How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

NonFiction Picture Books: Research Required

How much research do you need to do for a children’s nonfiction picture book? Tons!

Nonfiction means that you have the facts straight, ma’am.

3 sources agree. Traditionally, writers look fora at least three sources to back up each piece of information. This means the content isn’t just a personal opinion or a poorly researched fact. Facts should be replicated in multiple studies and corroborated by multiple experts.

Primary sources. Just as in any nonfiction writing,it’s important to go to the primary source of information. Talk to scientists, look up research reports and email the authors of the study, go out and try something for yourself.

Dig deeper. Nonfiction picture books should dig deeper for information, for the meaning and interpretation of the facts, and for context. A biography of Shirley Temple, for example, would likely consider the Depression Era and the effects it had on the burgeoning film industry. For some, Temple’s films were seen as a cheap escape from the harsh realities. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about her, “When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” And of course, if I was writing a book with that quote, I would have to tell you where I found it. (It’s quoted here in the UK Guardian.)

Tools for Research

My favorite tools for researching for a nonfiction children’s book include:
Google, GoogleScholar, and more. Here are tips and more tips for searching on Google. Did you know you can restrict the search to a certain website or ask Google to only tell you about information posted in the last year? GoogleScholar searches research journals. See the full list of Google products here.

Wikipedia. I know, people feel that Wikipedia is unreliable. But Clay Shirky argues in his book, Here Comes Everybody, that over the long run, it’s more reliable because so many people are able to edit it. Crowd-writing-and-editing is both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. And yet, I find it great for an initial look at a topic; and the references are often the primary sources that I need. Don’t discount this one.

Library Databases. I recently taught essay writing to a group of home-schoolers and we took a field trip to a public library to look at their databases. These are databases that either aren’t available on the web, or cost too much for an individual to subcribe to. Most public libraries subscribe to an incredibly rich set of databases that offer a world of information; often these are available online through your library’s website. It’s one of the first places I look for info.

Follow up leads. Often these resources will send me off in multiple directions scrambling for more information, emailing scientists, reading dense research reports and so on. It’s not where you start, but where you end up that matters. Follow the trails, question everything and search for answers.

Two Nature Books as Examples of Research

My two recent nature books took different tracks for their research.

Wisdom, the Midway Albatross: Surviving the Japanese Tsunami and other Natural Disasters for over 60 Years required me to interview the biologist on Midway Island about the conditions there during the tsunami and its aftermath. I also looked at video of the tsunami that hit Japan, debris fields in the Pacific, and photos of the desolation on Midway Island. Researching the life and times of the 60 year old bird–the oldest known wild bird in the world–meant going back in time to find out what storms had hit Midway in the last 60 years. Other issues arose: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, longline fishing and more. Each subtopic meant delving into the research to find details to include in the story. Though it is only 850 words long, it entailed a lot of primary research.


AbayomiCover-250x250-150Research for my latest nature picture book took a different tack. Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub The illustrator, Kitty Harvill lives in Brazil half the year and is involved in the environmental art community there. She heard about an orphaned puma cub and suggested the story. Because she knew the scientists involved, it meant lots of interviews, including Skyping with the scientists.

The reports about where the cub was orphaned included coordinates for the chicken farm where the mother was killed. I looked on GoogleEarth and found images of the exact locale, which helped me describe the events in more detail. Harvill actually visited the site and took photographs for reference for the art.

For this story, the context meant even more research. Why are pumas important in the Brazilian ecosystem? It turns out that there has been an increase in Brazilian Spotted Fever (similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in the U.S.). The largest rodent in the world, the capybara is the primary host for the ticks that carry the fever; and the biggest predator of capybaras are pumas. I researched ticks and tick-borne diseases, checking the World Health Organization to confirm that the fever has increased in Brazil. I looked at capybaras and their habitats. Puma diet consists of many other small mammals, including rodents. Were capybaras a large portion of what they ate? The questions went on and on.

