Revisions, and making the most of them

by Alex Yuschik

One of the cooler things I did in college was take a poetry workshop class. I did it for fun, because I was majoring in math and needed a class not to drive me crazy, but it ended up being one of the best decisions I made for my writing career.

The workshop was led by an American poet, Jim Daniels. (Look him up, one of his poems is actually on the roof of a race car, which is a pretty damn cool benchmark for anyone interested in publishing to achieve.) We did the usual, here’s my weekly poem read-a-loud-and-critique, everyone writes what they think of everyone else’s poems down and hands their thoughts back to the author, and then one of our assignments was to revise.

Not just change a few words, fix up the stanzas, or correct the typoes we’d missed, and make sure we took all our classmates’ comments into account, whether we chose to follow them or not. We were warned that we would not get much credit for doing a revision like that. He wanted us to re-imagine the poem, go back to the seed of the idea and try to reinvent it, change everything to make the poem work smoother, better, and experiment with it.

This was more or less alien and by the time the first revision came around, most people kinda balked at it. I wasn’t sure what to think. I mean, I liked my first draft. It wasn’t as strong as I thought it could be, but I didn’t want to rip it up and have to start over. I changed some things, reworked a middle section, but kept most things the same. When I started looking at what other people did, then I realized where the strength in this approach lay.

My bestie had completely restructured her poem, writing something almost entirely new, and it was awesome. The class knew what she’d been trying to go for in the last draft, and she used some feedback as a springboard to do cool things with it, things that no one had told her to do or suggested, but that she just thought of while she was going through it again. The most shocking thing during this round of first revisions, though, came from a guy who changed two words in his page and a half monster epic. Two. Not two stanzas. Two adjectives. He just shrugged and said that he didn’t think the comments “got” his poem and that he’d changed all he thought he needed to.

When I looked at whose revisions had seen them grow more as a writer, I was really envious of my friend. And then the next time this assignment came around, I made sure that I experimented and re-worked all my stuff, too.

But it’s not like keeping things the same is wrong (it is so not). Sometimes you fight for what you like. But other times, you have to remember that you can just hit “Save As” and let yourself go wild. No one says that you have to keep every revision.

What worries me when I see people being so defensive about their work that they’re becoming afraid to try something new. Don’t be. Never be. Being creative means trying new things. It’s scary, but you have to go for it. That’s why you got into this writing thing, right? You want to create, and creating means taking risks.

After the class ended, my friend and I started referring to revisions in two forms: normal revisions, where you changed what people told you was wrong and corrected obvious things but kept the second draft about the same, and then Jim Daniels revisions, wherein you got crazy and experimented and rewrote the whole thing differently, but in a way that got your idea better than the first. It became an in-joke while we were critiquing each other’s poems to send to literary journals: do you think this needs a revision or like, a Jim Daniels revision?

Working in publishing has given me a sweet opportunity to see this happen in prose, too. I’ve seen an agent suggest edits and seen revisions come back lukewarm and only changing what the edits wanted. And then I’ve seen edits go out that an author nails and then makes the story exponentially better by fixing or improving something that I didn’t even notice before and it blows me out of the water.

This is why people ask you to take your time on revisions– it’s not because they don’t want to read your work again, it’s because thinking all this stuff out, re-imagining and re-inventing stuff takes time.

As always, as the creator, it’s up to you what you want to do. If you think this is the kind of revision where you only need to change a few things, then awesome! it’s great to be that close to being done. But more often than not, I think that it’s important to look at the distance between where the work is and where it needs to be and try to lessen that with a grander gesture. Because when someone gives you a chance for an R&R, or you get edit notes back from an editor you’re stoked to work with, you want to blow them out of the water, right?

Push yourself. Take chances, and see where the revisions take you.

Alex Yuschik has interned for Mary Kole at Movable Type Management and Theresa Cole at Entangled Publishing. Currently, she writes, studies, blogs at letters & numbers and the Secret Life of Writers, and is really liking the cello part in this song. 

Make Beautiful Things out of Dust

by, Alex Yuschik

You guys already know my feelings on being engaged when you’re writing– if you’re not, then your reader won’t be either. But how do you make a world that your readers can slip seamlessly into and want to visit again? Especially with all the advice around telling you not to infodump or deluge your readers in backstory, it’s hard to find that balance of being immersive and inviting without drowning your reader in facts.

You already know you have to layer your information in gently. I’m not going to talk about it. The real question for me when I write is, how do I make this world awesome?

For this, I want to talk about how it’s done in Pacific Rim.

That I am in love with this film is probably news to no one. But the fact that it has such a huge and devoted following might be.

You read posts from fans analyzing how characters interact, displaying beautiful gif sets pairing characters with their jaegers, and art that gets you in the gut. No one’s pretending that this movie isn’t some goofball summer flick with “giant robots punching alien monsters in the face” (quote by an officemate) and you realize that in saying you like this you’re basically admitting you’re okay with that cachet.

And you like it anyway, you realize (or you do if you’re me), because the world is just so damn good.

So how do you pull that off as a creator? I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers on this one, because I don’t; it’s very much something that I struggle with when I’m trying to make fantastic stuff– how do I make this even bigger than the story in my head, how do I make people want to come back? But, I can identify a few things in this movie that I feel like could be cool to adapt into manuscripts (apart from the obvious need for more giant robots in our lives).

