Posts Tagged ‘first novel’

Show Don’t Tell – Rewritten Scenes Part 1

July 29, 2010

Show, don’t tell.  Show, don’t tell. Repeat after me, please.

This has been the story of my life for the past few months as I have struggled to take the advice of an excellent and generous literary agent (read all about her here: http://fineprintlit.com/about-the-agents/suzie-townsend/).  Her biggest comment was about one of the most common first-time author mistakes: telling rather than showing what happens in your story.  I’ve decided to post, over the next couple of weeks, a few excerpts of scenes that I’ve rewritten in my WIP as a result of her advice as well as the advice of other literary agents via their blogs.

Example 1:  Reading a book about the Battle for Allyria

Context:  After being transported from modern-day America to the medieval world of Allyria, main character Lex is traveling with the handsome warrior Ash as he seeks to help save his homeland from barbarian invaders.  Lex shows him a book she has found about an ancient battle between their ancestors and the same enemy.

Before:  “Come look, Lex,” he said softly, completely absorbed in the book, and my depression melted.  I spread out my bedroll and lay next to him on my stomach.  I looked where he pointed, and he explained what the diagram meant, and how the plan that Elendor and Maia had made for the battle was flawed, and resulted in the burning of part of the city.

Together that evening, in our little refuge, by the glow of a single candle, we learned all about the Battle for Allyria, and wondered aloud how we could learn from their plan, including the things they did right as well as their mistakes, to protect Archam from attack.  Even though I had read this book before, it was all new to me as seen through Ash’s eyes.  Viewing the book’s illustrations from the perspective of a person who had been in battles and who understood military tactics, I was able to understand more than I had reading on my own.  He explained things so well, not impatiently, not patronizingly, just simply and frankly.  From there, it was an easy matter to continue talking about all manner of things.  It seemed that once our tongues were loosened, we had no trouble keeping the conversation going.  It was probably well after midnight before we blew out the candle and fell asleep.

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The problem:  Oh my, where do I start?  Once it was pointed out to me that I was telling instead of showing, scenes like this began jumping off the page at me.  I had just been lazy, lazy, lazy.  It’s so much easier to tell about a conversation than to choose the exact words your characters will say.  My new mantra: if it advances the plot, it’s worth showing through dialogue and gestures; if it doesn’t, it should be cut out completely.  Here’s how I rewrote it.

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After:  “Come look, Lex,” he said softly, completely absorbed in the book, and my depression melted into something warm and glowing in my chest.  I spread out my bedroll and lay next to him on my stomach.  I looked where he pointed.  The book’s hand-inked parchment glowed in the candlelight.

“See how the Varangians were able to surprise them and gain the walls?  The people of the city were trapped, Lex.  We can’t let that happen in Archam.”

“How will you stop it?” My voice in my ears sounded gentler than usual, and I hoped he didn’t notice.

He waved a hand across the page.  “Archam’s defenses are different.  Our bridges will prevent an attack from the river, and our walls and towers are higher and stronger.”

“Won’t people still be trapped inside the walls, though?”

He gazed at me for a moment, the candlelight reflected in his eyes.  “Yes, I suppose you’re right.  You and I will have to think of a way to prevent that from happening.”

As he went on about the weapons the Varangians had brought and the primitive ways the Marrocans had fought them off, I hardly heard him.  A flush went through me.  You and I, he had said.  The candle threw the planes of his face into sharp relief; as I gazed at the spark of light in his eyes, the warmth spread through me.

It was well after midnight before we said goodnight and moved to opposite sides of the shelter.  A tiny flame of something continued to flicker inside me long after the candle was extinguished.

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Please let me know if you like the rewrite and have additional suggestions!

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Advice from a Literary Agent

March 28, 2010

I have received some extremely valuable feedback from a literary agent I know, who very kindly read my entire Allyria manuscript and e-mailed me six pages of suggestions.  All I can say is, “Wow.”  I have spent the last ten days digesting the feedback and thinking about the main comments she had and how to fix them, and I’m just about ready to dive back into the manuscript.  Here are the major pieces of advice she gave:

Show, don’t tell.  Her biggest concern was the many places in the manuscript where it was “all tell, no show.”  Everyone knows this one, right?  And yet still I made this mistake.  She provided me with numerous examples where I’ve done this.  I had already identified this as a problem as I read other books in YA (see previous posts) and the specific examples she provided will help me immensely as I re-read and edit on this next round.  Now that this has been pointed out to me, I am fully confident that I can fix this trait in my writing.  (25 years of writing and rewriting for business will help me here.)

