Critique partners, editors, and beta readers can help us bring them into focus.

The title of my work-in-progress, THE WOUNDED BOOK, feels a little ironic to me today, because the long process of working on it has wounded me and healed me by turns. This is the mysterious alchemy of writing: we write what we know and sometimes healing our character’s wounds helps us heal our own.

For example, J.K. Rowling’s dementors in her Harry Potter books are a terrifyingly realistic metaphor for depression. I don’t presume to know what personal connection they may have had for her, but, as a reader, I recognized them immediately. In this video of her visit to the apartment where she first wrote Harry Potter’s story, she talks about how hard writing was.

Her belief in Harry’s story carried her through and presumably changed her life as much as Harry’s story changed millions of readers.

Writing believable characters is challenging, but worthwhile. It’s the inverse of reading a book that tells a truth you always suspected, but could never articulate.

I’m looking forward to “shopping” a little in The Emotional Wound Thesaurus. I may finally diagnose my main character’s wound in a way that transforms her into the person I always meant her to be: a girl who encourages and challenges middle grade readers to become the truest versions of themselves!

Happy Writing!

Bonus: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus promises to be extra useful for creating characters when used with the well-loved Reverse Backstory Tool (from The Negative Trait Thesaurus.) It’s my absolute favorite for building strong characters.

More Bonuses: The Emotional Wound Thesaurus includes the new Backstory Wound Profile and the new Character Arc Progression Tool. You can download them free on Angela and Becca’s Tools for Writers page. There’s also a #writerspersevere giveaway in honor of the new thesaurus!

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. Find her on Twitter or on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale!

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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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Four on 400 October 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.

Camp Chrysalis (Middle Grade)

Baby carrots ruined Owen Fortner’s life.

Owen stood, braced against the door of the boys’ bathroom next to the kindergarten classroom. His safe haven during lunch for the last two weeks, it was about as far away from both his fifth-grade classroom and the lunch room as he could get. Only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.

Owen relaxed his mind, pushing his thoughts to his twin sister, Allie. They’d been able to talk to each other mentally since they learned to speak. They found me. I’m in the bathroom over by the kindergarten, and I won’t be able to hold them off for long.

His sister’s voice was only a mumble in his mind until Owen focused on it.

…help. Just hold them off for as long as you can.

He’d only redirected his concentration for a moment, but it was enough that his sneakers slid on the hard tile floor.

The door opened a few inches before Owen could stop it. Sensing weakness like the ruthless predators they were, Jerry and Chris gave a coordinated effort and slid through.

Although fellow fifth-graders, Chris and Jerry stood much taller than Owen. Of course, Owen reflected, so did everyone else, including his twin sister. Chris’s lips curled back, revealing teeth too big for his mouth and the gap where a canine tooth should be—and was, two weeks ago…before The Baby Carrot Incident.

“Got you,” Chris snarled.

Owen backed up against the side of the bathroom stalls, thinking a swirly wouldn’t be so bad. No… he’d much prefer a swirly to getting punched hard enough to lose a tooth. Chris had been preaching “a tooth for a tooth” for the last two weeks. Jerry leaned against the closed door, making it difficult for anyone to interrupt them.

Owen circled in front of the sinks, hoping he could make it back around to the door and possibly escape.

All this because of baby carrots… Those stupid little orange vegetables his mother stuffed into his lunch two weeks ago. If only the small bag hadn’t been so darn hard to open. If only the carrots hadn’t exploded out of the package. If only they hadn’t landed on the floor just as Chris stepped, and made him slip, hit the table, and knock out his tooth.

Halli: Thank you for sharing! The first sentence definitely hooked me! As did the overall theme. The pacing is great and I loved the paragraph describing Chris and keeping up the mystery of the baby carrot incident. I have two tiny comments to mention. First, the part about Owen talking to his sister pulled me out of the immediate action and danger. If it is crucial to the first few pages and first chapter, I would recommend moving it a little farther down. Second, I had a hard time grounding myself in the first full paragraph. I think because there is a lot happening – the actions of the boys as well as three different locations. Overall, great job! Good luck.

Julie: I agree with Halli–great first line! And I actually like getting the twins’ telepathy onto the first page, but think it could be integrated a little bit more into the action so that it doesn’t pull us out of the narrative. Could you cut the lines about relaxing his mind and talking mentally and just have him think “I’m in the boy’s bathroom. Need help fast” and then let Ally respond. Kids will pick up on what you’re talking about without disrupting the tension of the door slowly working its way open. I think the “Although fellow fifth-graders” paragraph could be cut or condensed too. Stick to the immediate danger Owen is in, and the actions he takes to protect himself, and I think this will be a winning opening.

Richelle: I’m with Halli and Julie — great first line and very fun, fast-paced opening. That promise of the first line is dulled a bit with the next few paragraphs. I struggled a little with that first full paragraph. Try shorter sentences, maybe? And I don’t think you need to specify there where he is since he tells his twin in the next paragraph. Really think about what we absolutely must know to get through the rest of the scene and get rid of the rest — the curiosity of baby carrots, telepathy and the “tooth for a tooth” bullies will keep kids reading! And I’m with Julie — I don’t think we need to understand any of the history of Owen communicating with Allie. You can just have them do it urgently in that moment, and then explain it later when you give your readers a “take a breath” moment. Thanks for sharing!

Karin: Nice job! You throw us immediately into a tense scene that has us asking: will Owen escape? I think the last sentence in paragraph two is a little confusing as he’s bracing against the door but this is safe haven away from the two boys. “Figures that only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry had found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.(you don’t need to tell this as the action shows it.)” And “relaxed his mind” is awkward, and in fact I would cut that whole sentence. Then shorten the rest. “He needed his sister. They could talk to each other mentally ever since they could speak. Allie, they found me…” I love “swirly” and “tooth for a tooth”! This sounds like a fun adventure! Good luck going forward!

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