Writing Emotional Meaning

Writing emotional meaning can be very difficult because most writers are so focused on getting information down on the page. What it all means, how it makes the reader feel, how to get the most out of it…these are higher order concerns that sometimes don’t enter into a first draft.

And they don’t necessarily have to. Sometimes we don’t know what our books are really about until we’ve written them. But that’s what revision is for! If you have no idea what “emotional meaning” even, well, means, read on.

writing emotional meaning, making meaning when writing, characterization, character detail, character backstory
Sometimes writing emotional meaning feels like juicing truth out of a rock. A very meaningful rock.

Writing Emotional Meaning for Character

Writers often get caught up in putting character details down on the page. Your character’s eye color, favorite food, quirky hobby. For some, this is the stuff of spreadsheets. The contents of the character’s room or locker or backpack are meant to tell the reader who they are.

I do not understand this, nor have I ever. Sure, if they like mumble rap instead of country, this tells me something about them. Some vague, mass market, cookie cutter thing. But it doesn’t give me their soul.

Instead, I am looking for how things matter to a character, instead of what matters to them. This is a pretty subtle difference. Keep in mind that your character has had a past, they have a present, and they are hoping for a future. Instead of just the facts about each of these, I want to know how your character is letting these things affect them.

For example, your character grew up in an abusive home. Instead of just detailing the abuse in flashback, surprise the reader. Maybe your character thinks of the treehouse where they escaped from everything. Or maybe they felt empowered in the midst of tragedy by making pancakes for their siblings before the mom got up and the day started on a bad note.

An Example of Emotional Meaning

If the character relates to this fact from their past with some nostalgia, or even fondness, there is richness there. How do they think about the past? Compare this example:

I was abused ever since I could remember. Mom would come home late from one of her benders, then it’d be up to us to stay quiet all morning while she slept it off.

This is very factual. We get just the straight truth here. Now compare it to this one:

Th smell of maple syrup always sets me off. I remember cooking as quietly as possible. Huddling everyone around the table. But instead of the fear, I remember watching everyone eat and smiling. For just a moment, we are all safe in the kitchen and it’s because of me.

This character has a tough backstory. Sure. Everyone knows that child abuse = bad. But don’t just make that preconceived notion in your reader’s mind do all the work.

Finding an emotion that’s more than “just the facts”, and maybe a surprising emotion, adds some interest and intrigue to the character attributes you’re creating. You can have the character react with the same level of complexity about their present and future. For example, they are about to receive a full-ride scholarship to an elite prep school. Amazing. All their dreams are coming true.

But how else might they feel about it? Resentment because they’ll have to actually work hard, unlike some of their fancy new classmates? Pressure?

Don’t stop at “what”. Move past it to “how” and “why”.

 

Layer Emotional Meaning In Before You Need It

The other day, I was reading a client manuscript about two best friends who really miss one another, because the main character moved away. The friend is mentioned briefly in the first chapter (by name, with the attribution “best friend”), then it’s not until a dozen chapters later that they are able to talk on the phone.

Now, the writer has done a few things wrong here. First of all, if it really is a best-friendship, why does it take ten chapters for them to get on the phone after a traumatic separation? Second of all, it’s not enough to just say “Oh, she’s my best friend and I miss her” and then count on the reader’s idea of a best friend to do all the heavy lifting.

What this writer should’ve been doing is writing emotional meaning into the friendship in every chapter. Does the character think to text their BFF, only to sadly remember that it’s past midnight on the East Coast? Does someone at their new school remind them of their friendship? Does mint chocolate chip ice cream not taste as sweet without their amiga?

Have Your Characters Think About the Important Stuff

I read a lot of manuscripts where the character says something like, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my BFF. I miss her so much.” And yet in 50 pages, the protagonist hasn’t thought of the friend once, except to name them and tag them “best friend”. I have access to their thoughts! I’ve been looking! Not one thought on the actual page. So “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about XYZ” rings incredibly false.

All this is to say, if something is meaningful, put it on the page early and often. Try to find surprising emotional meaning behind it. Add depth and richness. By the time we get on the phone with BFF in chapter ten, we should know something about their friendship. We should have feelings about it that are inspired by the character’s feelings. We should know much more than, “Oh yeah, that’s the best friend character she mentioned.”

