Sample: Sweet NOTHING

I promise I will get my weekly #writetip blog post up, but to tide you over, here is a sample from the historical romance I am about to begin querying, Sweet NOTHING:

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Peach Tree (cover art) by Brian H. Bullard

The house was clearly built and furnished to accommodate several rowdy children. Many of the rooms were left as they had been when the offspring left home, a few of them from previous generations before Thomas and Walter. Elizabeth furrowed her brow, wondering what could possess a family to engage in such neglect.

The door at the far end of the floor, opposite Granger’s room, appeared never to have been opened at all. The knob was heavily tarnished and the door stuck. She attempted to shove it open, and had to throw her weight against it to get it open.

“Mrs. Granger!” Daisy squeaked, emerging from the room where they had just been. She froze next to her in the doorway, eyes wide.

Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. The floral pattern on the bedspread had faded in two broad swaths where the sun fell on it through the window. A continental uniform had been spread at the foot of the bed. The sun had faded a grey square over the shoulder.

Daisy tugged at Elizabeth’s sleeve. “We’re not allowed in here,” she whispered.

“Of course,” Elizabeth replied, just as softly, although she didn’t understand their need to whisper. She backed out of the room and closed the door reverently. “Daisy,” she asked, turning to the next door, “how long have you been with Granger Plantation?”

The girl’s face lit up. “Two more weeks makes two years, ma’am.”

“Have you ever met Mr. Granger’s brother, Walter?”

Daisy’s smile disappeared. “No, ma’am, and I wouldn’t bring him up around Master Thomas, either, if I was you.”

The next door was just a thin layer of wood, attempting to blend into the wall. The handle was the only indication it was there.

“Did he die?” She took the handle and attempted to turn it. It scraped reluctantly.

“No, ma’am, not that I know of. But Master Thomas gets cross when people bring him up.”

Another mystery, Elizabeth thought wryly. But with the way her own sibling had been behaving, she could understand.

Yanking, she popped the door open to reveal a narrow staircase leading up and around a corner. The stairwell was dark and curtained with cobwebs. Waterbugs scattered from the sudden light. Elizabeth wrinkled her nose and peered into the darkness.

“Don’t do it, ma’am.” Daisy was whispering again.

“Oh, what’s the worst that could happen?” Elizabeth gathered her skirts tightly around her. “I could be trapped in a cold, dark place for as long as I shall live?” She snorted bitterly.

It was dark, but it was not cold. Oppressive heat pressed down on her as she ascended the stairs. She brushed the cobwebs away, puffing and grunting in disgust. The stairwell grew dark, then lightened again as she approached the top. Light crept in the cracks around a narrow door.

“I believe—” she called down, but lowered her voice when she realized Daisy was still right behind her. “I believe it leads to the roof.”

The door was latched with a simple hasp, held by a dowel and a generous amount of rust. The dowel crumbled in her hand as she attempted to pull it free. A few tugs of the hasp scraped away enough rust for her to pull the door open.

Sunlight blinded them. Elizabeth shielded her eyes and stepped out into the open. A gentle breeze caressed her skin, relieving her from the stuffy heat. She gasped as her eyes adjusted. She was standing on a widow’s walk, about three feet wide, lined with wrought iron railing. She circled the walk, mouth hanging open in awe: She could see the entire plantation from here, as well as her father’s. Turning south and squinting, she could see the rooftops in town.

Daisy pressed herself against the wall next to the door. Pale and trembling, she stared down off the edge. When Elizabeth followed her gaze, she pressed herself against the wall next to her. They were so high! The cobblestones of the courtyard were far below them.

“If… If it’s all right with you, Mrs. Granger,” Daisy said in a shaking voice, “I’d like to go… down… back down… downstairs.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath to keep her voice from shaking as well. “Of course.”

“It would sho’ make me feel better, ma’am, if you came with me.”

Raising her eyes from the courtyard to the grounds, Elizabeth shook her head. Here, she could be alone. She could be herself again.

“I think I would much rather stay here,” she murmured.

“Please, ma’am…”

“You may go,” Elizabeth said firmly. “I will come down if I need you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Slowly, Daisy descended. Elizabeth bade her feet move again, and circled the walk, allowing the breeze to tug her along. This time she moved decidedly closer to the wall. Her eyes roved the fields until she found Granger at the edge of the peach orchard. He and his two men—they must be Jacob and the foreman, Jeremiah—stood around a crate of early peaches. Granger held one to his face and passed it along.

