Reading your manuscript for the big picture, not the little stuff

After a two-month break, I’m ready to revise my latest manuscript — roll up my sleeves, uproot those big-picture problems with world-building and character and … ooh look, that’s a good place for a comma!

Turning off my grammar brain is hard for me. So hard that, when I took a developmental editing in fiction course earlier this year, the teacher schooled me on my first assignment. I was thinking too much like a copy editor. (Full disclaimer: I am one.)

I was seeing the trees, not the forest. As novelists, we gotta see the whole forest, because when you’re trying to take that first draft and hammer it into shape, all the pretty words and emphatically placed commas don’t mean a damn thing.

So I printed out my latest MS with the intent of reading through it with fresh eyes. I wanted to react like a first-time reader would. That way, I could focus on the story, rather than all my insecurities as the author.

And hey, it’s actually working. I can’t completely forget that I’m the author, so I’m jotting down little ideas and insights for how I can make the story stronger, given I know how it plays out. (Which is actually GOOD in developmental editing. You want to be familiar with the story in its entirety before you go making suggestions for how to fix it, so typically you do a clean read-through first, then only start marking up the MS on your second pass.) But I also have emotional distance now, so it feels more like I’m reading someone else’s manuscript, which lets me be more honest and free-thinking in my criticism, as opposed to crippled by doubt and pressure and self-loathing at being The World’s Worst Writer Ever.

So it’s awesome. Except for one thing. My MS is a middle grade, and I’ve noticed a lot of what I’m affectionally calling OPWs, or “Old People Words” — basically words or phrases that an adult like me would use, that might turn off kids and diminish the book’s voice.

Which is great, only now I can’t stop flagging them, or circling other words and marking them as “vague” or “awkward” — or striking out crutch words or whole sentences. Once I get going, I literally cannot stop myself. Full grammar beast mode activates, and I lose the forest for the trees.

This is bad. There’s no sense in caring about issues on the sentence level when it could all change depending on what needs fixed big-picture. Those words I’m nitpicking now? They could all get cut in the next draft anyway. There’s plenty of time to catch them later, when I’ve moved on to more surface-level changes.

So, memo to self — and let this be a helpful reminder. Don’t worry about perfect. Perfect is a trap. If you’re like me, that might take a lot of willpower, but first things first: get the story right. The characters, plot, conflicts, motivations, world-building, etc. See the forest first, in its entirety. Stand on a hill or something and get a good view. Make sure it’s a solid forest in every sense — that all the animals and plants and insects are doing what they’re supposed to. Then worry about pulling the weeds.

Doodle by my hubby

Writing, motherhood, and weird life turns

It’s been almost two years since I wrote my last blog post. And boy, things have changed.

Baby boy, to be exact.

I was feeling pretty down on myself in my last post. I was also — hey — about three months pregnant and constantly sick. So in hindsight, that makes sense. But I was also really stuck on the fact that I’d put a huge amount of energy into writing a novel that was my best one yet, and it wasn’t going anywhere.

So I quit writing. I didn’t have it in me. For all my past talk about “writing’s hard, you just gotta push through” — I couldn’t. All the self-discipline in the world wasn’t getting those words out of me.

Part of me thought, “Okay, this is fine. My mind and body only have energy enough for growing a human being. If I start another novel now, I’ll give birth before it’s finished, and then I’ll have to put it on ice for months as I adjust to being a new mom, and that’ll kill the project anyway.”

That was fine.

this is not fine

I did the thing. I gave birth to a baby boy, seven pounds, one ounce. I enjoyed my maternity leave. Then I grew restless. I wanted to get back to my job. I did.

And then my brain latched on to an idea and it was happening. I was writing a novel again.

As of last weekend, I finished the first draft of my fourth novel, a middle grade fantasy.

It’s a funny thing, life. I guess I only had room for one big project in me at a time. (God forbid I ever have twins.) But I was pretty sure I would never write another novel again. I was that demotivated and hopeless.

But then I did.

Writing with a 10 month old isn’t easy. Time is scarcer than ever. But you get it done. The words are bad, and you hate them, but they go down on the page.

And then you have a novel.

Signs you’re growing as an aspiring novelist

Growing as a writer

Last month, I sent my latest manuscript to one of my closest critique partners. I was anxious to hear what she thought. Anxious, but excited.

This is the third novel that I’ve written. When I finished the first one, I remember my hands were shaking. Pride and accomplishment flooded through me. I HAD DONE THE THING. I HAD WRITTEN A NOVEL. (It turned out that THE THING was only THE BEGINNING because revision is approximately 100 times harder and more work, but hey.)