Provide closure to the ending , even if it’s an ongoing series.  Another concern which she mentioned was the unsatisfying ending.  “Even if you are [planning a sequel/series], there needs to be more closure – most books won’t sell unless they can stand alone.”  I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can make this more satisfying and bring a little more closure.  Yes, this is just Book I, so I can’t resolve everything at the end of this book, but I can totally bring some of what happens at the beginning of Book II and put it in Book I.  At least some more of the questions will be answered, and that will also satisfy the directive of “show, don’t tell.”

No vivid details.  Another suggestion was the lack of vivid details to bring the fantasy setting to life.  Again, lots of examples that will be so helpful.  Here’s one example she gave.  ” ‘The setting for this stage of our journey couldn’t have been more beautiful. The desert was dazzling’ can be cut, because the next sentences show us the desert’s beauty.”  Wow.   I was so worried about word count that I didn’t stop to consider whether one uninspired sentence of generic description could be replaced with two or three sentences that told how the setting impacted my narrator’s senses.  This will be a fun challenge for me to fix, as I struggle to bring the Allyria in my head to the page.

Plot inconsistencies.  The category that I appreciated the most, because it was so surprising and eye-opening for me, was the plot inconsistencies that she identified.  The first one made me laugh out loud, because I had never even considered it.  It involved a character knowing something really important, but dying and leaving only a cryptic message about it that took the MC the rest of the book to decipher.  Her point was, if this character knew this information, why didn’t she send a message to someone as soon as she learned it?  Why indeed?  This and another comment are leading me to restructure this part of the story.  More mystery, more agony, less certainty.  No one is going to know everything, and only Lex will be able to put the pieces together.  Even the advice about those inconsistencies I thought I had fixed was valuable, because perception is reality when it comes to the reader.

There were a variety of other comments, all of which I agree with and will take seriously.  The funny thing is, she didn’t mention as problems the things I was most worried about in my previous rounds of editing — pacing, cutting backstory, and word count (although she did identify a few places where I told too much and took too many words to do it).  I guess that’s good news that my previous editing apparently fixed some of these glaring problems.  Now I can move forward with the next round of edits and make the story better.

She also mentioned two strengths that really warmed my heart — she liked my strong but flawed fantasy heroine, and she liked the romance between the heroine and hero.  These are the parts of my story I liked the best too, so I’m a happy camper.

I realize I am very lucky to have someone so knowledgeable take time to read the manuscript and give me such great advice.  Now it’s time to act on it!  As I write this, I am growing excited to dive back in and tackle the manuscript again.  I’m going in!

Reviews are coming in….

March 14, 2010

My beta reader’s circle has been widened for my #1 novel Allyria, and I’m starting to get tweets and e-mails from friends who are reading it.

I KNOW these people are not reading it with a critical eye, and I’m not sure they would tell me if they thought there was something wrong, but I thought I’d share a few of their comments. 

From one of my best friends, whom I have know for 35 years, who is reading it with her 17 year old daughter:  

“I am loving the book.  I am so impressed.  I can’t believe you wrote this.  This is a real book.  I am on chap. 5 and want to keep reading, but my eyes are hurting….Yardley is loving it too.  I will ask her how she feels about the fantasy/other world part of it.  I am liking Ash despite his poor hygiene.”

From the intern at work, who loves YA fiction:

@CNC999 I am [reading it]! Haven’t been able to put it down – thus i missed your tweet. This is really REALLY good! Lex’s thoughts crack me up 🙂 6:50 PM Feb 28th via web in reply to CNC999

(followed by this) 

@CNC999 Just finished it. Now you must hurry with the 2nd one bc that ending has left me on edge! I need more! 8:21 PM Mar 3rd via web

From my third pair of readers, I haven’t heard anything yet — the daughter is 11, and the mother is PTO president this year, so it’s going to take them a little longer.  I am trying to be patient!  🙂

I still have not done any more writing of Book II since my revelation last week that I need to put the characters in more agony.  I am contemplating putting the manuscript into that program that allows you to chunk the book by scene and then switch scenes around, but I can’t remember the name of it.  Does anyone know the name?  If so, please leave a comment.