The first time the reader sees something happening that’s different, it’s a big deal. Just like the first time we see Raleigh and Yancy get into Gipsy Danger, it’s a huge deal– the audience hasn’t seen these characters inside their jaeger, much less know about the cool mind-sharing idea that lets them pilot it, even if the Becket brothers have done it before. For a protagonist who’s new to the world as well, it’s easy to work in world-building– the main character experiences everything for the first time that the readers do.

For characters already familiar to a world, that gets a little trickier, but is still very doable.

Sure, the Becket boys have fought in Gipsy before. But when the audience joins them, it’s fresh. We see Raleigh as this gung ho guy, and Yancy as the cool older brother. We hear awesome, get-revved-up-to-fight music, visually we’re informed about the state of the technology– you can see the metal spines in the suits, the matching logos on the crew’s jackets, how the pilots’ armor plates are slightly dinged up, and you get the feeling that Gipsy Danger is not a new operation. These guys have done this before, even though you’re seeing the neural handshake in full technicolor detail.

Even if you’re not introducing your readers to a fantastic world, there’s a special weight attached to the first time a character performs or learns a task. Like the first football match that’s described should be an epic ordeal, if one of your characters plays and it’s a major part of the story. Or if you’re writing about breaking into places, then picking a lock or exploring an abandoned building should be big deals the first time they happen. After, as the readers get more used to it, it’s okay to just breeze through. The first time Harry Potter picks up his wand, it’s a special moment in the series. But obviously later, he’s casting spells all over the place– tailor your readers’ experience to the characters’.

In creating the film, Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham said that their goal was to have the story fit into the world, not the world fit into the story. The worlds that we love the most are the expansive ones, the ones that we can imagine being in long after the story is over, the ones that make us seriously reconsider our academic year bans on writing fanfiction because we are just so desperate to get another hit of the creative magic that is that story’s world.

Call it self-insertion or just having a healthy imagination, but people love to fill in the gaps. If Ollivander’s existed only so that Harry could get his wand and move on, then why bother thinking about it too much? But tell us about the different types of wands and what they mean as Harry tries them out, and we’ll be thinking “oh man! I would totally have a holly phoenix feather wand!” or “ooh, wait, am I more a dragon heartstring person or a veela hair girl?”

Same thing with the jaegers. We’re only introduced to one at a time, but each has its own capabilities. Gipsy Danger’s analog protects it from electronic attacks, Striker Eureka is digital but the most advanced and fastest, Cherno Alpha is slow but an absolute tank, and Crimson Tiger’s three arms make for easy kills even if it requires three pilots. It also begs the question: who would you pilot with? We also know that there were other jaegers before these four– again, opportunity for the audience to create more jaegers and history in their head.

Plan out your world, but don’t hand-feed readers everything. Come up with cool lingo and don’t explain all of it. Give us cool options for characters and objects–either houses, robots, wands, or whatever. Have readers come out of your story hungry for more.

Whatever story you’re writing, use your world to encourage a sense of wonder. So much of world-building is making your world an even bigger thing than your story. One of the things that struck me cinematography-wise about Pacific Rim is how the kaiju and the jaegers are always larger than life– the first introductory shots literally show them being too big to capture fully in a frame, they are so colossally huge that your sense of scale is thrown from the start. Use all the shock and awe tactics at your disposal. If something is supposed to be a Large, Significant Deal, make the lead-up epic.

Probably the most useful thing I learned from Pacific Rim was that sense of scale. Not just for the kaiju and the jaegers, but also for the conflicts in the story. The world is having a governmental crisis– there are riots happening and people freaking out in the streets, but these things don’t take center stage. World leaders are convinced that this coastal wall idea is a great plan, even when it so obviously is not. Is there corruption happening there, bribery? We don’t know. That’s not the focus of the story.

That being said, direct the reader’s focus to where your main conflicts are, even though you’ll have other things going on in the background. You could just as easily rewrite Pacific Rim to be that story of corrupt leaders, told from the POV of a rioter in Manila or Sydney, with the jaegers crashing around in the distance and doing God-knows-what and exploding things. You could look at the daily life for the survivors, like how Raleigh had to earn his food by working on the wall– what else do people have to do to get by? How does Kaiju Blue affect the water supply? What about the black market of kaiju body parts? Think about it as a creator, but don’t feel pressure to work it into your central conflict.

Sometimes the best world building is the stuff that gets slipped in as background info. Like having your main character’s little sister and father working on a diorama in one scene and having her mention that it won first place at school in another. Or showing subtle changes in the environment, like a house falling into disrepair or slowly being renovated. Or seeing the changes in the jaeger suits over five years, from clunky armor plates to smooth, flexible black bodysuits. It’s not an in-your-face sign that the technology has advanced, but it’s there nonetheless, a quiet reminder of the steady march of time in the film.

Above all, make something that we as readers will want to come back to, to carve out our own space in. The beauty of Pacific Rim is that you want to pick out your own jaeger and choose a co-pilot– you want to inhabit this world, sea monster kaiju-aliens and all. Study your favorite books– what about Harry Potter and Divergent make you want to come back to those books? Give your readers’ imaginations some room to play.

As a writer, you are a lot of things: a character’s inner voice, the director of your own film, an arbiter of dialogue and a drawer of lines on maps. Get creative. Make your world contain your story. And, most of all, make something beautiful out of nothing.

Alex Yuschik is an intern for Entangled Publishing. She’s thankful for beautifully written books, giant robots, and you guys reading this, and she wishes you a very tasty Thanksgiving holiday. Find her on twitter @alexyuschik or on her blog.

Truth and Proof and Eggs and Telling

by, Alex Yuschik

If you know me, you know I do math for a living, so really it was only a matter of time before I crossed the streams and mixed it in with writing somehow.

For the faint of math-y heart: fear not. No actual numbers will be mentioned. I’m not giving out calculus problems (if you would like some, though, please feel free to leave a comment or find me on twitter and I will be happy to provide). I’m going to talk about the heart of mathematics, which is the concept of truth.

In higher level mathematics, we have this idea of something called a proof.

A proof, loosely, is a logical journey from one starting point to an ending point. The mathematician makes a claim, and then shows the steps going from the claim to the final product. Sometimes, you change an object into another type of object, or a space into another kind of space. Sometimes you show that a familiar object has new properties or traits, and other times you show that an object cannot perform certain tasks because of some inherent characteristic of that object.

Sound familiar? A character changes over time, an environment shifts. A familiar character displays new strength; an antagonist fails by a flaw.

Mathematicians, though, don’t just figure out what things are true and which aren’t. The other part of the job is to convince other people of the truth of your claim. We go from a starting point, and use facts or properties of the objects we’re working with to get to the end, and we justify all the steps. The final write-up is the proof.

No one really believes you when you just assert that something is true– people lie all the time. And whatever, we’re fallible human beings, we do that. Truth, on the other hand, is irrefutable.

As a writer, I can tell you that a character is arrogant and self-centered all I want, but if I show you that same character tutoring at a Boys and Girls Club after school or working at a food pantry, you’re not going to believe all that arrogant stuff I said before. You have proof that this character isn’t what I’ve told you.

I think I’ve already re-directed you guys to Chuck Palahniuk’s thought verbs exercise, but I’ll do it again and gladly. Telling is insidious. Spot the telling:
1.  “She was mad.”
2.  “She stomped her foot angrily.”
3.  “She knew that getting mad wasn’t the way to deal with this, but she also had firsthand experience that violence could be pretty great.”

Answer: all of them.

The first is textbook telling. The reader doesn’t even get the option to decide for themselves that the character is mad. It is presented as fact.

The second is a little trickier, and basically the core reason why people advise you to cut adverbs– because most probably those adverbs are being used to tell things that your reader picks up on anyway. How many reasons are there for stomping your feet? Not a whole lot. Depending on the context of the sentence, we can narrow it down even further– “Hayley dismounted her horse, stepped in a cow patty, and sighed before stomping her foot clean.” versus “She crunched the thin envelope from her first choice college into a ball, threw it into the trash, and stomped her foot.”

The third is good ol’ Chuck Palahniuk’s thought verbs at work. Yeah, I’m showing you that this girl is mad, but I am also telling you that she has this addiction to violence even though the logical part of her knows it is bad news (also this girl sounds awesome– write her, please, and share). I want to be shown how violence tears her up but how at the same time it’s a siren song — that would make her ten times more compelling. There’s a huge missed opportunity here.

More than that, readers don’t like it when you do the legwork for them.

One of my math friends is big into Rubik’s Cubes. He can solve a 3×3 (the usual variety) in under thirty seconds, half-asleep, with his eyes closed, drunk– you name it, we have probably tested it. He is insane. He calls math problems puzzles, like they’re just pieces that you have to poke around with, twist and play with, until you get to where you want to go.

We do the same thing with stories, and jigsaws, and hell, even just-add-egg muffin mixes. I know that I can put together this thousand-piece sucker and get a pretty picture of a fjord– why do I bother? Why not just google that thing? I can tell you what happens in the story I’ve been working the past 10 months on (Dominic hates himself for being a coward in a crisis so then he mans up and does something stupid and brave), but that’s not why (god, hopefully not why) you might want to read that manuscript.

You’ll do that puzzle, and you read books, for the same reason you use eggs when you make muffins or cupcakes from a mix.

(And why do we even do that? Don’t we live in a space-age futuristic world where powdered eggs are possible? Or are egg-less muffin mixes the hovercar of the modern kitchen?)

Happily, it is totally possible to powder eggs. Mixes actually used to have them added for us, back in the day, but then that stopped. It’s not because manufacturers got cheap or anything– it’s because we liked having something to do that made us feel involved in the cooking process. Without adding eggs, what does baking from a mix look like? Well, it’s just adding water and oil, mostly, and then putting that mess into an oven.

But cracking eggs, that is the cool part.  (I humbly offer a scene from my favorite movie of all time on the subject. During high school, I baked the shit out of things so I could master this skill.)


And it’s true: the egg is the most fun part of baking from a mix. Here, you think, this is where the actually chef-ery comes in.

Here I am accomplishing a necessary task to finish the cooking puzzle. Without my involvement: nothing.

You don’t put the jigsaw together to see the picture on the front of the box, not totally. You do it because you like finding the way the different pieces fit together. You want to know that you accomplished that, without help. You don’t add an egg to your blueberry and deliciousness muffins because you are, by cooking law, mandated to do so. You do it because adding the egg is the kickass part of baking, and, handy as that mix is, there is no way it is adding a physical egg in for you. You need to do something or you won’t finish the puzzle.

