Find Strength in Your Manuscript

I need to warn you. This post is about shoes. It may include descriptions and details that only shoe lovers will appreciate. Eventually you will see the connection to writing, but it may take a while. So please read on if you have the patience for heels, sandals, and flats. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. 🙂

Later this month my daughter will attend her Junior Prom. So our house lately has been a flurry of dress shopping, accessory shopping, and shoe shopping. Dress shopping was dreamlike. She found her perfect dress in the first shop. In fact the one she ultimately chose was the first one she tried on. It was a fun outing for us. Lots of smiles, a few bittersweet tears, and even some fits of hysteria. Have you seen some of the prom dresses out there? These are 17 year-old girls, people. It’s the prom, not the academy awards. And definitely not a Vegas weekend for 20 somethings!

Anyway, shopping for accessories was easy-peasy too. No drama, no fights. All good.

But then there was the shoe shopping.

So let me give you some background on my daughter. As a former competitive gymnast, she now has weak ankles. Like, they roll often. After numerous sprains in each, the ligaments are stretched. And though physical therapy has helped, they will never be 100%. She can walk, run, and jump in track, but they will never be strong enough for the rigorous demands of tumbling. Or apparently heels.

So at 17, my sweet daughter has never worn them. We have bought them. She has tried to wear them. She has practiced wearing them. She practically trained to wear two different pairs of adorable 3 and a half inch wedges (one in tan and one in black) on our cruise last month. (You remember, the cruise that never was.) She wobbled down our hallways for weeks trying to walk with confidence and grace. And it was not pretty.

Now this has been a tough pill for me to swallow. My gymnast daughter has always been full of confidence and grace. I mean have you seen a four inch beam or the beautiful floor exercise routines that gymnasts do?? After years of both ballet and gymnastics training, I can tell you my daughter is graceful. But not when she’s wearing heels.

So while shoe shopping, we both decided that a shorter heel was the way to go—still dressy, but more practical. Now I have to say, finding a dressy, sparkly two inch heel is nearly impossible. But after 14 stores, we did find one pair of two and a half inch heels. She tried them on as I held my breath and just like Cinderella, the shoe fit. The shoes looked pretty. My daughter walked across the showroom floor with confidence and grace. The shoes were perfect! And there were smiles. Phew!!

Until last night, when my daughter came to me with a look of sheer terror. She was having second thoughts about her shoes. How could she wear them on the biggest night of her life? How could she be sure she wouldn’t wobble, or her ankles wouldn’t give out?

I tried to reassure her that her ankles would be fine. She would survive a few hours in heels. She would probably take them off once she got to the prom anyway. But with the knowing look of someone who knows her strengths and weakness, she pleaded, “Can we please look for dressy sandals—dressy flat sandals?”

This was at 8:00pm. Her dress fitting was the next day after school. Uggh! So off we ran to the mall. Because seriously, who am I to argue with someone who has that much maturity. Someone who doesn’t care that all the girls will be wearing 7 inch heels. My sweet daughter knew enough that she would be her most confident and graceful self only if she was comfortable.

Our outing was a success. We found beautiful, dressy, perfect–for-her-dress, flat sandals. And she beamed the whole way home!

My whole week was not preoccupied with shoe shopping though. I had a major breakthrough with my revisions. But I didn’t exactly realize what a breakthrough it was until I experienced the shoe shopping drama. See, my middle grade speculative fiction manuscript has been complete for a while. It’s been through countless rounds of revisions over the last year. But there’s been one major problem with it that no matter how hard I tried, I could not fix. It was too long. Like, much too long.

No sooner would I chop a scene, I would find another that needed developing. This cycle went on and on. I knew I needed to cut more, but I was having a hard time doing so. I know it’s important to kill your darlings. Most writers know this. But I guess I needed a breakthrough to help me know which darlings to kill.

My daughter helped me figure it out.

I needed to find my manuscript’s strengths and focus on those. I needed to ask myself, “Why are my readers connecting to this story? What are the best parts? What makes it special and/ or different from other stories out there? The answers were obvious to me. That’s when I decided to develop those areas. I also decided to cut the scenes that wouldn’t make my readers stick around.

And by doing just that, I cut almost 3,000 words! That is HUGE for me!!

