No matter how far afield I travel, I always return to the senses. This past week, my creative writing students explored writing about sensory detail by describing their hair. (As soon as I have parent consent forms signed, you will be able to read their amazing work.)
We spent time old school talking about the five senses and listing words a writer might use to evoke these senses. Next, we took a color walk to capture all we could find around campus of a specific color. Finally, we closed our eyes and listened to the sounds in the building and room. We even plugged our ears and closed our eyes to see what me might smell.
By the end of the week, students were ready to hone in on one idea and explore their senses. I read them "Hairs" from Sandra Cisneros' THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET to inspire them.
If you want to help your writing come alive, tap into the senses. Five easy ways to add detail to your writing.
1. Sight: select one visual piece of your story (a building, bench, street, tree; something minor). List ten qualities that describe it. Choose three and exaggerate them. Come up with a metaphor to add dimension. (EX: In winter, her neighbor's tree bent like an old woman, dragging its limbs along the tired sidewalk.)
2. Sound: as above, but this time you are finding something your character will hear. (EX: The wheels thumped along the pavement, a steady heartbeat in the night.)
3. Taste: as above, but maybe applying taste to something one wouldn't normally put in their mouth. (EX: I could taste the assignment. Its bitterness coated the tip of my tongue, and I wanted to spit it out onto the just waxed classroom floor.)
4. Smell: as the taste exercise. (EX: His angry words burned in my nostrils; their ashiness wafted inside me.)
5. Texture: this sense offers a variety of options. (EX: Her jagged words cut through me. The night air caressed my cheeks.)
If you are in the middle of a project, find a scene that's lacking life. Infuse it with sensory detail. If this is your first draft, go crazy. Go overboard. Write drunk, edit sober. (Thanks, Mr. Hemingway.) Have fun.
Share your thoughts on the senses below. What works for you?
This past week, I've been taking a fine tooth comb to my current manuscript, sorting through the fodder to uncover the gold. It is a tedious task.
It reminds me of something author Shannon Hale said: Working on a first draft is like "shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build sandcastles."
I believe at the end of this process, I will need a stronger eyeglass prescription. However, my pain is your gain. Each go through of the manuscript brings me closer to the story I want. I hope these tips are useful.
Here are five important items on my editing checklist.
1. Three or more read-throughs to flesh out the story. You don't really know your story until you get to the end. Sometimes the REAL story doesn't show for several read-throughs. The plot is not the story. Listen to Martin Scorsese explain this.
2. Pluck out filter words (see, watch, look, seem, like, feel, just, that, so, then, etc.). I go through my manuscript once for each of these. I might seek out more than a dozen filter words. Utilize your software's find/replace. (I keep a list of filter words on Scrivener's Scratch Pad.)
3. Review each character for consistency in tone, physical features, word choice, background, and history. That's a read-through for each. This might be another ten or twelve reads of the story, depending on the number of characters. Each time I read with that character in mind, I consider her arc and backstory; I view her as the hero of her own story. This will strengthen the entire novel.
4. Observe the settings for consistency in descriptions, distance irregularities, and vivid portrayals. Consider Hemingway and Steinbeck. Their settings become characters in their stories.
5. Review use of language. Look for: overuse of idioms, use of clichés (yikes!), inappropriate synonyms, repeated words, useless words. (This might take three times, but this is the heart of your writing. If you can master use of language in your manuscripts, you will write prose that flows like silk.)
One more: Read your story as someone else. First, you'll need to put your manuscript away for a week or two (more if you can bear it). Next, consider your readers; who are they? what do they look like? Embody that reader, and enjoy your story for the first time. The best way to do this is by downloading a word document and emailing it to your Kindle App. Reading your story on an eReader highlights things you might never notice on your laptop or desktop. (Beta readers and critique partners are great here, too.)
If you've been counting, you'll see I read through my manuscript up to thirty or more times. I never get bored. If I do, I need to go back and fix that.
I would love to hear what you have on your editing checklist. Please share below.
My apologies for being a day late with this week's blog of writing tips. We returned yesterday from a beautiful stay in New York. A week of family fun, the laptop tucked safely away. Today, back on the West Coast, I'm wide awake at 6AM and ready to write!
While scrolling through emails, ads, junkmail and trolling favorite Twitter accounts, I discovered something I'd forgotten about - the Scrivener Scratch Pad. If you use the writing app, you may or may not know all about this awesome feature. If you don't have Scrivener yet, but you're considering it, this may help you make that decision.
As you know, I'm a huge Scrivener fan. The app has organized my writing life, leaving me more time and energy to create.
