Query Trenches

I’m in the query trenches again. This is what it feels like:

happyscared

Most days I’m feeling pretty good about my manuscript, then suddenly I’m hit with the thought that I sent it out and it’s wrong.  IT’S ALL WRONG!

Of course, the panic passes, but boy does it feel real in the moment.

I’m not sure why it’s called the query trenches. That phrase conjures up images of war, guns, and olive green clad soldiers either clinging on for life or lobbing ammunition. Querying doesn’t have to be as bad as all that.

I’m approaching querying a little differently than I have in the past. Not in the process itself, as that has stayed the same for me, but in the way I’m thinking about the process.Going with the soldier theme, there are a few things I’ve discovered that writers must have in their arsenal when querying.

  • Belief in your manuscript. It may seem strange to say that, but I’ve known writers who’ve queried with the idea it isn’t really good enough yet, but I’ll take a shot. I will even go so far as to say I did that myself several years ago just moments I typed THE END. That didn’t get me anywhere. Now, I spend as long polishing as I do writing the first draft. I make sure that what I have is the best it can be. That doesn’t mean that some future agent or editor won’t have ideas for change. It means that I’m no longer revising scenes, substituting words, or throwing new ideas in. I believe my manuscript is good, it’s fresh, and is high concept. I’m not bragging, mind you. I’m believing in the story I’ve told. I’ve enlisted in this army of writers and I think my campaign will be a winning strategy.
  • A thick skin. Rejections aren’t fun. But you will get them. It doesn’t mean your manuscript is bad or that you’re not talented. It means you haven’t found the right agent for your manuscript. It took me a while to get to this point. In the past, I would sink into a depression with every rejection I got. Now, I’m a little bit better about it. Continuing with the theme, I’ve tried to adjust my attitude and look at finding the right agent as a game of Battleship. You know, the one where it was Blue vs.Red and the little plastic ships? ( Totally showing my age there. I think they’re actually electronic now.) But when I’m querying, I’m firing missiles at the board. The rejections, are misses.  Requests are hits.  From there, it’s just a matter of picking a few strategic shots to sink the Battleship. (Partial request, hit. Full request, hit. Phone call, hit.) YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP or YOU ARE MY AGENT!
  • Patience. This is tough. I am not a patient person by nature, but I’ve learned that Publishing is a long process and while some things can happen very quickly, the majority of the business doesn’t. I’ve found the best way to handle this is to keep writing. I’ve already started another project and that’s taking up a lot of my brain time. It keeps me honing my craft while I wait to hear back from my queries.

And now, off to practice some of that patience… and read a good book.

 

 

Red Spiral Notebook, a Substitute Teacher Story

I am a substitute teacher.  Here’s a story from my files.

When I arrived in Mrs. T’s 6th and 7th grade Science class, I found Mrs. T waiting for me. (She was only taking the afternoon off, so I was lucky to get her instructions in person AND I narrowly escaped cafeteria food!) She was speaking to a 7th grade boy and I approached to introduce myself. The boy’s eyes widened with fear at the sight of me. It was somewhat confusing because I’m really not all that scary looking. Mrs. T introduced me to “B” and told me that she was giving him permission to work on his special project after he’d finished the day’s assignment.

I said to B, “Sure! What’s your special project?”

Mrs. T explained. “B is an introvert.” Then she answered my question for him. “He’s writing a book.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “Me too!”

Mrs. T chuckled, certain that I was pulling something out of the “Substitute Teachers Big Bag O’ Tricks” in order to put B at ease.  As you know, I wasn’t.  I told her, “No, I really am. I write YA.” Then I turned to B. “My latest book is about a boy band who are also ninja assassins. What’s yours about?”

Mrs. T was distracted by a commotion in the back of the room and left B and I staring at each other.