So by playing up the strengths in my manuscript, like the relationship between my main character and two secondary characters, and also by revving up certain parts of the imaginative world, I made my story stronger.

Knowing the strength of your manuscript can help you do the same thing. Now see how having the right shoes can help your writing?

Thanks for sticking with me as I tried to make this point!

Have a great week, everyone! I hope your revisions go well…I’m hopeful for the day when my revisions are complete. I’ll be wearing flip flops on that day for sure. 🙂  How about you?

10 Ways to Provide Meaningful Critique

Yesterday I sat down to read my critique partner’s chapters. And it got me thinking. What makes for a meaningful critique? You know—one that really helps the writer. Here are ten things to provide when offering feedback on a writer’s chapters:

Line edits

When you see a typo, point it out. Grammar is important, even in a draft. Though a writer may not have focused on this in very early drafts, it can’t hurt for you to point them out. It will make the revisions that much easier later on.

Word choice

When a word or sentence sounds funny, mention it. Sometimes it just doesn’t fit the voice, the age of the character, or the tone of the narrative. It’s often helpful to give a suggestion. Even if the writer doesn’t pick the word or phrase you suggest as a replacement, your alternative may help them to see why another may be better. Here is where voice comes in. That tricky concept that makes your story sound like your own and no one else’s.

Sentence Structure

Does the chapter flow? Are the paragraphs easy to read? If not, the rhythm may be off. If the writer uses too many short, staccato sentences, make them aware of it. If their sentences are too long and descriptive to the point where they lose their punch, point that out too. A good mix of both will make the writing stronger.

Pacing

If you feel the character spends too much time in one scene, let the writer know. Sometimes the scene is good, but it could be stronger if the action moved along a little bit faster. As writers, we tend to fall in love with our own words. Our scenes don’t always need all of our shiny gems. If a sentence has already been said in another way, get rid of it. Save that sentence or something like it, for another scene that needs some oomph! Likewise, if the writer flew through a really emotional scene, point out that you’d like to see the character spend more time there to really process what’s happening.

Dialogue

Do you think the dialogue sounds authentic? Do kids or adults in real life really talk the way it’s written on the page? If it sounds off to you, let the writer know. Sometimes writers have trouble consistently staying in character. Their own voice gets in the way. It may be just a simple modification they need to make. For ex. Not many middle school kids say “I was so anxious!” They’d be more likely to say, “I was so nervous!”

Plot

Sometimes a writer is too close to the story to pick up on areas that don’t make sense—plot holes. This happens so many times, especially in a story with elaborate world building. If something is unclear or doesn’t make sense, point that out in your feedback. It’s good for readers to have questions so they will keep reading, but you don’t want them to be confused to the point where they close the book.

Character Development

Are you connecting with the characters in this chapter? Are you cheering for them? Worried about them? Do you even care what happens to them? If not, would more of their inner thoughts help? Has the writer fleshed them out well enough? Do they seem like real people with real emotions, or do they feel flat? Likewise, has the writer developed the relationships between their characters? This is just as important as developing the individual characters. Real people have real relationships. Be sure to comment on this if the writer needs to focus on this in their revisions.

Conflict

Will the reader want to turn the page after reading this chapter? Does it move the story along? If the chapter isn’t useful to the overall story, it may not be necessary. Or…it may need to be scaled sown and added to another chapter. Each chapter needs to serve a purpose. If the one you’re reading doesn’t do much, point this out to the writer. The conflict may be to blame. The character always needs to be working toward reaching her goal and the best chapters stop her from reaching it—or show her reaching for it or handling the aftermath.

Concept

This one is often overlooked. As you’re reading, does the overall concept of the story resonate with you? Are you blown away (still) by what the book is about? This is helpful information for the writer to know. The longer they work on a story, the more average it may seem to them. Let them know you really think kids or adults would love to get their hands on it. By the same token, if this is not the case—if the story seems too common, the further you get into it, let the writer know this too. Let them know they may need a stronger hook…a little more oomph to keep the reader hooked.