Through it all, though, there was this main question: where is the story?
For me, it’s not enough just to recite facts. I want the emotional impact of those facts, the story. I found it in the original report of the cub who was orphaned. The owner of the chicken farm where the mother was killed said that he had no idea pumas might be involved in stealing his chickens. He said, “I’ve lived here for over 40 years and I’ve never seen a puma.”

That thought sat around for a long time, before it became the basis of the story: pumas were invisible.

Nonfiction picture books require meticulous research and each project takes on a life of its own.


Check out other 2nd Grade Picture Books for examples of nonfiction titles to study.




Frosty the Snowman’s Top 5 Writing Tips

Happy Holidays

Just got an e-newsletter from the North Pole and Santa passed along these writing tips from the Frosty the Snowman, posted for the young-at-heart who are writing novels this year.

Back by popular demand is my series on writing tips from popular Christmas figures. First published in 2007, they are updated here for your Christmas cheer.

Santa Claus’s Top 5 Writing Tips
12 Days of Christmas Writing Tips (live on 12/3)
The Gingerbread Man’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/4)
Frosty the Snowman’s Top 6 Writing Tips (live on 12/5)
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/6)

Frosty The Snowman’s Top 5 Writing tips

These tips are based on the popular song, “Frosty the Snowman.” Read about the history of this song. Oh, what a great 3-D snowman cake pan!

Frosty's Top 6 Writing Tips

Image by Daniel Novta

  1. Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul,
    With a corncob pipe and a button nose
    And two eyes made out of coal.
    Frosty the snowman is a fairy tale, they say,
    He was made of snow


    Extended character descriptions.
    Don’t be afraid to take time to describe the main character. One the continuum of character descriptions, this one is longer than you’ll find in most children’s picturebooks. But it works because this is a character story.

  2. but the children
    Know how he came to life one day.
    There must have been some magic in that
    Old silk hat they found.
    For when they placed it on his head
    He began to dance around.

    Point of view. Notice the point of view here. The attention is squarely on Frosty, not on the children who found the old silk hat. When you write a story for kids, you don’t always have to put the child as the main character.

  3. O, Frosty the snowman
    Was alive as he could be,
    And the children say he could laugh
    And play just the same as you and me.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.

    Language play. This section doesn’t add much to the plot, it’s just pure language play. But this is perfect for the younger audiences, who know that playing around with language is half the fun of reading a story or singing a song. Great onomatopoeia.

  4. Frosty the snowman knew
    The sun was hot that day,
    So he said, “Let’s run and
    We’ll have some fun
    Now before I melt away.”

    Conflict. Every good story needs conflict. And the character’s attitude in the face, well, in the face of certain death, is evident. It’s an attitude of taking joy where you find it and facing the future with courage.


  5. Darcy’s Best Writing Advice: Fiction Notes Books


  6. Down to the village,
    With a broomstick in his hand,
    Running here and there all
    Around the square saying,
    Catch me if you can.
    He led them down the streets of town
    Right to the traffic cop.
    And he only paused a moment when
    He heard him holler “Stop!”
    For Frosty the snow man
    Had to hurry on his way,


    Development of the conflict.
    The traffic cop provides an extra bump of conflict that adds to the story’s development. For picturebooks, it doesn’t have to be much; in fact, it can’t be huge, or you’re writing a novel. This is perfect, just the introduction of an authority figure who yells, “Stop!” but can’t really do anything to stop the breakneck speed of Frosty’s life.

  7. But he waved goodbye saying,
    “Don’t you cry,
    I’ll be back again some day.”
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Look at Frosty go.
    Thumpetty thump thump,
    Thumpety thump thump,
    Over the hills of snow.

    Hope. Children’s stories may end in tragedy, but the best offer a spot of hope. Notice also the nice repetition of the language play that sends the story off with a nice echo.

Get Your Tone Right

“Young man, don’t speak to me in that tone of voice!”