B blinked a couple of times, then he launched into a very detailed description of his manuscript. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who becomes a superhero. I’m leaving the description as vague as possible as to not betray his trust. However, B’s description of his manuscript was in no way vague. He explained a complicated plot involving the protagonist coping with suddenly becoming a superhero, living with workaholic parents (because he has to learn to solve his own problems, he said), and unearthing a dastardly plot put into motion years ago by the villain—all while impressing the girl.

While he spoke, a steady stream of students filed into the classroom. Almost every one of them stopped and listened as B outlined his work. By the time he’d finished, the entire class was enraptured. Several students applauded him. One boy slapped him on the back. One girl even hugged him.

While his ideas were fantastic, they weren’t the most fantastic thing about the unfolding scene.

The bell rang and everyone took their seats except for the student Mrs. T had singled out as the responsible helper of the class. The responsible helper pulled on my sleeve and then whispered into my ear. “I’ve been in school with him for years and I’ve never heard him talk to anyone unless a teacher forced him. You got him to talk! Out loud!!”

All I had to do was show genuine interest in his book and he instantly trusted me.

That, my friends and readers, is the power of words.

I got the students working on their assignments and B approached me cautiously, clutching a red spiral notebook. Behind him, a couple students pointed and whispered. I thought, for a brief moment, I was going to have to admonish the students for making fun of B, but I didn’t have to do that. The two boys stared in disbelief as B handed me his notebook. “I’ll let you read it,” he said.

I took the red notebook from him. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m thrilled to read it.”

One of the whispering students spoke out. “No fair! I’ve been asking to read his book for months!”

B sheepishly shrugged at him. As a writer, I fully understand the amount of courage it takes to let others see your work. No matter how much you’ve worked on it or how good you think it is, it’s still sharing a part of your soul with someone. For B, who barely could share his voice, sharing his soul would be a monumental thing.

I explained to the whispering student, “I think he wants another writer’s opinion first, but once he gets everything the way he wants, he might let you read it. Be patient. It takes time to write an entire book. Right, B?”

B shook his head vigorously, acknowledging the effort writing takes and making a silent promise to the student,  then returned to his seat.

As the class worked, I read B’s story. Then I did what I’ve done for every one of my writer friends who’ve trusted me with their stories—I made notes.

I borrowed some post-it notes from Mrs. T, attaching them to appropriate places in the red spiral notebook. The first one said: Great opening line! You managed to nail the complex requirements of a killer opening line that hooks you instantly!

I scribbled on one post-it: Your opening scene gets right into the action. That’s good!

Next I commented on the voice of his manuscript—it sounded exactly like a 12-year-old talking to his friends about an impossible thing happening.

Then, I read in astonishment and made this note: This is based on a real-life event? You did your research! Now I’m even more intrigued.

I read on. It was close to ten pages, front and back. I didn’t get to all of it, but I got far enough along to feel his soul inside the words. There is no doubt this kid is going to be a writer. When I finished reading, I was  eager to get home and work on my own manuscript. That’s what good writing does for me. It lights a fire inside my little writer heart.

I returned the red spiral notebook full of yellow post-its to B. And I told him to keep writing. I told him not to give up, even when it gets hard. I told him there were things in his brain that the world needs to read. There are stories and visions and ideas that only he can share.

B smiled. Then he clutched the red spiral notebook to his chest. “I’m going to finish it, but I don’t know how to turn it into a real book that the library would have. I want my book to be in the library because that’s where I learned to love books.”

Me too, B.

So I gave the world’s most condensed version of “what literary agents do” explanation to B. He wrote some things down in the very back of his red spiral notebook. (The other pages, of course, remain blank, awaiting the words that he’ll conjure later.)

I wish I could’ve given B my email address so he could keep my updated on his progress, but substitute teacher rules strictly prohibit giving/receiving contact information. I’ll have to just keep an eye on the library bookshelves.

What I Learned from Jason Bourne

…How to kick butt and look good doing it, obviously. But that’s not what I’m going to discuss today.

