Quick Tip, Writing

What Day Is it? In Your MS, Not Real Life

As soon as I titled this post, I realized how often I ask myself that question right now. The days definitely do blend together. It helps that May is a big birthday month for my family. We had two in the first week, and my daughter is now counting down the days to her 10th birthday (double digits!!), so that helps us keep track of what day it is. But it would be easy to let one day drift into another when each one seems the same.

That can also be true in a manuscript, and I’ve discovered a few different tricks to track the time, depending on what the manuscript needs. Because how many days have passed is more important in some manuscripts than others. So here are a few ways I make sure I don’t lose track while I’m writing.

Use A Real Calendar!

I always use an actual calendar as my starting point. If you’re writing historical, then you can look up the calendar for that specific year. If you’re writing contemporary and aren’t sure what year the book will publish, choose a year a couple into the future. Unless the year is important (like in my debut, as it jumps from one specific year to another), it’s unlikely it will even be mentioned, so the most important thing is that your days don’t repeat or skip. As much as we’d all love to have three Saturdays in a row… wait, that doesn’t work so much anymore, does it?

Even if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, if your book still follows our calendar, it would be helpful to just pick a year and use it as a reference. You can use the calendar on your phone/laptop, or you can go to an online resource like www.timeanddate.com, which will show you a calendar for a whole year.

Make a Timeline!

I’ve done this at different points and to varying degrees with different manuscripts. I have one manuscript where the dates are very important, not only for the passage of time but because of what’s happening in the world on those dates. So for that manuscript, I have a separate ongoing timeline document that I update as I’m writing to ensure scenes are happening when they need to. One of my favorite Scrivener features is the ability to use split screen while writing. I have used this feature while brainstorming, to ensure my timeline matches up with all the scenes I’m planning, and also while drafting, to check that I’m still on track with where the characters need to be in time. It’s super helpful! (I was going to include a picture, but it would give away too much about this project 😉.)

Use a Date Calculator!

There might be a case where you need to know how many days have passed since a certain date. For example, your character is marking the days since an important event, like a birthday, death, or wedding. Or counting down to it, like my daughter 😀. There are sites where you can input dates and it will tell you how many days have passed. If you want to get really technical, the date-to-date calculator on Timeanddate.com will even give you the minutes and seconds.

Extra Scrivener tip: If I’m using these resources repeatedly in a manuscript, I import the web page into my Scrivener file under Research.

Those are just a few tools I use to make sure my characters don’t end up losing a week or going to school an extra day somewhere in the manuscript.

Do you have any other tips on managing time within your manuscripts?

Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter

I’ve posted before about checking my manuscript for frequently used words (How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words; How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice). Some of these are crutch words–thought, just, really, very, etc.–and others are words that crop up in the course of an individual manuscript because of its focus. I usually do this after a second or third draft, mainly because I know so much of the sentence-level writing will change after I receive feedback from readers. But this manuscript is a bit different. I’ve been trading chapters weekly with another writer, so although I’ve just finished my first pass revising the last chapter on my own, the first half of the manuscript is already more like a second draft based on the feedback I’ve received.

Since I won’t be through the swapping process for several weeks, I decided I’d start weeding out overused words. I’ve always dumped the full text into Wordle to create a graphic representation in the past, but I remembered there was a feature in Scrivener that tracked word frequency. I did a search and happened upon an article that had an interesting suggestion: to check word frequency by chapter instead of overall. To do so in the Mac version, you open up the chapter, select Project –>Text Statistics, then click the arrow next to Word Frequency.

Here is the screenshot from one of my chapters before revising. At the chapter level, I care about a plethora of the word “was” or “had”–I want to fix passive voice–but I find it equally as interesting if a word appears twice. Because if a word shows up two times in a single chapter, it deserves a closer look. In this particular sample, I will definitely be addressing those two sighs, and unless it’s for emphasis, one of those ideals will probably go.

Note: A couple of weeks into this process, I started sorting by Word, then Frequency. I found this sped up my search. Often similar words–“want” and “wanted”–would both show up twice.

What I like about checking repeated words at the chapter level is that it forces me to look more closely than I generally do when I execute this process at an overall manuscript level. I’m less likely to skim over some of the words because they aren’t appearing that often. We all have words that we fall back on, and there are so many more out there that could better convey our character’s point. As always, though, I caution you not to write out your voice just to avoid a common word. Sometimes it’s still the best word, even if you just used it in the sentence immediately before :).

Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: Listen to Your Manuscript WITHOUT Reading Along

I’ve read my manuscripts out loud to myself before and expounded on the benefits of it. After a commenter on my last post about it suggested I have my computer read it to me instead of doing it myself, I even tried that. It’s amazing how listening to the robotic text-to-speech program on my Mac highlights turns of phrases you’d think it would miss. So thanks for the tip!