When you see that bit of dialogue, you know that a boy is talking sarcastically or disrespectfully. We understand that it’s not just the words said, but it’s how the words are used that conveys an attitude.

Humor, irony, satire, pleasantness, excitement, righteous indignation–the audience’s anticipated reaction is what determines the tone with which you write a particular piece. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has a soothing tone; Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey has an irreverent, comical tone; Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse has a spare, restrained tone that matches the mood of the Dust Bowl.

I’ve been dealing with tone because I’ll have a nonfiction piece, “Don’t Lick That Statue,” in the June 2014 issue of Highlights Magazine for Children. When you turn in this type of manuscript, they require a letter from your sources that states the article is “appropriate in tone and content” for a young reader. Content is easy: just check and recheck your facts, ma’am. Tone is not so easy. What does it mean, anyway?

Definition of Tone of Voice

Darcy at the Alamo

How would you describe the tone of this photo taken at dawn near the Alamo?

Tone is the atmosphere that holds a story together; it permeates the narrative, setting, characters and dialogue. It can also shape a reader’s response. In a mystery with a dark, gothic tone, the reader is meant to be on the edge of fear.
Tone gives the author subtle ways to communicate emotional content that can’t be told by only looking at what words mean. We also need to look at connotations and how words work within the context of the story.

One of the first ways to get a handle on controlling the tone of voice is to look at the adjectives and adverbs within your story. Specific details can fill the reader’s head with clues about how to interpret the story, but without a physical voice. The tone can be cued by adjectives or adverbs: quietly, he said; angrily, he said; sadly, he said. More experienced writers can convey the same tone with connotations of words and not have to rely on these adverbs.

In other words, the missing words–quietly, angrily, sadly–are communicated by every tool in the writer’s arsenal. That’s a frustrating statement for beginning writers: it’s too abstract. Let’s make it a bit more concrete.

Creating Tone of Voice

Before you begin writing, you should have a tone of voice in mind, so you will be consistent. The tone of voice should shape the story at all stages.

The opening, especially, should begin with the right tone, so the reader knows what sort of story will follow. Descriptions, dialogue, or even first-person statements are all welcome. The opening scene should give the reader a feel for the book that will be consistent throughout. A dark, gothic mystery should never morph into an action/adventure or a fairy tale. Within the dark, gothic mystery, there is room for variation, but there are also boundaries for when it moves outside the right tone. Set your story’s tone early and stick with it.

Recognition and Consistency

Once you have something written that captures the character, the voice of the story and the tone of the story, then you must do two things. First, recognize when that voice and tone is present and working; second, learn to be consistent with the voice and tone.

Put the work aside for as long as you can stand it, then read it with an eye toward where the voice, tone and character are working or not working. Read it out loud, and pay attention to places where there’s a “bump” for some odd, almost indefinable moment. That’s probably a tone or voice problem. Changing mood is fine; changing tone is not. On a very simple level this means that you can’t start a story with a dreamy stream-of-consciousness and end with an action-packed thriller.
Consistency is important even when a story has multiple points of view. For novels that switch back and forth between male and female characters, the tone must still be maintained.

Crafting your Story’s Tone

While much of the discussion about tone of voice revolves around abstract issues, there are some concrete things that can be considered.

Choice of details. Choose the sensory details that bring a story to life. Does it matter that Dracula wears black? Of course! Be sure to include as many senses as possible, pulling in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and tactile details.

Plot and organization. Often, picture book stories have simple refrains—which present a reassuring tone by suggesting that there is order in the world. The organization of the text always returns to a phrase that is important; the child knows you’ll get to that point again in the story and feels the ordering of events in the story, which reinforces the tone.

Language and vocabulary. The language and vocabulary used must also support the tone of a story. Choosing the right word is paramount, but also consider how the words work in context. Connotations are words speaking to other words in a story. You may want to alliteration, assonance, or other literary techniques to make certain words resonate. But the technique should be subtle enough to work without calling attention to itself.