Readers of this blog already know I was an unpaid extra in Jason Bourne. I was fortunate enough to go to the Aria casino two days in February and witness the making of a big scene in the movie. Note: There will be NO SPOILERS here. Just generalizations.

The scene was the EXO-Con convention scene. In this particular scene a *thing* happened and chaos ensued. The first day that I filmed, there were about 300 extras in attendance. We were ushered into the room and filled in the seats at the front. We sat around a lot and then took our directions. (Those born in January, stand up when so-and-so is announced. Those born in Feb, boo when so-and-so is announced.) Then we played our parts as several actors—one of which was Oscar-winning Alicia Vikander—were introduced by the announcer at the Con. We cheered at the appropriate times, acted shocked at an announcement made, then we ran our little booties off after the *thing.*

And we did it over and over and over and over.

The director, Paul Greengrass, moved us all over that room. Some of us moved to the back, some slid over to the right, some stood up, some came in from the side as the scene was called.  He moved the cameras around just as much as he did the people. Each take was a different angle or different action by the crowd. It was fascinating to see how many different things he was doing with the same set of people and same set of words. We probably did the same scene upwards of twenty times on the first day. But that was just the first day. He did the same thing for the same scene for the entire week.

The second day I went to the set, Matt Damon was introduced into the scene. Because you can’t have a Bourne movie without Bourne, right? (We don’t talk about that “other” Bourne movie, okay?) I’ve already fangirl gushed over how awesome Matt Damon is, so I won’t do that again. But it’s important to note this was the same scene, only a few seconds after the *thing* occurs. On this day of filming there were 1200 extras in the building. Matt made the comment that it was the largest group of extras he’d ever worked with. So that’s a lot of moving parts and fangirly people hanging on his every word! But the filming was exactly the same as it had been. Only this time we got to watch Jason Bourne run around. Literally. And because he’s Matt Damon, the focus was completely on him the entire day. The scene stayed the same but he was the star. Just as you’d expect.

When I saw the movie, my friends and I scoured the scene, looking for my face. Sadly, we didn’t see me. (Though there will be a frame-by-frame investigation when the DVD is released!) What struck me as crazy was that very little of what he filmed that week actually made it into the film. Case in point: At the con, one of the actors gave a heart-felt speech in which he told the story of how he came to the conclusion to do this *bad thing* and why he did it and he ended up asking forgiveness in the end. It was probably a good 3-4 minutes long. On screen it was maybe 20 seconds.  The meat of his confession was left on the cutting room floor. But that didn’t matter because the viewer got what was going on with just that 20 seconds on the film. The extra 3 ½ minutes wasn’t necessary to understand this was a remorseful guy trying to make amends.

As I recalled all the fun (and exhaustion) from those days filming, I began to see where I could draw parallels from my experience as an extra and apply them to my writing.

CHANGE YOUR CAMERA ANGLES: Don’t be afraid to experiment with your scenes. Look at them from different angles. Would the plot be better served if someone else was speaking? Would the scene have more tension if it were outdoors while raining instead of on a comfy sofa? Would the character react one way externally and another internally? Move things around. Change things up. Look at your scenes through a close-up lens, then zoom out to wide angles to vary them.

USE YOUR STAR: I tend to love my supporting folks a lot—they’re the ones that typically share news the protagonist needs, or they argue with the MC, or simply add the comic flavor to a manuscript.  All that is fine, but don’t forget who your star is. Your protagonist’s reactions should be driving the plot. I mean, Jason Bourne needs to be taking out people with nothing but a bendy straw, not his best friend. (Well, if he had a best friend.)