Whenever I’ve done this before, I’ve always read along while listening. This time, I set the computer to read and averted my eyes from the screen. I have to admit, it was a unique form of torture for me. I can’t listen to talk radio without getting sleepy, so I had to keep that in mind when my own words–which I was listening to for the express purpose of ascertaining whether they’re ready for agents–made my eyes droopy. I tried all manner of drinks (ice water, coffee, soda), sugar (candy, Girl Scout cookies), and other snacks. I twirled in my chair; stared at my imitation Renoir dancer, pictures of my kids, or out the window; and generally drove myself batty to stay awake.

What’s my point with all of this? I needed to hear the words without seeing them. I absolutely caught nuances I wouldn’t have if I’d been reading along because it’s too easy to breeze past them with my eyes. I’ve been over them so many times they’re burned in my brain. I’m pretty sure listening triggers something different than seeing. Of course, I could be completely crazy on that :). Anyway, just a quick tip to consider when you’re revising.

Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: After A Major Revision, Do a POV Voice Check

When you’re writing multiple points of view, it’s important that those voices stay distinct. I’ve recommended before that you revise each POV individually early on in the process to ensure the characters have their own arc and voice (Revising One Character at a Time, 3 Tips for Revising One Character at a Time). It must have worked with the manuscript I was working on at the time because readers listed the distinct voices as a strength.

However, as I received later feedback and made additional changes to the manuscript, I skipped this process. When a new reader went through the manuscript recently, I received the comment that the two POVs sounded too similar. Even though I’d dealt with the character arc early on, I still needed to monitor the voice. Oops! I’d forgotten my own advice.

So, that’s my quick tip for the day. If you are writing in multiple points of view, don’t forget to do another voice check after a major revision, particularly if you’re alternating POVs. It’s so easy for the voices to start blending together again if you’re revising linearly. Once I separated the two characters out, the words and phrases that didn’t fit for each voice jumped out at me pretty quickly. Thankfully I had a good reader who pointed it out to me :).

Do you have any other tricks for nailing individual voices? I also read aloud multiple times.

Querying, Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: Visualizing Your Feedback

One of the hardest decisions to make as you start receiving feedback on agent submissions is whether you should stop querying and revise. The tricky part of the equation is that the publishing business is subjective, and it’s challenging to sort through the comments you’ve received and determine whether they’re leaning toward “Yes, you definitely have to fix this!” or “It’s a judgment call.”

It’s even more complicated because agents don’t always comment on the same aspects of the manuscript, and you’re more likely to receive feedback on what didn’t work for them than what they loved about it. However, it’s important to take note when they do comment on the positive because, again, what one agent loves may be what another agent doesn’t.

I’ve found it especially helpful to look at feedback visually by making positive and negative feedback charts in Excel. I’m not going to share feedback on my current manuscript here on the blog, but in order to show you what I mean, I’ve created charts for the old manuscript I am revising. I should mention, though, that this manuscript was initially a middle grade novel, and after a revise & resubmit from an agent, I aged it up to young adult. The feedback on these charts is from both versions so it’s a bit skewed, but it will still give you an idea.

Duet positive comments

As you can see, some agents commented on the emotional journey being a strength, Duet negative commentswhile others felt I needed to work on character depth. Also, one agent complimented my pacing, but another had issues with it. Subjectivity–the bane of every writer’s existence!

For this particular manuscript, I didn’t need a chart to know I had to fix the alternate reality scenes and the voice. The other issues? I needed to figure out how to keep the positive and address the negative. It took me a couple of years to figure out how :). My point is, visualizing your feedback can help you decide whether a particular issue is something you need to step back and address or if it’s a matter of opinion. Because if you are getting positive comments as well as negative on a particular issue, it might be the latter. Perhaps the next agent will be the one where all the pieces fit together just right.

If you’re struggling with contradictory feedback or just want to see how your comments line up, try making these charts. It’s also nice to go look at that positive chart for an ego boost!

If you have any other ideas for sorting out feedback, I’d love to hear them.

Querying, Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: What’s Happening on Page 20? 50?

A wise critique partner of mine once got to page fifty of one of my manuscripts and said, “Think about what’s happening here. This is page 50!” And although it was still a fairly early draft, I realized she was making an important point. When you’re ready to query a project, agents have varying submission guidelines, and while you need to ensure that every page makes them want to keep reading, there are key points that are even more significant because they may mark the end of what you send to an agent. So as you’re writing/revising, make  a note of the following:

What’s happening at the end of page 5?

At the end of page 10?

At the end of the first chapter?

At the end of page 20?

At the end of page 25?

At the end of the second chapter?

At the end of page 30?

At the end of the third chapter?

At the end of page 50?

At the end of page 100?

Hmm … when you think of it that way, it puts it in perspective how important those opening pages and chapters really are, doesn’t it? The truth is, an agent is going to stop reading as soon as he/she loses interest. That might be on page eleven, so you can’t slack off just because it’s not one of the key points. My point here, though, is that you should be aware of these milestones in your manuscript and make sure they have an extra zing that ensures an agent or editor has to ask for more. I keep a Word document with a list of these key points in my manuscript and update it after each revision in case anything has changed and I need to make adjustments.

That’s all for today. Just a little tip. Anyone else have thoughts on this idea?