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

Planning a scene in your novel

Writing a novel

As I start my next manuscript, I’ve been toying with different ways to plan scenes.

Quick aside — go read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll try to post soon about why it’s so good. She has a lot of smart stuff to say about common writing myths and getting story right.

Anyway, back to scenes. I’ve done a lot of groundwork for imagining my world and characters, and I know my novel’s trajectory. But I’m an underwriter, which means I struggle with word count. I need ways to keep myself on course and incorporate that world-building little by little into the actual writing.

So I ask myself these questions to prepare for writing a scene, and so far I’ve found they work like magic:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • Whose POV will this be and why? What’s their emotional state going in?
  • What is the goal, conflict, and disaster?
  • What is the reaction, dilemma, and decision (emotional reflection)?
  • What is the twist that will keep people reading, or how does the problem get bigger?
  • How do things go wrong for the protagonist?
  • What choices does the character make here?

And then, once I’ve answered those:

  • What is the setting, and how can I set the scene as I begin?
  • What description the five senses will help me set this scene?
  • How can I anchor the characters’ behaviors to their past in this scene?
  • How can I deepen the characters’ misbelief (flawed worldview) in this chapter?

By this point, I’ve usually come up with a lot of ideas and gone way deeper into my brainstorming than I anticipated, so I’m ready to begin. But just in case, I sometimes also answer these last two questions:

  • What about my world can I reveal, or dig deeper into? What can I sprinkle in?
  • How else can I ask “why” to make the story richer and motivations more believable?

Since I use Scrivener, anytime as I’m writing that I hit on something I need to research more (including terms or general world choice), I leave myself a note on the side and keep typing.

Your turn. How do you prepare to write a new scene?

The best writing rules and advice

Elmore Leonard's rulesAuthor Steve Hockensmith posted a good reminder today about following other people’s writing advice:

“I need Steve Hockensmith’s Rules for Writing Like Steve Hockensmith, but nobody else does. If you want to be a good writer, you need Your Rules for You.”

Sometimes breaking your own rules, even, is OK.

Also — and I probably shouldn’t admit this — I’m not a big believer in writing advice from anybody. As that noted literary thinker James T. Kirk once said, “We learn by doing.” Taking a class isn’t going to teach you how to write. Reading a book isn’t going to teach you how to write. Writing and writing and writing is going to teach you how to write. …

… So I bring to all writing advice a grain of salt about the size of a watermelon, even when the writer doing the advising is one I respect as much as Elmore Leonard. I see Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing” cited a lot, and there’s some real wisdom in it. Of course there would be. When it comes to modern crime fiction, Elmore Leonard is The Man.But here’s the thing: Leonard’s list is misnamed. It’s not 10 Rules of Writing. It’s 10 Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard. If all you want to write are Get Shorty pastiches, well, this’ll give you a great head start. But if you have any interest in your own voice as a writer — indeed, having any sort of voice at all — keep in mind that Leonard’s commandments weren’t written in stone by the finger of God. They were banged out on a Smith Corona by a dude in Michigan. Big difference.

What do you consider YOUR rules — your “ten commandments” — for writing? Why do they work for you?