EDITING IS CRUCIAL: That backstory about your MC scarred childhood when he stepped on a frog and is now terrified of frogs isn’t necessary. That is, unless he comes face-to-face with a hideous slimy frog. (Which is the worst thing I can imagine.) As writers, we bring our characters to life. And we often cannot do that unless we KNOW these characters. It’s fine for them to have a backstory, just keep mentions of it brief. If’ you can say it in twenty words as opposed to 350, then say it in twenty words. It makes things tighter and the reader will be less likely to wander away. Spend time really cutting out what isn’t competently necessary to drive the plot. Case in point: That car chase scene down the Las Vegas Strip? Paul Greengrass did not share why Jason Bourne took the particular car he did and the story of the guy he “borrowed” it from.What we say was Jason Bourne getting in the car and speeding away like a boss. That’s all we needed.

 

Keep writing and kicking butt like Jason Bourne!

Chasing After Motivation

Recently I was struck with a great motivational quote from what some would say is an odd source–a tweet made by a member of O-Town.

You remember O-Town, right? MTV’s Making the Band reality show where attractive and talented young men lined up to audition for their chance at stardom…back in the good ole days of Boy Band Supremacy.

(Are you singing “All or Nothing At All” right now? You should be.)

Yes, O-Town is still making music and touring. And yes, I have a ticket to see them in Vegas. YES, I am insanely excited about that. But this isn’t a post in which wax poetic about how amazing this particular boy band is. Maybe I’ll do that another time.

This is a post about motivation.

Last Wednesday O-Town member Jacob Underwood so aptly tweeted the following:

If you wait and want, you’ll spend a lifetime waiting and wanting. GO GET!!!

It really struck me because he’s right.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a child. It was one of those unattainable dreams that I answered when adults would ask me “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never really thought I would actually do it.

Fast forward to adulthood: (I promise I am an adult) After having tried this writing thing seriously almost four years and not finding that big break yet, I can get a little discouraged. I have writer friends that are securing agents and getting book deals, indie publishing and I am thrilled for them. But sometimes it becomes difficult to not land in the “But why not meeeee?” zone. When I get there, it’s hard for me to pull out the WIP and make myself make it better.

But that’s what I have to do if I’m going to succeed.

Just this morning I emailed my crit partner whining about needing to finish line edits on this manuscript, and rewrite my pitch for another. I didn’t want to do either of those things. It was too daunting to think about it. To me, the fun part is the first draft where the words and images come easy. The rewrites are challenging. But the rewrites are where the magic happens.

So I ignored my huge pile of new books that I got at the RT Booklover’s convention and focused on Jacob’s tweet that’s been post-it noted in between my “We Bought a Zoo*” inspirational quote and “JSS**” reminder. I turned up the music (O-Town’s Chasing After You, specifically. I defy you not to love that song.) and I set about GOING and GETTING.

I’m pleased to say that I got a lot done and I’m even closer to my goals.

If you’re a writer that’s struggling with motivation, I challenge you to find your own boy band. Or heavy metal band. Or classical orchestra. Whatever you’re into. And if music doesn’t work, use magazine photos or poems or inspirational quotes with cat pictures. Whatever you find, grab onto it and don’t let go. Keep writing through the hard stuff, keep querying, smile through rejections and write some more. Don’t sit back and wait for something great to happen to you. Like Jacob says, GO GET!

 

*From WE BOUGHT A ZOO. (Imagine Matt Damon saying this): Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty second of just embarrassing bravery and I promise you, something great will come of it. 

**Just Survive Somehow from THE WALKING DEAD

 

 

Not Just Another Tuesday. AKA That Time I Was In A Movie With Matt Damon

I pride myself on using clever titles, but try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything that fit the epic scope of what I did last Tuesday other than to simply say it like it is.

Last week, I crossed something off of my bucket list. I was a movie extra. And not only was I movie extra, but I was a movie extra in what will probably be one of the biggest movies of this year. And I was a movie extra in a movie starring my absolute favorite, most talented and well-deserving-of-any-kind-of-accolades-you-can-give-him actor of this generation, Matt Damon.

It’s been a few days now and I’m still grinning, well as wide as Matt himself.