For the same reason, you don’t read a book to know where the characters go. Not totally. You want to be able to predict what’s happening, compare and contrast the sad eleven-year-old who lives in the cupboard under the stairs with the seventeen-year-old wizard who walks willingly to his own death. You want the motions of characters to make sense in your own head, and for that, you as a reader have to work. You want to know how that box of tiny pieces became that picture of a fjord, so you build the puzzle. You want to help make the mix into something greater than a powder, so you add an egg. You want to see what it took for the scaredy-cat dope to finally do something brave, so you analyze his actions through the story and track how he changes as a character.

As a writer, you’re on the flip side: you are a designer of puzzles.

When you show things, you lay out all the pieces for your readers, and you leave it to them to construct the logical chain. With showing, you tell them hold to onto their apron and grab an egg because this puzzle is going to take more than searching google for pictures of fjords to solve.

When you show, you get your reader involved. And that, really, is what a reader is asking you to do.

Writing is tricky, because as puzzlesmith, your job is to make the reader believe you at every step, building a logical chain of actions and reactions that step the character through growth. You don’t want to tell the reader things because that’s the equivalent of jumping up and down saying “this is true!” without giving us a reason why.

I love math and writing equally, because to me, writing a story and writing a proof are the same thing. In each field, the goal is to lead the reader to the truth and make them draw the conclusions you’re gunning for.

The difference is that when you write a story, you want to make the reader think that did that all by themselves.

Alex Yuschik is now going to study for her analysis midterm. She interns for Entangled Publishing and she isn’t kidding about giving you calculus problems either on her blog or @alexyuschik.

Clarity (and an announcement!)

by, Alex Yuschik

Alright! I’ve got a quick bit of news to share before I dive into this subtips post: Kate and I have officially joined editing forces as K & A Editorial! This means that I’ll be helping Kate take on more freelance projects, polish queries and pitches, and in general help make more awesome editing magic happen. So, if you’ve been thinking about hiring an editor or you’ve been waiting for a spot to open, we’re taking on new clients and we’d love to hear from you.

Check us out! I’m thrilled to get to work with such an awesome editor as Kate, and I’m excited to help bring manuscripts closer to publication.

One of the things that’s gotten me lately as I read subs and also edit my own manuscript is how much people (self included) bend over backwards trying to explain things to readers. We want so badly for someone else out there to get it that sometimes we end up going crazy, confusing everyone, and shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to clarity, and then need to be gently told either by editors, friends, CPs, or betas to cool it and that, oh yeah, something in act one, scene four is not quite right.

My advice on being clear is to be as honest as you can. Get in your protag’s head (well duh, but especially so when presenting details). What would your character notice? What would seem strange for them to notice (aka, what should I not describe)? What’s normal for them? What’s abnormal (and therefore more likely to be picked up on)? How often do they think about events in their past? Do they prefer to live in the present?

Make it easy for your reader to be in this person’s head. It doesn’t always have to be a comfortable ride (it probably won’t be) but your audience should have some basic idea of where the story’s going.

Like a lot of things in writing, it’s easier to notice something not working than working well. No one picks up Harry Potter and says wow A+ look at how much I can understand this isn’t it great, but if you read a book and you can’t make heads or tails of it, clarity becomes a big deal very quickly.  So here are some common issues I see regarding clarity in slush and some suggestions on how to fix them.

 

1. Too much too soon

This is like starting in media res except on steroids: your character gets out of his car and punches someone in the face then gets his leg mauled by a wallaby while he goes for a knife. Why is any of this happening? Since when were we in a place with wallabies? When did wallabies become physically violent and/or carnivorous, or have they always been this way? There are so many questions that we just don’t know the questions to.

I love beginning a story in the middle of the action– you have conflict, characters meeting each other, stuff getting introduced, it’s awesome! There’s tons of opportunities to keep the action going and avoid being boring, but sometimes bringing in too much at once can leave the reader with whiplash.

Possible fixes: Layer in some emotion and scraps of background so that we know where we’re at. Maybe, for our example, start after your character’s punched the guy: “Chad hadn’t driven out a fifty miles past Sydney’s bulwarks and into an Outback overrun by ravenous marsupials for nothing. Another day, another target, and this poor, clueless sucker hadn’t even seen Chad’s right straight coming.”

Your character clearly knows why he’s out there– use language he would to ground us in the scene and give us context clues. Is Chad a bounty hunter? Some guy out for vengeance? Either way, we can definitely tell that he’s done this before, and that this is probably some scifi/post-apocalyptic Australia. Need more help with introducing feelings into your action without telling too much? Check out Mary Kole’s excellent post on Telling vs. Interiority.

2. It’s all in your head

It’s really tough opening on a funeral. I’m sure that you’ve heard this before (and if not, have I got a post for you), that huge emotional upheavals are really tough to handle at the start of a manuscript. We need something to get us attached to a character, and usually that’s most easily accomplished through action and showing us what kind of person they are.

Sometimes I read a submission where there’s so much thinking going on that it’s like the reverse problem of situation #1. Like #1, I don’t even know where we are or what’s happening, but this time all I know is that the protag is not happy about something. There’s no action, just a lot of one character waxing poetic on the universe. Sometimes, you do want to take us offguard with a cool emotional foray, but as with all things, there needs to be a balance. If your character spends more time thinking things out than doing them, then you might consider rewriting a few scenes to be more active.