Dialogue. Dialogue can carry tone of voice, too. Avoid stilted and extended sections of talking heads. Instead, work for a snappy exchange—or whatever is appropriate for your tone. Sometimes, it helps to be intentional and say to yourself, “My story’s tone is XXX and that means my dialogue should be XXX.” Then evaluate to see where you need to adjust.

Write Your Story Your Way!

If all the above feels too abstract, if you want more detailed how-to instructions, if you have trouble recognizing voice much less tone of voice, you aren’t alone. Yet, editors and teachers of writing can’t be more specific. “It depends. . . ,” they say. It always depends on the story, the characters, the setting, the author’s intent, and so many other minor and major decisions about a story.

The tone is the end result, but it is also the beginning. The author must solve the problem of tone of voice in different ways for each story they tell. You have an arsenal of weapons: setting, characterization, language, rhythm, vocabulary, plot, organization. In the end, there are no right or wrong answers; there are only stories that work or don’t work.

Can you suggest stories that portray a certain tone? How would you describe the tone of IVAN, THE GREAT AND MIGHTY? Of HUNGER GAMES?

The 13-Year Picture Book: Anne Broyles

guest post by Anne Broyles

Anne attended a novel revision retreat a couple years ago. Switching from novels to picture books, she applied all the principles of great writing and the result is an amazing story. Here, she talks about her revision process. –Darcy

Arturo and the Navidad Birds

With the publication of my third picture book, I took the chance to reflect on the thirteen-year period that brought Arturo and the Navidad Birds to bookstores. If I’d known ‘way back then what I have learned over these years, the book might have been published earlier but I apparently needed time to learn these lessons!

  • Mouse Ornament

    Mouse Ornament

    Christmas 2000: As I was decorating our Christmas tree with our German foreign exchange daughter, explaining the stories behind many of our one-of-a-kind ornaments, I had the initial idea of a picture book about a grandmother sharing family history with her grandson as they—surprise!—decorate a Christmas tree. As soon as the boxes of ornaments were empty and our tree was complete, I stole off to write four pages of notes, listing possible ornaments and their stories. Working title: The Memory Tree.
  • 1/2001: On breaks from other projects, I mulled over the grandmother and grandson. Who were they and what sort of relationship did they have? Having recently studied Spanish in Costa Rica, I decided to root my story in a family with a Costa Rican-born grandmother and American-born grandson.
  • 2/2001: I spent way too much time figuring out a chronology of the grandmother’s life. How much time did I spend on Arturo’s character? Not enough!
  • 7/2001: I wrote the first draft (2000 words in 3 hours) in English with occasional Spanish words, and compiled a list of possible publishers. The story belonged to Abue Rosa, focusing on her back-story and the ornaments’ history. Arturo was not fully developed in this wordy draft.
  • 9/2001: An editor friend gave her opinion on the first draft (“the idea holds a lot of appeal”) but wondered about the chronology of Abue Rosa’s too-complicated back-story. I realized I needed to get into Arturo’s head more. Around this time, I also asked a Costa Rican colleague for comments on language/cultural accuracy and made some small changes. I also asked several Hispanic friends what they called their grandmothers and discovered a great variety as each family chose its own nicknames (English-speaking North American families may call grandmothers Grammy, Nonna, Memaw, Granny Sue, Oma, etc.)
  • 2003: I sent The Memory Tree to POCKETS magazine. Rejection #1.
  • Mouse_Ornament_Image