MD smile

(NOT MY PHOTO. Sadly. Credit: Giphy)

I can’t publicly post where I was, what I was doing, or anything having to do with the movie. And I wouldn’t. That’s not solely because of the nondisclosure agreement I signed, but also because of the respect I have for Matt, Paul Greengrass, and the production itself. I’ll be able to share a few details after the movie premieres, but until that happens, I can tell you what it was like for me to be enclosed in the same space as one of the biggest most recognizable movie stars on this planet. (And you know, Mars.)

To begin with, I did not meet Matt, speak to Matt, take photos of Matt or otherwise engage personally with Matt. Nor did I meet any principal actors or production crew involved with the movie. What I did do is get to see them work for two days. And I think that’s the greatest Blessing from this whole experience.

There were a lot of extras to deal with in this particular scene. And not once did I see any person from the Director down to the poor PA who was tasked with getting us water dismiss us or treat us with anything but respect. In fact, Paul Greengrass and his Asst Directors went out of their way to explain what shots were being filmed, pump us up for the scene and regale us with stories while the cameras were being repositioned. I can’t say what it’s like on other movie sets, but I’d bet all the money it’s taken to rescue Matt Damon in movies that it isn’t like that on every movie set. To Director Paul Greengrass, every single person in the room was just as vital to the movie as Matt Damon. And that says so much. I felt it every time he spoke to us and the crew.

And then there’s Matt. Anyone who knows me knows I have had straight up genuine respect for Matt since Good Will Hunting. (I even blogged about Matt. More than once.) Last week it was very rewarding to be able to look at the guy and KNOW that every ounce of respect, every award, everything he’s ever been given is absolutely deserved. He’s got the reputation of being the nicest, hardest working guy in Hollywood because he is the nicest, hardest working guy in Hollywood.

Again, I want to stress I had no personal interaction with him, but I was there when he walked on set and told a room full of people how absolutely important we were for this scene. And how he’d been there as long as we had (HOURS) and that he couldn’t express how much he appreciated our work and our attitude and our respect. At that moment, he went from being one of the biggest celebrities alive to just a guy wearing a black baseball cap and carrying a Starbucks cup. He was there to work. We were there to work. So we went to work.

And it was thrilling to watch him do what he does. It was just as entertaining to see the crew operate and feel the love Matt and Paul Greengrass have for each other. Their commitment, and in turn our commitment–as seemingly unimportant as it was–to the creative process gave me an experience I won’t forget. Ever.

I have no idea if my face will show up on the big screen or not. Even if I end up on the cutting room floor, I’m thankful for experience.  It’s just not every day that you get to spend almost 12 hours with Matt Damon. And I have to say that Post-Damon Depression is a thing. The struggle is real, y’all.  I find myself thinking, “What do I do with my life now?”

MD what up

(Also not mine. Giphy again.)

Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme, but true nonetheless. I’ve been watching a lot of movies and tv in the past fews days and I’ve found that I’m completely fixated on the background players. Sometimes, I have to pause and watch again because I’ve missed something in the action due to focusing so hard on the extras.

This made me realize that Matt and Greengrass were right. The faceless people, the miniscule details, the minutia that encompasses “everything in the shot but Matt Damon” give authenticity. They add to credibility of the characters and ground them in reality so we can sit in the theatres and root for them. They build the world that we’ve shown up to see.

I’m going to apply that concept to my writing. And I’m going to notice it in movies. And I’m going to do my best to honor it, because I truly felt honored by having the experience of being one of them.

By the Numbers

I just finished the first draft of my YA Fantasy manuscript based on the ancient Mayan culture. (And inspired by an episode of Ancient Aliens!) I thought I’d let you in on the editing process as I experienced it this time. If you’re a writer, maybe you can glean some tips and ideas from my process. And perhaps even feel good about yourself as I reveal how bad my first drafts are!