Possible fixes: Keep in mind that useful tool of imagining your book as a movie. If your character spends all their time going off into lengthy inner monologues, then what would an actor playing them do? Stand around? Yawn. Introduce beats of action or dialogue in between deep thoughts. Maybe have a character come to an epiphany at the height of the action around them. Keep our interest! Especially if you’re writing for publication, be aware that your writing is going to have to constantly compete for your reader’s attention– not just during the first few pages. Make your story crackle both with internal and external action.

 

3. Purple Prose

Purple prose is over-describing and poorly describing something to the point of oh my god exhaustion. I include it as an issue with clarity because sometimes when a person (like the love interest) or an item (like the magic whatever that will save the day) is going to be really important, it’s tempting to let readers know the nine million details that you imagine when you think of this object in your head.

Example: “His face was carved smooth like a riverstone and his eyes were little blue fish dancing in the sunlight of his smile. When he moved, it was like water sluiced off of him, swimming from place to place with the unearthly grace of being underwater constantly. His hair fluffed up and down, suspended mid-motion as though by liquid grace, and even his eyelashes were like tiny forests of kelp dusting the ocean floor of his cheek.”

No one, unless your protagonist is a mermaid, thinks about human beings that way for that many sentences. Describing someone’s face being as smooth as a river rock? Okay, I’ll buy it. I will probably also buy the cute fish imagery with his eyes, or maybe one or two more water-related metaphors. But if this becomes a huge description where literally every single detail of this boy’s body is related to water somehow, I am going to be super frustrated because I can predict what’s next: more water metaphors.

Possible fixes: Choose your strongest two or three images when you feel like you have a paragraph that’s leering towards purple prose. Talk to your CPs, friends, and family about what descriptions they find most compelling. Fight with yourself about this! Give yourself a set number of images (say two or three) to focus on and choose only your best (per paragraph, or whatever works best for you). Look at how bloated that example paragraph is with description. It’s really obvious that I’m trying to get you to associate water with this guy, and as a writer, that’s like I’m letting you see the paint strokes in a still life or the strings holding the marionettes.

As with all aspects of your writing, only take your best stuff. Often when I come across purple prose it’s disappointing because there are sometimes a few gems of images in there, and it’s just the less awesome stuff that needs to get trimmed back. Purple prose feels a lot like micromanaging– you’re telling your reader absolutely everything and not letting them imagine or add in details for themselves.  As Stephen King says in On Writing, “All arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

Give your readers the essential details. If something needs to be red, then let them know. But a reader owns the story when they feel free to make things up in their own mind, when your writing is specific enough for them to get a sense of the images, but open-ended so that they can go on creating things even when the book is finished.

4. The naive narrator

This is probably one of my pet peeves, mostly because I see it a lot when I’m reading YA submissions. I’m sure you’ve probably encountered it before– a protagonist willfully won’t notice something that seems painfully obvious to the reader for most of the book, and then the big conclusion happens at the end.

Example: book-smart girl aces all her classes but thinks she’s no good because she can’t play sports well, despite her parents and teachers applauding her test scores and essays.

The goal is always to leave your reader a trail of breadcrumbs so that they can follow it to their own conclusions about a character, but often the breadcrumb trail turns into loaves and slices every few inches. Your reader is smart. Trust that they’re going to be able to follow your character’s progress.

Possible fixes: If you’re not sure if people will understand the character development, then grab a beta or a critique partner and ask them their opinion. Take the emphasis off the traits that you want your readers to discover with your character. Like in our example, maybe we want to retool it so that our girl is her JV volleyball team’s ace server, but when she’s moved up to Varsity as a sophomore, she feels out of her league with the state championship seniors and juniors. Her teammates help her train and she helps them with academics, and realizes her own talents more.

Keep the emphasis most on the stuff that your character is focused on. See how much the new version focused more on the protag’s sports ability and less on her academic stuff? The conflict is that this girl is worried about not being good enough for her team, not that she’s worried about her school work–even though academics play a large role in the story, it’s a subtler one. See if there’s a way for you to restate your story’s conflict in terms of what your protagonist finds daunting right now, not with what you as the writer know they’ll eventually use to overcome their difficulties.

In the end, clarity all comes back to giving your reader an honest view of the character you’re presenting. Action happens, but we also process it as it’s happening. We get wrapped up in our thoughts sometimes, but we’re very rarely doing nothing but sitting around and thinking. And sure, we find cool and creative ways to describe things, but we don’t draw them out unless it’s to be silly on purpose– the most inventive stuff we make is sometimes just quick flashes of association. Finally, it’s hard for anyone to see their own strengths and weaknesses clearly.

This is only a smattering of things that can influence how clear or not a manuscript is– hint: it’s an idea of what I’ve seen mostly recently in submissions 😉 — and I’m sure there are more out there. Got tips and tricks for making writing clearer, or have anything to add to the suggestions above? Let me know! I’d love to hear it.

Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing and is currently gearing up for NaNoWriMo. She can be found on twitter @alexyuschik or at her blog.

