Last week I spoke at Two Rivers High School’s Career Day, presenting with writer friend, Wendy Toliver, about being an author. When I was a teenager I thought writers needed to be as troubled as Hemingway, possess grammatical super powers, or have something… something I certainly didn’t have.
“Hey, girl,” the new receptionist at the salon greeted me as I pulled my wallet out to pay for my haircut. “You look great, girl,” she said as I handed her my credit card. “Can I help you with any product, girl?”
I almost wanted her to call me “ma’am.” I am old enough to be her mother–without having made poor choices in high school, or even college. And the term “girl” reminds me too much of all the terrible jobs I worked after being a college “woman” for four years.
One of the stylists walked behind the front desk and the receptionist immediately said, “What can I do for you, girl?” As I walked down the stairs, she called out, “See ya later, girl!”
That receptionist reminded me of a first draft character: too much of a good thing.
I often give my characters dialogue quirks to differentiate them from others in the story, to make them unique, to show personality, to create voice. Inevitably when I read through my rough draft, I realize that I’ve overdone those quirks. I find the snowboarder saying “dude” every time he speaks. “OMG!” exclaims the BFF on every single page. And then there’s the word “like” — Oh, I, like, use that word, like, all the time in my first draft dialogue.
Dialogue quirks are best used sparingly–a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there, as in ten pages later. I have to admit the first time the receptionist used the word “girl,” I thought, Ooh. Interesting dialogue quirk, I’m going to write that down when I get to my car. But after the third mention, I only wanted to revise her speech like overdone first draft dialogue!
- Write in present tense.
- Write in the 3rd person POV, even if your story is told in 1st person POV.
- Give away the ending.
- Think of your synopsis like a sales pitch—like a book jacket blurb. Keep it short, fast & exciting.
- Establish the hook right away (this can also be your 30 second elevator pitch, you know, to avoid those long-winded explanations: oh, and then this happens, but wait, I have to explain so-and-so, oh, and then there’s this other character who, but let me back up and say… Snooze!).
- Introduce the main character and the main conflict.
- What’s important about the main character? Include motivation, goals, conflict, but not physical description (unless vital to the plot).
- Highlight the plot points (scenes) that move the story forward. Give the reader a clear idea of what the book is about.
- Write your synopsis in chronological order. Do NOT make lists.
- Weave everything together like you’re telling a story. Try to capture your main character’s voice, even if you’re writing in a different POV.
- Focus on the main character and the main plot. Touch on the subplots and minor characters. Do not include every character or every subplot. A short synopsis shows things that reflect on the MC’s journey.
- Show increasing tension, increasing conflict.
- Think: action, reaction, decision.
- Tell the reader how the main plot resolves.
- Try to make the ending of your synopsis evoke the emotional response you hope a reader will feel upon finishing your story.
- Does your synopsis reflect the style, tone, and voice of your story? If it’s funny, show humor in the synopsis. Writing something literary? Your synopsis should shine with gorgeous sentences.
- Does the reader know which characters to care about? What’s at stake? How it will turn out?
- Have you woven together your character’s external and internal journeys?
- Did you select the best plot points–the ones that affect your MC’s emotional arc?
- Did you make every word count? Use strong adjectives and verbs (avoid adverbs).
- Did you select the most telling details to use? Don’t weigh down your synopsis with extraneous or confusing details.
- Did you format your synopsis properly? Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1″ margins.
I’ve completely ignored my blog this week. Instead I’ve been lounging on my sofa, reading until the patch of morning sunshine moves. I de-cluttered my basement, giving boxes of unused stuff to charity. I’ve written, but it’s all silly stuff–like a poem in the shape of Justin Bieber’s hair. Let’s just say I have more appreciation for his hair-stylist, and less appreciation for my poetry skills.
And I’ve felt a wee bit guilty and more than a bit unproductive. But–
Then I went to my monthly SCBWI meeting and learned that all that goofing around is actually good for my brain!
Kim Justesen, author of My Brother The Dog, explained that our brains constantly form new neural pathways. Trying new things–like Bieber hair poems–creates new pathways! (Kim asked us to write something with our non-dominant hand as a brain-enhancing exercise.)
Following old pathways, well-worn roads that form with routine actions like housework, frees our brains to think of creative ideas. That’s why we often have great insights in the shower. So I guess I really should do more housework… I did spend my basement-cleaning time musing about my new WIP.
The bottom line: break out of your routine every now and then. Try new foods, go new places, write something wacky, or better yet write somewhere wacky… And then fold the laundry.
It’s good for your brain.
My WIP is off with its first readers, so I’ve allowed myself a few lazy days of lounging. But now it’s time to think about developing my next idea.
My new idea came to me through random chance encounters…
Teen in bookstore cafe + a joke made during a dinner party = my cool new idea.
(I chose this idea because the challenge of pulling it off kind of scares me.)
But it’s just an idea–an unformed blob. How do I give it shape? The idea sparked on June 13th last summer, so since then I’ve been collecting more information.
An essay in Men’s Journal gave me a hint of voice, attitude… so I asked my hairdresser if I could keep the magazine. I’ve found a few more clippings–photos of the kinds of characters I plan to create, stuff that might interest my characters…
I’ve been gathering a stack of research books too. Some deal with my main topic, but others only relate to the themes a little bit. I plan to read a wide variety of stuff that will allow my mind to make unusual connections that will–hopefully–deepen my original spark of an idea. And add lots and lots of layers.
I won’t be ready to write for several weeks, but I’ll start playing with my characters’ voices during my writing exercises. Let them talk without the pressure of creating WIP word count.
I’m also asking myself lots of “What If” questions about plot–jotting them down in the notebook I’ve set aside just for this story. Once I finish the bulk of my research I’ll sit down with a thick yellow pad and list possible scenes, plot points, figure out each character’s motivation, etc. For me, plot works like a puzzle.
Now I just have to find all the pieces…
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!
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.
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.
As I new writer, I approached revision like this:
The mere thought of all the potential mistakes in my novel made me feel as if I were, well, being eaten alive by a bear. Where do you start when there are SO many problems with a story? I chose to ignore the big, structural problems, choosing instead to focus on small, safe things like word choice, punctuation…
And it wasn’t too effective. My manuscripts gathered a stacks of rejection form letters from publishers. Eventually, I learned the importance of revision, but I still didn’t have many effective tools for approaching it. I simply read through my manuscripts over and over again, looking for things to fix. And sometimes I couldn’t see the problems through the, um, car windshield.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Darcy Pattison’s novel revision retreat. Aha! Using Darcy’s workbook, Novel Metamorphosis, we learned how to tackle revision issues one at a time. First we created a novel inventory, noting the plot action and emotion in each chapter. So helpful! At a glance, I noticed a potentially weak chapter and places where I could strengthen emotional resonance.
Another incredibly useful revision technique is the shrunken manuscript. Darcy showed us how examining our novel in 6 point font, single spaced, can show us the overall patterns in our stories. One attendee realized that her story lacked conflict for several chapters in a row. That’s exactly the kind of comment I used to ignore (my critique partners just didn’t get it, I’d tell myself). But it’s hard to argue with bright, bold highlighting. To learn more about the shrunken manuscript process, check out Darcy’s blog.
All weekend we worked on small sections of our stories, which made the process seem quite do-able–and not quite so scary or overwhelming. Because revision really isn’t a bear, it’s simply a series of small tasks. Think of them as cuddly little bear cubs!