My second novel is and probably will always be my baby — although it’s more like a car or a house. A shabby, broken-at-its-foundations house, but one that I built myself. I loved it to death, and I kept trying to fix it up (many, many times), but in the end I was only giving it a fresh paint job and dusting out the cobwebs while the porch was falling in and the roof was leaking. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, there’s no saving it unless you build a whole new house.

This novel was different. I didn’t feel overly happy or anything, really, upon finishing it. And while you might think that’s proof that the novel is bad, that it’s not emotionally affecting or immersive, I took it as a sign that I was growing as a novelist. This novel wasn’t my “baby.” It was one story out of many I could and will write. The whole of my aspirations and future weren’t resting on it being some sort of monumental breakaway success.

I felt … calm. I felt good about what I had produced. Confident. There are always problems with early drafts, but to me the novel seemed strong at its core, and I was curious to learn how my assessment compared to my critique partner’s.

Writing pencil twirl

It’s hard to get distance from your work and be objective about how good it is — how effective or successful you are at what you’re trying to accomplish. But even when I was doing my first round of revision, I was more focused in those self-edits than I have been in the past.

That focus and perspective, to me, is key. It’s not important how you “feel” about your novel — whether your fingers are trembling as they hover over the keyboard after typing “the end.” Whether the characters are near and dear to your heart. You don’t need to be in love because your personal feelings have little to do with the quality of your work.

Writers are notorious for thinking they’re geniuses one day and hacks the next. If you look over your work in either state of mind, you’re not going to get a very truthful assessment of its quality. It’s colored by what you feel in the moment.

As I waited for my critique partner to respond with her feedback, I suspected I was getting better at putting those emotions aside. That my assessment of my work was more critical and, I hoped, accurate.

And you know what? I wasn’t too far off. What I thought was good about it was what she thought was good. There were no heart-stopping surprises in her feedback. No shockers.

I’m getting better. I find that comforting. It may not be dramatic or riveting, but I’ll take that security over heart-pounding nerves and emotional rollercoasters any day.

How have you noticed yourself growing as a novelist?

Micro editing or macro editing: Which comes first in a first draft?

Pokemon No Idea What I'm Doing GIF

Quick life update before we get into the good stuff: September was a busy month for me. I finished the first draft of my novel WIP (!), adopted a dog (!!), and got married (!!!). So yeah, that’s why I sort of disappeared last month.

Now that things are calmer (well, not totally calm — dog training is a big undertaking) and I’ve taken a much-needed break, it’s time to dig my hands into my manuscript again and revise. To get myself pumped and in the writer’s mindset, I’ve been reading Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and listening to writing podcasts (I use and recommend the platform Podbean). One episode I came across was on the “Story Grid Podcast” show and discussed micro editing and macro editing in a first draft.

So I’ve always heard that macro editing — the big-picture revisions to your story’s major structure and core elements, like world-building, plot, and character — should come before micro editing — the smaller-scale revisions to aspects such as sentences and word choice. It makes sense when you think about it: Why quibble over grammar or diction when you’re probably going to make massive, story-altering changes that might undo or negate all that work?

In other words, you don’t edit the prose of your first chapter 10 times, then move on to chapter two and repeat until you hit “The End.” You rework the clay of your story’s body to get the shape right before polishing the details.

Pokemon Weight Lifting GIF

But Tim Grahl, the host of “Story Grid,” actually advocates for the other way around: Tackling more minor tasks first before moving on to the big stuff.

The reason, he explains, is because after you reread your first draft and make a list (a spreadsheet works well) of all the problems you noticed or parts you’d like to improve, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And trying to start with the big items is only going to make you want to throw your hands up and quit. How are you even supposed to know where to start?

By starting with the micro, Grahl says, you can knock out smaller tasks while getting a better feel for your novel and how you’re going to fix those macro issues you’ve identified. Which means you’re less stressed and more equipped to conquer the revision process.

I like his thinking.

Of course, Grahl isn’t saying, “Tweak that sentence or fix that typo before doing anything else.” He’s saying, “Fix small issues, then big ones,” and I imagine he agrees the fine-tuning should still come at the end.

That said, every writer has their own style for tackling revisions, and what works works. To me, the most important part is to just get through it, make progress, and keep finding solutions to those pesky problems so you can improve your novel.

What do you think of Grahl’s advice?