Pacing: Tips and Tricks

by, Alex Yuschik

Some stories take a while to set up, others don’t, and both can be fine as long as they hold a reader’s interest. Pacing is kinda nebulous. It’s a way to describe the flow of action and events that take place in a manuscript from a bird’s eye view. If a story is fast-paced, then there are a lot of things happening, maybe a lot of emotionally engagement going on that sucks the reader in. A slower paced story might mean that there’s a lot more set-up happening with less action, which isn’t unusual for fantasy or sci-fi pieces, where worldbuilding needs to happen and the reader expects the flow of the action to slow down as they’re given new information.

The scenario that you don’t want to happen (obviously) is for a reader to get bored and put down your book. Every book has its slow spots, but not enough action can make reading difficult– how many people want to read through endless info-dumps or explanations? Still, it’s not like you don’t need those things in your book. Somehow, your reader has to know what a plasmadrive does and how dangerous it is to use untrained, and somehow you have to express complicated emotional turmoil without losing a reader’s interest.

Pacing’s really annoying to spot as an author doing edits on your own work– usually, your best bet with this is to have a trusty and stalwart group of betas or CPs to tell you where things slow down. Still, if you don’t have readers yet or you want to polish your manuscript up as much as possible before sending it out to them, here are a few tips and tricks to bring action into your slow scenes and even out the pacing.

Multipurpose your scenes. You have a limited number of scenes to work with– just like how, in your query letter, every word pulls its own weight and sometimes double that, think about having there be multiple goals to be accomplished in a scene. Like: does the scene you’re working on bring the protagonist closer to discovering something he/she needs to know, or help put things in place for the main conflict and climax? Do you introduce a new character? Show another side of your MC? Add in backstory?

Make a list of everything you want to accomplish in one scene, and do this for all the scenes you have. Make each scene fight to be in your manuscript. If the action of the scene is some poor hapless guy with lock picks and no idea how to use them, then make sure you slip in information about backstory and have the characters flirt over and under the action.

Raise the stakes each time. Okay, you hear this a lot. What does this actually mean? If we don’t feel like the characters are in some fresh danger, then what’s keeping us reading? Oh, Becca’s facing human-sized robo-spiders? Big deal, last chapter she figured out how to defeat them without breaking a sweat.

Make the challenges incrementally more challenging. Just like in real life, once you learn how to handle stress at one level, life amps it up and forces you to learn to handle a higher level of stress (lol, can you tell it’s getting close to midterm exams?). Your antagonist learns, too. Oh, the robo-spiders didn’t work? That’s okay, I’ll just send in my heat-seeking long-range missile-spiders that are twice as hard to defeat.

Add in Beats. A beat is an action that takes place while a character is speaking. Example: “Oh sure, that’s easy for you to say.” Gemma smacked the keys on her laptop with righteous fury. “You don’t have to recode this script on a boat with crappy wifi.”

Sometimes, you just need to let people talk. Maybe your characters have been running from the law in all kinds of chase finery and pulling mad shenanigans and it’s time to take a breath before diving back in. Maybe you really need to explain that Gemma’s mad programming skills can open portals through space-time. While dialogue is awesome and makes up most of novels, it can also get really boring to have your characters sit around all the time. So, yeah, that space-time portal conversation needs to happen, but maybe your characters have to struggle with piloting a souped-up motor boat for their escape vehicle as they suss it out.

Ask yourself where you’d put your story down. When I was a little kid reading books, I would deliberately get all the characters to a safe place and and then stop reading (either for the night or just stop forever, if I wasn’t that into it). Sure, there are going to be oases of calm (too much being slung from heart-pounding action scene to heart-pounding action scene can wear anyone out) but make sure that there’s tension in another way that pushes the reader on. Something that, even if they do put the book down eventually, they’ll still feel like they need to keep reading in order to figure out.

Maybe your characters are finally off their motoboat escape and into freedom. They’ve reached a safehouse where they can collect their thoughts without the authorities catching up for at least a little while. Sneak in tension of different kinds. Okay, so they’re not going to get caught, but does their romantic attraction come to a head now that they have time to catch their breath? Do they find that they’re born on the same day or some other odd and sinister foreshadowing? Let up on one kind of tension and add in a different kind.

Your reader is smart. I know, I know! I have said this before, and will always be saying it until the end of forever because it just keeps on being true. Resist the urge to explain everything. Your reader is also a human (yay humans!) and they’ll pick up on the cues you leave them. There’s only so many things that stammering and blushing and sweaty hands can imply. If you don’t want readers to pick up on something, then don’t have your MC notice it as much. Keep in mind that over-explaining emotions and events is going to turn people off. No one reading a book wants to have conclusions handed to them.

Readers want to feel like they’re doing something when they read, like they’re the ones putting together the story in their heads. No one reads a book to have an author hand them a fully-formed Athena of character development. They want to connect the dots themselves (hence this show don’t tell business). The reason people read Harry Potter (well, one of many, obvs) isn’t because they NEED to have JKR tell them in pretty twelve-point type that Harry is brave enough to walk unarmed to his death– you read it because it’s awesome duhhh you want to put together the pieces of action and character development yourself, and see how a kid who lived under a cupboard and who no one thought was all that special can become an adult who saves basically everything.

These are some of the things I do to check my pacing when I revise– tell me about what works for you! I’d love to hear your thoughts and tricks.

Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing. You can find her on twitter @alexyuschik, or at her semi-updated personal blog.

