Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Gleeful Shine: What I've Learned About Polishing Your Manuscript

I'm no expert, let's get that out of the way right off the bat.  But I've learned a few things during my writing journey and if they can be of any help to anyone, that's awesome.  That said, there are three things that I hear over and over again about my writing from readers, agents and even a few editors and those three things are:  it's gritty, it's clean and it's polished.

I work hard to make my manuscripts as polished as they can possibly be.  What does that mean to me?  I think of it as trying to make my books "shelf-worthy."  That means if I write a book, it should be good enough that when someone reads it, they feel like they just pulled it off a shelf at their local bookstore.  It's really hard to do alone (especially when you're not a professional editor!) so my very first tip for getting your manuscript polished to a gleeful shine is to use critique partners and beta readers

My second tip is to get an aerial view of your manuscript.

Make yourself an outline:  not of what you want the book to look like but of what it actually looks like.  This will allow you to see the big picture and how all your scenes, chapters and subplots hold together.  This should also help you with pacing.  Examine the big picture.  Does anything look out of place?  Are there parts of the book that could be re-ordered to make it flow more naturally?  Are you giving out too much information in the beginning and not enough in the end?  Or are you not giving any information until late in the book?  Do you have a bunch of shoot-outs and car chases (or other equally exciting things) right at the beginning and at the very end but nothing pulse-racing in the middle?  That makes for a saggy, boring middle that might lose the reader.  Does your book peak too early?  Does it peak too late?  Is there a super-important character who doesn't show up till 3/4 of the way through?  You want to look at your overall structure and examine it for any potential problems.

So once you've done that, you want to go through your manuscript scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph and ask yourself the following questions:

1.  Is this relevant to the story?
2.  Does this advance the plot?
3.  If I took this out, would the book still make sense?
4.  If I had to argue for keeping this paragraph or scene in the book, could I argue successfully in its favor?

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says you must murder your darlings.  That means you have to cut.  You have to cut and you have to be ruthless.  That means all those scenes that you've written that are just right, that feel like the best thing you've ever written may need to go. 

Cut.  Cut.  Cut.

Being exceptionally long-winded, I run into this all the time.  In my second book, Aberration there was this awesome sub-plot that I tried desperately to keep in the book.  To me, it fell right in line with the theme of the book.  It was entertaining and gripping and I felt like it really added to the book.  But when my agent suggested revisions and I had to drastically reduce my word count, I had to take a long, hard look at it.  What I discovered was that while it was somewhat relevant in that it had to do with bullying which is a theme in the book, it did not advance the plot and taking it out of the book made no difference at all.  I mean sure I had to re-order some things and rewrite the ending a bit so it would make sense without the subplot but once I took it out, the book was so much better.  In fact, it was my struggle to keep it IN the book that made me realize that it had to go.  I kept trying out arguments that I could approach my agent with for keeping it in and none of them worked.  I simply could not justify it remaining in the book.

This goes for scenes and paragraphs as well.  I remember writing a scene in That Book On a Flash Drive In My Nightstand.  In it, one of the characters, Brenda reunites with an ex-boyfriend.   I wrote five paragraphs setting up this reunion where I briefed readers on every relationship she'd had before the ex.  During revisions, I realized that the reader doesn't need to know all that.  What is really relevant?  Her relationship with the ex.  Her other relationships had no bearing whatsoever on anything.  All that stuff, while I really liked it, had to go.  Yes, you want to give your characters depth and you want them to be relatable and likeable but at the same time, you don't want to overdo it.  Cut whatever can be safely cut.

Go through your entire book asking these questions for each subplot, each scene and each paragraph.  Tighten it up.

Next go line by line checking for overly-long sentences and/or awkward or clunky wording.  That means sentences where we are using five words when two will do just fine.  Or we use three verbs when one is all we need.  For example, if you've got the word "and" in one sentence three or four times, you probably need to break that sentence up a little.  Or we have words hanging on the ends of sentences that don't need to be there.  Or we over-describe things. 

Here's an example of some of the above from my WIP: 

First draft:  Jocelyn and Caleb reached the car, sliding into their seats as tension grew in the air around them.

Next draftTension filled the car as Jocelyn drove Caleb back to police headquarters.

Look at your sentences:  Read the sentence out loud. Does it seem to go on a beat too long?  It is so long that you could break it up into more than one sentence?  Could you take some words out and still get your point across while being grammatically correct?

I could go on and on but these are the main things that I do when I'm trying to polish my manuscript.  How about you guys?  Have any great tips to offer?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Slightly Off-Topic: What I Did This Valentine's Day

That's me and my husband!