Purple Positives

I’m crediting my critique partner, Melyssa for this one. Though I named it, she started it… Do you see a phrase or word that is sooooo good? Does it hit a soft spot for you? Do you see something in particular you absolutely love in the chapter? Then point it out! Highlight it in purple! Let the reader know it was awesome. That way in future revisions, they will be sure to keep it in. If it resonated with you, it may surely resonate the same way with someone else. 🙂

These 10 items may seem like a lot to offer in a critique. However, eventually it all becomes second nature as you’re reading more and more chapters. I’ve noticed that when I’m offering feedback, I often get lazy or take for granted that my critique partners know what I’m thinking. Especially after we’ve worked together for a while. I’ll realize that pages have gone by and I haven’t made a single comment! Many times that’s because it’s so good! But it’s important even in those times to confirm that the chapter is working and why you think it is.

I hope these guidelines help. Offering (and receiving feedback) is how we improve our craft. Our stories are stronger for it and our writing in general is too. I hope you find one or more critique partners that you can work with. For a writer there is nothing better than finding other writers that get you—and get your writing. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll develop a friendship or too along the way!

If you have additional tips for offering feedback, that I’ve missed, please feel free to comment. We’d love to hear your thoughts…

Have a fantastic week, my friends! I’m off to work on my business manuscript and hopefully later tonight work on revisions to my own middle grade manuscript. I received some great notes (and ideas) from my critique partner (Thanks, Mel!) and I can’t wait to work them into my story. Futuristic bean bag chairs anyone?? That’s my mission this week. LOL. Writing can be so fun!

Two Reasons Why my Writing will Never be the Same

I was hoping to gain some clarity with my writing while I was on vacation and away from the blog the last few weeks. Like many of you, this winter hit me hard. I found it difficult to stay motivated. And also like many of you, I’ve been juggling a lot of projects. I was beginning to feel overwhelmed with so many things but specifically with my writing life. The break did help me to reassess my priorities. Taking time away from my daily routine gave my mind a rest. And trying new things, meeting new people, and connecting with my family made me realize that the world is so much bigger than the one I tend to focus on in my own little bubble.

It was great fun being on vacation. Spending time with my family in the beautiful sunny weather was nothing short of glorious. Being near the water made me smile every day—the sound of it, the sight of it, and the feel of it. There’s something about it that rejuvenates me every time. I’m sure many of you know exactly what I mean!

I noticed though that this trip was the first time since I started writing over seven years ago, that I didn’t write while I was away. Even a little bit. I didn’t break out my notebook before bed to scribble story ideas. I didn’t spend some of the time by the pool revising a chapter or drafting a scene. I didn’t sit on the porch outlining my latest manuscript. I did sit by the pool though, and on the porch. I did lots of things that gave me ideas and inspired me to write. But I didn’t feel the urge to right them down as they popped into my head.

Instead, I enjoyed the moment.

I mentioned last week that my daughter’s pen pal, Maelle was visiting us from France. And there were a million times during her stay when story ideas popped into my head. Especially character ideas. She is an amazing girl—so very sweet, well spoken, adorable, smart, silly, curious, and full of wonder. She was like a sponge, ready to experience all that America had to offer. But she was also very much like my daughter—a typical teenager. It was amazing for all of us to learn just how different things are in our two countries, but also how so many things are really the same.

The incredible experience did not make me want to grab my notebook and take notes though. I didn’t want to miss a thing while my head was stuck in the notebook.

Instead, I enjoyed the moment.

Many writers will tell you that the experiences you have in your life will make you a better writer. At the very first writing conference I went to, one of the speakers told our group of beginner writers not to quit our day jobs. Her reason had nothing to do with money, though she did emphasize that it may take years to make money from writing. Her reason had everything to do with experience.

The more emotionally charged experiences you have, the better your writing will be.

Meeting Maelle was one of the best experiences I have ever had. I was fascinated to learn all I could about their family and her culture and eager to share our culture with her. It was fun to see our country from her eyes. Our whole family loved spending time with her and in just a little over a week, we made a lifelong friend and a connection to a faraway land. Our tears and sobs the morning she left was proof of how much she came to mean to us!

And that’s why my writing will never be the same. Over the last few weeks, I learned how important it is to experience life as it comes. If I’m going to write stories that people connect with on emotional level, I have to first experience people and places on an emotional level too. But that’s not to say I won’t write about it later. I just don’t want to miss a thing while the things are happening! The notebook can wait while I meet new friends and speak new French words. It can wait while I travel to places I haven’t been to before or even while I have a latte in our new coffee shop. It can wait while I eat dinner with my family. That’s the only way I’ll be able to experience the moment.