Fine, Make Me Your Villain

by, Alex Yuschik

What better way to talk about villainy than with a quote from the fantastic Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE:

He sounded so sincere, so reasonable, less a creature of relentless ambition than a man who believed he was doing the right thing for his people. Despite all he’d done and all he’d intended, I did almost believe him. Almost.

I gave  a single shake of my head.

He slumped back into his chair. “Fine,” he said with a weary shrug. “Make me your villain.”

Wow, am I right? (I strongly encourage you to read SHADOW AND BONE, the Grisha trilogy, and really anything that Leigh Bardugo writes because this is just a small sampling of her awesomeness.)

Stories always have more than one side–triumph for the hero and tragedy for the villain– but what makes a good antagonist? Here’s some ideas from me on how to give your bad guy some added punch.

Insanity not as a defense or catch-all, but a twist on a common or relatable fault. Okay, so antagonists as avatars of pure evil aren’t my favorite. They’re not that compelling to me. Voldemort isn’t even one of these– he starts as a normal person whose desire for power overrides all other feelings, and then he just does the sensible, Machiavellian thing of protecting his horcrux investment and trying to live forever. I mean, I’d dig living forever. Ars longa, vita brevis, guys. Rowling takes humanity’s very real fear of death and twists it– what if you could live forever as long as you were willing to do some pretty horrible things? I’d think about it.

Other ways to do this involve exaggerating faults (or strengths to when they become detrimental)– one of my favorite ways to do this is via obsession. I love obsessive characters, people who get fixated or devoted to things they can’t shake. What are ghosts but obsession, either with a violent/traumatic event or a place (or both)? An innocent crush can spiral into stalkerdom, a strong work ethic can go to neglecting loved ones or thirst for power, striving to be most efficient can become eliminating those without a use. Madness is a two-way street: you show us how warped an demented these people have become, but you also show us how close we all walk the line of sanity and insanity.

Antagonists as characters. Sure, you can have antagonistic things like trees or weather or social constructs, but when your antagonist is a human being, have them act like one. And unless they’re an avatar of pure evil, they have good sides and dark sides. Like I suggested above, it’s real fun turning something beautiful into something twisted (try it!), but it’s not like anyone real is one hundred percent bad. Everyone has something that is precious to them. What about your antagonist? If you were writing your story from the villain’s point of view, what scenes would you write to up the pathos for them? Think about what makes you like your antagonist– what are their most admirable traits?

I love the Darkling (because how can you not, I ask) because of this. Bardugo doesn’t pull any punches with this guy– she shows you his good sides and his bad sides, the loneliness and how devoted he is to his task, as well as the blunt evidence that he’s ruthless. You get told all the time not to make your protagonists perfect– the converse applies for antagonists. They’re not all bad. They’re just humans, caught on the wrong side of the story, and it’s incredibly sad for them.

The relationship between antagonist and protagonist isn’t unlike a romance (or strong friendship). Someone is probably rolling their eyes out there– and that’s okay, because this is wacky and kind of a special case of villains. Let me explain myself. Your protagonist and antagonist are two people who get to know each others’ strengths and faults pretty intimately over the course of your book. Remember all that time you put into writing your protag’s love interest? Consider spending an equal amount of time on their antagonist, because protag-antag is probably the most emotionally charged relationship in the book (also, you can make a cool argument for love interests as foils).

You have two human beings driven together in an inescapable conflict because neither are willing to give up. Both of them believe so strongly in something that they’re going to tear each other apart. If they weren’t fighting, maybe they could be friends or lovers. Holmes and Moriarty would probably be best friends or good rival friends if they were on the same side. I love it when people who start out as antagonists are defeated by the protag and then team up with the good guys to take on some other, bigger evil (people who come to mind: Artemis Fowl in The Arctic Incident, Artemis Entreri from the Drizzt series, and gosh I’m holding out for the Darkling).

Villains as mirrors. The antagonist is also a great way of showing character growth. Your protagonist has to overcome the antagonist to win. What in your main character changes in order to beat the villain? Antagonists in a lot of ways act as catalysts for positive change– if a protag gets beaten up, maybe they take martial arts classes, if the antagonist shows them up in class, maybe the protag studies more. The antagonist can also function as a mirror of your main character. Maybe, like Harry Potter or the Grisha trilogy, your protagonist and antagonist are connected through their powers. Both Harry and Voldemort as well as Alina and the Darkling have pretty substantial amounts of power, but it’s the reasons why Harry and Alina use their magic and the differences in their choices that that makes that sets them apart from their antagonists.

Villains can also function as cautionary tales. Voldemort is a wizard who’s sacrificed parts of his humanity for power. For Harry, magic is a way out of a life where he’s beaten down all the time, a way for him to finally have power and control over his destiny. Throughout the books, Harry gets presented with a lot of the same choices that Tom Riddle was, but he chooses differently.

To sum it up, your protagonist and antagonist are locked in this crazy dance called your book and they have one of the most intense relationships in it. They’re as inseparable as a person and their shadow are– two sides to the same story with good and bad on each side, not just either. A good villain is hard to come by; make yours an awesome one.

Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing and, when she’s not talking about who isn’t the villain in Hamlet, she can be found on twitter @alexyuschik.

