Using Writing Vocabulary to Streamline Voice

Today’s post about writing vocabulary is a perfect one for the New Year, because growing your vocabulary is something you can work on. Speaking of which, I’m back to work, more or less, and looking forward to 2018. Thank you everyone for your wonderful kind thoughts about the loss of our little Nora.

writing vocabulary, writing voice, novel writing, prose writing, fiction writing, writing craft
Using a specific word is much better than fumbling around for meaning, so focus on your writing vocabulary.

The Role of Writing Vocabulary in Prose

Writers love words. Or, well, they should, if they want to be writers. Collecting words, analyzing words, thinking about words: this should be a small part of the writing work that you do. While you’re doing it, you may not know why it’s important. What’s the point of learning words that you might not use?

But one day, you’ll want to say something, and you will realize that there’s a perfect word for that. The English language is beautiful and varied and we have a ton of words for everything.

From a prose and craft perspective, the more specific your choices, the cleaner and tighter your writing. So if you know the best word for something, use it. This contributes to an overall sense of tightness in the prose, and to more specific voice. The words you learn and use don’t even have to be complicated.

An Easy Example of Improving Writing Vocabulary

I was editing a manuscript the other day, and came across a sentence very much like this:

She craned her head up, tensing so that she could see through the window.

This description is okay. It’s wordy. Try reading it aloud. There’s a lot to chew on there. It does the job, but we can do better. The thing is, we have a word to convey exactly this. We could swap it out with:

She strained to see through the window.

We are swapping seven clunky words for one word. So simple, so elegant, so clear! Like crawling into bed on clean sheets.

Many writers are convinced that in order to really be a Writer With a Capital W (to earn one’s bones, so to speak), they have to show off and make things more complicated. They will impress the reader into submission, dang it! The haughtier their prose, the more everyone will know that they are very, very good.

Yeah, that’s not the case. A simple, clean style is actually very difficult to achieve, and that’s what you should be aiming for. This will also reduce the clutter of your prose, tighten up your manuscript word count (I’ve never met a very, very long manuscript that absolutely needed to be that way, the writing is usually quite bloated), and allow readers to zip through your story.

Remember, your goal is precision. You’re not trying to bamboozle your readers with rare words. You’re trying to delight them with the perfect words for the occasion.

How to Build Your Writing Vocabulary

So what do you do about your vocabulary? I have two suggestions. A silly one and a serious one.

First, become interested in words. There’s a great and simple way to do this: sign up for the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Day. This website looks a little sketchy, but that’s the OED’s sign-up form. They will send you an email with a new word every day. You may get some really weird stuff, or you may get words you never knew about that are precise and wonderful.

Second, read. There is a class of writer that doesn’t read because they worry about unduly influencing their own process. I will never and have never understood these writers, I will tell you that right now. The strongest way to improve your own writing, that I can think of, is to read the work of writers who are way ahead of you on their authorial journeys. They will have this craft of using words precisely down. Read their work. Read writers who aren’t in your category. Read literary writers. Read pop culture writers. Read, read, read.

The best way to nurture your love of words and language is to be around words and language. Write interesting words down. Read with a highlighter in hand. Keep a file of words. You never know when you’ll need something from your writing vocabulary, so make sure it’s there for you.

If you’re struggling with voice and prose, hire me as your novel editor. I’ll comb through your writing sentence by sentence.

The Beautiful Life of Nora Pepper

Hello, dear readers! Before Thanksgiving, I wrote about the upcoming addition to our family, a little girl that was born on November 30th, to join big brother, Theo, 21 months. I’ve always been very honest, as a person. And I’ve always shared what I’m going through on the blog. Like the loss of my beloved cat Sushi, or the fertility journey we took to start building our family. Not only is it therapeutic for me, but I genuinely believe that truth brings people together and helps us all feel a little less alone.

It is with deep, deep regret that I’m sharing the following news. You’ll have to excuse the shifting tense. Different parts were written at different times in Nora’s journey.