  • 2004-2009: Although this wasn’t my main work-in-progress, I did share the story with my two critique groups and a writing revision retreat. With their feedback, I realized that I had a “talking heads” story that was too “quiet.” The numerous ornament stories slowed down the action so I deleted all but a few decorations. The word count decreased, little by little, from 2000 to 933 words.
    One colleague commented that her son would never be so calm, but would find ways to play with ornaments. Her words helped me unlock Arturo’s character— he finally came to life as I added the broken bird ornament to give the story tension and meaning. Up until then it had been “Abue Rosa and Arturo decorate the tree together. Isn’t that sweet?” Now, the story had action/reaction, conflict and resolution.
    One reader disliked The Memory Tree title, which “sounded like a genealogical tree.” I liked her suggestion and changed to “The Empty Christmas Tree”.
    In 2008, I sent the manuscript to two editors. One mentioned “a sweet plot”, the other “liked the Costa Rican references and cultural context” but “the initial string of remembrances isn’t enough to pull me into the story.” Rejections #2 and 3.
  • Between 2009 and 2011. I tightened the story to 738 words and sent the manuscript to six more editors for rejections #4 and 5, three no response even with follow-up, and in 2/2010: Pelican’s Nina Kooij said they would hold the submission on their “possibles list,” but I was free to submit elsewhere.
  • 2010-2011: Eleven years had passed since my initial idea. Was this bilingual, multicultural, holiday book fit too narrowly defined? I put away “The Empty Christmas Tree” and worked on other projects.
  • 1/12: I almost didn’t open my SASE from Pelican since it had been two years since I last heard from them. Nina Kooij asked if the book was still available. Yes, yes, yes!
  • 3/12: Pelican requested a new title “that implies the Hispanic culture.” I compiled a list of 22 titles (my own and friends’ suggestions) and tweaked the manuscript, making small changes that better reflected Hispanic culture. They chose Arturo and the Navidad Birds, which I like because it shows the protagonist, his family’s cultural and language background, and the symbols of the problem Arturo must solve.
  • 5/12: Pelican decided to publish Arturo and the Navidad Birds with my English-with-a-smattering-of Spanish text and a separate all-Spanish text. I cut 100 words to make room for the Spanish text.
  • 7/12: Once I had a complete Spanish translation, I emailed numerous Spanish-speaking friends and professional resources for their opinions. Their responses (we would say this instead of that; we don’t use this phrase in our country) convinced me to make the setting more generically Central American or Mexican. I altered some words/phrases to fit this vision.
  • 9/12: I signed a contract with Pelican.
  • 9/2012-3/2012: I worked with my editor and the illustrator to coordinate text and art. KE Lewis’ lovely paintings brought depth to my words, and I especially love how she showed Abue Rosa’s memories in sepia with the contemporary story in brighter colors. There are lots of details for young readers to discover in the book’s pages, and I was reminded of how important is the illustrator’s contribution to a picture book.
  • 9/2013: Pelican released Arturo and the Navidad Birds.

Arturo-high-res.coverIn hindsight, I realize that my initial idea was more setting than plot. Until I knew both Arturo and Abue Rosa, the manuscript was an exercise in getting to know my characters and making the setting real in my mind. Once I identified a clear problem and brainstormed ways Arturo could try to solve the problem, the story worked. I cut two-thirds of the length, tightened the plot, layered more of Abue Rosa’s culture into the story and built the story’s tension up to Abue Rosa’s statement: “People are more important than things.”

And it only took me thirteen years to get these 32 pages right!



BroylesAnne Broyles
Bio: Anne is the author of ARTURO AND THE NAVIDAD BIRDS, PRISCILLA AND THE HOLLYHOCKS (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Bank Street College’s The Best Children’s Books of the Year, and Massachusetts Book Awards recommended reading list) and SHY MAMA’S HALLOWEEN (Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, Teacher’s Choice Award and the McNaughton Award). She lives north of Boston with her husband, two cats
and an old black dog named Thor. For more, see AnneBroyles.com

3 Reasons to NaNoWriMo

Are you ready to write 50,000 words in one month flat?
I am.
For the first time, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month.

2013-Participant-Facebook-Cover

Why this year? Here are 3 good reasons.

