How to Make Your Words Count – a TGNA Post

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It’s Writing Wednesday over at The Great Noveling Adventure and I’m discussing ideas to help you make every word count.

Here’s a preview:

There comes a point in the revision process where you can no longer see the verbs for the the clauses. You lose your perspective, along with the will to slash and burn unnecessary words. You may even go slightly mad.

Have no fear!

Newberry award winning author Linda Sue Park has some fantastic ideas to help you change the way you see your story and how to make every word count. I was lucky enough to hear this first-hand at the SCBWI LA summer conference during her keynote speech entitled “The How of It: Making Every Word Count”.

Here are a few of those great ideas that might just save you from setting fire to that beloved manuscript:

To read the full post click here.

TweetRemember to join me every week day morning if you’re an early morning writer and you’d like some motivation to get your writing day started or if you just want some company. I host AM #wordsprints on Twitter @Novel_Adventure.

And you can always  browse through our new forum section to find a critique partner, get your first five pages workshopped, or have your query critiqued.

Darlings are Damn Hard to Kill

Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr
Image courtesy of Henry Söderlund via Flickr

As a writer, I know how important it is to let go of those pretty words that no longer serve my story. They may have helped me get through the muddy middle of my first draft or even find a way to begin, but when it’s time to revise, the death blows need to fall. Sometimes excising these beautiful ones can be harder than you think.

I’ve heard the phrase “Kill your darlings” more than once when at conferences and workshops. One editor even said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you must keep them, print them out and tuck them safely under your pillow, but get them out of your manuscript.” (I really wish I could remember who said that, because I think that’s just brilliant.)

Point made. They don’t belong in your story.

Usually I don’t have a problem with the slash and burn. The delete button and I are well acquainted. However, during my latest revision I came across a major blind spot that caused quite an upheaval in my first chapter. While I thought I had done my usual slashing without mercy, leaving a wake of dead darlings bathed in red ink, once I presented the freshly cleaned chapter to my critique group, I received a surprise. The comments?

“This doesn’t work.”

“This flashback scene is confusing.”

Why was there a flashback scene in the first chapter, you may ask?

Ugh.

I know, I know. Total amateur move. Bad writer.

So what happened?

I changed my opening line. And then…I couldn’t let go of the old one. In fact, I worked so hard to keep it, this little darling of mine, that there was no rule I wouldn’t break. I went so far out of my way to write badly, knowing I was writing badly and still unable to stop, just to force the line in and to make it fit. The gymnastic maneuverings it took to twist the story broke the laws of physics and the rules of writing. Even as I was writing the horrible flashback scene, which was the only way I could work it into the story, I knew it was crap, but I still couldn’t quit.

Why?

Maybe because I thought it was humorous, a running gag I could use through the whole story. Maybe I thought I couldn’t write something better. I don’t know, exactly. Deep down I did know that this bit of writing I was trying so desperately to save didn’t move the story along and it didn’t really add to the main character – something that should have brought on an immediate death sentence.

In the end, I needed my CPs to help me euthanize this one. They took one look at the mess and said unanimously:

“This doesn’t work.”

Have I mentioned only a few dozen times how much I love my critique group? They are always so good for me. I can hide nothing from them. Once they pointed it out, I just had to laugh at the ridiculousness. Of course it didn’t work. I could see it, then.

But it was hard to say good bye. Maybe because I didn’t always think it was so bad. That darling helped me out of a bind, once upon a time, when I was struggling for a beginning hook. It may not have been the best opening, but it did help me stop worrying about the perfect beginning and move on to write the story while I had that placeholder. I knew the time would come when I’d have to change it. But when the time came, I thought I still needed it.

Now I know I can let it go. I can write something better. I am finally ready to kill this darling.

Darcy Pattison – Novel Revisions and Desert Baths – The Author Interview

For most writers, the hardest part is getting to “The End”. Finishing a first draft can be daunting, but once accomplished, you feel like you can take on the world. You’ve managed to write a beginning, a middle, and an END!!! Congratulations! Have some cake! Then when you wake up the next day, remnants of your celebratory cake still stuck to your face after you crashed out on your couch from the massive sugar rush, you realize that the hard work is just starting; this is where the creative struggle really begins. The revision process can make or break your manuscript and one of the best teachers on how to get the most out of your novel revision is Darcy Pattison.