Plant seeds. Add layers. Writing emotional meaning is a job to undertake from the very beginning for those elements of your story that are truly important.

All of your details are on the page, but the emotions are falling flat. Work on your character’s interiority and your emotional writing with me as your novel editor.

Writing Tension Instead of Teasing

There is a big distinction between writing tension and merely teasing the reader along. Unfortunately, a tease is not enough and doesn’t respect your audience. Here’s how to recognize if your scenes have enough tension, and how to fix it if you have a teasing issue.

writing tension, tension in novel writing, creating tension
Tick tick tick, keep that tension high without teasing…

Have you ever written a sentence like:

If only she knew then what she knew now, she would’ve done everything differently…

They enjoyed their ice cream, not knowing what was about to hit.

These are examples of a classic tease. Writers usually use this kind of language when nothing is going on in the present moment, but they want readers to tag along until something more exciting happens. This is a fine instinct–you know you need more tension than you have, so you are trying to create it. However, it’s not the best approach. Read on to find out why, and how to create genuine reader interest without gimmicks.

Why Teasing Doesn’t Work

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and pulls your reader out of the present moment of the story.

Sure, the reader may wonder what’s about to happen, but this is a short term fix to a moment that lacks other tension. It may not be enough. One or two sentences of teasing might give you a very temporary tension boost, but if you are working with a global lack of tension in that scene or chapter, it’s not going to be enough.

Even more problematic is the idea of teasing repeatedly. Every time you mention a tension-building event, it loses a bit of power. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a simple application of the Law of Diminishing Returns. If you keep teasing without actually putting the climactic event on the page (and soon!), readers will lose interest as the tease becomes more and more transparent. If you simply must build tension this way, try to add new information with each tease to keep readers engaged.

Writing Tension In the Present Moment

Teasing is especially problematic for middle grade and young adult fiction, because those novels tend to be very immediate. The character is in the moment, and there’s none of this, “I’m telling the story from the future, looking through the hazy sands of time.” When you resort to the “If I only knew then” ploy, that puts your actual character’s storytelling in some undetermined future and pulls your reader out of the present moment of the story.

Ideally, you will be capitalizing on tension that is present in the moment that you’re writing. This is hard to do, because sometimes your moment doesn’t have a lot of tension. You know it needs more. You just don’t know how to create it. So you tease about the future. This often happens in chapters where there has been a lot of telling and the writer is eager to pick up their pacing.

This isn’t the answer you want, but it’s the real answer: You need more tension. If you don’t have it, create it. Or maybe the moment you’re putting on the page isn’t working because there’s not a lot going on. Really analyze the moments where you’ve been using teases. Do they work? Is there more that can happen there? Can you create conflict via character? Maybe loop in other characters or bring in a secondary plot thread? Have a bigger world event happen to shake the characters up?

If the moment isn’t doing heavy lifting, you need to inject some. Ideally, you wouldn’t have a scene or chapter without capitalizing on tension that’s currently happening.

Conflict is the engine that drives plot forward. You should be creating tension on the page at all times, no matter what else is going on. That’s why big globs of world-building, information, or backstory tend to fizzle out quickly. Action is the easiest way to create tension, whether it comes from something happening in your world or character conflict.

Teases are a cheap fix. If you really want to hook readers and keep them engaged, really invest in writing present moment tension.

Are you orchestrating the right amount of tension? Bring me on as your developmental novel editor and we can dig into your plot together.

Seeking Writing Service Providers!

Do you (or someone you’ve worked with) provide non-editorial services to writers? Services can include:

  • Graphic/cover design
  • Book layout
  • Formatting for Kindle/ebook publication
  • Book production
  • Self-publishing consulting/services
  • Marketing/PR
  • Social media support
  • Ghostwriting
  • Illustration

This is an opportunity to be included in a resource guide.  I’m always getting requests for ghostwriters, cover designers, book formatting, etc.

Please contact me at mary@kidlit.com or leave links in the comments. For all service providers, I will ask for examples of successful work you’ve done, so be prepared to talk about your services, your experience, and give a sense of your pricing. If you’re a writer who has used a service that you are THRILLED with, please spread the good word and let me know. Thank you so much.

