Newbie Mistake #1.79

Often when I finish a long work of fiction, I’ll spend some time working on short stuff, sort of like a brain cleanser while I research or cogitate on the details of the next big project. Early in my career, writing magazine stories also helped me obtain publishing credits for that I’m-the-real-deal paragraph in my query letter.

Contests are another great way to pump up that last query letter paragraph. I’ve tried many times to win the Highlights For Children contest. I’d brainstorm a list of ten ideas and write ten magazine stories, quickly. I’d work on the best ones and submit them to the contest. While I never won, I did end up with pieces I could submit to other children’s magazines. Some of those have been published.

So far, so good. But here’s where the mistake occurs:

In 2003, once again, I failed to win the Highlights contest. No biggie. I popped the piece into the mail again.

Magazine #1 said, no.
Magazine #2 said, no.
Magazine #3 said, maybe this should be a picture book?
Me: YAY!!!! I’ve written a picture book!!!! (I immediately popped it back into the mail.)
Book Editors #1-#6 said, NO!!!!

So I filed the manuscript and moved on to other things. No lesson learned. Yet.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book publisher looking for just the kind of story that’s been sitting in my file cabinet for the last decade. YAY!!! I rushed to the file, ready to submit my picture book.

But I hadn’t written a picture book, I’d written a magazine story. No wonder all those publishers said, no. Magazine stories have a few spot illustrations, but the description in the text provides most of the details. Picture book text leaves much more to the illustrator–and it needs a dose of magic to inspire reading over and over again. That kind magazine editor wasn’t telling me that I had a picture book manuscript, only that I had an idea that could be developed into a picture book.

The thing about me in 2003? I wasn’t fond of revision. I wanted to be published NOW, NOW, NOW!

Thus, Newbie Mistake #1.79: Not taking time to revise (always mistake #1, combined with not knowing the difference between two writing genres .7, plus rushing the process and sending stuff out too soon, .09).

I have now scrapped everything but the idea, and, wow, writing picture books is hard. Maybe that’s why I write short stuff–it makes me really excited to delve into something long again!

Revising… My house?!?

My apologies. I’ve been a particularly bad blogger these days. November passed with the writerly joy of revising my WIP. But in December, we started revising our house.

I always expect my housework to fall behind when I’m busy with a big writing task. Later, laundry! But I didn’t realize how much my writing life would be affected by remodeling. I knew there would be days of moving things in and out and back again–and I saved money by doing all the painting.

But it’s the waiting. Waiting for the guys to arrive to work. I like writerly waiting better because the cure for that is more writing! But I can’t count the number of days I never got into the shower because I was waiting for folks whose definition of “morning” is 3PM. Or not at all. If only contractors would honor deadlines like my writer friends… But I do have to say that the excuses I’ve heard for not showing up are pretty darn creative!

Anyway, the house revision is almost all wrapped up, and I will have my writerly routine back again. YAY!

Here’s a joke I sent to my 8th grade daughter. It’s a paint roller selfie. I’m always telling her that if I’d had to live in the selfie world of junior high no one would have ever seen my nose–for sure!

A belated happy 2014 to you all! 

Busy November!

Many Novembers have me chipping away at NaNoWriMo word count goals, but this month I’m polishing my latest story, one that I started two Novembers ago. You can read about all of my NaNoWriMo experiences over at YA Outside The Lines.

I will try to come up with some wonderful insights regarding the revision process–and blog about it soon–but right now I just want to finally finish this thing! So please forgive me for being a neglectful blogger.

Back to Chapter Thirty-Two, which is now Chapter Thirty-Five.

Info Dumping

Aah, chapter 40, now chapter 38, once 5 pages, now only half a page in-progress…

All through this story, I’ve been trying to squeeze in a particular subplot–not because it works organically with my story, but because it’s such a cool idea, and it makes me feel clever. So I’ve been adding lines here and there–lines that might as well be typed in red font because they flash like warning signs. Warning, warning–this doesn’t belong!

Did I delete those lines? No. I added more. I padded sentences and plot lines, building little nests around this subplot. Later in the story I dedicate two entire chapters to the subplot. I might as well run outside, yank down the stop sign on the corner and shove it into my manuscript.

What convinced me that I truly needed to abandon my ever-so-clever subplot? The huge info dump on pages 153-158. A minor character who only exists to service said subplot appears out of nowhere and says, “let me explain X to you.” And I let him talk for paragraphs. Oh, sure, I break up the dialogue with some lovely actions, etc. But I’m still doing an info dump–because the subplot simply doesn’t fit, naturally, organically, compellingly, or anything-ly into my story.

So today I’m finally deleting it. No more random lines here and there. No more minor character with no other purpose. Knock. Knock. I’m here to stop the flow of your story. No more extra chapters. And no more info dump!