What you need to know about the Scrivener Scratch Pad (on a Mac):
1. The pad is a great place to make lists of websites or links to articles and research that will help you with your story. Keeping the pad open means you can easily add a link or idea even when you aren't working on your project. You can keep the pad open at all times - no matter if you are working on Scrivener or not. Simply right click the Scriv icon on your dock.
2. You must open your projects then hide them so they can be available for the Scratch Pad feature.
3. The Scratch Pad will float in front of all other open windows. This enables you to type notes on the pad while viewing those sites in the background.
4. You can add multiple notes in the pad. Simply click the + sign to add a new note. If you are working on several projects, you can choose which one this note belongs to. Click SEND TO, and a variety of pathways will lead you to the location you want to drop in your note.
5. Click the x or OK to HIDE your pad when you're done. When you return to your project, you can open Scratch Pad in Window. This opens all your notes on the pad, so you can easily see what you've added. No need to remember, Scriv does that for you!
Scrivener won't write your story, but its organizational and time-saving features will enable you to devote your creative energies to what you do best.
What are your favorite Scrivener features? Share them in the comments below.
If you are a new or seasoned writer who seeks honest and constructive feedback, you might consider finding a critique partner. This writer will help you with your finished or developing manuscript. If you were ever to win an award for your story, this is one of the people you would thank.
Previously, you've heard me rave about my editor, Jane MacKay. While Jane provides constructive and detailed feedback on manuscripts and queries, I do pay her because she's a professional. And, even though I use critique partners and beta readers, I still hire Jane after they are through.
First of all, you need to know this: a critique partner is not a beta reader.
Beta Reader: someone who loves to read and can provide you with valuable feedback about your characters' authenticity, your plot's plausibility, your setting's inconsistencies, etc.
Critique Partner: a writer who wants to trade manuscripts for feedback on grammatical technicalities, style, flow, and all the beta reader stuff.
Mom: the person who loves you no matter how crappy your writing is or how many times you drop an Oxford comma.
Ryan Gosling: the guy who motivates you (or is it just me?) to get it done.
If you read between the lines, you might notice that you qualify as a critique partner for most other writers and maybe a beta reader for someone outside your genre. For instance, I write YA, but I love a good mystery. I'd be a good beta reader for mystery writers (but please don't send me a ms to read or my critique partners will hunt you down. Time is valuable.)
Currently, I'm partnering with several writers. I recently started working with aspiring YA author Brook Ellis. We met through Miss Snark's Critique Partner Dating Service (love that name!). Since three-thousand miles separates us, Brook and I exchange manuscripts via Google Docs and email. So far, it works. I'm also part of a local writer's group who met at a SCBWI event. Adult fiction writer Gwynne Jackson, picture writer and illustrator Evangeline, and I also exchange work via Google Docs. In addition, because we live within a five-mile radius, we meet monthly at someone's house.
I feel extremely fortunate to have these amazing writers in my life. Previously, I was unsure about working with a critique partner. I was embarrassed my work might not measure up; I was afraid I wouldn't have the time. Wrong. Wrong. Love, love them. When you want to, you can accomplish quite a lot.
So here are my top five reasons why you need a critique partner (CP).
A critique partner will:
1. Provide honest feedback. You are not paying them. They are not your mom. If something isn't working, or if something's truly amazing, they will let you know.
2. Have the skill to help you. Since your CPs are writers, they will not only be able to tell you where something's gone awry, they will be able to offer some pretty great suggestions on how to fix it.
3. Help you grow as a writer. Over the course of time, your CPs will become great teachers. Once they've learned your writing style, they will recognize your weaknesses and help you accentuate your strengths.
4. Not waste your time. They want what you want: good, constructive, honest feedback. If they can't provide this, they understand you might find a new partner. If you're good and helpful (because you're doing 1-3), they will make your time worth it.
5. Make you laugh. Make you cry. Mostly because of No. 1, your CP will sometimes tell you things about your writing that will make you feel so good, you'll laugh. However, every rose has its thorns. Because of No.1, your CP will also tell you some brutally honest facts about where your writing or story is falling down. The hope is that, because of No. 2, you will understand that the crying will help with No. 3.
If your relationship with your CPs look different, maybe it's not working. Remember, it's a partnership. As in any relationship, know when to get out and know when you're not doing your part.
I would love to hear your thoughts on finding and working with critique partners. Please share them in the comments below.
I'm always open to finding more CPs in order to create the best stories.
When I was younger, people told me that I should be a writer because I was a good speller. Today, I laugh at that. I know so many amazing storytellers who can't spell to save their lives. And you know what? We've got spellcheck. You don't need to be a great speller to write a great story.
The same could be said about grammar. Don't know an Oxford comma from a comma splice? That shouldn't keep you from writing the next Great American Novel.