  • Timing. My work schedule has some lag time about now and it’s convenient. That is, I want a new novel done some time next year and by banging out 50,000 words now, I’ll have a rough draft next summer instead of start from scratch. I can’t spend more than a month right now. On the other hand, I do have other projects scheduled and I don’t have more than a month to spend on a new project. And I want to maximize my time and effort. Pouring out a full draft in a month sounds exciting.Because this is going to work really well (do you hear my optimism?), I will also be in better shape next year, when I have time to return to this story. I’ll have a draft, and revisions will be faster for the work done this year.
  • Trust the process. Learning to trust the process must be a life-long project for writers. Because this writer is having to do that over and over this year. So, instead of fighting the process, I’ve decided to embrace the writing process for the month of November.
  • Taking creative risks. Writing a novel is always a risk. In novel revision retreats, I have people walk around and congratulate each other on writing a full draft of a novel. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Each time I start a new novel, I am very aware of the risk, that this novel may be one that lands in a file drawer, or that I will abandon it and not finish. And yet, to be creative means to take risks, to reach for something new and different, and to go where “no one has gone before.” If I’m not taking risks in my work, then I’m going nowhere. But risks are scary and uncomfortable. NaNoWriMo is a contained risk: I only have to write 50,000 words and it’s only for a month. It’s risky, sure. But there’s support, others to follow, inspiration and there’s a definite end to it. I am very glad there will be an end to the month of NaNoWriMo.

Of course, getting ready for this, I’ve been reviewing my book, START YOUR NOVEL. I need to take my own advice!

Are you NaNoWriMoing? (How’s that for turning an acronym into a verb?)
Any words of encouragement for me?

Deadlines are Useful

Do you find deadlines inspiring or stressful?
I have recently set some deadlines for myself for finishing a couple projects. For me, deadlines aren’t inspiring or stressful; they are useful.

One deadline was this weekend, September 15. The last couple days of last week, I realized the deadline was near and, WOW!, did I get working hard on the project. Yes, it was a self-imposed deadline, but that didn’t matter, it was a deadline. I was actually two days late meeting the deadline–September 17–but without the deadline, the project would still be languishing.

One reason it is useful is that it forced me to prioritize this project. At any one time, I might have 5-6 projects ongoing that I could work on. That includes things like writing for this blog, nonfiction projects, freelance projects and a couple fiction projects. What bubbles to the top of my To-Do list is anyone’s guess. Unless, I set a deadline. The self-imposed deadlines help me determine what to do each day or week.

Deadlines are also useful in fiction. This is the idea of a time bomb that will explode unless the characters accomplish something. There may be a real time bomb if you’re writing a thriller. Or, it may be a deadline such as an event; the character must accomplish such and so before the Halloween party, or the end of school, or before someone finds out something.

Time bombs and deadlines are useful in fiction because they up the tension. Time is short. How can the characters possibly accomplish everything in such a short time period? They can’t. Except, of course, they do. But not till the timer is at 0:01 seconds left. It’s important to give the reader frequent updates on the time frame, so the tension stays high.

Deadlines–for your writing or in your story–are useful.

Trust the Writing Process: Of Anteaters and Spider Webs

I am working on a first draft of a story and am reminded of a couple things.

First, you must write the story. You can plan all you want, but the story comes alive in the actual writing. A small thing this week: my main character is afraid of all bugs. That includes insects and anthropods (spiders)–anything that crawls or flies. So, there they are, the Main Character(MC) and Best Friend (BF) sitting in art class and painting. Guess what the BF paints? An anteater! It’s a perfect addition to the story but I hadn’t planned on it. It came about simply because I wrote the first draft of the first chapter. And there it was.

We don’t know what we think until we write.
We don’t know what the story is until we write.

It’s like sports. You can predict who will win or lose a game, but the teams must still play the game. And there are always surprises.

Write your story. It will surprise you.