Elizabeth giggled. When she was small, she would sneak into the orchard and steal the best peaches she could find. Her mother put a quick end to this one day when Elizabeth came home, sticky with the fragrant juice. She had not eaten peaches since, and her mouth began to water.

Stepping forward, she placed her hand on the iron railing. The crossbeam groaned loose and broke. She stepped back, wincing as it clanged against the bars, thudded onto the roof, and clattered down to the courtyard.

Thomas Granger jerked his head up. She could feel his eyes land on her. Throwing down the peach in his hand, he shot toward the house, his long legs making a short trip of the distance.

Elizabeth huffed. She was obviously not hurt. Sighing, she started down the stairs, closing the door and scraping the hasp back into place.

“Elizabeth!”

Her face burned as she came to the foot of the stairwell. She could hear Granger and his men pounding upstairs.

“Elizabeth?” At first, there was panic in Granger’s voice and face. When he realized she was unharmed, the panic disappeared. Anger replaced it. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I was just—”

“You could have been killed! How dare you—”

“How dare I?”

The men on the stairs backed away from the shouting. Jacob stood at the top, hands behind his back and eyes on the ground. Daisy, tears streaming down her face, stood by him and imitated his posture.

“I forbid you from going up there!” Granger was yelling now. “Do I make myself clear?”

“The roof! The library! Your bed!” Elizabeth shouted back. Granger recoiled, snapping his mouth shut. The red faded from his face, but she continued. “Pray, tell me where else I am forbidden to go—in my own home!”

“This is not—” Granger choked on his words. He pointed to the stairwell behind her. “Never,” he said in a fierce whisper. He pointed to the dusty soldier’s room. “Never,” he repeated. He pointed behind him, to his own bedroom door. “Never!”

The last banishment stabbed her. Tears filled her eyes and threatened to fall. She dropped her face to hide them and gathered her skirts. She hurried to the stairs.

“Where are you doing now?”

“I’m going home!” Her voice broke. She hoped he had not heard.

“Elizabeth…” His tone softened, but his voice was still rough from yelling. She ignored him. Tears streamed freely down her face by the time she stepped into the courtyard.

SNCover.jpg


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Do’s and Don’t’s of Constructive Criticism

When I was in school, one step in our writing process was the “peer review,” during which we would swap papers with an assigned partner, read it, and give them feedback in the form of constructive criticism: Comments and tips focusing on how to improve the piece, rather than just pointing out what’s wrong with it.

Constructive CriticismIn the writing world, this is called beta reading, critiquing, or developmental editing, and it is a necessary step in the writing process if a writer wants to get published.

Originally, I was going to combine my tips on constructive criticism with my post on giving book reviews, but I realized that would be a horrible idea. Making a review of constructive criticism would sound rude and pretentious, and it would be too late for any of the feedback to matter.

Constructive criticism should only be given if sought. If you read something on a blog or Wattpad, ask “Are you seeking feedback on this, or just posting?” before offering any feedback beyond the cursory. (Personally, I state that I am seeking feedback on my Wattpad profile.)

The number one rule I have about constructive criticism is: Ask questions. Asking questions acts as shining a light. If you can’t figure something out or if you’re curious about something, other readers will be as well. Never assume it’s just you or that you missed something. Asking questions is also a useful, neutral way to draw the writer’s attention to something you’re not sure what to make of, or if you are concerned your criticism may hurt the writer’s feelings.

And you should be concerned about your writer’s feelings. Receiving feedback is tough. It requires chocolate and blanket forts at times. This does not mean, under any circumstances, you should hold anything back. Make ALL the comments, but consider your phrasing and give reasons for your criticism.

Pad your feedback. Just like with book reviews, don’t focus on just the things that need Criticism sandwichimprovement. “Two positives for every negative” works well here, since your feedback is – for the most part – private and personal. Point out what you loved, made you laugh, what resonated with you on a deep, personal level.

When editing L. M. Bryski’s Book of Birds, every other page had “LOL” in the margin, accompanied by “OMG” and the occasional crying emoticon when she threw my heart on the ground and stomped on it. Positive feedback like that pads the moments of “I think you should cut this scene you love” or “This one detail unravels your entire plot” (not that I have ever had to say that, thank goodness!).

I’ve known people who suggest front-loading the positive feedback before giving the critical feedback, but that doesn’t sound efficient to me. I use the Comments feature in Word now, so the feedback is chronological, but when I write my critique email, I note the smaller comments, and save the overhauls for the end.