Things that belong in stories have a way of weaving through the various plots with ease. Characters automatically want to talk about them, great action results from them, consequences flow easily from them… Watch those info dumps. Usually something more than poor writing is going on.

What I Learned in Cheryl Klein’s Workshop (An Incomplete List)

I took 27 pages of notes during Cheryl Klein’s plot workshop. Phew! All kinds of revision ideas popped into my head. Fix this! Do that! Don’t forget X. What about Y? I jotted down ideas all over my notes, all over my homework, and book map. Wow!

And then I took a week off. Cheryl set aside our notes and rest for about a week. Good advice. That allowed the solid revision ideas to settle into place while the more frantic ideas floated away. So I ate Thanksgiving turkey, played lots of card games with my daughters, read a whole bunch, visited relatives–and let revision ideas simmer in my subconscious. The following week, I made a list of seventeen things to work on during revision. Here a few things on my list:

#4 Giving my character more active choices to make.

One thing that really struck me while making my book map was that I don’t always let my main character make the big decisions. Too much simply happens to him–outside of his control. During the workshop, Cheryl talked about how active choices have consequences. And that sure makes for more interesting storytelling, doesn’t it?

#5 Cut Subplot X

#6 Axing that character who rarely interacts with my main character. He pops into the story–twice–to deliver BIG NEWS.

Cheryl talked about reworking storytelling situations that are unnecessarily difficult, asking “are there facts that you’ve created that don’t contribute to the plot? Or mechanical problems or issues that change the balance?” I have a character who rarely has access to my main character & that created huge mechanical problems for me. Too much unrealistic sneaking around just for a few bits of BIG NEWS. I also found myself pounding a particular subplot into my story like, um, devouring two desserts after eating second-helpings on Thanksgiving. Now I feel really good about simply leaving out that subplot. If only that would make my jeans fit better…

#12 Pinpoint main character’s Moment of Emotional Truth.

Cheryl asked us to think about key emotional transformation of our protagonist. I realized that I’ve been so busy working out the kinks in all the action in my story that I’d forgotten to stop and really emphasize the emotional change in my character, so that the reader will pause for an AHA moment.

#2 Rewrite chapter one.

I loved that first chapter–it’s so pretty and sounds so nice when I read it out loud. I pictured that scene the moment I committed myself to working on this idea. During Cheryl’s workshop, I realized that it doesn’t serve my overall story as well as it could. My well-honed first chapter actually flattens out some of the bigger themes explored later.

I really wrestled with making this change all during my week off. I skipped a writing day–just because I didn’t want to mess with that beginning. But then I gave myself permission just to try out a new beginning. I’m still working on Chapter One, but it’s so much stronger and much more effective. Even though it’s not pretty yet–or quite finished.

So I’m only on Revision Item #2, but I’m more excited about my WIP than ever. Much thanks to Cheryl Klein for her wonderful workshop!

This Week In Revision: The End

I’m done. I hit send & now the manuscript is with my agent. I thought about writing a post on what I do at the end of revisions–it involves list making and obsessive double-and-triple-checking. And, maybe, I’ll do that someday, but right now I’m still celebrating!

And that’s really my number one End of Revision Tip. Do something nice for yourself. I got a massage.

And then I hosted a cupcake party for my daughters. I’ve been pretty preoccupied for the past several weeks, sneaking away from home on the weekends to work on revisions. So that’s my second tip: do something nice for the people who’ve supported you (or is tolerated the better word?).

Celebrate your accomplishments–even the small stuff–finishing a draft, reaching a nice fat word count, a personal rejection letter… You work hard and deserve a treat!

This Week In Revision: Tapping Into Emotion

Last week I snuck off to a matinee with my husband, enjoyed a laughter-filled dinner with favorite writing pals, and two fun people joined our writing group. Our family went to ice cream day at the State Fair, I got the laundry done (even folded!), and for some miraculous reason my house stayed clean. And I still had long, uninterrupted writing time.

I’m happy.

So how was I going to deepen all the rejection, pain, and sorrow my character experiences in Chapter Sixteen? I sat in my sunny living room trying to channel despair. Yeah–not happening.

To the diaries! I’ve written in my journal almost every day since my early teen years. Sure, I’ve recorded a lot of boring, ordinary days, but when the tough stuff happens, the words flow and flow and flow.

So which volume to read? My sixteen-year-old self’s angst (my character is almost sixteen)? No, I went for recent rejection. Mostly because I knew I could find some deep pain in the pretty yellow journal with flowers and butterflies embossed on the front.

I sat on my front porch in the sunshine, my cat winding around my legs, sipping tea, and jotting down descriptions from a recent painful emotional episode in my life. Chapter Sixteen, here I come!