That’s all for now.  Life gets in the way once again.  (Go Duke!)

MS is sent!

February 9, 2010

Well, I took the plunge — after cutting 8,000 words from my Allyria manuscript, going through four complete passes at reviewing, revising and editing (including eliminating unnecessary characters, giving up scenes that didn’t advance the plot, and eliminating pretty much all backstory), I have now submitted my manuscript to a literary agent.

Granted, she is someone I know well, and she asked for the whole thing, and she agreed to send me comments and tell me the truth about whether it is marketable.  I know she’s swamped and may not get to it for weeks or months.  So…I have a three-part strategy for distracting myself from my fears while I wait patiently for her response.

1)  I’m going to simultaneously widen my beta readers’ circle — I have friends who love to read, and who have been clamoring to read the manuscript for months.  I am going to print it out and have a few bound copies made.  They probably won’t be as critical as I need them to be, but it will make me feel good to share the story and characters I love with a few more people.

2)  Then there’s always Book II to write.  I am halfway done with the first draft, but I know with certainty after going through the edits of Book I that I will be eliminating a lot of what I’ve written.  Still, it will be glad to immerse myself once again in Allyria and see where my characters take me.

3)  Finally, I’ve developed a query and showed it to a few people.  I’m going to await the agent’s feedback before posting it here.

Feel free to wish me luck as I await the first real (aka from the publishing world) criticism of my manuscript.  I have received so much support already from past comments.  Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

Still struggling with backstory

December 29, 2009

I returned to my Book I manuscript last night after three weeks off (working full-time meant every spare minute had to be spent getting ready for the Christmas gift-giving and entertaining activities).  I picked it up last night and looked at the edits I’d made longhand on my original manuscript.

There were more questions there than answers.  I’d written things like, “Consider condensing and using in Book II” and circled things rather than deleting them.  I am just having so much trouble deciding what to keep.

I’ve gotten great advice in answer to a previous post, and I’ll try to summarize it here, as much to inspire myself as to inform others:

  • Look at each scene and consider how it advances the plot.  If it doesn’t advance the plot, take it out.
  • Combine characters or eliminate them entirely if they don’t advance the plot.  (Think Tom Bombadil in LOTR.)
  • Let a friend read the manuscript and put a checkmark in the margin whenever they are a little bored.

I will do all of these.  I’m going to go back through my characters’ week spent in a certain location, which consists of activities during the day and conversations with their host in the evening.  I’ll have to make sure every activity and every conversation serves a purpose.  And I’ve pretty much decided their host is not going to tell them everything he originally told them right up front.  They need to feel the questions–they need to feel a little more rudderless–to make the story more compelling.  When I think of my favorite books, life is pretty awful for the characters as they work through the plot.  I need to toughen up and make things a little–OK, a lot–more awful for Ash and Lex. 

I don’t have a huge number of characters, but I’ve already combined several of them, so I’m feeling good about that.  The others all seem necessary to me at this point, so they can keep their heads for now.

Finally, I have a friend who has read the manuscript once and only offered a couple of comments.  She has promised to read the MS with a much more critical eye on this round.  I have been writing and being edited for 25 years, so I think I can take it. 

I’ll report back here on my progress.  Wish me luck.

Ouch! Editing is hard!

December 5, 2009

I am a murderer.  I am killing words.  I am killing scenes.  I have even killed two characters and pushed another off the page, only to be talked about as if they are not there.

Now, however, I am having trouble figuring out how much backstory to keep in my novel.

My first novel, you see, is Book I in a fantasy book series.  I conceived of this world 25 years ago, and the original story that I began writing at that time is now the backstory for my current series.  The new heroine, Lex, really doesn’t know anything about the world.  I have to decide what she needs to know, and what it would be better to leave unsaid.

On draft 1, I put it all in.  The wise old advisor character spilled all the backstory and told Lex and Ash exactly what they needed to do.  Now I’m having second thoughts on how much he should tell them, and how much they should figure out for themselves.

I think this will improve the momentum, the pacing of the novel, and will also reduce the word count.  (I hesitate to tell you how long the book is right now, but suffice it to say it needs to lose a significant number of words.) 

But I’m having trouble deciding.  When I read this chapter, I still like it just as is. 

Can anybody help me with this dilemma?  How much to cut? So hard!

Tips for Doing It All

November 25, 2009

I find myself trying to “do it all” more than ever these days.  Motherhood, of course, comes first, and at my stage of life that means hockey games, sleepovers, school performances, being the Girl Scout leader, and orchestra concerts, as well as homework, staying up late enough for your son to let his guard down and talk to you, seeing the New Moon premiere at midnight, and so forth.

Being a wife is also an important but time-consuming job.  Forgive me if I don’t go into too much detail there.

This weekend I’m also trying to be a good daughter, a good aunt/great aunt, and a good cook for Thanksgiving. 

Not to mention working fulltime as a writer and strategist, with my own marketing communications consulting business.  That’s very important also.

But I’ll tell you a secret — the thing I want MOST to do right now is to find a quiet hour or two and keep plugging away on the edit of my first novel.  I have resisted picking it up for DAYS, and have only played around with one chapter of Book II for several days as well.

NOW – my house is tidy, my silver is polished, my groceries will soon be bought, my Girl Scouts will soon have gone horseback riding in the woods tomorrow, and my Thanksgiving dinner will soon enough (on Thursday) be on the table, be consumed and be put away as leftovers.

Then, I am promising myself, I will edit at least one chapter before turning to my Christmas shopping, which I’ve only just started.  ARRRGGGGHHHH.  It is enough to make a person go insane, or just give up.

But, being the positive person I try to be, I’m thankful for such a full life, and thankful that such a fascinating and enjoyable story will be waiting for me to dive back in once I have the time.  I’ll try not to wish away the rest of my life while I wait.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Reflections on a laptop/wine disaster

November 6, 2009

Ah, a glass of cabernet, its jewel tones beckoning me with relaxation and mirth. Can you think of a better way to usher in a weekend than enjoying its dry fruitiness while listening to dueling YouTube music videos with your husband at the kitchen counter? Especially when, that very day, you were told you had not been chosen for a long-sought job with a favorite client, and you found out your daughter had been exposed to swine flu and is already coughing? OK, so I was a little relieved not to get that job, but all the more reason to celebrate a little. Right?

My husband and I were passing the cord to our under-counter speakers back and forth, taking turns teeing up videos to surprise each other. I had just begun playing Muse’s amazing performance of “Uprising” at the MTV VMAs — or was it Linkin Park’s “New Divide”? — when I reached for something to my right, while looking to my left.

Did you know that a fine wineglass full of cabernet will actually bounce when it hits your keyboard? I didn’t, but I do now. It will bounce, and with each bounce, will spill a little more of its contents while you scrabble to grab it. By the time you get a firm grip on it, it will be almost empty. You will call for paper towels, and your preoccupied husband will hand you two. Two. Ah-hem. More about him later.

As the laptop screen goes dark and the speakers go silent, it will start to sink in what you have done. You will scramble to unplug it and give the speaker cord to your husband and his dry computer. You will try not to think of the fact that you just bought this fancy new laptop less than six months ago. You will try not to remember that you chose not to get the extended warranty or the accidental coverage. Most important, you will refuse to think about the fact that the book you just finished after eight months of nighttime and weekend writing is on that hard drive. The one you just poured wine all over.

You will put the laptop upside down on what, in our household, is referred to as a “car towel.” I don’t know what other people call them; my family didn’t have car towels. When our towels got old we threw them out. But here, in the family my husband and I have built, we keep our old towels for messy jobs like washing a car. Drying a dog. Or major spills of red wine.

That will be the end of the night for you. The buzz will be killed. The music will be silenced. The dread will settle in. You will have a terrible, sleepless night, tossing and turning and wondering how long it has been since you backed up the book on your external hard drive. You have a complete print-out of book I, because you have been giving chapters to the intern at work, who is a huge fan of YA lit. You also have three chapters printed out of Book II. Too bad you had written four chapters.

Of course, the next morning, you will try to turn it on, convinced that your memory of the screen fizzling was imagined. You will be momentarily encouraged when the HP logo appears on the screen, but then it will go black and, in white computer programming type, you will be told to install an operating system. Oops.

When it happened to me, I rushed my laptop to the nearest computer store, the one where we’d bought it, and crept up to their service department to offer it in sacrifice. Please, please, find something when you look, I thought to myself.  They didn’t.  The circuitry was completely fried, coated with red goo.  At least it smelled good.  I paid them $10 and trudged out to my car with the carcass.

Now back to my husband.  He can be kind of  dismissive of things I think are important, but he is THE MAN in a real crisis.  While I administered to our daughter, whom we promptly nicknamed “Swiney,” he spent the day on the phone with HP, finding out what my options were.  We decided to send the computer to the experts in California, and he handled all of it.  When we checked the status online, it said, “Probably beyond economic repair.”  The fee to make the carcass into a working computer again would have been $1,065.00.  I went out that day and bought a new one.

I realized I had been in a period of mourning. Now that sounds ridiculous and melodramatic, doesn’t it? Mourning should be reserved for the end of life, or the end of love. But I’ve been thinking about this, and that’s the only moniker I can put on the way I felt for the two weeks following the disaster.  The only thing that lifted me out of my depression was getting a new computer, and loading my complete literary works (one finished, unedited, unpublished manuscript and four chapters of another) back onto its hard drive.

As I look back on the laptop/wine disaster, I realize that I’ve learned some things. Some are obvious. Back up your work every night, for example. (Yeah. Duh.) Don’t drink so much that you are in danger of getting clumsy. Good rules to live by.

But other learnings from this disaster have been less obvious.  First, and this one sounds trite, I know, don’t place so much faith in inanimate objects.  In the end, it is the people who matter, not the objects, no matter how shiny.  Second, a glass of wine isn’t necessary to relax.  The thing I missed during those two weeks was not my pretty computer, or my e-mails or my documents, but the world I’d created and been living in for eight months.  I felt as though I’d been ripped out of it without warning.  (A little like a certain heroine I know.)  To overcome this feeling, I took to writing longhand, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing, either.  I enjoy the flow of words from the tip of my pen, and the writing comes out just as well.

Before the computer/wine disaster, I had actually fooled myself into thinking that a wee bit of wine enhanced my writing skills, lubricating my word choice like oil to a bike chain.  Alas, no more will my writing be enhanced by the fruit of the vine, if indeed it ever was.  Instead I will drink coffee, placing my cup a considerable distance from the keyboard, and be thankful that I have the means to replace an inanimate object when I need to.  I will also be thankful to put this disaster behind me.  Now, back to writing.

Trying to weave it all together

September 25, 2009

I’m getting close, very close, to the climax of my book.  My hero and heroine have finally resolved (for the moment) their relationship, and they now have several important tasks to complete. 

Suddenly the various threads of the story has led us all here.  Suddenly, it’s as if someone threw all of those threads to me and said, “Here, weave this all together, would you?”  Plus I KNOW that the climax CAN be incredible, it’s just going to take a lot of work to make it that way.  I want to write a book that’s hard to put down, especially at this point in the story.

Thanks to my #1 and #2 readers for their feedback and encouragement.  I was actually tackled by #2 last night when I wouldn’t let her read the next chapter yet.  And #1 suggested I add one more delicious scene between my heroine and my comic relief character, which I think is working!

I found my hero

September 19, 2009

It’s frightening to think someone existsjingle ball press room 141207 only in your head, and then to suddenly see him on the VMA awards.  In all the furor over Kanye and Taylor, I forgot for a few days that I had had an epiphany over my hero during the VMAs. 

I was watching the show when a young man stepped onto the stage, seemingly straight out of my imagination.  His name is Chace Crawford.  This is the guy I’ve been writing about since February.  I sure hope he’s a good actor, because when my book becomes a movie, I can’t see any other possibility than for him to play Ash.

He would need brown contacts and slightly longer hair but other than that he is ABSOLUTELY PERFECT.