Delaying an Agent Submission

Delaying an agent submission isn’t usually on a writer’s radar. Most writers very much want an agent to request their manuscript, so why would they delay? There is a really compelling reason to be strategic in capitalizing on an agent’s interest.

delaying an agent submission, responding to a manuscript request, slush pile
If an agent is really interested, they’ll wait for your submission.

Submitting Too Soon

Writers are humans. They are, whether you want to think so or not, vulnerable to the quirks of human nature. And one of those foibles is impatience. A lot of writers tend to submit their manuscripts before their manuscripts are ready.

I have been beating this dead horse for about ten years, but it’s true. In a lot of cases, writers are too eager to get their work out there, so they gear up for submission to agents or publishing houses one or two revisions before they should.

It’s okay. It happens to everyone. But this is my level-headed plea that you try and recognize if this is happening to you. Did you rush into submission? Are you about to send some manuscripts out that may need more revision?

Did you put your work away for a few months before doing one last pass? (Nobody ever follows this advice, but if they did, the slush may be a very different place.)

Too often, writers really want to see the fruits of their labor. They want to get “out there”, like, yesterday, and see if their project is worth anything. I get it, I really do.

But this sometimes results in a submission that will get rejected because it hasn’t had enough time and revision. And then you may have shut the door on a promising potential agent/writer relationship.

Twitter pitch contests and similar opportunities only tend to make this worse, because they create this false sense of urgency. That you need to submit now now now or you’ll miss your chance forever.

Worth the Wait

Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with a client. This client wanted my blessing to send the first 50 pages of a manuscript to an agent. The manuscript needed some work. This is how I responded:

Looks like you’re moving ahead full steam with this submission. However, you told me that you originally wanted to wait. Now it sounds like you talked yourself out of it. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity! I need to do it!” Well, I’m about to suggest some serious revision. And I worry that you’ll be tempted to rush through it in order to submit.

You seem to have a very hard time managing whether or not you’re comfortable waiting. “Not sure I can tell her to wait?” Why the heck not? I think you might be making these situations into life-or-death, now-or-never in your head. They’re not. Plus, if you send the first 50 and the agent likes it, I think you’re going to be up against this very same dilemma again if there’s a full request. Immediately, it’ll be, “What do I do? Do you think the next 200 pages are okay to send?”

I suggest waiting until the whole thing is ready. To pull off a successful revision will take months. We’ve had extensive discussion about what happens when someone submits, then revises, and realizes, “Oh man, I submitted too early.” Even though it seems like you’re self-aware enough to know that you might be doing this, you still keep doing it, or wanting to do it.

You’re investing a lot of time and energy to get editorial feedback so that, I would imagine, you can revise your manuscript into submission-ready form. So do you want to submit early anyway? I would say no. Not only can you tell someone to wait on a submission, but there are contests running constantly.

This attitude of do-or-die, now-or-never is not going to serve you. It’s going to result in nothing but little bursts of anxiety when, frankly, you should forget completely about submission and focus on your book. Your strongest shot at publication isn’t getting into a closed agent’s inbox via the Twitter contest back door, it’s having a rock solid manuscript to impress them with.

Delaying an Agent Submission

Maybe now I’ve convinced you that a strong project, no matter when it arrives, is your best asset. That you can wait on submission while you revise. And that the Twitter pitch contest isn’t going anywhere.

But what if you’ve already submitted and you have a request? Do you rush into sending your manuscript anyway?

Nope! You can absolutely tell an agent that you need to go do some revision, and you’ll be back.

Thank you so much for your interest. I’m doing one more revision pass, and I’ll submit as soon as I’m ready.

Boom! You don’t even have to give a timeframe. That might put even more arbitrary pressure on you that you don’t need. In most cases, agents will understand. They want to see a strong project, too, even if it takes a few extra months.

So cool your jets. Revise a little more. And come out of the gate with something that demands attention. It’ll be worth it.

Need help getting a manuscript submission-ready? Hire me as your developmental editor. My “Submission Package Edit” gives you notes on everything an agent or publisher will want to see.

Writing Compelling Novel Opening Pages

Oceans of ink and blog posts have been spilled talking about novel opening pages. And with good reason. Your novel’s first pages are the only thing an agent gets to see before they make their decision about you. Well, that and your query letter and synopsis, which is why those are such hot topics. But how do you nail your novel’s opening pages? The advice may be simpler than you think.

novel opening pages, how to start a novel, first novel pages, novel opening
Don’t underestimate the importance of your novel opening pages. But don’t try to do too much, either. It’s a tight balancing act.