So in my Is It Hot In Here Bloghop post, I alluded to doing something stealth on Valentine's Day.  Well I got married!  It was a stealth wedding.  We told practically no one and the few people we did tell (i.e. siblings) found out only a day beforehand.  Many of them were good sports and could actually attend our small, stealth ceremony on such short notice . . . on a weekday!  Since Tuesday, we've been having fun springing the news on everyone we know.  Well fun and a few awkward moments.

We've been together several years, been engaged for a few of those, have a beautiful, incredible child together, a cozy little house.  All that was missing was the actual marriage thing.  So we just went for it.  It was incredibly romantic, then nauseatingly stressful, then awesome fun! 

So I want to do two things:  1.) apologize to the other bloghoppers that I'm taking so long to get to their posts.  I'm really interested in them and working my way through as I get time!  2.) Thank my bff, Nancy Thompson, for dedicating her bloghop post to me!  I certainly could not have survived the nauseatingly stressful period without Nancy! 

Also I've got a couple of blog posts semi-prepared for the future.  Which do you vote for next?

A post on polish (as in polishing your book, not your shoes!)
A post on research
A post with a sample of some of my really old, really awful writing?
A write-in suggestion (i.e. something not on this list)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Is It Getting Hot In Here Valentine's Day Bloghop

Happy Valentine's Day, people!  As you may know, this Is It Getting Hot In Here Bloghop is being hosted by Cassie Mae and Hope Roberson.  I probably won't be hopping around until tomorrow (the 15th) because I'm doing something kind of big on Valentine's Day (wink, wink) but it is totally stealth so I'll let y'all in on it later.

I'm using a scene from That Book On a Flash Drive in My Nightstand.  I prepared this before the bloghop was limited to 300 words.  I did cut a lot from this but it's still way over 300 words.  You don't have to read all the way through if you don't want to!  If it just doesn't interest you, move on.  I won't be offended!

What you need to know before you read this:  A young boy named Carl in a small town has disappeared.  Sera is his much older sister.  She is also a world famous ice skater.  Cheyanne is her aunt and also an attorney.  Shawn is the Chief of Police.  He is meeting with Cheyanne and Sera to talk about the case.  Also, Shawn is separated from his longtime girlfriend, Brenda.  Sera is in a relationship with a much older man, Jeffrey but that relationship is on the rocks.  All of these things have been exacerbated by the stress of Carl having vanished.

Here is the scene:

“Great,” Cheyanne says, retreating toward the hall.  She pulls the door closed behind her, leaving Sera alone with Shawn.  He smiles wanly.  Sera rises and says, “Thank you.”
            She moves closer to him, grasps his arm, and plants a soft kiss on his cheek.  She turns away from him but he pulls her back to him, cups her chin, and kisses her on the mouth.  The kiss is full, soft, and deep.  When they part, Sera stands momentarily with her face turned up, eyes half-closed, like a flower yawning toward the sun. 
            Shawn pushes her away.  He makes a sound like a dog that twitches and yelps in its sleep.  He covers his eyes with one large hand.  “I’m sorry,” he moans.  “God.  That was wrong on so many levels.”
            His hand falls away, revealing a torn look, a look like fresh ice streaked with blade marks.  Sera touches her lips.  She knows she should say something.  It’s okay.  Wow.  Don’t worry about it.  Do it again.  Forget it.  It never happened. 
            In all the years since Sera has wanted to kiss a member of the opposite sex, she’s only kissed Jeffrey.  His lips are old and familiar to her.  They’ve surveyed every inch of her.  They feel natural, comfortable against her own, the way a favorite chair feels against your body when you’ve sat in it enough times to make your own indentation.  Jeffrey’s lips are just an impression of her own. 
In the beginning, they were exciting, unnerving.  Then they brought nothing.  Now, when Jeffrey kisses her, there is only a world of unspoken words, emotions, desires, unfulfilled needs, miscommunications, and frustrations.  It is like a shield of Plexiglas between them.  They kiss against it, trying to find each other’s mouths.
            Shawn’s lips are new.  They are softer, wetter, more cloying.  They feel like a sigh or a moan.  Sera doesn’t know it if is the newness of his lips, the novelty of them, the seamy excitement of kissing someone she shouldn’t, or the tiny little crush she’s had on him for months that she admits to no one, not even herself, but Sera liked the kiss. 
            She knows she shouldn’t.  She knows it is wrong.  Shawn is still in love with Brenda Reyes.  Brenda is her friend.  Sera has Jeffrey.  Shawn is working a case involving Sera’s brother.  Everything is turned upside down.  Both their lives have become a kaleidoscope of unpleasant experiences, always shifting, never making sense.  The picture turns inside out, outside in.  Blurry edges, shards of perfect images distorted into a new haphazard one.  Senseless.
            Because nothing makes sense anymore, because Sera James cannot get through the day without fighting off the dreaded panic and because she knows that the few minutes in this office are the only she’ll have with Shawn Hill in which to make a secret with him, Sera goes to him.  He is tall and she has to stand on her tiptoes.  She reaches into the uncombed hair at the back of his head and pulls him down to her.  She kisses hard, like a woman trying to steal the oxygen out of his lungs.
            Shawn seems to fall off the edge of the desk, into the kiss.  His arms wrap around her as if seeking support.  The passion of the kiss is awkward.  Shawn reaches up and cups her face, to steady himself and draw Sera closer.  She presses her body into his and puts one hand to his chest.
            Their parting is like a suction cup being removed from a smooth flat surface or a factory-sealed jar opening for the first time.  They make a popping sound.  Sera stumbles backward.  She feels hot all over.  She knows her face is beet-red, like sunburn.  Shawn gropes his way to the chair Cheyanne vacated and collapses there, breathing heavily.
            They don’t look at each other, don’t speak.  The room is filled with electric knots of energy, zinging, hissing, and popping like a pinball machine.  Sera takes her place in the chair next to Shawn.  She sits up straight, hands in her lap, knees knocking together.
            “I’m sorry,” Sera says, her voice so small she isn’t sure if he hears it.
            “Sera,” Shawn says, his eyes on his feet. “I didn’t mean, I, that wasn’t fair for me to do that.  I don’t know why I—“
            She cuts him off.  “It’s okay.  It wasn’t fair of me either.”
            Another bout of silence.  Sera wants to stay with him.  She wants to walk over to him, take his hand, and lead him to the cot where they can hide their pain in each other.  Where the feel of their skin touching, rubbing, pressing will replace everything else.  She wants to envelop herself in his arms, curl against his body and forget everything.  Every single thing.  Carl, Jeffrey, her mother, Cheyanne, skating, new friends, her whole life.  Pretend she is someone else entirely.  Not even allow him to call her by her name.  Lock Cheyanne out, toss Shawn’s badge out the window, and rip the phone out of the wall.  Stay there, in his office forever, pretending.
            But she can’t and she knows if she stays one minute longer in his defeated silence, punctuated by crazy pinging knots of energy, she will give in.  So she stands up, squeezes his shoulder, touches his cheek, and says goodbye.  She closes the door behind her and walks down the hall like a woman leaving the scene of an accident.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Books We Love Blogfest