You will never be alone. Assume you are Everyreader while reading to give feedback. If something rubs you the wrong way, it is bound to rub someone else the wrong way. Or if something sounds awkward, is confusing, seems out-of-character, is triggering, etc.edit

On the other hand, your personal experiences are invaluable. In addition to being Everyreader, you are also bringing your background to the table. If you’ve been to the setting and the writer hasn’t, tell them a little about it (“If you blow your nose after a day in London, the snot comes out black from the air pollution.”). If you’re an EMT, tell them what it’s like to deliver a baby (“Afterward, you have to wash the blood off the ceiling of the ambulance.”).

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The best feedback from my editor, Michael Keenan.

If you have the spoons for it, you should also be giving feedback as a sensitivity reader, so if something is wrong/offensive/triggering, let the writer know.

Reread your notes before you submit them. I learned this the hard way. Although I had excellent rapport with one of my clients, some of my notes were phrased in a harsh or unprofessional manner, and she took great offense – and rightfully so. I made it a policy to tone-check before I send my comments.

Don’t fight. This is as much a tip for the writer as it is for the reader. Any and all feedback is only a recommendation, not a heavy-handed demand, however it is phrased, and whoever is saying it. Don’t get attached to the changes you are recommending, just state it, explain it, and move on. Despite getting a real kick out of the horse comment displayed above, I did not change the line, arguing that it is from the POV of a child who may not know better. After publication, I received a review that cited this as the reviewer’s favorite line.

As another example, I have one client who loves to write alpha males, but often that “alpha” behavior forays into the controlling or abusive. I don’t expect all writers (or even all women) to see why that is problematic, but I fought tooth and nail for her to change certain scenes. She refused. I had to acknowledge that I was over-stepping my bounds by fighting, stressing myself out far more than the job called for, and step away. (She did end up tweaking the scenes in question before publication.)

Last, but not least, be open for questions. Invite the writer to ask you for clarification, to review their changes, or for emotional support.

I would love to hear your tips and stories for giving or receiving feedback. What was your most traumatic critique? What made it so rough? How did you respond? Leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!


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April’s NaNoWriMo Victory Sample

Camp-2017-Winner-Twitter-Header

Although I won NaNoWriMo 2016 (with the original version of Two Guns, ironically), I had  yet to win a Camp NaNoWriMo, which is a bit silly, because you can set your own word count AND there aren’t any major holidays (except Independence Day, which doesn’t tend to sprawl as much as Thanksgiving). I prefer Camp NaNo, because the cabins, the care packages, and the website – although the functionality is more limited – feels much warmer than NaNoWriMo.org.

For April CampNaNo, I tasked myself to rewrite Two Guns, the concurrent sequel to COLOSSUS. I set my goal for 50,000 words, although I knew the book should be much longer. I was able to cheat a little bit, because there are some scenes from Two Guns that

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Two Guns, cover art by Brian H. Bullard

can be pulled directly from the original version. Others were rewritten with minor POV adjustments. (The original version, btw, is completed at about 61,000, and had been revised, gone to beta readers and editors, who said it was fine, but it just didn’t feel right.)

I hit my word count goal, just barely. The novel is nowhere near finished, but it is polishing up much better than the original, which felt disjointed. For this version, I learned a lot of new information about fleet vehicle GPS trackers, emergency dispatching, cadaver dogs, and digital forensics. These forced me to change a few scenes more than I wanted, but authenticity is important in what is turning out to be a procedural novel.

Not sure how I feel about that. COLOSSUS is a psychological horror; Can Two Guns really be *just* a crime novel?

I guess we’ll find out when it’s finished.


 