Great Novel Opening Pages Start With Conflict and Action

I cannot overstate this point: Conflict and action hook a reader and transport them into your story. This is exactly the goal of your novel’s opening. So start in action, start with conflict. You may want to use a smaller, scene-specific conflict (or “bridging conflict“) to get readers on the bus initially. That also puts less pressure on you to start with mind-blowing high-stakes conflict, which can be difficult to pull off before the reader knows your character.

Basically, you want to give them just enough of your character so that they care, without over-indulging in information (see next section). And you want to put the character in motion. They want something, they’re experiencing an obstacle, they are frustrated or full of longing. This is a good state for your character to be in.

And, very importantly, they are starting in action, where they’re either being frustrated by an obstacle or striving toward something. You need that balance of internal conflict and external conflict.

If you start with too much external action right away, readers may not care because they don’t know the character, their objectives, or motivations.

If you start with no external action, then it’s easy to get bored. For example, a character sitting in their room, philosophizing about life and all the ways in which it has gone wrong. Maybe you start with generalities, for example:

Life can be funny sometimes. I spent 13 years thinking I was normal. Totally lame. And then one day, everything changed.

But the character is just sitting and thinking. There’s no action. This is 100% internal conflict, and you want to avoid it because nothing is actually happening.

Avoid Too Much Information

In the same vein, information overload can sabotage your novel opening pages in other ways. You might start with action, like the character getting bullied, but then you stop and go into great detail about the school, everyone in it, and the character’s history with the bully since kindergarten.

“Context is important!” you say. But you can absolutely have too much of a good thing. If you start off your novel with a ton of information about everyone we’re meeting and all of the details of a character’s life, the plan will not get off the ground, so to speak.

There has to be a balance of action and information, and if in doubt, action should win out. For every piece of information that you introduce in the first few pages of your novel, ask yourself: Does this really, really, really have to be here? Otherwise, you may insert it later, or not at all.

Pick a Moment You Can Sustain

Finally, to tie everything together, you need to pick a moment you can sustain for two or three pages without either stopping the action to give tons of information, and without leaving the moment to go into backstory (more information).

You want your readers to get a foothold in the story. The way they do that is to sink into a moment they can lose themselves in. If you open with a bullying scene, let’s get that scene from beginning to end. Let’s get dialogue. Let’s get action. Let’s get a sense of our character as he or she experiences this, otherwise called interiority. Put the reader in the moment.

If you currently start with general philosophizing (per the example above), a ton of information, a lot of jumping around in time to gather various details, or without a sense of balanced internal and external conflict, it’s time to take another look. Your beginning really is your make-or-break. So it’s your job to make it good.

Struggling with your first pages? My Submission Package Edit revamps your first ten manuscript pages, query, and synopsis, so you can make an amazing first impression in the slush. Hire me today!

Avoiding Transition Words in Writing

Oftentimes, manuscripts are cluttered with transition words, like “then”. These tend to just be filler. Here’s why it’s better to cut down on fluff and streamline your manuscript. Some writers won’t be affected by this at all, but others may recognize themselves in this article.

transition words, writing transitions, manuscript writing
Instead of telling readers where you’re going, then going…just go.

Transition Words are Filler

For fun, here’s a list of transition words. A lot of these words and phrases are more at home in an essay. Writers of fiction will especially want to pay attention to the Time/Chronology/Sequence list.

Some writers use these words a lot. “Then” and “Suddenly” and “Just as” hang out and take up space at the front of many paragraphs. Some writers absolutely don’t have this issue, but others can’t help but be conscious of the passage of time. They use transition words and phrases to introduce action that’s about to happen.

Here’s the thing. Instead of introducing that action is coming, then describing the action–take a shortcut. Simply describe the action. For the most part, transitional words and phrases are filler.

Action is, by and large, written in chronological order. So words like “Then” to link descriptions aren’t necessary. Your reader will know that one event follows the other. If your manuscript suffers from inflated word count (50k words plus in middle grade, 90k words plus in young adult), you may want to really drill down to the sentence level. Are you overusing transition words and stating the obvious?