Your Reader is Smart

by, Alex Yuschik

Audience is kind of a nebulous concept. Writing solely for someone else doesn’t seem like a very inspiring thing– I don’t know about you, but anything good I write is almost always stuff I’ve made for myself. Still, if your goal as a writer is to get other people to read (or represent or buy) your work, then audience is important.

(And I’m going to interject with a disclaimer right here that not everyone is going to love your work. I don’t think that there’s enough times that you (or me, or anyone who writes) can hear that this is subjective. Some people, whether they are interns, agents, editors, publishers, or people who post reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, are going to love your work and others just aren’t. And that’s okay.)

I am a firm believer that you have to write what you love. Ultimately, since you are the storymaster creatorperson in charge, it’s always up to you how much you work to accommodate your audience. Maybe some narrators are more accommodating than others, maybe you need to write certain things in certain ways for the purpose of the story: to all this I say, cool. That is your purview and I don’t want to encroach on it.

That being said, there are some things that I see when I’m reading submissions that disengage me as a reader that don’t have to anything to do with characters or plot devices; these are parts of the writing that need help. You’ve read books where you stop early because you’ve already figured out who the villain is, or maybe you’re bored by the writing, or it seems like conclusions are being stuffed down your throat, and it’s just not fun. This is what I want to talk about.

Show vs. Tell: You’ve all seen the excellent Chuck Palahniuk article about thought verbs (and if not, look, I just gave you a handy link). You’re a veteran. You know that this stuff isn’t as simple as “Mary was nervous” versus “Mary’s hands tugged at the hem of her shirt, and her throat caught the light when she swallowed.” It’s insidious, and it’s actually really hard to do even though “show, don’t tell” has been handed out as a piece of writing advice for ages. Sometimes I don’t even spot it and it’s embarrassing when my sainted CPs point it out.

Think about your story as a movie and your reader watching it. No actor on screen wears a sign saying HEY I’M <INSERT EMOTION HERE> or I AM MOVING SNEAKILY, at least not seriously– the movie viewer infers these things from observation. Likewise, in Real Life® people don’t do this either. Describe actions and let your audience pick up on the emotions associated with them. Don’t spoonfeed your reader feelings by name– part of the fun of reading is figuring out how characters are feeling rather than being told it.

Giving away too much, or heavy-handed writing: I can tell when I’m being forced to dislike a character. We’ll only see them in a negative light, beating down on the protagonist, always having more, better, cooler things than they have, etc. I like to be able to think for myself. If you have a villain, then I want to like/dislike them on my own terms. As authors, our job is to present characters as they are. Because your protagonist and villain are both people, there’s going to be stuff that’s good and bad about both of them (and yes, good stuff about your villain). I’m going to write about villainy later because villains are no joke my favorites, but the abbreviated version is: your villain has their pros and cons. The more a reader sees both, the more believable and real an antagonist, or any character, becomes.

Balancing feeding in information without giving away too much is tricky. You want all the pieces you’ve so carefully sprinkled in to snap together at the climax and have the reader’s heart pounding as the protag scrambles to do What They Must Do. Study how your favorite authors have left you clues. Read your peers’ work and figure out where they reveal too much– when you were able to spot something crucial too soon. Start pulling together a group of loyal betas and fearless critique partners who are willing to tell you honestly what characters aren’t believable, what plot twists they spotted miles away, and what seemed like a deus ex machina.

Knowing the Stakes are Low: Another thing that turns me off in reading is dreams. (Prefacing this: if you have a creative way to incorporate dreams into your ms, awesome, you’re golden– or like anything in writing, if you can do it well enough, you can get away with it. Just make sure you can do it well enough.) When a reader knows they’re in a dream, they also know that the stakes are low. I mean, for serious, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Your character wakes up. Whoop-de-dah. So what if they wake up terrified? It’s not like they actually lost that arm or anything.

The problem with dreams is that the stakes are very low. We’re partway checked out of the emotions a character feels because we know the dream isn’t real. And when a character wakes up from something we were convinced was real, we feel cheated, like all those times we were on edge for this person didn’t matter because hey, it was just a dream all along. Low stakes = low interest. As a little kid, I would deliberately read books until I’d gotten the characters to a “safe place” midway where they weren’t being threatened and then stop. Don’t let your reader stop.

Dreams sometimes also fall into the too-much-obvious-foreshadowing category above. It’s not hard to make the leap from “Dominic has a recurring dream of a sinister, rusted iron fence, a car’s tires screaming, then nothing, and oh yeah coincidentally he also has this weird scar that he doesn’t know how he got” to “Dominic was once seriously injured in a car accident and he’s blocked the memory out.”

So what can you do? Well, knowledge is power. Knowing that these are some things trip up readers might help you start to pick them out in your writing. You’re writing for someone as smart as you are but who’s never seen your work before. Part of what makes this so hard is that it’s difficult to spot where you’re not connecting with a reader. Starting to work with critique partners or beta readers is extremely useful. Even if you don’t work together forever, you’ll have an idea of what someone else thinks about your story.

Most of all, don’t get discouraged! Writing is a process, it takes basically forever, and while your improvements may seem invisible, you’re still making them. Like Kate, I’ll also encourage you to check out the #keepgoing hashtag on twitter for some writerly “a year ago” tweets, and to just remember that we’re all here with you. You can do it, so keep going.

Alex Yuschik interns for Entangled Publishing and can be found on twitter @alexyuschik.