Monday, April 6, 2015

From Zero to One. The Milestones

by Charlotte Levine Gruber

My granddaughter, Penny, turned seven months old yesterday. Each month, she works hard to master a new milestone. This month, it's crawling. Last month, it was sitting up. 

Human babies are fairly amazing. At birth, they can't even support their own head. And one year later, they're walking, talking, and [sometimes] even following directions. Developing babies follow a sequential pattern; from head to toe.

My youngest daughter got down on her hands and knees to "show" Penny how to crawl. Realistically though, her neuromuscular coordination is just not quite ready. Watching this attempt made me think about writing; writers often compare their book to a baby. After all, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears go into the creation of your book.

Earlier this weekend, I critiqued a few chapters for a new writer in my group. She made some of the same mistakes I made last year—so close, in fact, I just copied and pasted a critique I’d gotten. 

Creative writing might not have the delineated sequence of a developing child, but researching for this post, I did come across many common mistakes new authors experience in the first year:

You finish your manuscript. Your mother and sister both loved it. You begin submitting. It’ll take the agents a while to get to it anyway right? While it’s in Ms Wonderful Agent’s inbox, I’ll just keep working on it.

Jessica Faust, from BookEnds Literary said in a blog post:
The first thing I'm going to say is that revising material that's already out on submission just shouldn't happen. Why? Because, once you decide a book is ready to go you've more or less put it away and started work on your next book. The first book is dead to you as far as revisions are concerned. 

My advice? Finish your MSS, and then revise until you can’t stand to look at it anymore.


Start where the change takes place for your protagonist. In an email exchange with Janet Reid, she cut to the root of my opening in one fell swoop.

One of the problems in mss I see consistently is not starting
at the right place.
Chop those 47 pages and get to the good stuff.

Go! go! Go!

Some writers shy away from conflict, even with imaginary people. But conflict is one of the primary elements of fiction. Your main character should face conflict, and should instigate conflict.

Add conflict to dialogue. Friction is interesting. Look for ways to set your main character at odds with others, whether that means a simple difference of opinion or a major difference in philosophy. Make sure there is some kind of conflict in every scene.

*But most important is to increase the level of conflict as the story advances.*

The pace should vary throughout your MSS, but escalate toward the climax. The failure to pick up the pace and/or push the emotional stakes as the story peaks is a cause for readers to stop reading.

By the sixty to seventy percent mark, your reader should anticipate the ending. If they don’t feel that something’s about to break open, you haven’t upped the pace and begun to push the emotions.The reader should feel the difference as the story heads toward the showdown. Speed the pace by writing shorter chapters, paragraphs and sentences. Put more white space on a page.

Flat writing is a sign that you’ve lost interest. And if you’ve lost interest, your reader will too. When reading your own work, if you catch yourself skimming, it’s a sign of flat writing. Beef it up with tension. See #4

The difference between telling and showing usually boils down to the physical senses. Visual, aural, aromatic words take us out of our skin and place us in the scene you’ve created. Giving senses to your characters will bring them to life for your readers.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda has a perfect example of showing in the first paragraph of her novel SECRET DAUGHTER

Be wary of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for reader benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Bob: What are we doing next?”

“Mrs. Smith’s face pinkened slightly.” This is an author trying too hard. Awkward phrasing makes the reader stop in the midst of reading and ponder the meaning of a word or phrase. You never want this as an author. A rule of thumb – always give your work a little marinating time before you come back to it. See Rule #1 When your return to it with fresh eyes the awkwardness will scream at you. I promise.

From our own Margaret Bail:
Your manuscript isn't as smooth as it could be. A couple of notes:  First, the characters address each other by their names way too much. People just don't do that. We don't say, "Hi Bob, what's up?"  "Nothing, Suzy, how are you." "I'm good, Bob, except I have a headache." "I'm sorry, Suzy. Maybe you should take an aspirin." "But I'm allergic to aspirin, Bob."  You see what I mean? 

Once you've been dinged for the frequent use of the “to be” words – am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, and others – you’ll be appalled at how many you find. “To be” words flatten prose and slow your pace to a crawl. My personal favorite? ”was verbing." Ie was stalling, was crying. It's much stronger to say, stalled or cried. Weeding that from my MSS was a @$! When in doubt, replace them with active, vivid, engaging verbs to muscle your prose.

Just about every writer has "pet” words. Hunt them down. Agents, editors and readers will notice them.
In Scrivener, on your toolbar,
—>Text Statistics
—>hit the drop down arrow next to word frequency

Many people are opposed and they don’t add anything. Eliminate.When I think of adverbs, I have a mental picture of Vizzini from PRINCESS BRIDE.

How many adverbs are in the scene from this classic movie?

Your book baby has a lot of moving parts to coordinate just like a developing human baby. Make sure your child is ready for the bus. Sometimes, we writers might need a trusted friend to catch us when we fall. Keep your chin up, call your friend, and be sure to reciprocate. Like Niki Cluff said, your CP will need a boost sometime too.


  1. Been there and done every single thing on your list. Nice of you to organize things to show people what NOT to do!

    1. Sometimes you just have to make those mistakes. But hey, I thought I'd try. :)

  2. Great post! This one is going directly into my revisions folder in Evernote. And, thanks for pointing out something I've managed to miss for the past year. The word count thingie in Scrivener.