After I typed “THE END” (Okay, I didn’t actually type that. I typed hashtags. The End just sounds more poetic) I let the MS rest for a day or two. Ideally I’d let it simmer longer, but I’m inpatient and have some time to kill right now, so I dove right back in.

My word count prior to this edit was 79,000 words. Word count after edit is 77,000.

The manuscript was started on March 21, 2015 and the first draft was completed Jan 2, 2016. Though there were about 4 months in that period where I relocated and worked on another MS.  So I’d estimate 5 months working time on this.

This story is told in present tense with 2 POV characters– a girl who lives a primitive life in a valley and a boy from a more advanced civilization who lives on a mountain.  That’s all I can share right now. Oh, there’s kissing. I can share that.

After I read through and tightened the MS overall, I went back and took advantage of that ever-so-amazing FIND button. Bill Gates (or whomever) deserves all the accolades for that little thing. It is my best editing friend. (Besides my crit partners, of course!)

I utilized FIND and REPLACE in 3 different instances. Two character name changes and one name that I inexplicably decided to spell differently throughout the MS. (Ah, such is the life of a pantser!)

For this manuscript, I researched the ancient Maya people and  culture. I tried to get as close to possible to authentic Mayan words or Mayan-sounding words without offending the Mayans who are still living today. As a result, I created 29 “magic” words and added them to my Word dictionary.

My last step was to go through and use that FIND button again, searching out those pesky FILTER WORDS and CRUTCH WORDS.

Crutch words are words the author uses often. I usually have 1 or 2 words that creep into manuscripts without my permission. In this case, I used a lot of “beautiful” and “strong” in the first draft of this MS. This is not surprising as these are the most prevalent words the 2 main POV characters use to describe each other! They’re still in there, but I managed to trim them down and use other descriptors like gorgeous, stunning, rugged.

Filter words are words that don’t add anything to your sentences. They often appear in manuscripts because people use them in their daily vernacular. But they serve no purpose and slow down the action.

Below are some common filter and crutch words and how I fixed them are:

  • Really – This word crops up when I tried to put emphasis on something. Oftentimes I can find another word that conveys the feeling I want. I used it 22 times in my MS. I narrowed that down to 9. Here are some examples on ways I axed “really.”

PRE EDIT:  She steels herself for some really bad news.

POST: She squares her shoulders, steeling herself for bad news.

(I also got rid of the unneeded “some” in the first sentence. Now the sentence is more fluid, plus it shows action.)

PRE EDIT: We have the map and it doesn’t really tell us which way to go.

POST: We have the map and it doesn’t tell us which way to go.

PRE EDIT: This guy is really getting on my nerves.

POST: This guy is unraveling my last nerve.

  • Very –  Another word that adds nothing. You can get rid of the ‘verys’ by coming up with a more descriptive word to use.

For example: I changed one character from “very pretty” to “stunning.” Another character went from being “very tired” to being “exhausted.”

  • Begin/began to – I went from 21 instances down to 7. The remaining 7 were times when the character actually started to do something, but was interrupted. Make your characters act, not begin to act.

PRE EDIT: The villagers begin to panic and scatter.

POST EDIT: The villagers panic and scatter.

(Because if you are panicked enough to scatter, you’re not going to stop, right? You’re going to get the heck out of there. Beginning to panic and scatter implies the villagers will run a few feet, then stop for some reason.)

  • Probably – Similar to “really,” using “probably” slows down the action. Your characters should act with purpose. “Probably” shows they’re guessing or unsure. If that makes sense for the character, then it’s okay. Otherwise, you don’t need it. I went from 12 to 2 “probablys”. Both rmaining cases are the POV character being flippant and sarcastic, as his personality dictates.
  • Smile/Laugh/Nod – When I give you these numbers, you’re going to think I wrote a book about a bunch of happy agreeable people. That is not the case. I have a tendency to use smiling, laughing and nodding as place holders in my MS. This story has a lot of dialogue and a lot of characters. To break up the dialogue and show (not tell) who is speaking, I find myself letting the characters react to other speakers or events by smiling, laughing or nodding. Now that’s not a bad thing, unless it happens so much that all they’re doing is walking around like they’re on Prozac.

PRE EDIT: Corvus laughs. He approaches Araylee with a sneer, drinking her in with ruthless eyes.

POST: Corvus approaches Araylee with a sneer, drinking her in with ruthless eyes.

In my first draft, Corvus was reacting to something another character said prior to this line. He laughed about it, then went on to approach Araylee. But upon further review, his laugh did nothing to advance the action. The important thing is that he approaches Araylee, not that he is amused by came before.

PRE EDIT: He nods his head at me, then turns toward the Stargazer.

POST: He bows his head an infinitesimal amount, then faces the Stargazer.

Not only is the edit more descriptive, it shows the intent of the character. The POV character is implying that this character is doing the minimal amount as possible because he doesn’t WANT to nod his head.

PRE EDIT: I nod my head in understanding.

POST: I understand.

I went from 307 smile/laugh/nods to 68. (Because sometimes characters get to smile. Usually after the kissing.)

  • Say/Says/Said –Ah, the dialogue tag. I can’t seem to get away from the dialogue tag in my first drafts. As I mentioned above, I have a lot of dialogue. When I’m drafting I don’t stop to think about how much I use them, but when I plugged “say” into my FIND search, I wanted to cry. 224 times I used say. After this pass, I’m down to 79. Because sometimes there really is no better way.

You can scrap say/says/said if there are only 2 speakers. Having a whole page of He said/She said is boring and redundant. Instead, use action to break up your dialogue.

If you need to use dialogue tags, consider other descriptive words. Words like: declare, admit, joked, replied, growled, hissed, sneered, etc… But be cautious about the tone of your MS. Using alternative words can make the MS sound stuffy or formal.

PRE EDIT: “Good evening Archer,” she says. She swishes her golden hair over her shoulders

POST: “Good evening Archer,” she purrs, swishing her golden hair over her shoulder, immediately drawing my brother’s eyes.

(Doesn’t that give you a much better idea of who this girl is anyway?)

  • Feel – Feel is another one of my favorites during first drafts. Emotions are important, yo. And my characters just feel all over the place in my first drafts. But too many “feels” don’t actually bring the reader “THE” feels. Oftentimes it separates the reader from the emotion you’re hoping to convey. To say a character feels something is telling. Have them show their feelings.

PRE EDIT: I feel her apprehension in the air around us

POST: Her apprehension hangs in the air around us

PRE EDIT: I can feel Archer’s presence behind me.

POST: Archer’s presence trails behind me, like a shadow, dark and ominous

PRE EDIT: A feeling of obligation sets in my bones and dread swims in my blood.

POST: Obligation sets in my bones, dread swims in my blood.

I don’t even want to tell you how many times I used “feel” in this manuscript. Right now I’m a touch over 90 “feel/feelings.”  My goal is to narrow that down a lot more before I submit this to an agent.

I hope my first draft editing can help other writers find ways to improve their own works. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but these are the tendencies I cling to while writing. All writers should take note of their own crutch words and filter words. Kill those little darlings!

Other common words to check for in your manuscripts.

That – almost never needed

Definitely, certainly

Rather, quite, somewhat, somehow

Down, up – almost never needed. (As in: reached up, bent down. Just: reach, bend)

Think/thought, wonder/wondered – much like feel. Use action and descriptors.

Inhale/exhale/breathe – these are overused, especially in YA. And for the love of Bakab, the Mayan god of the Four Directions, do NOT have your character exhale a shaky breath they didn’t know they were holding!

 

Me and Jeff Goldblum

As I backed out of my driveway yesterday, I noticed a dead fly on the dashboard of my car. It was a pretty big fly. Big enough for me to detect flecks of green and gold in its lifeless body. I thought to myself, “Poor guy, he probably fried to death in the sweltering southern sun.”  Then I thought, “What are you thinking? It’s a fly, a pesky, buzzing, menace to society. It doesn’t matter if he fried, choked, or succumbed to old age! IT’S A FLY. Dead flies are good.”