“It’s you again,” Steyer said with a smile as Young opened the hatch of her Jeep Wrangler and unloaded her golden Labradors. “Don’t Cheatham Hill officers ever clock out?”
“Clock out?” Young laughed. “Oh, I clocked out. I’m just takin’ my dogs for a walk!” The animals wiggled excitedly and rounded her legs until she motioned for them to sit with a closed fist. One by one, she strapped the neon orange SEARCH vests on them. The wiggling stopped immediately, and they sat at attention.
The corner of Remington’s mouth turned up. He had never had a dog, but had always wanted one. He reached out and scratched between the ears of the one nearest him. He could see himself and Wickes getting a service dog…
“There’ll be plenty of time to visit the puppies once they’re done,” Young said with a slight scold to her tone. “Right now, they’re at work.”
“Apologies,” Remington said, stepping back.
Leaving a few rangers to barricade the trailhead, Young led the dogs across the street to Cheatham Hill, which was really just a grassy slope surrounded and crowned by woods. Remington and Steyer followed behind at a leisurely pace. Unlike the previous few days, there was a slight breeze to counteract the sticky heat. Remington wondered if that would aid the dogs, or hinder their search.
Young paused at the gap where the trail ran into the woods. The dogs sat down. The one Remington had scratched turned and looked at him, wondering why they were walking so slowly. Sighing, Remington hastened his step. He couldn’t believe he was being judged by a dog.
Removing their leashes, Young took a deep breath and called, “OK, go find them!”
Standing, they sniffed the ground around their feet, then lifted their busy noses into the air. The breeze picked up and they both froze. In complete accord, they bayed and took off running, first up the trail, then straight into the woods.
“I think they smell something,” Remington said.
“Yep!” Young replied. “Let’s go!”
They followed the dogs, who bayed at intervals, into the woods. They were not particularly thick, but the terrain was rocky and uneven. Remington was beginning to wish he had worn more suitable shoes when the breeze slapped him with the same scent the dogs must be following. The dogs bayed once more, then fell silent.
Their pace slowed with a good idea of which direction they were heading. Before them was a clearing and a track leading away from it. The dogs were lying on the ground on either side of a tree. Their tails wagged hesitantly as the three approached.
The stench of rotting flesh grew stronger. Remington’s lip curled and he put a hand over his nose and mouth. They gave the tree a wide berth as they parted to circle it.
“Animals got to him,” Steyer said, slipping his hands into his pockets.
The remaining remains sitting against the base of the tree were barely recognizable as male. The face was largely missing, and its jaw hung loosely from one side. The rest of the skull was cracked and caved from blunt force trauma. The fingers and toes had been gnawed off, as well as the genitals. Chunks had been torn loose from his thighs, belly, and arms.
Young swallowed hard and put an arm across her stomach. She nodded solemnly, walked a few feet away, then bent over and heaved. The dogs whined. Remington grimaced. Steyer closed his eyes at the wet sound and cleared his throat.
“He’s naked,” he observed.
“Mm-hm.” Remington turned to attempt to catch a breath of fresh air, but the smell was pervasive. “Beaten to death,” he said quickly.
“Looks like it.” Steyer nodded.
“His wild hare turned on him.”
Steyer pursed his lips, waiting for the moment of inappropriate amusement to pass. He pulled out his phone and flipped it open. “Let’s tell Sheriff Hutson he can call off the dogs.”
The labs turned upon hearing themselves discussed. Smart things. Too smart for their own good, wagging their tails at completing their task so quickly.
Remington decided he didn’t want a service dog after all.

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Writing Book Reviews

I am horrible at leaving book reviews – I’ll just get that out of the way. Either I can’t leave a review because I am the editor, or I simply don’t know what to say.

BookReviewOne of those reasons is stupid.

Although Amazon has confirmed the meme going around about the “Once an indie book has 50 reviews, it gets shared on such-and-such a newsletter/list” is not true, you should still leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads for each book you read. There are a few reasons for this:

1.) The Algorithm

Although the book doesn’t get placed on some special Amazon list once it hits 50 reviews, the stars *do* determine the book’s place in line on the lists it is already on. So, if a reader is searching for Horror novels, a well-reviewed book will be listed before a book with fewer reviews. I believe number of reviews and stars have a slightly different impact on this algorithm as well (if considering reviews alone, a book with a a hundred 2- or 3- star reviews will still be listed higher than a book with fifty 5-star reviews).

2.) Marketplace Support

Marketing sucks, especially for indie writers and small presses with limited resources. Reviews are a type of promotion, not only on Amazon/Goodreads, but they can also be shared as advertisements.

In addition to this, it is moral support. The heart leaps whenever a writer sees a new review for a book, and it’s disappointing to see that number go stagnant for long periods of time.

3.) Constructive Criticism

Indie authors read their reviews, especially when just starting out. If you don’t know the author well, you don’t want to hunt them down to give them constructive criticism. A review is a good alternative: “I was put-off by the author using too many em-dashes where a comma should suffice,” “The huge cast of characters didn’t reflect the diversity of the setting’s community. I recommend researching the area’s demographics next time,” etc.

4.) Flagging Potential Issues and Triggers

The book description only goes so far, and even if it does include a trigger warning, it may not cover everything. If something rubs you the wrong way or actually triggers you, mention it in the review. Include the scope of the issue. Be vague when describing it: “Racist character uses the n-word several times,” or “Includes an instance of violence against women I found mildly triggering.” Since triggers are so personal, I don’t recommend giving the a lower rating just for that. If it’s not pervasive or didn’t ruin the book for you, don’t let it impact your stars.

There is a stomping incident in Joe Lansdale’s Captains Outrageous. He mentioned the incident in the preface, so I was braced. Had the violent scene not included stomping specifically, I would have been perfectly fine. But since my experience with domestic violence involved stomping, I had to put the book aside for an hour or so and regroup. I learned a new trigger, but otherwise enjoyed the novel.

Now, if the book IS problematic, by all means, allow that to determine your star-rating and use specific examples from the text (if you’re not specific, you’re going to have a lot of incredulous people saying, “How is it problematic?” or “I need to read it and form my own opinion.”).Review

Writing a Review

First and foremost, when writing a review, be honest.

The general rule of reviewing is: For every negative, give two positives. This rule is only a loose guideline, of course, but very useful if you’re not sure what to say. Consider plot, characters, dialogue, setting, exposition, voice, mechanics, diction, and formatting/appearance (only if indie). On top of all of these features, refer to how they made you feel.

Also keep in mind, if you want to see more from this writer, regardless of how you feel about the narrative and how many stars you gave it, be warm in your review. Critical reviews are tough, but your tone can mitigate the emotional impact.

Write your review in a way that makes it obvious you read the book. Don’t include spoilers unless you need to, of course, but use the characters’ names, cite aspects of the plot, allude to certain events. Give at least three details:

“It is full of torture – both physical and psychological. The characters invoke sympathy, irritation and frustration. The reader develops a love/hate relationship with the antagonist.” – review for COLOSSUS (excerpt)

If a book isn’t in your wheelhouse, or you don’t like the genre/trope in general, don’t focus on those aspects or related aspects when rating it. Comments like “I don’t usually like SFF, so…” are useless (“I don’t usually like SFF, but…” is generally fine).

If you enjoyed the book, but didn’t LOVE LOVE LOVE it, it’s OK to leave a 4-star review rather than a 5. I actually doubt the quality of a book with fewer than fifteen reviews that has all 5-star reviews, because it makes me wonder if they were set-ups or favors. Avoid gushing, even if you love the author/book, because that will make potential buyers doubt your sincerity.

3 stars is not a negative rating. If you’re meh about the book, leave 3 stars and specify why: it didn’t grab you, but it wasn’t bad or boring enough to make you give up on it. It had these issues, but this ultimate redeeming quality. “The plot was boring, but the characters were engaging and the writing itself was excellent.”

1- and 2-star reviews should be reserved for books you did not like, want others to avoid, are problematic, or are rife with mechanical errors that make it feel more like a first draft than a published book. Be specific about the aspects you didn’t like (“Characters were flat and undeveloped.”). I also recommend pointing out positive aspects (“Dialogue was humorous.”) in addition to the negative. Don’t be nasty or condescending. You especially want to avoid sounding pretentious.

And for the love of dogs, don’t write a nasty review and cite or tack on petty details as a reason, like the way a character takes their coffee. FFS.

DNF Reviews

“DNF” means did not finish.  If you don’t finish a book just because it didn’t grab you, I don’t recommend leaving a review. DNF reviews should be reserved for problematic books only. When I say “problematic,” I mean racist, sexist, or inciting hate in some other fashion.

This does not include “too much violence,” “too many swear words,” or “too much sex,” as – although some others might agree – these are too subjective; You can’t judge the quality of the book if you give up too early for these reasons, and there are many who might have enjoyed the narrative, but passed on the purchase because of those comments.

A note for beta readers:

I should not feel the need to say this, but here we are: if you were a beta reader for a book, do not withhold the issues you found in order to write a negative review.

If you have a special formula for reviewing a book, I would LOVE to stea- I mean, see it! If there are certain book reviews that you love or hate, post them in the comments below or @ me on Twitter with a screencap!


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Quirky Ways to “Get into the Mood”

When the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak…

Wait, no. Sorry, Gargoyles flashback. But really, though, it is more often than I’d like to admit that I have a project I’m working on, I have the time, but I am simply not in the mood to write. Although sometimes this is due to anxiety or stress (for which I recommend a walk, a nap, playing with a puppy, or a tackling the issue head-first), the lesser reasons can usually be be overcome by a few simple psychological tricks:

Music

As I related in this earlier post, I prefer to write while listening to music. I have a soundtrack for each project. In fact, some projects – such as Sweet NOTHING – were inspired by music. If you need help getting into the mood, create a playlist or look up songs that put you into the mindset of a certain scene or character.

For example, the climax of COLOSSUS was written to Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone.” The song that gets me into Avery Rhodes’s head is Modest Mouse’s “Shit in Your Cut” (while Thatch’s is “The Whale Song”).

Sweet NOTHING was inspired by Eliza’s songs from Hamilton.