Try trimming them and you might see that your writing takes on a new and refreshing tightness and simplicity.

A Few Exceptions That Require Transition Words

There are two notable exceptions to my advice. In picture books, transitions really do keep things moving. Picture book action tends to be very quick–writers are expected to do a lot in about 700 words. Sometimes, time and action move quickly. Actions are described in a few sentences. So transition words help things flow, and they help keep younger readers engaged.

In work for older readers, there are instances where you will want to use compressed narration, or when you’re hopping around in time. If you are making a transition between scenes and need to splice your timeline together, transitions are totally fine.

They’re also a good idea if you’re going into flashback or moving around in any order other than chronological. Remember, if you take a time leap, you will always want to ground your narrative relative to the scene you just departed.

Transition words help keep your reader’s feet on the ground, so they know exactly when and where something is happening in relation to a previous passage.

Streamline Your Writing

The big takeaway is that writing works best when it is tight and functional. Flourishes are, of course, allowed. Sometimes extras help define your voice and identity as a writer. But a lot of filler can creep into writing and make it dull and heavy. Are transitional words one of the things you could trim from your work?

Voice is a crucial component of publishable writing. Hire me as your developmental editor and we can take your work to the next level together.

Writing Child Characters

If you want to write children’s books, writing child characters has to be a special interest, and always top of mind. The thing is, children are different from adults. For a lot of wonderful reasons. For some people, it’s very easy to channel their childhoods onto the page. For others, it takes constant work and course-correction. Here are some tips.

writing child characters, writing kidlit, writing picture books, writing middle grade, writing young adult
Writing child characters takes strength and vulnerability.

Writing Child Characters Believably

Nailing the mindset of a child the same age as your protagonist is crucial. As I write in Writing Irresistible Kidlit, and as I’ve said at many conferences across the country, kids have amazing built-in BS detectors. It’s hard to ring true with them because they are so absorbed in their experience, they’ll be able to pick out those who can’t connect to it very easily. (It’s the bane of every parent’s existence to be called out for not understanding, after all.)

For a lot of writers attracted to children’s books, this comes rather naturally. There is something about a young child’s experience that they remember from their own lives. They remember being a child and have something they want to say about it. Or they have a child the age of their protagonist to connect with. Something about parenting children has inspired them.

No matter where you stand, it’s always a good idea to get back in touch with your inner child–because that’s key when writing for children.

Remember Your Childhood

You may want to bean me with a yoga mat for this suggestion, but I am a big fan of journaling to help you get into (or out of) a particular headspace. When trying to connect with your inner child, don’t hesitate to write letters to that age of child, write letters from that age of child, or write diary entries as that child. Don’t try too hard to think, don’t judge yourself for what you’re writing or its quality.

Simply write. (Ha ha, easier said than done.)

Soon enough, you may find that words are starting to flow and ideas, memories, or feelings may surface after a long, deep sleep. The key isn’t just to do this once. If you want to write for a certain age group, do this over and over and concentrate on what it was like to belong to that age group.

Also, and this goes without saying, this is one of those exercises that only works if you do it. Thinking about doing it and doing it aren’t the same thing.

Connect With Modern Kids

Not in a creepy way, obviously. But another piece of the puzzle if your childhood muscles are rusty is to be in the same room as living, breathing children for a while. Volunteer for story time at the library, hang out with nieces and nephews, offer to host your teen’s next sleepover or sports party. Don’t lurk, but don’t close your listening ears or your observation eyes, either.

Childhood is different today than it was in your time, even if your time was a few years ago. A lot of the feelings might be the same, but the plot points are new. There are different issues at play. The world is different. Scarier. Bigger. Smaller. Bullies can do their dirty work on a screen or with guns instead of with their fists, for example.

Channel your inner child, but talk to contemporary children as well. They’re fonts of information and they will be more than willing to share if they believe you to be genuinely interested in their experiences.

Read, Read, Read

Have I beat this dead horse into the ground yet? Read. Even as you’re journaling to connect with your former self, and hanging out with actual kids the age of your characters, you’ll want to see who else is working in your space, and what they’re doing.