As you can see, today is the Books We Love Blogfest which is being hosted by Rebecca Kiel.

All we have to do is talk about one book we love and why.  I'm going to go back, way back and choose Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Before we go any further, yes, this was made into a movie and no, I did not like the movie at all.  Not even a little bit.  The problem in this particular situation is that like all of Kundera's work, Unbearable Lightness has a very existential bent that simply does not translate to film.  I don't care what anyone says.  It just doesn't. 

I had to read this book for a college class when I was 18 or 19 and this book was my constant companion for about 10 years.  I have read it so many times, I've lost count although it's probably been about 7 years or so since I last read it.  First, what's it about?

Basically it's about four people living in communist Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s:  Tomas, a womanizing surgeon; his wife Teresa, a wallflower and photographer, Sabina, one of Tomas' mistresses and Franz, one of Sabina's lovers.  It's mostly about their relationships--with one another, with other people and with their changing society. 

Why do I love this book?  Because it's not only a meditation on relationships but a meditation on life itself and what it means to be human.  Like all great books, it asks more questions than it answers. 

There are many wonderful quotes from this book but this is one of my favorites:

" . . . for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one's own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

You can check it out on Amazon here.  Or Barnes & Noble here.  It's not for everyone but it's a book that has had a profound affect on my life so I had to highlight it for Books We Love!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

11 Questions from Carrie Butler

So apparently there is this new bloggy/taggy thing going around and I've been tagged by the brilliant and fascinating (and majorly talented) Carrie Butler over at So, You're a Writer.  How it works is she made up 11 questions and I have to answer them.  Then I get to make up 11 questions and tag some more lucky bloggers!

1.  What was the last song you listened to?
I'm pretty sure it was As Long as We've Got Love by Javier Colon.  I love that song.

2.  Plotter, pantser, or non-committal hybrid? ;)
Non-committal hybrid!  I'm a little bit of both.  I usually start out with a general premise and start writing, then fill out the plot as I go along.

3.  There’s a new release from your favorite (living) author! Do you click to order the ebook or rush out to buy it in print?
I click to PRE-order the ebook immediately.  Then at midnight on the release date I keep turning my Kindle on and off waiting for it to load up.  Heh heh heh.

4.  You’re stressed out. What snack do you turn to? (If you don’t stress-eat, we don’t want to know… you robot. *grins*)
Sugary treats.  Mostly chocolate.  I love Kit Kats and Ferraro Rocher.  I like pastries and I can eat an entire pie by myself in one sitting.  Also ice cream but as much as I love it, it doesn't love me back so usually various types of chocolate.