If you don’t know what kind of music might help you get into a certain mood, just put something on in the background. Several people swear by the soundtracks of movies like Lord of the Rings and video games like Assassin’s Creed. I prefer EDM and dubstep.

Reread

Rereading is a simple method of recapturing the magic of your writing project. You can reread the entire draft, your best scene, or the few scenes leading up to the moment you left off.

If you think it’s all crap, that’s OK (although it’s not true). Begin to edit and nit-pick at it, which is the second-best thing to writing. Eventually, it will pull you back in.

Go back to the Source

Whatever/Whoever originally inspired you, tap back into that. If your hard scifi was inspired by Dune, pick through your favorite scenes or put on the movie. If your main character is modelled after Viola Davis, pull up some pictures or GIFs of her that fit the character.

If you want to create something you can go back to, I’ve heard of several writers creating Pinterest boards for their works or characters, using their character models, inspiring images from other works, and concept art. I have a folder on my computer I can pop open and gaze longingly at.

Reverse It

If you don’t have a clear inspiration like character models, find some! Find images to associate with your project. These don’t have to be from other works, but can be paintings or artistic photographs that capture the tone or theme.

If you don’t have character models, cast your characters! Find actors you can imagine playing your characters. Play through your next scene with those actors, then force yourself to sit and write it out.

Sensory Manipulation

If you have trouble getting into the mood with your normal routine, spice it up a bit.notebooks01 Instead of your laptop, pull out a pad of paper and pens/pencils. Take your supplies – or some portable version thereof – and go to a new setting with writing in mind: A coffee shop, your patio, a park bench.

Similarly:

Reverse the colors on your writing program. Word and Scrivener can both be changed from the traditional color scheme to darker or more colorful frames. (In Word: File > General > Personalize > Office Theme).

pensUse specific notebooks to jot notes or write scenes for a specific character.

Use multi-colored pens for scenes in different tones. (Get it out of your head that this is a girly idea – just try it.) If your scene is light-hearted, use a bright color like orange. If it’s dark, use charcoal gray. If it’s mysterious, a dark green or purple. (I used to do this, and I’m not certain why I fell out of the habit. Perhaps because I worked in an office where I could harvest supplies for free, which meant blue pens and legal pads became the norm.)

 

If you use or have used any of these methods, snap a pic of your notebooks, colorful writing, alternative writing spaces, or shoot me a link to your Pinterest board or writing playlist!

If you have any other tips or tricks for getting into the writing mood, or getting into a specific mind-set, post them in the comments below or @ me on Twitter!


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Hit Your Word Count, pt. 2: If You’re Falling Short

Adding words to your manuscript is the easy part. What’s not easy is bulking the material you already have in a meaningful way, without adding extra scenes. Yes, adding extra scenes will jump your word count, but it could also throw a kink in your timeline or draw out the narrative a bit too much (I speak from experience!). Before you resort to adding new material, build on what you already have.

Add Sensory DetailsSensory Details

Adding sensory details is one of my favorite exercises, because sensory details really make a scene spring to life. Writers focus so much on the visual, on painting a picture, that they forget that they should really be creating an experience, which includes all senses. Even if a writer includes sounds and sensations, they often neglect taste and smell.

(I’m recycling a great deal of this from an old post, in case it sounds familiar)

Let me SHOW you, rather than TELL you:

Karyn looks embarrassed as she opens the door to a filthy apartment.

What a shithole, Thatch thinks.

The author was kind enough to tell us that the apartment was filthy, but how? Are kids’ toys strewn about the place? Food containers? Are the walls decaying from a leaking pipe? Is it a health hazard, or just unpleasant to look at?

The character is crass enough to think shithole, but that tells us very little about who he is and how he feels about the resident of the apartment.

The general rule is three sensory details to one “tell” or thought. This not only shows how and why, but also to what intensity.

Somewhere down the hall, a woman was yelling. Karyn’s face fell into a tight-lipped expression of resignation as she stood before the door. She wiped her palm across her jeans before unlocking the dead bolt, then took the doorknob in one hand and threw her body against the door. She repeated the maneuver, and it shuddered open.

Thatch was assaulted by the stench of stale cigarettes, mold, and cat feces. Acid rose in his throat. He had trouble choking it back down.

“Nan, I’m home!” Karyn yelled over a TV blaring in a back room.

Thatch grabbed the doorknob to shut the door and wrinkled his nose. He wiped his hand on his coat, but still felt the grime sticking to his palm. The motion of the door strewed fluffs of animal fur across the floor.

