This fun winter illustration was sent in by Susan Drawbaugh. She was featured on Illustrator Saturday May 5th 2012. Here is the link: https://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2012/05/05/illustrator-saturday-susan-drawbaugh/
Yesterday Angela Sylvia liked my post. I didn’t know her so I followed one of the links to her blog and found a post I thought you would like to read. Anyone who has been writing for a while probably has a few manuscripts that weren’t working and were thrown in a drawer.
Angela Sylvia received her MFA from Lesley University (Cambridge, MA) in 2013, a low-residency program where she focused on Writing for Young People. She recently took out her manuscript in the drawer and shares her advice.
I asked Angela if she could also share a before and after of something she changed. You can see that after her post.
Horrible Past (Writing) Mistakes
I mentioned earlier that my current main writing project is rehashing a novel I completed a few years ago. Thinking it was done 5 years ago, I sent the story out to a handful of agents and got a less-than-enthusiastic response. Tepid is even too strong of a word. “Practically nonexistant” probably best describes the replies I received.
Frustrated, and also feeling like I didn’t have a clue about what I was doing, I pushed this story aside, started work on the novel for whom I’m currently searching for a home, and enrolled in my MFA program. While I did use the first couple chapters of this old MS to get into my program, I haven’t touched it in years.
As things tend to do, this story haunted me, and when it came to be too much I copied the thing into Scrivener, opened split screen, and started retyping the story. I’m just about done with my initial go-through, and I am proud of what I’ve managed to cut and alter. But I am disappointed, and sometimes horrified, at what I dared to send out to agents even a few years ago. Some are big things I might not have noticed that time and a bit of schooling have helped me notice. Others…I don’t even know. Here are a few of the problems:
- Slow Plot. It takes a while for things to get truly interesting. Which is why most of my big cuts take place in the first third of the book. It’s no wonder I never got any personalized email responses, the agents probably slept through my sample pages.
- Whiny MC. I wanted my main character to have some realistic 11-year-old life issues, but I really overdid the last time and she turned into a real Debbie Downer. A bunch of that got cut, too.
- Distant MC. It took me two years of Lesley to figure out that this was my problem and how to fix it, so it’s no surprise that an old MS was practically disease-ridden with distance.
- Lengthy Conversations. I still gotta cut some of these down, even at my ending. It’s kind of a bummer when you realize you said the same thing three times in rapid succession.
- Passive voice. This thing is chock full of it, and it probably bleeds back into my distance issue.
- Overuse of words/descriptions. Everyone is snarling, like, constantly. And I think I used the word “just” about 4 million times.
- Typos. Oh my god! The typos I left in there! Forgotten quotations, misspelled words, inconsistent apostrophe use. Did I even proofread this thing before I sent it out? I can’t even remember now.
Really, this is a great case for giving yourself time and distance before you dive into edits. Hopefully I’ve learned enough now that I won’t have to wait it out for half a decade before going back to something. Also, get a bunch of critique partners to read it before you send it out, seriously.
Here’s an example where I did some big cutting, the opening pages of my story:
The great yellow bus tumbled down the road, each bump and pothole bouncing Becky in her seat. Becky’s bus was always one of the last ones to pick up students at the school, and it was a long route, with Becky’s stop at the end. Her best friend Jane wasn’t even on her bus, so she had to sit through the rumbling ride on her own. But Becky didn’t mind—she had her CD player sometimes, and even when she didn’t she could read one of the books that was always crammed into her backpack, or stare out the window, watching the trees and buildings whiz past.
Becky didn’t like to just look at things—she liked to imagine what they could be. Distant hills were giants who knew how to sleep perfectly still, and snowflakes were white ballerinas spinning in a graceful dance to the ground. In class, it was not a pencil she held, but a magic wand that could cast powerful spells. These thoughts lifted Becky away, and for those moments she felt entirely at ease. But then the teacher raised her voice, or a student sneezed, and she reentered reality with a start, flipping through her textbook to find the right page.
Becky wrote these things down, creating stories in the weekly journals her 6th grade class was forced to keep. Her teacher, Mrs. Madison, would write Becky kind comments in the margins of the notebook, which she returned each Monday with a smile. On this day the trees were stoic sentinels, their thin branches like arms reaching for something in the sky. The spring rain pouring down was an ecstatic drum chorus greeting Becky as she was carried down the street. The water pooled and splashed on the side of the road, sending crumpled dead leaves down makeshift rivers. Tiny canals, Becky thought, that you could ride along if you were small enough, down along the road and into the drain pipes. She wondered where those pipes would take the riders; someplace different, she thought. Definitely better.
Becky sat on her cold plastic seat, her legs pulled up so the heels of her boots rested right on the edge. Tilting her head, she rested it sideways against the window, her breath making a fog circle on the glass, her dark brown ponytail tickling her ear. The bus was a great growling yellow beast, and she could feel it vibrate through her scalp as it tumbled down the road.
Becky’s house came into sight, and the bus came to a slow, grinding halt, the brakes moaning in a wailing protest. Time to get off, before the anxious beast became too impatient.
Becky grimaced as she stepped out into the rain. She started walking towards the house as the grumbling bus pulled away, when she noticed a bright spot right on the side of the road. It was a daffodil in full bloom just on the edge of the pavement. Becky dropped her bag on the lawn and walked to the flower, squatting beside it.
It was early for this flower to be blooming, Becky knew. The snow had only just begun to melt. She wondered how it was growing in the cold soggy ground in the freezing rain.
A shiver told Becky she had been in the rain for too long. She stood to go, but not before grabbing the flower, digging her fingers into the earth to pull it up by the roots. It was pretty, she told herself, and would look nice inside, out of the rain.
The great yellow beast of a bus rumbled away behind Becky, but she continued to stand in the rain as cold drops soaked through her strands of hair. Her eyes fixed on a bright spot at the edge of the road. A daffodil in full bloom, clinging to the edge of the pavement. Becky clutched her bag to her shoulder, and crouched beside the flower.
This daffodil was very late. Summer ended months ago, and it wouldn’t have been too strange for it to start snowing already. But still it grew in the soggy ground, survived the freezing rain.
Becky shivered, shaking droplets off her bangs. She stood, but not before grabbing the flower, digging her fingers into the earth to pull it up by the roots. It was pretty, and would look nice out of the rain.
The result is the same: she finds a flower (which will later turn out to be a pixie) when she gets off the bus, and then brings it inside. I cut the slow intro of seeing my main character on the bus, gloomily watching the rain and telling the reader about how her imagination works. This slowed the story down, delaying the big point of the scene, and spent too much time pointing out the main character’s active imagination instead of showing it through her stories and daydreams later. I also felt she was far too gloomy, and too hard to like off the bat, so that went, too. In the end, two pages went down to three paragraphs. Is it too abrupt? Does it still work? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly felt better about it after.
Angela worked on a middle-grade fantasy novel while getting her MFA, which she has recently completed and is currently querying to agents. Currently she is working on another middle-grade fantasy as well as short stories. Angela currently lives in New Hampshire.
Find Angela on Twitter @AngelaLSylvia or her blog, www.diaryofabookworm.wordpress.com.