When we brought our beautiful Nora Pepper home, she was extremely lethargic. We had the doctors in labor and delivery, several pediatricians, a home health nurse, and a lactation consultant on our team, and they all said she was just sleepy because she was born at 37 weeks. That can take a lot out of a gal! They all told us, “In the magic of time, she will wake up.”

And in 99.99% of babies, they would’ve been right. But a week later, she was still not waking up to ask for food, and feeding her from a bottle was an hourlong ordeal every three hours. She was only taking 1.5 ounces each time, and barely. Her weight was down. I had a sinking feeling all along in my mother’s heart, and I finally insisted that we go to the hospital. Luckily, we live 15 minutes from Children’s Minnesota, a world-class facility that sees a lot of very complex neonatal cases.

After ruling out any acute causes of lethargy, like infection, we were left with something much more devastating. A chronic condition. Physically, our wonderful Nora is absolutely perfect. Everything is formed beautifully. And I’m not just bragging as a proud parent about her ten elegant fingers, her curly eyelashes, or the softest newborn hair I’ve ever kissed. We’ve had all the x-rays and MRIs in the book, and she is physically flawless.

But due to a rare, random, and terribly cruel genetic mutation, Nora has a pattern of brain wave activity that is incompatible with life. Or at least a life that involves any cognitive awareness whatsoever. It’s likely that her brain was built like this from the start, has never functioned in any other way, and never will. The evidence-based data on this type of brain wave pattern is invariably grim. In short, this state has been described  as “the worst pattern short of electrical silence” and “a preterminal finding”.

We took Nora back from the NICU, and we had two beautiful days with her. Our plan was to repeat the brain scan after a week and enter hospice care at home if the findings were the same. Nora had other ideas, and she let us know that she was ready to go ahead of schedule. We spent our last hours together as a family, making sure that all she ever knew in her brief time was pure love. She passed peacefully in our arms on December 16th, 2017.

I believe in miracles. I do. Snow on a quiet morning is a miracle. My son’s laughter is a miracle. The overwhelming love and gratitude I feel for Nora, even as her condition has put me on the loneliest and most difficult road I’ve ever walked, is a miracle. Unfortunately, there was not going to be a medical miracle. The sad but simple truth is that, all of these things about life that are miracles, Nora would never have been able to experience. Not in this case. Even in the magic of time, she never would’ve woken up.

My husband, Todd, and son, Theo, and I are tremendously blessed. We have the support of friends and family, we both have meaningful work to help us feel human, we’ve found strength we never knew existed inside ourselves. Because Nora’s prognosis is so rare and so dire, we’ve been invited to participate in a comprehensive research study where her entire genome will be sequenced. Since her condition is coded into her genes, there was no way to help Nora. Even if we found the exact mutation, the die had already been cast. But maybe, in some small way, she will help another family down the road because of what the research team can learn.

This is a post I never thought I’d have to write. All any of us can do when the road turns dark is to keep going. I’m grateful for the opportunity to call Nora Pepper Macdonald my daughter. She always will be. Even as my heart is broken, it is somehow more full than ever. If you’re reading this, you’re part of why. Thank you for listening to our story.

Credit for these beautiful photographs belongs to Sarah Ann Photography, and they were taken before we found out. We are thrilled to have these treasures, we will cherish them for the rest of our lives.

People have been asking, so we’ve decided to encourage friends and family to make a donation to the Children’s Hospital and Clinics Foundation. The incredible people of Children’s, from her neonatologist to her palliative care nurse, were some of the most outstanding human beings we have ever met. We never felt alone for a moment, and we still don’t. You can designate your donation to a specific care area. We would prefer the Neonatal Program, the Neuroscience Program, or the Pain, Palliative and Integrative Medicine Program. Or you can give to a fund for urgent hospital and patient needs. Children’s wasn’t able to help Nora due to her prognosis, but it is our dream as a family that they may help others in her honor. Please be sure to let them know that you are giving in memory of Nora Pepper Macdonald. If you are so compelled, please donate online, or call them at 952-992-5509.

Gratitude and Rest

The holidays always seem to put people in a reflective mood, and I am exactly that kind of sap! So if you want hardened writing advice for the next few weeks, you are out of luck.

The holidays are upon us and this year, I have so much to be grateful for.

No joke, my gorgeous blog readers, I have had the best personal and professional year of my life: We built basically a new house in a four-month renovation; my son, Theo, continues to be a daily joy; I got back to conference speaking, which was always a deep love for me; I was lucky enough to work with over 300 talented freelance editorial clients, and they continue to sign with agents and sell books and otherwise made me very proud; and we started on the journey to expand our family.

A baby girl is joining us in December. Terrible time of year to meet the ol’ health insurance deductible, of course, but we couldn’t be happier! This was the year that all my dreams came true, honestly.

I’m taking some time away in December to do the newborn thing again, but I am one of those terrible people who can’t sit still, so I will have a limited slate of clients continuing with me. The blog may be a bit quieter, or my updates might happen at 2 a.m. Who knows?! After that, it’s back to business as usual in January, helping writers everywhere make their dreams come true for 2018!

I’ll send out an email blast once I’m back to scheduling my regular slate of clients, so if you’d like periodic updates, sign up in the sidebar.

Happy Holidays to you and yours, and I wish you blessings and joy this season. Now let’s eat some pie.

Writing Active Character Reaction

Sure, we all know to write a character who drives action, but what about character reaction? The most compelling protagonists not only move action forward, but they remain plugged into the action as it progresses. They act on the plot, and react to the plot, in other words. They are…wait for it…proactive and reactive protagonists. So why do many writers struggle with this idea?

active character, character action, character reaction
The best protagonists make things happen and react to what’s happening, both are crucial elements to keeping the reader engaged.

Writing Active Character Reaction

We all know that your number one objective as a writer is to make the reader care. Or, well, you know that if you’ve been haunting around the site for any length of time. Readers read in order to experience. Whether they want to experience an event, a new idea, or a story they can’t get anywhere else… To read is to be transported.

The best way to rob your reader of the experience of a novel is to give us a character who doesn’t act or react. Passive characters, or those whose mode seems to be set to “non-reaction” are a tremendous wasted opportunity.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say our character is an orphan, or so she thinks. Then she finds out that maybe, just maybe, her father isn’t dead, after all. This is a big bomb to try and land accurately, in terms of making those emotions seem genuine. I get it. Many writers, then, feeling daunted, would simply not have the character react.

“She read the letter again, her fingers going numb.”

Not only are you relying on an external reaction and a physical cliché here, but there’s really nothing else to it. This is a total non-reaction. It may look like a reaction, it may show her doing something in the moment, but there’s really no substance here if you think about it.

What does it feel to be a girl who discovers she’s not the orphan she thought she was? We don’t really know much more about it, as a result of this underwhelming non-reaction.

Creating Compelling Reactions

So instead of a non-reaction, you really want to highlight your character’s experience in big and small moments that demand a reaction. (Don’t make the mistake of focusing solely on the big moments, either. A character’s reaction in a small moment could be very revealing, and work to pull the reader further into the character’s world.)

For every time that you want to shrink from an event or leave in a generic physical reaction, put your patience cap on and take the time go dive deeper. If you don’t want to write the reaction, that’s the perfect tip-off that you should. Because it’s going to lead to some tough, challenging, vulnerable stuff, most likely.

Start by really putting yourself in your character’s shoes. What would their first thought be? How does this turn of events affect them? What’s a dumb thing that can come to mind? If your character’s home is burglarized, for example, maybe they quip, “Good luck with that DVD player, it never worked anyway,” almost as if they can’t help themselves. Don’t go for the expected reaction, either. Is there anything you can verbalize here that will lend the situation the element of surprise?

That’s how you make the situation relatable and, more importantly, human.

Focus on Interiority

Of course, it all comes back to interiority. This concept is the vanquisher of the non-reaction. It is your insurance that you are doing your due diligence and creating characters who are active, plugged-in participants in their own stories.

If you ever feel stuck in an important moment, and you simply can’t imagine how your character is going to take the situation, go back to the most elementary questions of all:

And?

So?

This letter says I’m not an orphan, after all. And? So? Well, I’m going to have to track my father down now. And? So? I’ve believed this one thing about myself for the last ten years…and now what should people call me? What do I call myself?

My home has been robbed. And? So? I never liked that stupid DVD player anyway.

In big moments and small, interiority is a tool to help you discover your character’s reaction. By giving them a reaction and making them an active participant in the scenes you’re writing, you will give the reader a vital connection. Not only to who they are, but to what they’re going through.

And that’s what every reader wants, deep down, to experience.

Is there a disconnect between action, character, and reaction in your novel? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can lean in to the emotional potential of your writing together.

Character Turning Points

The other day, I found myself giving advice on character turning points and changes of heart. A client of mine had a manuscript where the characters were being swayed this way and that by a controversial force in the story. A protagonist would end up on one side of an issue, and a few scenes later, they would have second thoughts and flip-flop. Unfortunately, this gets the reader all confused.

character turning points, motivating turning points, character turning point, change of heart, character motivation
You want to literally be able to point to a change of heart on the page.

Now, I’m all about flip-flops on my feet, but not so much with my characters. When a protagonist or another POV character quickly changes opinions, I want to go through the process of that change with them.

Let Your Reader Into Character Turning Points

If a reader is not attached to the character as your character makes decisions and changes opinion, a disconnect will emerge. Your POV character will start to seem fickle, and their beliefs will start to seem arbitrary. When you’re writing a character, you want to imbue them with certain principles and convictions. One’s orientation about various issues is an integral part of who one is.

Knowing what a character stands for and cares about helps me, as a reader, understand who they are. Now, good plots bring a character up against their beliefs in ways that challenge character and reader alike.

Changes of heart are sometimes my favorite moments in a story. They’re a great opportunity to deepen character, introduce an element of surprise, or challenge the reader. The rub is, they have to exist on the page, and the reader needs to be guided through them.

How to Engineer a Change of Heart

Every time a character encounters plot or another character that challenge an existing belief, you have an opportunity. Let’s say that your protagonist hates the school bully. This is a familiar enough trope that anyone can understand it, and the emotions behind it. “She is so mean,” your character might think, and that’s that.

But then your protagonist comes across Queen Bee crying in the bathroom, all by herself (which usually never happens). Sure, your character can keep insisting, “She is so mean. She probably got what she deserved.” That’s certainly one approach.

Or, you can add some nuance and change the belief a bit. “I know what she did to Ryan was terrible, terrible, but…maybe she has something going on.” Ah, some nuance, some dimension, a little depth creeps in! Well, now what?

Aftercare for Character Turning Points

The important thing is to never rest on your laurels. Instead of making your protagonist’s opinion linear or contradictory, turn it into an arc. The relationship with Queen Bee should have its own trajectory. And each turn of the screw should appear on the page.

Once your POV character has seen Queenie in a moment of vulnerability, don’t go back to, “She is so mean.” That doesn’t quite fit anymore. Queen Bee might still be mean, but now, the opinion could temper to, “I wonder what’s going on under the surface?” Then maybe QB is mean again, and then it can progress further to, “Well, if she’s got problems, why is she taking them out on us?” Finally, there’s some kind of reconciliation. Maybe in then it becomes, “I get it now, and I’m sorry I never reached out to help.”

As we learn more about the characters and their situations, always make sure that your protagonist’s opinions are changing and specific and the reader can easily follow. Whenever you set up a turning point, let the protagonist reflect.

This way, not only will your protagonist have relationships in the novel with other characters and plot points, but each important opinion and belief will also have a trajectory, like a living, breathing thing.

Working on character relatability, objective, or motivation? Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll make sure you’re creating fully realized fictional people on the page.

Bringing Dead Characters to Life

Today we’re talking about bringing dead characters to life and, though it’s the day before Halloween, I don’t mean zombies. I mean characters in a novel who are either dead or otherwise unavailable for development in the present action. How do you flesh them out (again, not talking about zombies but pun fully intended) and make them more real and relevant to your protagonist’s current situation if we never meet them in the present moment?

writing dead characters, fleshing out dead characters, writing relationships with dead characters
‘Tis the season to talk about those dearly departed characters.

“Off Screen” Character Relationships Are Very Important

The idea that character relationships in a novel are important should surprise exactly nobody. Character relationships are crucial. But there’s a fly in the ointment if your character is no longer around, dead, missing, or otherwise unavailable to participate in the story. How do you create a rich and compelling relationship with someone who isn’t there?

The most important first step is to think about this point instead of glossing over it. This post is a nudge in the that direction. A lot of writers, unfortunately, don’t put much thought toward developing their “off screen” characters. After all, a dead Mom or a missing Dad or an incarcerated older sister are pretty familiar tropes. The attitude seems to be, why bother developing past the stereotype(?

A dead Mom is sad and immediately sentimental. All the protagonist has to do is mention their dead mother and this is enough to (try and) manufacture certain feelings in the reader. But don’t let the Dead Mom name-drop simply be an obvious emotional trigger or a cheap trick. You have to go deeper.

Developing Dead Characters

The most powerful tool in your arsenal for creating multi-dimensional “off screen” characters is flashback. This technique often gets a bad rap. So many people ask me whether or not they can even use flashback anymore. I guess it’s out of style. But don’t discount it.

Flashback is the only time when your “off screen” characters can live again. Seeing them in action, dynamically interacting with your protagonist, is going to paint a much clearer picture than any kind of telling about them. We’ll experience them in the flesh, pick up on their physical and character quirks, hear their voice in dialogue.

How do you pick a good flashback scene? Well, it all depends on the kind of relationship your character has with the deceased, and what element you want to bring to the story. Do you need to create longing for a deceased mother? Show a sweet, everyday moment. Maybe they tease one another lightly, maybe they laugh about an inside joke. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, the characters should reveal their quirks and act human, rather than trying to be perfect in order to create a theme-heavy Very Profound Moment, just because one of them is dead and we’re in flashback.

Focus not just on the unavailable character, but also the protagonist’s interaction with them. Was it a time your main character almost said something important, but didn’t–then it was too late? Let the protagonist be an active participating so we get a sense what it was really like to be in the relationship. Just remember, it is your job is to reveal character via showing instead of telling. That’s the only time a flashback is powerful. If you’re writing superficial showing, like, “My mother was so kind and nurturing, I loved that she was the most selfless woman I knew” etc. then you’re not truly fleshing out that character in three dimensions.

How Often to Flash Back and When

Instead of putting all that pressure on one scene, you should use multiple short flashbacks to develop dead characters. Find several moments that reveal various shades of the character and their relationship to your protagonist. Insert them into the manuscript occasionally, and have your character reference them or think about them when we’re in the present.

One rule of thumb about when to include flashback: Develop information only when you’ve had a chance to add some action. Plot and pacing are about the balance of action and information. Some writers get caught in the trap of layering too much backstory, flashback, information, and other static elements, especially at the beginning of a novel. Well, information has a way of stopping plot cold.

So when you’re considering including a flashback to develop a departed character, evaluate the following elements:

  • Do we need information from or about this character by a certain point in the plot? Start building flashbacks in way ahead of time, instead of right before that information is relevant.
  • Are there information-heavy chapters or scenes before or after your flashback? Reconsider another informational moment and add some gas to your engine with plot instead.
  • Thinking about a flashback in the first chapter? Sustain a strong present moment for at least the first three pages before yanking us into any kind of past moment.
  • Is this a solitary flashback or one in a series about this character? Use individual flashbacks and memories to establish different shades of a departed character–make them multi-layered. Don’t just dwell on the same attributes.

Long story short, don’t let “off screen” characters play familiar stock roles. The temptation to do this is incredibly strong. They are often archetypes, even in the best books. Use the tool of flashback to really show them to a reader in all of their nuance. Push yourself to go further.

A well-crafted character is perhaps the most important element of your novel. That doesn’t stop at your protagonist, either. Hire me as your novel editor and we’ll whip the whole cast into shape.

What Interiority Is and Why It Matters

One of the cornerstones of my writing craft philosophy is the concept of interiority. I always define it as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions, even in picture books, and even (perhaps especially) in third person. This tool, to me, is the most crucial one in a writer’s arsenal. Unfortunately, its interpretation and application are quite open-ended, which makes it easy to understand but more difficult to teach.

This article will be intended as a comprehensive introduction to the topic, as well as my reasoning for why I consider this idea so terribly important to both writers and readers. If you sit down and read one Kidlit.com post in your life, I hope it’s this one.

interiority, character, point of view, writing, novel writing
Interiority is a tool to express your true commitment to seeing events through your character’s perspective.

What Is Interiority?

I define the term “interiority” as a character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions and how we access them, whether it’s in first person or third, a picture book or a YA novel. It is any moment when you dive into your character’s head to add context, meaning, humor, or emotion to a situation. The moment in question can be big or small, the reaction can be casual or life-changing.

The important thing is to keep coming back to your character. Remind yourself that they are experiencing the moments you’re choosing for them (via your plot), and that, in real life, we react to stuff all the time. Whether it’s a private joke or a shift in mood, we go through our days very aware of what’s going on. You certainly don’t want to have every little thing elicit a reaction, but more often than not, characters don’t react enough. Keep reminding yourself that your character is in the moment, experiencing it. Is there any reaction warranted that could add some depth to the situation or bring the reader closer to your character’s rich inner life?

Specificity is the Key

Everyone experiences emotions in a different way. My “sad” might look very different from your “sad”, and it might be caused by very different things. Too often, writers name an emotion, eg, “She felt angry” and move on. But simply naming emotions doesn’t give me much to dig into, as a reader. I know what my angry is like, but I don’t care much about me right now. I’m reading to learn about a fleshed-out and compelling character. So I want to know what her “angry” looks like, what thoughts cross her mind, what places she goes when she’s feeling worked up.

Besides, there are a million shades of anger and a million reasons to be angry (or whatever emotion). Imagine this: A father brings home a pony to surprise his daughter, and she’s angry. What? That makes no sense. Why? If the writer simply showed her storming off, we’d get no specificity, and the reader would be left in the dark. But if we were to go into interiority, we’d have access to something like, “He thinks he can just buy my love after what he did?” Ohhh, now it makes a lot more sense. I would much rather have that specific thought on the page instead of the zoomed-out view of her storming off to sulk. Or her heart rate rising. Or her stomping her foot. (All external.)

Which brings me to my next key point about interiority. There are two ways of discussing emotion, internal and external. Too many writers rely on external only, and this is a huge missed opportunity.

The Limits of Using Physicality to Discuss Emotion

Writers who struggle with interiority tend to render emotions instead via physical sensations, a lot of which tend to be cliché. We have tears falling and hearts thumping and stomachs clenching, but these images are so familiar that they don’t invite the reader to dig deeper.

I often tell my clients, “I don’t care that there are tears. I care about the thought that finally makes them fall.” We are all familiar with this phenomenon. We are on the verge of crying all day long, but it’s not until one thought or idea crosses our minds that we actually go over the edge. I am much more interested in that thought, because it is going to be very specific.

If your manuscript is littered with references to the physical body reacting instead of the mind, there are ways to change your approach. Imagine yourself accessing deeper layers to your character’s experiences. This can be done by asking some very basic questions.

Digging Deeper, Asking Questions

Often, I jokingly refer to myself as a character therapist. Because I’m always sitting on my imaginary couch and asking, “And? So? How did that feel?” My notes to clients are littered with these questions.

Remember that your character is not an impartial security camera, recording events. Even in third person. We are going through their story because we want to know what the story is, sure, but because we also want to know how said story affects them. There’s a reason (or at least, there really should be) you chose that particular character to experience that particular story. How does one influence the other? That is what readers will attach to.

You are telling a story because you want readers to experience it. There is no better way to have them live vicariously than to have them read the experiences of their guide, the point-of-view protagonist. The deeper, more honest, and more intimate you can make your account of that experience, the closer your reader will feel to the character and the story. This is the core tenet behind pretty much my entire fiction craft teaching philosophy.

Interiority Resources From the Kidlit Blog

I’ve written a lot about interiority over the years, and I honestly hope to write a whole lot more. If you want to dig further, here are some of my favorite articles about it from the archives:

Want to dig deeper into interiority as it applies to your work? Hire me as your developmental editor, and get customized, actionable advice on how to use this powerful tool.

Commit or Omit

This is more of a general writing advice/philosophy type of post, because I haven’t done one of those in a while. I’ve been giving this note a lot to editorial clients lately, and it has me thinking.

what to include in your novel, how to write a novel, novel writing
What do you focus in on and what do you let go of when you’re writing?

Picking and Choosing Elements to Include in Your Writing

One of the most difficult decisions you make as a writer is what you include in your novel or picture book. You can’t include everything. I often reference the image of a spotlight operator when I talk about this. It is, after all, your job to direct your reader’s attention to important elements, and downplay or omit those elements which aren’t important, at the end of the day.

For example, you are writing a YA novel set in a quaint beachside town. (For some reason, three of the novels I’ve worked on in October so far are all set in quaint beach towns! Maybe to make me homesick for California!) There is an adorable bed and breakfast in this quaint beach town, and you take great pains to describe its weathered lavender paint, curved gables, blah blah blah. Probably because you spent your honeymoon in an adorable bed and breakfast very much like this one. But we never see the B&B again, nor is it part of the action in any significant way (nobody has the decency to be murdered in it or anything!). It’s just, well, window dressing. So the question becomes, is your page and a half of description necessary?

Another example: you’re writing a picture book that isn’t in rhyme. But you have this totally awesome rhyming phrase that you want to use. Does it fit the manuscript you’re writing? Or is random rhyme in the middle of a non-rhyming story going to seem odd to the reader?

In both of these cases, I’d probably counsel you to remove those elements. These examples are rather clear-cut. But there’s also another consideration. What if you have a necessary element to your story, but you don’t exactly know what to do with it?

When Commitment Fades In and Out

I recently read two manuscripts, back-to-back, actually, where a character was clearly important to the story, but they disappeared for long stretches of time. One of these characters was, essentially, the story’s villain. Another of these characters was more of a symbolic foil to the protagonist who represented a big life change in the main character’s life.

The first character showed up pretty infrequently, and only when the plot had reached a crescendo. The second character only showed up twice–once in the middle, and once at the very, very end, to make sure the reader knew that Something Significant was happening.

In both cases, the mantra “Commit or omit” crossed my mind. Both writers knew this element they’d chosen was important, but neither seemed to know exactly how to integrate those elements.

Obviously the antagonist’s role is to stir up trouble. He’s not going out to coffee with your protagonist or spending a lot of time laying low. However, this character only did the bare minimum in terms of appearances in the plot, and as such, I felt the writer missed out on a lot of opportunities to develop the antagonist further. Remember, we want our villains to be fleshed out characters, too, not just caricatures. It almost seemed like the writer knew she needed an antagonist, so she threw this personality into the mix, but only when strictly necessary. If the villain had more “screen time”, perhaps they would’ve been a more compelling part of the action.

For the character who only came around during Emotionally Significant Moments, that’s an issue of giving him more to do, too. You don’t want someone who is just a walking/talking thematic element or harbinger of change. That character needs to become more real, or maybe the decision is that you don’t need him, and you can get your significance elsewhere. Commit or omit.

The common thread with both of these characters is that they end up in the novel but under-utilized and, as such, they end up feeling one-dimensional.

Checking Out Your Own Novel or Picture Book

The simplest check for any element in your manuscript is this: Does the character, setting, or plot point only play one role? Are you fully committed to developing this element, or are they just there because you feel you need them?

If you have critique partners (and if you don’t, the recent Critique Connection could help!), consider if there are any characters, plot points, settings, or writing choices that they’ve misunderstood or felt underwhelmed by. These might be the very elements you need to either commit to, or omit from the project.

Is something simply not working in your project, but you don’t know what, or you don’t know what to do about it? Invest in an expert set of eyes, and hire me as your freelance editor.

 

Taking a Book Idea to the Next Level

A few days ago, a potential client emailed me about their book idea, and our exchange triggered this post. He had a story heavily inspired by a conversation he’d overheard between his children. Lovely! So he wrote it out and decided to see if it was ready to be edited and published. There was an issue, though. He had written an idea. It wasn’t yet a manuscript. What’s the difference? And how do you go from idea to manuscript? Read on!

book idea, bigger picture book idea, how to get a book idea, where to find a book idea, getting a book idea
Ideas, actually, are all around…

The Difference Between a Book Idea and a Manuscript

Book ideas are everywhere. For reasons I’ll go into a bit later, that have to do with a very notable writer’s own process, I have been thinking a lot about book ideas recently. The truth is, if we have our listening ears in, ideas are all around us. If we make it a point to be open-minded, observe, and keep track of our ideas, we may be surprised to find that the idea isn’t the most difficult part of writing.

Like my potential client, who overheard a snippet of conversation. He took the necessary step of committing it to paper, but then came an obstacle. And? So? What’s next?

Because an idea isn’t a book. Even in the very nebulous world of the “concept book”, which you may have heard of. An idea is an idea, and anyone can have one. The book itself comes from what you do with that idea. The execution of the book idea, therefore, lies in the manuscript.

What Makes a Manuscript?

An idea is often too straightforward in its original state. A writer’s job, therefore, is to keep track of what inspires you, but then make it bigger. An idea has “juice” if it reveals something universal and relevant to readers who perhaps didn’t observe or experience what you observed or experienced.

Think of it as alchemy, the magical transformation of one thing (a book idea) into another (a story). Take the potential client’s situation. He had an observed interaction between siblings.

My first question was, “What’s the bigger picture?” I understood why this interaction captured the writer, but not necessarily what I, a third party who didn’t know the children or didn’t witness the interaction, was supposed to get out of it. Basically: And? So?

Small Moments, Big Message

Though I hesitate to talk about a message in books, because I want you to avoid preaching at all costs, the concept applies here. If you take your book idea and come up with the bigger picture that you want to convey to readers, then you will potentially have a book idea that can turn into a manuscript.

Because thinking about what you want to say to kids everywhere (and parents, if you’re writing something that will be read aloud), then you can start thinking about what kind of characters need to be involved, and what kind of plot, in order to transmit your message.

Then you might find that you’re compelled to sit down and start writing, inspired by the bigger picture. Then it’s up to you to perform alchemy again. By giving a character a strong plot to experience, you will then force your message underground again. Let them come up with the moral themselves, and let them communicate that subtly to the reader through their experiences.

Repurposing Smaller Ideas

It’s possible, of course, that your book idea will not be big enough to become an actual book. I don’t know, for example, what will happen with this potential client and their overheard conversation. But all is not lost. Maybe this snippet of dialogue will turn up as part of another idea, or another book. That’s why I advocate keeping a file of ideas to draw from. You never know when an idea or a piece of an idea will click into something more substantial. This could happen even years later.

So keep an eye out for book ideas, and keep this article in mind as you decide which ones to pursue. Ideas are all around us, we just have to learn how to listen and look.

Is your book idea “manuscript-worthy”? Hire me for a writing consultation and we can see if it’s worth developing. You no longer have to write alone in the idea stage!

Picture Book Self-Publishing Resources Callout

Hey lovely readers! I work with a lot of clients as a freelance editor who are looking to publish their picture books independently. They often ask me for resources to help them with their endeavor, and so I’m compiling a list. For this particular list, I’m looking for services specific to picture books.

Where you come in: Have you personally worked with any self-publishing service provider to produce your independent picture book? Did you have a good experience?

I’m looking to hear about:

  • Typography and layout designers
  • Printers
  • Cover designers
  • Hybrid publishing houses
  • Marketing services

I am looking for personal experiences here. For this reason, I am obviously much less inclined to hear from PR people and representatives from various companies and publishers.

Please leave some testimonials and links in the comments for me to research, or email me at mary at kidlit dot com. Thanks so much for your help!