“This… is where you live?” He bent his head back to peer at the ceiling. Black spores spotted the water-stained plaster, trailing its way down the corner.

“Mm-hmm.” She pursed her lips, her eyes on the floor. She closed them with a sigh as she caught sight of the partially-eaten corpse of a roach.

Thatch nodded. “You’re moving in with me,” he said. His tone didn’t allow any room for argument. The small smile that played across Karyn’s mouth told him she wasn’t about to protest.

I never state what the characters are thinking, but the reader can determine their feelings based on their responses. Thatch wrinkles his nose. He almost vomits. You can tell Karyn is embarrassed, even though she never says or thinks anything that would reflect that. Her facial expressions and short response reflect her emotions. You can also determine the relationship between them to some extent: It’s his first time at her apartment and he’s already demanding she move in with him.

In adding sensory details, I turned 17 words into 223.

Exercise: Add sensory details to this excerpt:

Shannon was exhausted when she arrived home after work.

“No rest for the wicked,” she said, sitting down in her home office.

Or use one of your own. Copy and paste your results into the comments below!

Characterization

Characterization“Characterization” means any details you can add that tell the reader about a character: Their quirks, appearance, background. These can be laced into existing narrative without too much revising.

For example, after I finished the first couple of drafts of COLOSSUS, I combed through it to flesh each character out. This led to Rhodes tugging at the hair on the back of his head when he’s anxious, and Heather hissing through her teeth when annoyed. This also helped me plan quirks for future characters while in the drafting stage, such as Steyer from Two Guns twisting his wedding band when deep in thought, and Remington grinding his teeth.

Adding New Scenes

Adding new scenes to an already-completed manuscript is risky for three reasons:

  • it may make the narrative drag
  • there may be voice discrepancies
  • it may cause continuity issues

If you have declared your draft completed, although the word count falls short, adding a scene or so at any point may draw the narrative out a bit too much, making the reader feel as if they are muddling through. This is especially true, since these tacked-on scenes are rarely bolster the plot or race toward the climax as each scene should.

From the start of a draft to the finish, you are learning and developing as a writer. Therefore, your voice and technique may change drastically over the course of the narrative, and especially so after setting your draft aside for a while, then revising. If you go back to write extra scenes, the writing itself may sound dramatically different from the original scenes.

If you write an extra scene, especially if anything of significance happens, you will have to comb through the remaining manuscript to accommodate any changes that were made. For example, if someone breaks their nose in a new scene, allude to its appearance or soreness a couple of times later. If you reveal something about someone, you may want to include foreshadowing beforehand, as well as reference it after.

Keep in mind, all of these issues could be resolved by rewriting the book, which I am discovering is time-consuming, but also incredibly gratifying.

 

If you have any different tips or tricks, I would love to hear about them in the comments below, or @ me on Twitter!


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Hit Your Word Count, part 1: Crutch Words and Cut Words

Last week, I alluded to the general length novels tend to be in various genres. I noted, and will reiterate here, these word counts are for finished novels, not first drafts, and not necessarily for queries, because the books are going to contract or expand (or both) with revisions.

If you are approaching the point of querying, I recommend checking out the #tenqueries hashtag on Twitter. Agents use #tenqueries to post a brief description of why they request or pass on a manuscript (there are other forms of this hashtag as well, but this is the one my favorite agents use). One of the common issues I see is “too long for genre” (it is much rarer I see a “too short,” but that will be next week’s post).

editingThe easiest way to trim your word count without trimming plot material is to target specific words or phrases that are either unnecessary or used too frequently. Strictly speaking, you should do this whether your manuscript falls into your genre’s sweet spot or not. Consider it “grooming” for your novel; Those words and phrases are the split ends of the writing world. If the word is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence, cut it. If the sentence is not necessary to the narrative, cut it.

Now, if you read the sentence and think, “I like this; It sounds better as-is,” that is perfectly fine. Remember, these are only suggestions and left to the writer’s discretion. As long as you cut unnecessary material more frequently than you keep, you’re going in the right direction.

Note: This process is not something you will be able to do upon finishing your draft, because you’re going to gloss over the fine details. Let me reiterate the importance of putting the draft aside for two weeks to a month before putting your editing glasses on.

Crutch Words

The first thing you want to do is skim your manuscript for crutch words. “Crutch words” are filler words or pet phrases a writer uses too frequently. I am not exaggerating when a cut the word count for COLOSSUS by 1500 by using ctrl+f “just” and “that” and deleting anywhere it was not necessary either to the meaning or meter of the sentence (“meter” being the length of a line – in this context, the flow of reading). L. M. Bryski’s crutch word for Book of Birds was “even.”

Crutch words are not always useless: A few of my beta readers for Sweet NOTHING pointed out my overuse of “scoffed,” “huffed,” and “scowling.” Fixing these is going to take a bit more than the find function and backspace key. And, yes, Thomas Granger really does scowl that much, but if it’s irritating the reader, it needs to be resolved.

Since we as writers are not always cognizant of or don’t always notice things like crutch words, I recommend asking beta readers to keep an eye out for them.

Cut Words

There are several words and phrases we use in everyday dialogue which we include in narrative out of habit: Flavoring particles, words to place emphasis, or elaborations that are not necessary to the understanding of a sentence. When speaking, we don’t need to worry about how many words we use, but when writing, word count is part of the job. These words and phrases also imply there is a stronger way to convey what is going on. I tend to rely heavily on Nat Russo‘s editing checklists (part 1, part 2), but here are some basics:

  • that
    • She knew that he didn’t know what she had seen.
  • just
    • He just knew the direction she had just been heading.
  • even
    • He couldn’t even understand why she would even bother.
  • quite
    • She was quite attractive for a country girl.
  • turned
    • He turned to stared at her.
  • caused/made
    • A branch caused her to trip. She tripped over a branch.
    • A roll of thunder made her jump. Thunder rolled. She jumped. / She jumped at a roll of thunder.
  • suddenly
    • The door opened suddenly. / The door flew open.
  • instantly
    • He rang a bell. A maid instantly appeared.
  • really
    • She really needed to see what they were up to.
  • fought/struggled to
    • I fought to keep from screaming. I clenched my jaw.
    • I struggled to my feet. I stood uneasily. / My legs wobbled as I stood.
  • in order to
    • She needed the recipe in order to make the potion.
  • sentences in passive voice
    • A string of swears were uttered from under the bookshelf. A string of swears rose from under the bookshelf.
  • Perception filters
    • He heard tires crunched on the gravel.
    • She watched people danceding across the floor.

Also keep an eye out for phrases like “nodded my head,” “reached my hand,” “kicked out with my foot.” These are redundant. It’s like saying, “I walked with my legs”; Unless you’re walking on your hands, which you would state some other way, you don’t need to specify body parts. Similarly, watch out for “My heart pounded in my chest” and “Tears fell from her eyes.”

Adverbs and Adjectives

You want to weigh the value of every adverb and adjective. I will not expound on cutting them all mercilessly – just weigh their value. Consider them red flags that the word they are modifying could be strengthened:

  • She closed her eyes tightly. = She squeezed her eyes shut.

Or that you are being redundant:

  • He shouted loudly.

In addition to that, verify the exposition does not already imply the adjective or adverb. A well-structured narrative will lead a reader to imagine the scene a certain way without the help of extra words:

  • Snow covered the ground thickly, glowing palely in the bright moonlight. The moment she opened the door wide, her warm breath came out in clouds and goosebumps rose visibly on her bare skin. The chilly night air bit at her exposed nose as she trekked slowly across the vast parking lot.

Said Tags

Another way to cut your word count dramatically would be to cut the majority of your said tags. These are attached to dialogue to state blatantly who spoke, and often elaborate on how the line was spoken. This includes other words that convey “said”: “stated,” “whispered,” “yelled,” “called,” “cheered,” etc.

I generally cut these and use the framing exposition to indicate who the speaker is:

“Sorry, man. Just… the thought of those kids running away or being held for ransom… it’s just…” Byron said, shaking shook his head. “It would make for a pretty funny movie.”

Remington nodded. and replied, “Well, that funny movie is preferable to the theory we’re pursuing, so I hope that’s the case.”

Byron sighed, remembering what his friends could be going through. “Yeah, man, I’m sorry. It’s just… unreal.,he muttered.

“You don’t wanta imagine your friends in pain, I understand,” Remington sympathized, “and I hope they’re not. But…” Remington looked away, nodding slowly. “The circumstances–the vehicles, the call–they send shivers down my spine; They’re that familiar.”

Here I have two speakers, but never need to indicate who is saying what, because the dialogue is accompanied by actions that imply who is speaking and how they are feeling as they saying it.

Time for an experiment:

Apply the suggestions in this post to a chapter of the draft you’re picking at, and comment with your before and after word counts! Keep in mind, you don’t need to keep these changes – simply see how it impacts your word count.

If you have a different method of cutting down your word count without cutting material, leave a comment below or @ me on Twitter!


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Check out my Wattpad and publications on Amazon! Click on the covers for the individual links:

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