I can write about it all after. 🙂

And that’s how my writing has changed. I was stuck inside all winter with my head stuck near my computer. These past few weeks have reminded me to open my eyes a little wider…to look to the sun and to look out at all our world has to offer. And then I can write.

Like I said, this break helped me reassess my writing priorities. You may have noticed I didn’t post Manuscript Monday this week. Without a lot of fanfare, I’ve decided to end the series. I know I promised to give a behind the scenes account of the life of a manuscript from start to finish. But as most of you know, I’m writing business novels too now. So in the little extra writing time I have, I need to focus on whipping my completed middle grade manuscript into sparkly shape. It’s close, kind of shiny, but definitely not sparkly. That doesn’t leave much time to focus on my draft. And it definitely doesn’t leave much time to blog about the draft!

So as far as the blog goes, I’ll continue to post every Wednesday. That’s about all I can handle for now. But…I do have something extra (different!) planned for this site. That’s all I’ll say for now, but I think it will be helpful for a lot of writers. I’m very excited about it and I’ll give you more details as I make progress on it. That’s another reason I’m not blogging on Mondays. So many projects, so little time!

Thank you again for checking in today. I hope you all have an amazing week! Be sure open your eyes and make some emotional connections with the people and places around you. You never know how they will turn up in your writing. 🙂

Here Comes the Sun!

Bonjour, mes amis!

I missed you, my friends. I have been away from this site for far too long! I promised you I would come back from my vacation tanned, refreshed, and with the knowledge of new French words. I did come back tan. I actually tried to bring the sun back with me too but I haven’t mastered that superpower in the literal sense just yet. I did come back a bit more refreshed, and I am in the process of learning new French words this week as well. My new sweet friend, Maelle—my daughter’s French pen pal who is staying with us all week, has patiently obliged while I decode her words and imitate her beautiful French accent!

But that brief description doesn’t come close to describing the whirlwind that has been my life over the last two weeks! I’ll attempt to share my story…to show that there is a sunny side to look to.

My vacation with Prince Charming and our two royally fun teenagers was supposed to be based around a 7-day Caribbean cruise with my parents. We had planned it with them for over a year. My mom has not been in great health in recent years and since she was finally feeling like herself again, she wanted to take a cruise (her favorite thing to do in the world) with her grandchildren and give them an experience they would cherish forever. How could we argue with that! Since the ship sails out of Fort Lauderdale, we also scheduled a quick jaunt to Disney World first (one of our favorite places on the planet) and a short trip to Jupiter, FL to stay with my brother and sister-in-law and their two kids (whom we adore and miss every day).

So, with more suitcases than anyone should be allowed to drag through an airport, we headed out of snowy Upstate, NY on schedule, and flew to sunny Florida beaming the whole way.

After we touched down, some of what we planned, actually happened as planned.

Upon arrival into Orlando, FL—we spent one night at Downtown Disney, one day in Walt Disney World—Epcot to be exact, and one morning exploring the Boardwalk area on Disney property. This brief stay in Orlando was everything we had hoped for. Though after years of several days at the Disney parks, one was definitely not enough! But we were crunched for time, and Disney is expensive so we were thrilled to experience the magic of Disney again if even for one day. We had a blast. We have about 400 pictures on my daughter’s phone to prove it—some even taken with her selfie stick. If you don’t know what that is, google it. It’s the greatest invention ever—and it was the best $10 I’ve ever spent. Not so much because I wanted to be in so many of her pictures, but because she and my son had fun together taking pictures with it. Happy kids= happy adults!

However, I had been in touch with my parents during our time in Orlando. I knew my mom was having some problems with her back. Her health problems are too complex to go into here, but I will say that even though she’s a trooper in the best way possible, and I felt confident that her doctors would help get her pain under control, I was concerned. I wasn’t sure she’d feel well enough to travel much less enjoy herself on a ship so far away from home. I knew she and my dad desperately wanted to take this trip with us, as much as we wanted to take it with them, but after many calls and text from my siblings back home, I was beginning to fear she would not be better in time to meet us that weekend at the dock.