Writing always makes me feel better (I filled an entire two-hundred page journal during my daughter’s spine surgery). But it’s also a record, not just of events in my life, but of the emotional ups and downs. Reading about the fear I felt before college–will my life finally begin for real?–reads almost the same as the years I spent nurturing young children–will I ever feel like myself again?

Human emotion is fairly consistent. Rejection pretty much feels the same at sixteen as it does decades later (kind of a bummer, but true).

So that’s my revision tip this week–keep a journal. It’s never too late to start! Record your thoughts and emotions so you can tap into that deep stuff later–because sometimes life is as wonderful as eating four scoops of ice cream before dinner at the State Fair.

This Week In Revision: Characters With Baggage

Quick–what first comes to mind when you see:


Popular? Pretty? Mean? Dumb? 

Moody? Morose? Serious? Misunderstood? Deep? Poetic?


Popular? Hot body? Lucky with girls? Dumb? Jerk?
Smart? Unpopular? Ugly? Scrawny? Absolutely unlucky with girls?


Some characters come with a lot of baggage! 

I’m writing a story about a high school girl, so naturally some of these character types people my story. And some of them, unfortunately, read as stereotypes: flat, predictable, boring. This week, I’ve worked on unpacking their luggage and fluffing them up, so to speak.

So how do you transform a stereotype into a realistic character?

1. Avoid using labels. The instant you write short-hand descriptions of your characters–geek, jock, brain–your readers will fixate on the stereotype, not the unique details that (may) follow.

I made the mistake of labeling an Asian character as “good at math.” Right away the stereotype alarm buzzed in my agent’s head. The thing is: that character never does math in the novel; we never see her in math class. I’d written that as a lazy way to describe her ethnicity. So–

2. Choose unique details that give your character complexity. Give them contradictory qualities. I’m really organized–I make lists, file important papers, work efficiently, meet deadlines. But I have a super cluttered, super messy house. And my desk–yikes! 

Think about the kinds of things that are important to your characters. How does he/she see the world? Is your character a musical person? Maybe he notices sounds. Observe things from your character’s eyes (I often use this as an excuse to take a writing field trip). 

Use details that show the effect your characters have on the other characters in your story. Do people think your attractive, yet shy, character is stuck up? 

3. Create backstory for all of your characters. I’m good at thinking about my main character’s past experiences, but I often allow secondary characters to slip into my stories unprepared. That’s when I resort to labels and stereotypes. 

Stop and think about each character’s backstory. How do your characters know each other? What past experiences did they share? What expectations do they bring to their current relationships with each other? 

4. Think about each character’s motivation in each scene you write. Realistic characters have personal agendas–that usually conflict with another character’s plans. Stereotypes just want to hang out, win the big game, fluff their hair… While rewriting, give each character–even the dude moping in the background–a goal. Now let things get messy. And interesting!

If you’d like to read more writing tips from me (as well as other writers), check out Suzanne Morgan Williams’ blog: http://www.suzannemorganwilliams.com/suzanne_blog.html




Revision Report: Filling Holes

Flashbacks are great, right? Type a few snappy lines and voila–you can move ahead with your story.

Unless, you’ve used those snappy lines to avoid writing a key scene. I do this. In every single manuscript. Every single time I write a manuscript. Why? Key scenes are hard to write, especially when the characters brim with emotion, passion, and tension.
Sometimes writing those scenes makes me crabby.
Today I reached one of those unwritten key scenes. So, I put some towels in the dryer, soaked a few dishes, read a few blog entries, pulled chunks of hair off my shedding dog… And then I turned off the Internet, poured another cup of coffee, turned my music on loud, danced around a bit to Phoenix, pet the cat–and (finally) wrote my main character throwing a big, justifiable fit.
So why did I avoid this powerful scene in the first place? I wish I could say that I’m unfamiliar with the throwing of fits, but that, unfortunately, isn’t true. I think I simply wanted to move on to easier writing.
Key scenes are difficult: you have to dig deep into the character, often looking into the darker, tantrum-throwing parts of yourself. You’re balancing the right tone, character change, growth, opposition, creating and increasing tension… And I usually end up rewriting key scenes numerous times before I get them right.
So what’s my strategy?
1. Make a list of physical sensations your characters might experience.
2. Brainstorm the setting–are there items in the setting that will amp up the tension in the scene? If not, maybe this scene needs a better setting? (Mine did!)
3. Think of a time when you’ve experienced similar emotions. Free write all those emotions, things you said, wish you’d said. Play with a variety of metaphors. Try a few lines in your character’s voice. Don’t judge anything you write, just go and go and go. See if the best bits will fit into your story. If not, at least you’ve gotten to that tension-filled emotional place.
4. Make yourself sit and write. Forget the dishes, the dog, that email that just dinged. It doesn’t have to be a great scene right now. The important thing is to write something, anything…
Because there’s always revision!