The second thing that is happening is not as nice. The story is boring.
I am still feeling my way through the story to find the line of tension, the exciting bits. I’ll keep writing even if it’s boring, because I am digging up anteaters. To use another bug metaphor, I’ve spun a web and I am sitting like a spider monitoring the web for the slightest hint of movement. When the movement–or story excitement–happens, I’ll be ready to pounce. It’s called trusting the process. It’s the most exciting and satisfying thing about writing, when a story comes together on many levels. It’s also scary: I KNOW this is a boring chapter, too full of static action and talking heads. I KNOW it’s bad. I could throw up my hands and just quit. Instead, I’ll plod along and write through the problems until I find something exciting. I can delete this boring chapter later (and, I will!). For now, I am trusting the writing process to get me to a stronger story. And it will.

Keeping Relationships Consistent

On my current WIP novel, I am revising to make sure the character relationships are consistent. The main character has three main relationships in the story, with a friend and traveling companion, with her father and with the villain.

Among other things, a first reader pointed out some inconsistencies in these relationships. I agreed and decided to tackle this. The first thing I did was the re-read the manuscript and find the places where the main character interacts with each of the others.

It was actually fairly easy because each interaction had about three chapters each, at least in the first half of the novel that I am working on. I physically separated these into three stacks of paper and then marked them up. I was looking for emotional content, reactions to each other, all those small things that create a relationship. Surprisingly, these can be a small part of chapter/scene. You’ve got to have the action going along and the plot will take up a lot of space. There’s description and dialogue. Some of the emotional stuff is in all of this because you can and should color any of it with an attitude.

But surprisingly little of it directly reflects the relationship between these two characters.

Now, I just need to decide on what the relationship should be–actually the hardest part of all. For a father-daughter relationship, should the father be wishing for a son, instead of a daughter? Or does he support his daughter in all her hopes and dreams? Of course, we know what the perfect father would do. But this is fiction, which about dysfunctional families, and the ways in which relationships can get tangled up. Once I decide where it should go, then it will be easy to see where to revise.

Then, I just need to repeat it for the other two relationships.
For me, it is easier to gain consistency by pulling out chapters like this to look at a specific aspect of the story.

First Readers v. Manuscript Critique

When you finish your draft, do you look for a manuscript critique or a first reader? They are different and serve different purposes.

Manuscript Critique. The reader puts on his/her critical glasses and looks at your manuscript through that lenses. How does this story match up with the ideal novel? Of course, that assumes that you have common concepts about the ideal novel and that your concepts will match up with the editor’s understanding of ideal novels.

For beginning to intermediate writers, or for those particularly difficult stories, a manuscript critique can be helpful. It shows you where the story fails to touch a reader. It points out weaknesses and strengths. For example, you may find out that you failed to write the climax of the story; instead, you skipped over that chapter and wrote the aftermath of the climax. That’s a common problem and a critique can remind you why you need to actually write it.

A disadvantage of the critique is that it is by nature a process of tearing apart your novel and matching up the parts to the ideal novel. It is destructive in many ways. The intent is to help you reconstruct, but it can be devastating. Editors, by and large, are manuscript critiquers and a ten-page revision letter is normal.

First Reader. On the other hand, a first reader has one task: to monitor his/her impressions as s/he reads and report those impressions to you. Some suggest a structured approach and ask readers to write in the margins something like this. B=bored. C=confused. E=emotional.

You can make up some sort of code like that, or you can just let the reader report as they wish.

The advantage of this is that it gives you feedback on what you actually put on the page. I often think that I’ve communicated anger, but the reader is merely confused. Especially after a revision, I need a first reader–and a naive one who hasn’t read the story before–to find out if I inadvertently added or subtracted something in the process of revising.

I am ALWAYS surprised by what a first reader will say. They are confused, bored, angry, or emotional in ways that surprise me–both good and bad. In other words, I need to fine-tune the story to the needs of a reader.

The disadvantage of a first reader is that you don’t always know the structural and technical problems that a manuscript critique might point out. A first reader might report that s/he was bored with the ending and then you’ll have to figure out why. The manuscript critique will tell you that you left out the climax. You get to the same revision, but by different routes.

Which do you prefer? A manuscript critique or a first reader?