5. Name two fictional characters you’d want to see get in a fight.
Bartleby and Hester Prynne.  Can you imagine?  I'd love to know what would be enough to provoke either one or both of them to get into a fight!  Hah hah hah.  "I prefer not to . . . "

6.  The animal you most identify with is the _______.
Dog.  Always trying to please . . .

7.  Two things within arm’s reach:
My Kindle and my daughter's Yo Gabba Gabba blanket which I appropriated for myself.

8.  If you had to compete in the 2012 Olympics, which sport would you pick?
Well I can't swim so that's out.  Are martial arts an Olympic sport? 

9.  Do you kind of hate me right now? It’s okay. I would, too. ;)
Hah hah.  No.  I could never hate you.  You're too awesome.

10. Did you eat breakfast this morning?
Indeed I did.

11.  Describe your current book, MS, or WIP in three words.
Dark.  Violent.  Gritty.

Okay so here are the bloggers I am tagging:

Nancy Thompson
Rebecca Kiel
Hope Roberson
L.G. Smith
Melodie Wright
Jack Flacco
Nikki Stuckwisch
Michael Infinito

I was going to also tag
Jeff O
Cassie Mae
but see they are on Carrie's list as well so I will leave it up to them whose questions they'd like to answer!

Here are my 11 Questions to these folks:

1.  What is the first line of your current WIP?
2.  What is the most overrated "classic" that you ever read?
3.  What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
4.  If you could win any literary prize, what would it be?
5.  What historical figure from any time period would you most like to meet and hang out with?
6.  Most consecutive hours without sleep because you were in a writing frenzy?
7.  What are your three favorite movies?
8.  Name one fictional character whose ass you'd love to kick.
9.  Would you rather have one book published that becomes a classic or have multiple books published that sell well but eventually go "out of print"?
10.  What was the weirdest moment of writing inspiration you've ever had?
11.  If your life had a theme song, what would it be?

Let the fun begin!  Mwah hah hah . . .

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Blogfests and One Awesome Stinky Award

I recently signed up for two upcoming Bloghops/Blogfests which revolve around Valentine's Day.  I encourage you to do the same!

The first one is being hosted by the lovely Rebecca Kiel and it will take place on February 11, 2012

It's called the Books We Love Blogfest.  You can sign up here

On the 11th, just do a post about one of your favorite books (yours or someone else's).  As Rebecca points out, you can even write the post in advance and schedule it to post on the 11th.  Then hop around and find some new books to add to your To Be Read pile!

The other Bloghop I've signed up for is being hosted by the fascinating Hope Roberson at Writing with Hope.  It's called Is It Getting Hot In Here? Blog Hop and it will take place on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2012. 

You can read the rules and sign up for this one here.  You get to share a kissing scene from one of your books or write a new one!  Hope says:

Please share one of your favorite kissing scenes from a book you've read, from your own WiP, make one up, or write about one of your own memorable kisses.  Then hop around to feel how sweet, romantic, or downright steamy other characters are getting smooched!

When I read this, I immediately thought of That Book on A Flash Drive in My Nightstand.  There is one kissing scene from that book that I've always been fond of even though it's not really my best work.  It's probably my favorite scene in that entire book.  Other than this bloghop, it would never see the light of day so I'm going to use it.  I can't wait to see what everyone else comes up with!

I will likely post mine on February 13th (or schedule it to post in advance) as I have to be somewhere on 2/14 but I will be hopping around on the 15th to check out everyone else's kissing scenes!

Finally, the amazing Cassie Mae over at Reading, Writing and Lovin' It gave me the Thumbs Up From Skunk Award for which I am immensely grateful.

On Cassie's blog, she says:  'The thumbs up from Skunk award' since "we all feel like stinky, stinky skunks some days" and there are people who "make us feel (and smell) a lot better".

To pass the award on, name one thing that you love about yourself, then pass on the award to as many bloggers as you want to!

Well I'm not really a big horn tooter when it comes to myself. I never have been but I'm comfortable saying this: I'm generous by nature. With my time, with whatever skills I have to offer and even with what few dollars I have--if I have any--in my pocket. Many, many people have helped me along my journey (in life and in writing) and I like to pay it forward whenever I can without the expectation of gaining anything in return. Also, as my dad has always said, quite simply, "When someone needs help, you help 'em."

So there, now that the awkward horn-tooting is over, I am going to pass this award along to a few writer bloggers who always make me feel better when I feel like total crap, whether it's by reading their blogs or through email exchanges.  You guys are awesome, kind, funny, majorly talented and out and out brilliant.  I could not do this writing/trying-to-get-published thing day after day without you! THANK YOU!!!! 

Jeff O. at The Doubting Writer
Mike at The Wizardry of Otin
Carrie Butler at So You're a Writer