Writers, give yourself 10 minutes a day

Don't Give Up Dinosaurs

Honesty time.

I’m at this weird point in my writing life where I know I’m getting better, but I’m the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Let me back up and explain. I’m about a third deep into my WIP, which will be my third novel (fourth if you count that one I started in high school and never finished). At the same time that I’m writing it, I’m querying my previous novel and starting to wonder if I’ll ever get a manuscript request, let alone get it published. Even after two years of writing/revising and rounds of query critiques (including by published authors), it may not happen, folks. The query — for whatever reason — isn’t hooking agents.

So I’m feeling kind of discouraged. Like, what’s even the point of trying?

I know I’m usually all about preaching, “YOU CAN DO THIS KEEP TRYING,” but the truth is, even those of us who understand the value of persistence to a successful writing career aren’t immune to struggling with confidence. I’m feeling pretty lousy.

Yes, I take comfort in the fact that for many published authors, it takes multiple books before they get published. Maybe even ten books. Or twenty. (Seriously, read this post — it will give you hope.) And pretty much every book can feel like “the one” and not be it.

And I know I’m growing and getting better. For my first book (not counting that high school attempt), I finished the first draft but not revision. For my second book, I finished the first draft and several rounds of revision with several critique partners, but the foundation is perhaps too weak to fix. For this book (third), I’m much more confident in the world-building, characters, and the foundation of the novel — it’s going to be better from the start.

All signs point to “it will happen someday.” I will get published. But the “someday” part throws me off.

And then I watched author Rachael Stephen‘s video about how it’s important just to try, every day, and keep trying. “You don’t want to write today,” she says, “but all you have to do is try. For ten minutes. … Once they’re up, you can get up and walk away. And at least you tried today.”

After that, she says, chances are you’ll get over the feeling of “oh my god this is so grueling ugh why even do this” and actually get carried away in the writing and start to enjoy yourself. You’ll start to remember why you wanted to write a book in the first place, and that will support you through the process.

Stephen admits that the video is as much a reminder to other writers as it is to herself, and I think this blog post is the same thing for me.

So I’m going to put in my ten minutes today. Even though I don’t want to. Even though I’m not feeling it. Even though I don’t particularly believe in myself right now. Because if I don’t at least try, then it will 100% never happen. And if I do try, and keep trying — well, even if I can’t predict whether it will or won’t happen, those are far better odds.

2016 is almost over. You were awesome.

Buffy Awesome

New Year’s Eve is a night of promises. “This next year is going to be awesome. I’m going to lose weight, read a hundred books, and run a marathon.”

Chances are, we’ll break those promises and then spend the year feeling bad about ourselves. How about we change that?

My new tradition is not to make resolutions on NYE, and not to beat myself up over what I failed to do this past year, but instead to give myself credit for what I accomplished.

My biggest feat? I finished a book. My second book.

I may not yet be a published author, but I Am an Author. I wrote a thing, revised a thing, and did all the work in between. Hey, I’m fucking proud of myself.

I learned new skills this year. I stepped out of my comfort zone more times than I can count, both for my day job and in my personal life. And I finally conquered my dread of revising. I figured out that the “secret” is that there is no secret — it requires you to roll up your sleeves and dive in and get really messy, and you’re wrestling with your own Watcher in the Water that you can only partially see and it’s horrible, and you want to give up and cry uncle, but eventually you survive.

I don’t always feel awesome, but I deserve to, and so do you.

Watcher in the Water

Right now, I’m querying, and it’s mostly a lot of waiting and worrying. In January, I’ll be tackling feedback from a beta reader, and I’m sure that will fill me with doubt and cause me to flail and agonize like I’m battling a baby water watcher, but there’s nowhere to go but forward. I’ve done the whole tango before. I can do it again.

And regardless of whether I find an agent and a publisher, I’m going to do the dance again, from the very beginning. I’ll start another book. And this time, I’ll try out some new moves.

That monster won’t know what hit him.

When reactions to your novel make you want to facepalm

facepalm gif

Sometimes you’re reading comments on your manuscript and you just feel like this.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the reader’s fault. Correction: It’s definitely not the reader’s fault. They’re not stupid; their opinion is legit. You just didn’t communicate yourself clearly, and now they’re super confused, and you’ve derailed their understanding of everything, and …

facepalm gif picard

You need to fix it, but where do you even start?

This is a question I’m struggling with right now, and honestly, the only solution I can think of is to take a deep breath and … think … HARD. Where did you lead your reader astray?

Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, and it’s as simple as pronoun confusion or omitted dialogue tags. Who’s the “he” in this sentence? Who’s speaking here? Bam, presto, fixed — you’re done.

Other times, you’re going to have to play detective. If you can, ask them more questions. Ask them what they think is happening in the scene — have them recount the story to you — and as soon as their version and your version don’t align … BOOM.

radcliffe

But when all else fails, or you don’t have the person in front of you to interrogate them, you might either have to a) add a little more detail to clarify what something is or what’s going on, or b) add more introspection so a character’s motivation makes more sense. Every action has a reaction, as they say, but sometimes you don’t understand what the hell caused the action after that. So make sure you’re connecting the dots on paper, not just in your head.

I’m finding in my revisions that sometimes I need to write in a few extra sentences if a paragraph is confusing my reader. Or I might have to go chapters back to where I introduced an idea and flesh it out more, answering their questions early so they don’t carry their confusion throughout the whole book. Or I have to add an entirely new scene because PROBLEMS.

the office

Writing is never a perfect process. Revision can make you want to tear your hair out. And no matter how much you revise, somebody else can come along and point out another issue for you to resolve.

Have patience. Be easy on yourself. Do one revision pass at a time. Your novel will keep getting better, I promise.

A whole month of critiquing — DONE

frodo mordor

THE END

After critiquing over 100,000 words of another writer’s manuscript in a single month, those classic words took on new meaning.

Last month was the first time I had ever critiqued another writer’s entire manuscript, and it was a BIG JOB. I’m kind of exhausted right now. But I’m also excited, because this means that I get to dive into all the critiques she made on my manuscript and start a new, hopefully much more beneficial round of revisions.

I’m honored that I got to take part in shaping someone’s book. I mean, that’s downright cool. I feel like when I see it on shelves one day and sit down to read it in a glossy hardcover, I’m going to be teary-eyed and proud. Not because I was able to influence someone’s novel, but proud that I helped someone make their story better. Proud that she stuck through all the tough feedback and toiled through the edits to make it as good as it could be. Proud that I know someone who made her dream happen.

Because, hey — I BELIEVE in my critique partner. She’s gonna make it one day. I just know it.

Critiquing a full-length novel has also sharpened my eye as a writer. When you’re just reading a novel, there’s a bunch of little things you don’t notice or take for granted. And when you’re writing a novel, you’re too close to your work to see them. But when you’re critiquing someone else’s WIP and see issues come up time and again — well, you suddenly understand where all those writing rules came from. It clicks in a way that it didn’t before. I’m sure my critique partner could say the same thing from critiquing my story because every writer has their crutches.

Would I do a full manuscript swap again? Absolutely. It was definitely worth the investment to become a better critiquer, a more observant writer, and to receive a full critique in return. Would I do it again in the near future?

I think my brain needs a break first. :)

500 percent done

Virtual reality writing could be very different

This is a video of me trying Google Cardboard for the first time. I look kind of goofy, huh? :)

Last week, I visited the New York office of the education company I work for and got the chance to try one of these things on. If you’re not up on your virtual reality these days, Google Cardboard is a simplistic virtual reality viewer that uses your smartphone to run VR apps. You can get one for as little as $15.

Trying Google Cardboard, it occurred to me that writing for virtual reality could be very different than, well, writing for anything else.

We write for television. For movies. For games. For all sorts of platforms and experiences. And what each of those mediums require from writers is very unique. Even writing a short story is different from writing a novel, so writing for virtual reality would have to be different too, right?

The only people who are truly going to know what it’s like to write for virtual reality are, obviously, the people who are going to do it. But I can speculate about a few things:

  • Virtual reality could require a lot of “you” statements. The player is literally a part of the game, so VR requires a more intimate approach. Writing second-person well (beyond the level of a “choose-your-own-adventure” story) is a challenge.
  • More “show” than “tell.” With virtual reality, you have the opportunity to make every part of your storytelling immersive. The easiest way to do that is to load up on the show.
  • Description is less important. Again, this goes back to showing. When the player can see everything for themselves, they don’t need everything to be explained for them — they can explore the world firsthand.
  • Choice will matter more. When the player feels like they’re personally the ones making a decision, their choices will automatically have more weight. Or at least they should.
  • Dialogue could involve voice recognition, which would be … bonkers awesome. I can wish, can’t I?

Can you think of any other ways writing for virtual reality would be different than what we’re used to? Let me know in the comments!