As we drove further and further south after our time in Orlando, our kids’ excitement grew and grew. They hadn’t seen their cousins in over a year and a half and they could not contain themselves. They were planning to cram as much fun into the short time we had with them as possible before the cruise. And I was just as excited. Spending time with our family at their beautiful home in the land of fun and sun was going to be perfect.

But the closer we got to their home, the more frequent the reports came from my dad and my siblings. My mom was in severe pain, like nothing she had experienced before. The doctors could not pinpoint the problem. They said it could be her kidneys, or her liver, or her spine. It could even be a muscle. With the cruise just a few days away, my dad needed to make a decision. It would be one thing if the doctors knew what was causing the pain, but they didn’t, and the thought of having my mom travel across the ocean with no access to a hospital, was just too risky. And so just like that, our cruise was cancelled.

Many asked me why my husband and I didn’t take the kids on the cruise anyway. For me this was never an option. This cruise was about my parents and the time we would all spend with them. The islands and the shows and the ship and the beaches were all just the amazing backdrop. I know we’ll take that trip with them again sometime, and it will be amazing. It will be worth the wait. 🙂

And so my husband and I (and our kids) were left to adapt.

We were already in Florida. My brother and sister- in law were so welcoming like they always are and would have wanted us to stay with them for a month if we could. And so just like that, our dream trip to the Caribbean turned into a stay with our beloved family in Florida.

I know. I know. It’s not like we had to settle for a cardboard box under a bridge in Siberia. We felt very blessed. And not just because our trip was not a total lost, but because over the next few days, the doctors figured out what was wrong with my mom and were able to take lessen her pain. She had fractured two vertebrate, one every week, due to medication she was on for another issue. Thankfully, now she is on the mend and on her way to feeling strong again.

And that brings me to my point.

Look to the sunny side.

Because my mom’s fractures happened when they did instead of while on the ship, she wasn’t stuck sailing in the middle of the ocean unable to get proper treatment. Instead she’s now recovering in the comfort of her home with her family nearby.

Because our cruise was cancelled, we were able to spend additional time with our Florida family doing things we hadn’t originally planned like visiting the Florida Keys, watching my nephew’s high school volleyball games, eating at their amazing restaurants, and going to our favorite beach. But most of all, we were able to experience their daily life in Florida. Since their kids had school that week, we did the school pick up, went to the grocery store, and cooked dinners at home. Our kids worked on their own homework and I did a small amount of work out on their patio in the warmth of the 80 degree air. It was a gift to experience normal life in their shoes (well flip-flips) and I must say I’ve wondered to myself more times than I care to admit, why do I live in the land of the snow when I could live in the land of the sun? Even their mundane daily grind is more enjoyable because it’s happening in such a bright, sparkly place!

Because we got a late start (about ten minutes) to the airport on our last day, we were caught in the worst traffic jam in recent memory. A horrific accident happened a mere ten minutes before on the Florida turnpike. As a result, we ended missing our flight and taking a later one. Although that made for a ridiculously long day in the airport, it also made me acutely aware that had we left the house on time, the alternative could have been so much worse.

Because we were no longer limited with our return date to NY by the schedule of the cruise, we were able to change the date of our flight home. Instead of missing the first few days with my daughter’s French pen pal, Maelle, we were able to get home in time to pick her up upon her arrival in NY. As a result, we spent an amazing Easter weekend with her and our extended family in our home town, sharing our traditions—including chocolate!

As the winter now comes to a close, and I think back on my time away, I realize I did bring the sunshine back home with me—the warm, positive, can- do mentality that it shines all over us when we allow it to.

And so I choose to look to the sunny side.

Manuscript drafts will get written. Writing deadlines will be met. Housework will get done. Kids will grow up and survive high school just fine. Bill will get paid. More days will be spent with my prince charming in warmer climates, and they may even involve boats. More laughing will happen even when not on vacation. Summer will be here soon…and yes there will finally be sun. Lots of it!

Thanks for checking in, my friends and for reading this crazy long post. I promise I’ll tone it back a bit next week. Until then though, keep writing, keep revising, and keep drafting. And no matter what point you are in your manuscript, remember you will make it a shining story one day. You just have to look to the sunny side. 🙂