If you’re not already reading in your chosen category, what the heck are you waiting for? If you’re at a total loss for great books, start with award winners. These are writers at the top of their game, and all kinds of age groups, genres and styles are represented. Check out the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Printz, Belpré, Stonewall, Morris award winner and honor books, and more. Here’s a whole list of all the awards given by ALA. This is certainly not the end-all, be-all of books published that you should be reading, but if you’re desperate for a reading list and don’t know where to start, this will lead you down a great rabbit hole of your future favorite authors.

Writing Picture Book Characters

Special considerations for writing picture book characters (and, to an extent, early reader and chapter book) include remembering that these kids are still very much developing. Their worlds are quite small. They have a family and home that fill up most of their lives. They are learning a lot and being told what to do constantly by parents, teachers, siblings, etc.

As such, your books for this age group need to empower and inspire. Kids need to be put in the starring role, to solve their own problems. Well-meaning and wise adults cannot solve everything for them. For these ages, play on universal themes like love, loss, friendship, overcoming challenges, and trying to find what makes you special. These ideas will resonate in a big way with little kids who are still extremely egocentric. (This is not a slight. Developmentally speaking, young kids have a hard time differentiating that others are different from them and not simply there to suit their needs until they’re two or three.)

Think of what’s important to the littlest kids in your life. Connecting with children the age of your readers is especially important when writing for the youngest age groups, because you may not have very distinct memories of what it’s like to live in the moment and feel everything as intensely as little readers do.

Writing Middle Grade Characters

I love this age group. Nowhere else is the split between child and grown-up felt so acutely. Middle school-aged readers (and those slightly younger) are in frenzy of activity around developing their identities. Yet they also crave a safe haven when life gets to be too much, or when they get in over their heads. To all the world, they might be confident young citizens…but sometimes they’d much rather run and hide under their covers or have Mama bring them hot chocolate after a rough day.

Identity, friendships, and realizing that the world has shades of gray (including their suddenly fallible parents) are key themes for middle schoolers. Issues like communication, bullying, and figuring out one’s own moral code and integrity will come up a lot in the most emotionally resonant plots.

Though many of us probably don’t want to go back to middle school–it was such a cruel and confusing time–this is the proving ground for your middle grade characters. Where they figure out who they are, who they want to be, and how to start bridging those gaps. If the split between childhood and teenage-dom isn’t felt in your MG fiction, put this idea on your back burner as you revise.

Writing Young Adult Characters

Teens aren’t just miniature adults with fewer responsibilities. They certainly can seem that way sometimes, but assuming this is a big disservice to the age group. Teens don’t want to read your romanticized version of teendom. They experience everything in larger-than-life terms (which makes for great fiction). Their problems are incredibly real to them. And they don’t have the tools necessary to put their lives in context yet, or deal with their problems in healthy ways.

Remember, teens were kids just a few years ago, even if they’ll do anything to distance themselves from that idea and prove that they know better. At the same time, teens do have moments of clarity where they’re aware of their limitation. This vulnerability is an incredible thing to write into. It’s what makes YA so alive and electric.

The teen years are full of defining experiences, big questions, big fractures, and the seeds that will stay with a person for their entire lives. Who were you when you forged your identity? How do your teen characters grapple with this responsibility–if they want to touch it at all? How are they still children, deep down? This split-personality element of YA is so interesting to write.

No matter how old your characters, or how you get into the headspace of writing them, you just need to keep authenticity in mind. Write from an authentic place, and you will attract readers who value vulnerability, truth, and genuine prose. Sorry to go all Brené Brown on y’all, but I like to be reminded every once in a while of what we all aspire to.

Are you striking the right tone, voice, and emotion in your children’s fiction? Hire me as your developmental editor for anything from picture books to young adult novels.

Reading Your Way to Great Writing Voice

Great writing voice is the goal of every writer. However, voice is often the last thing to come to the surface when you’ve spent many, many hours on the page. (A million bad words, anyone?) There are two essential tenets to writing great voice, and I bullet point them here for you.

great writing voice, writing great voice, reading great writing, reading work aloud, writing voice, how to write
The key is to have fun. Have fun reading great writing, and have fun reading your own writing aloud. Are you having as much fun as this lady?

Great Writing Voice Via Reading

In my previous post about expanding your writing vocabulary, I urged all aspiring writers to read more. Read more of their favorite authors, read more writers across all categories, to read more.