I vowed to get rid of the corpse as soon as I came to the first traffic stop.

So I drove along my route as I normally do, singing along with Ed Sheeran (because he’s Ed Sheeran). I was right at the bridge of the song, time to really belt it out, when I approached the stop sign. I applied the brakes and something surprising happened. The force of the car slowing flipped the dead fly over. He was no longer belly-up as he had been. He was suddenly standing there on his spiky spindly fly legs. And I thought, “Hm, SCIENCE!” Then I tried to remember what type of force it was that created the phenomenon and how many legs flies have.

When I passed through the intersection and was underway again, naturally, I paid attention to the road and the other drivers. But, something caught my eye. It was a tiny flicker of movement first, but it increased until I had no choice but to investigate. Imagine my surprise when I realized the fly was alive and he was staring in my direction, taunting me, daring me to swat him away.

I knew at that point there were three possibilities. One, the fly had been playing opossum, or some insect version of opossum (ladybug?). Two, the virus is real and this fly is a Walker. Or three, it was stunned and had regained consciousness. I was forced to quickly discount my first two wild (but creative!) theories, so I decided my third theory was correct. This fly was a fighter and it wanted to live.

So I named him Jeff Goldblum.

I watched Jeff Goldblum attempt to crawl across my dashboard. He was wobbly, but he was moving. He inched along, a few steps at a time. Soon he had somehow managed to limp almost five inches toward the window. See, Jeff Goldblum was a smart fly and he instinctively the way to freedom.  (Or remembered the way he came in.)

By the time I turned onto the street by my office, I was rooting for Jeff Goldblum. I cracked my window to show him the way, like a lighthouse shining through the  dawn mist guiding sailors home. He fluttered his wings, bouncing and hitting the dashboard hard, but he would not give up. I spoke to him. “You can do it, “I said. “Fly, Jeff Goldlum, fly!” I said.

For a brief shining moment he took flight. He ascended into the air, hovered for what was probably a lifetime to him. (Roughly three seconds for me.) Then he plummeted downward,crashing in front of me and slowly drifting his way toward the gap in my steering wheel column.

I gasped in horror. Was this the end for Jeff Goldblum? It couldn’t be. He had a life yet to live. He had places to buzz and leftover food to devour and people to annoy. I didn’t want him to be dead.  I wanted him to live.

After what seemed a long time to me (probably another three seconds in actuality) Jeff Goldblum twittered to life. I had never been so excited! (At least that morning anyway.)

So I did what any good and benevolent lifeform would do. I used a discarded menu found in the recesses of my car and I scooped Jeff Goldblum from his precarious perch and I carefully opened the car door, depositing him among the flowers in our beautifully landscaped flower bed.

I don’t know what happened to Jeff Goldblum. I’d like to think he regained his full strength, flew to a nearby rosebush and met the fly of his dreams (Geena Davis, of course.)  After a honeymoon in the Landfill, they’ll come back and make hundreds of little fly babies.

(Okay, maybe not the fly babies part.)

The moral of this story. writers, is to give your characters goals and then give them a thousand different roadblocks to keep them from them.  I don’t like flies, yet when I found one that faced an insurmountable odds, I rooted for him.  I wanted him to succeed in getting to freedom, so much so that I helped him to do it.

Sometimes it is difficult to put our characters into challenging situations, but if we do, we create characters that readers WANT to win. They journey with them, experiencing the pain, the torment, the obstacles, along with them. They have no choice but to keep reading to see them succeed, or sometimes, fail.

I’m going to remember Jeff Goldblum because he was a profound, if not strange, reminder to make my characters struggle to get what they want. I want to give my readers someone and something to root for.

Like Jeff Goldblum.