“Revisions are the messy route toward powerful stories.” from Darcy’s Novel Revision Workbook

I first met Darcy many years ago when she taught a novel revision retreat for our Oklahoma SCBWI group. She wasted no time. She told us that she didn’t care how we wrote our first draft – whether we were serious plotters or pantsters didn’t matter. The issue of “What is the story?” was no longer important. Our new focus should be, “What is the most dramatic way to tell this story?”

She never told any of us how we should change our stories, instead she gave us strategies and techniques for revision to tell our stories our way, from completing a detailed novel inventory worksheet, which gave us an overview of what was really in our drafts, to exploring the obligatory scene, to character epiphanies and, my personal favorite, the section on sensory detail; how using the senses can really anchor a scene. I still use many of the things I learned from Darcy to this day.

Darcy not only teaches other writers how to be better writers, she is a well accomplished writer herself. She has ten children’s books published,  as well as several instructive books on writing. In Darcy’s latest picture book, Desert Baths, she brings her aptitude for teaching together with her creative talent for storytelling. Children curious about animals living in the American Southwest can learn about the diverse species presented through their unusual bath time rituals. From the scaled quail who scrubs herself with ants to the western banded gecko who uses his long tongue to lick his eyeballs clean to the nocturnal mud-bathing activities of the javelina, all twelve animals make do without much water and none use soap.

Darcy has paired up again with illustrator Kathleen Rietz, whom she worked with on a previous nature picture book, Prairie Storms. The illustrations are gorgeous and compliment the lilting text that lead you through the desert landscape and leave you wanting to know more. This book can be used as a jumping off point to delve deeper into the world of desert animals. An extensive teaching guide can be found on the publisher’s website.

Here’s a really cute book trailer for Desert Baths with children acting out different animals bathing rituals:

I asked Ms. Pattison if she would be willing to be interviewed for her new book release and she graciously agreed.

Valerie Lawson: Darcy, I wanted to say, that reading your book, Desert Baths, brought back a memory of when I was a kid and I asked my mother – when she obviously wasn’t paying attention – if I could go take a bath out in the rain. I was curious about how people bathed before indoor showers. As someone who’s always been curious about the hows and whys of the world, I really enjoyed your book.

Now, on to the questions!

As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?

Darcy Pattison: I got caught eating pieces of candy from a candy box that was meant for a Mother’s Day present. I had to set up a shop and sell— beg —my siblings to buy pieces of candy at the exorbitant price of 10¢ a piece. I had to use all the money I had saved from my allowance, plus what I could make selling that candy and buy a new box. Talk about humiliation in front of your family—I was totally mortified.

VL: How awful! I believe I did something similar when I was in Bluebirds. We were supposed to be selling boxes of chocolates; I had all of these boxes of chocolate in my bedroom. What was a seven year-old to do but open them and start eating? I didn’t stay in Bluebirds very long. I know I was punished for that, but I blocked that part out of my head.

VL: Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.

DP: I lived in the mountain of New Mexico, just a mile from the Continental Divide. You may think of it as a long continuous line, but it’s really a series of ridges, often skipping a section of the ranges at a time. Ours was a small mountain that was loosely connected into the range. Once, my brothers dared my sister and I to go with them and climb the Divide. You could actually start at one end of “our Divide” and walk up a fairly gentle slope to the top. But this time, the challenge was to climb straight up. Memory is fuzzy—it must have been a couple hundred feet to the top. I remember reaching for the next finger and toe-holds and toiling hard, and working for hours and hours. I made it to within ten feet of the top, but the last bit was truly straight up. I couldn’t do it. It’s something I regret to this day, that I couldn’t finish the last bit of the climb.

VL: Isn’t that interesting that some of our most vivid memories are of failures rather than successes? Maybe you’ll make it back there someday and conquer that mountain.

On to one of my favorite questions, what was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?

DP: When I was 8 or 9, our dogs got rabies and they ran around and around and around the house, baying and barking, while we clung to window panes and watched and begged Mom to explain, “What’s wrong with them? How long will they do that? What’s wrong with them?”