I’m harping on this again. Maybe because I’m, ahem ahem, a bit of a nag (just ask my husband). Maybe because I’m making it my personal mission to read more myself this year. (When you read for a living, it’s hard to make room to read in your off hours.) Maybe because there is just so much damn good writing in the world.

I firmly and roundly reject the idea that writers will pollute their own voices and novels by reading the work of others. Um, no. Not at all. Everyone has to learn their craft somehow, and shelves are swimming with amazing examples of voice and writing.

Would you go a surgeon who didn’t want to pollute her creative genius by watching other surgeons at work? Didn’t think so. Luckily, in creative writing, we don’t have to spend all that time in medical school. So we’ve saved ourselves many years and many thousands of dollars. What should we do with all that bounty? Read. It’s cheap and easy and pleasurable.

Speaking of voice, I’m reading Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala right now.  (Thanks for the recommendation, Ali!) It’s about a woman who lost her entire family in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. This is a woman shattered, shattered by grief. It shows in the voice. The voice is unflinching. It’s quite a difficult read, but a haunting one. With my recent steeping in grief, I recognize the fractured bursts of thought and insight. The experience is that of a brain twisting and turning and trying to find purchase on anything. It’s an amazing read.

If I was trying to write a novel in fractured sentenced, with choppy pacing, I would definitely want to know Sonali’s work. Even if I was writing something peaceful and rhythmic, I’d check it out, to see how the other half lives. The point is, you cannot know what other writing is like without experiencing it truly.

To neglect the work of your (ideally) future peers, is to shut the door on the best opportunity to better yourself and your craft. I listen to writers tell me that they don’t read all the time, and it blows my mind, every time. I will never agree with this idea. If that’s what you’ve been doing, I urge you to reconsider.

Great Writing Voice Via Reading Aloud

The second piece of advice is also very simple, and it involves only you, your voicebox, and your manuscript. Hopefully you have understanding partners (or pets) at home, and hard-of-hearing colleagues at work. I’m asking you to demonstrate your great writing voice by reading your work aloud.

I tell this to everyone. At conferences. In editorial notes. On the street. Read your writing aloud. Don’t just think about it, actually do it. Maybe one out of ten people actually try this. Even fewer make it a habit whenever they write something new.

I always read my writing aloud. I print off a draft and pace around my house and read the longest story ever to my dogs. When I was writing my book, I went hoarse after a few days of reading. So what? This helps me find areas where voice isn’t flowing smoothly, identify points I’m not making correctly, and generally see if what I’ve written pleases me and makes sense.

It is a miracle for voice. I’m serious.

Read your writing aloud. Better yet, especially if you have poetry or a short piece (helloooooo picture book people), have someone read it aloud to you. I guarantee that, at least once, you will be shocked. It gives a whole new life to something you think you know well.

How many of my readers will do this? Not many. How many will do it more than once? Even fewer. But before we had the written word, we had spoken story. Everything we’ve put down on paper now used to be passed verbally around the campfire.

When we write on a page or a screen, we are entirely in our heads. Reading aloud puts some of our creative energy in our bodies. You will be very surprised at what you can discover that way. Try it. Seriously. Go.

Still struggling with voice? Let me help as your developmental editor. An experienced set of eyes on your work will put rocket boosters on your progress.

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.

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. There’s an expression in medicine: “If you hear hoofbeats, don’t think of zebras.” Doctors advised us as if we had a horse, but we actually had a true blue zebra on our hands. A week later, Nora 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 was absolutely perfect. Everything was 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’d ever kissed. We had all the x-rays and MRIs in the book, and she was physically flawless.

But due to a rare, random, and terribly cruel congenital condition, Nora had a pattern of brain wave activity that was 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, had never functioned in any other way, and never would. 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, Nora never would’ve been able to experience all of these things about life that are miracles. 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 were invited to participate in a comprehensive research study where her entire genome was sequenced. We didn’t end up finding out if her condition was genetic or due to some very nuanced brain anomaly, but maybe, in some small way, she will help another family down the road because of what the research team can learn.

Her diagnosis was Ohtahara Syndrome (Early Infantile Epileptic Encephalopathy), and while it can have many causes, it’s most likely random, and about 80% of families never learn the exact reason behind it. This has been a bitter pill to swallow, especially with such a rare syndrome and drastic presentation, but it helps to know that we are not alone.

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.