For more thoughts on grammar, read the sage advice of my amazing editor, Jane MacKay.
Grammar Tips by Jane MacKay
People seem to use the word “grammar” very loosely, as a sort of all-encompassing term covering anything to do with language and how it’s used, but grammar refers specifically to “the system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language [and] the system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language” (American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.). In basic terms, the rules and guidelines of grammar govern how words and punctuation are used in relation to each other to convey a desired meaning. Of course, that’s still a very broad category.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my years of copy editing is that few of the rules of grammar are hard-and-fast rules. There are some that must be followed or you risk looking uneducated or, worse, causing misunderstanding -- e.g., “you’re” means “you are” and “your” means “belonging to you” – but many others are open to interpretation, such as comma placement, hyphen usage, splitting an infinitive (e.g., “to go boldly” vs. “to boldly go”), or that persistent Thistlebottomism, ending a sentence with a preposition (up with which I will put).
How to improve your understanding and knowledge of grammar?
Honestly, some people’s brains just don’t work that way and no matter how hard they try, the rules of grammar just aren’t going to stick in their head. And that’s fine. Use your creative talent to create and do your best during the revision and editing phases to make your writing as clean as possible. Then ask a grammar-adept friend, fellow writer, family member to correct errors they find, and then, if possible, hire a copy editor to polish and put the professional touch on your manuscript.
A few tips for becoming more grammar adept:
1. Pay close attention to the corrections made by your editor, and ask for explanation if you don’t understand why a certain change was made. If the editor makes a particular type of correction over and over again, make a note of that error (with before and after examples) and keep it where you can easily refer to it so you don’t keep making the same mistake.
2. Read high-quality and well-edited writing. Pay close attention when reading. Osmosis is an underrated method for improving the quality of your writing. It obviously works negatively – we all absorb poor habits of speech and writing from what we encounter every day – but it can also be a powerful positive influence.
3. Study grammatical rules and guidelines in bite-sized pieces. Don’t overwhelm yourself. The Purdue OWL (online writing lab) website has a well-organized section of explanations and examples. Search around and find a resource that works for you. (Hint: a reference librarian can point you in the right direction.)
4. Know your weaknesses. Triple check those things when you’re revising and editing your work. Use reference books, reputable online reference materials, ask a reference librarian for help.
5. Study a foreign language. I gained most of my formal knowledge of grammar from studying German for nine years.
Thanks, Jane! You can contact Jane directly, visit her website, or find her on Facebook to learn more about the world of an editor.
More grammar tips soon.
In the meantime, if you have a comment or question for Jane, share it below.
Two weeks back, we spent time listening to editor Jane MacKay share her insights on why writers need a good editor. (Full disclosure: Jane is my editor and she is amazing!) Jane has worked as an editor since 2007. She takes on independent clients as well as offers her services to a small press she co-founded, Medusa's Muse.
Today, Jane and I discuss spelling. Fasten your seat belts, this will not be pretty.
Okay, Jane, let's talk spelling. You come from the other side of the world from me. I’m a California girl, and I believe you were born in New Zealand. Could you list some of the most common words you see misspelled in manuscripts or documents that land in your inbox?
You are correct. I grew up in New Zealand and have lived in the U.S. since my early 20s, so I’ve now spent about half my life in each country. New Zealand follows British spelling (e.g., colour, dialogue), so I’ve had to become ambidextrous in that regard, although I edit mostly texts by U.S. authors. I don’t know that I’ve noticed any particularly common spelling mistakes, beyond the ones that are constantly being pointed out in memes: your vs. you’re, its vs. it’s, etc. Those are more accurately called grammatical rather than spelling errors. I think the red wiggly line of spellcheck helps writers correct most of their spelling errors before the MS comes to me.
Yes, I love my spellcheck! So maybe there are particular kinds of words that trip up the average writer.
One thing to watch out for is homonyms – words that sound the same but are spelled differently, e.g., to, too, two. One common error that I do see a lot is confusion between breath and breathe, loath and loathe, and other similar pairs of words where the final “e” affects the sound and the meaning. In most of these cases (I haven’t looked to see if this is a pattern without exceptions), the word with the final “e” is the verb. The “e” also creates the hard “th” sound at the end. Thus:
breath (“breth”) = noun: a breath
breathe (“breeth”) = verb: to breathe
One way to remember this is that you need the extra “e” for energy for action! Verbs are action words.
Yes, I know one you have tried to help me with is bear v. bare. My answer was to not use it!
If you have your own questions for Jane or would like to know more about her services, check out her website.
Jane will return soon with more tips on grammar and great online resources. If you have a question now, leave it the comments below.