It was the sounds that were the scariest: the barks, the whines, the feet racing around the house, the whimpers. The barks that wouldn’t quit.

Finally, my oldest brother had to go out with the shotgun and put them out of their misery. Even that was scary, because he had to avoid getting bit while trying to corner them. It was a sad, scary day.

VL: Oh! That’s not only frightening, but so sad.

VL: On to something a little more uplifting, what did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?

DP: An astronaut, of course. Every kid in the 60s/70s wanted to be an astronaut, it was the time of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. But then, someone told me that if you wore glasses or had ever had a broken arm, you would never qualify to be an astronaut. I had to give up my dream, since I wore glasses and my right wrist had been broken when I was ten. After that, I couldn’t decide on anything else, so I drifted until I found writing.

VL: Ah! How many of us drifted until we found writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

DP: I was interested in sixth grade, when I read Lord of the Rings. I wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of reading, to be a writer. But I didn’t do anything about it till I was grown and had three children of my own and started reading the best of children’s literature again.

VL: Tolkein is quite an inspiration for a sixth-grader! When did you start pursuing your writing seriously?

DP: During nine months of 1985, my husband was unemployed. I was a stay-at-home Mom, who was homeschooling the oldest of our girls. But I had a Masters degree. I did a lot of fill-in work that year, but when a new job came through for my husband, we were still committed to having me stay home with the kids. But I thought that with this Masters degree, surely there was something else I could do while at home, some way to make money to fill in during lean times. I started writing—and never looked back.

VL: And we are so very glad that you did. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us, today. It has been a pleasure getting to know more about you.

If you would like to learn more about Darcy Pattison, visit her website –  Fiction Notes. There you will find an excellent resource of information on novel revision as well as a plethora of other writing topics.

And for one lucky reader, I have a signed copy of Desert Baths to give away. To enter to win, leave a comment. You can tweet about this interview or mention it on Facebook for an additional entry. Let me know how you got the word out so I can give you the extra credit – don’t you just love extra credit? I’ll determine the winner by a lucky roll of the twenty-sided die (or dice, depending on how many entries I receive) one week from this posting.

#writemotivation Check In

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Here are my goals for March:

  • Complete my novel revision
  • Post two blog entries each week
  • Update my journal project and keep it current

One week in on this challenge and I’m fairly wobbly on the balancing act of actual writing versus platform growth and maintenance. I keep picturing Janelle Monae performing Tightrope in my head. I did manage to post at least two blog entries and to work through fifty pages of revision on my latest project, Institutionalized: I’m not Crazy. It’s a young adult (YA) novel about a young girl who is put away in a psych hospital as an out of control alcoholic runaway after she witnesses something she shouldn’t. She struggles with the abrupt changes in her reality brought about by what she witnessed, and how to convince someone – anyone – that she’s not crazy.

Now I only have 240+ pages to go. I just have to make sure I’m revising at least eighty pages a week for the rest of the month. Next month, it’s submission time. *gulp*

I didn’t even touch my journal project. I have been thinking about doing some kind of project/book dealing with autism for a long time, but I haven’t been ready – it’s just too close to the surface, the emotions, for me to write anything good. People are always curious about what life is like with a child autism and it’s difficult to explain in general terms, sometimes. One friend recently asked me if he would ever drive a car. I had to explain that even if he could ever get over his coordination issues, he could never get past his attention issues. Children with autism have difficulty filtering out stimuli and so can easily get overstimulated. Not good for rush hour traffic. Even if an airplane flew overhead – CRASH! So I came up with the idea of journaling my life with my son Trevor for one year. Maybe that could help me show what life with autism is really like and vent all of those emotions at the same time. Trevor turns eighteen next January. All kinds of things will start to change with this birthday. It’s a good year to try it.

Even when I don’t make daily entries, I make brief notes on my calendar and I’m just really behind on putting them down in the actual journal format. That’s the goal for this week for the journal- to get those entries caught up.

How are you doing with your writing goals? I’ll leave you with this motivational song to help you keep the balance going as you try to reach your writing goals as well: