Lessons from Midwest Writers Workshop: Manuscript Makeover

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For those of you who couldn’t attend the 40th Midwest Writer’s Workshop at Ball State this past weekend, I thought I would write a series of posts sharing just some of the wisdom I acquired in my three jam-packed days in Muncie. If you want the full wisdom, be sure to sign up for next year.

Manuscript Makeover

Manuscript Makeover is a great session on Day One of the workshop. You send in the first 10 pages of a manuscript in progress and get some feedback from the experts. The experts this time around were Holly Miller and Dennis Hensley. Check out the links to read all about the source of their expertise, or just judge by the excellent advice they gave below.

Holly and Dennis went through each person’s manuscript gently (and anonymously), pointing out what was working and what was not. Here are some of the useful things I learned in this session.

Random but extremely useful grammar stuff

– How to tell if something is a parenthetical phrase. A parenthetical phrase can be, but isn’t always, set off by commas. How do you tell if a phrase is parenthetical and therefore should be set off by commas? If you can take it out of the sentence and it still works as a sentence, it’s parenthetical. For example, in this sentence–“A parenthetical phrase can be, but isn’t always, set off by commas.”–“but isn’t always” is parenthetical. Go ahead. Take it out of the sentence and see how it works.

– Further and farther. Farther is measurable. Further is abstract. If you can express something as a unit of measurement, it’s “farther.” If you can’t, it’s “further.” So, “He walked farther into the room.” But, “Let’s delve further into the topic of grammar things you should already know at this point in your life.”

– Less and fewer. Again, less is abstract. Fewer is countable. “There are fewer tomatoes here than there were a minute ago.” As opposed to, “I have much less respect for you because you ate the tomatoes.”

– Numbers. If it’s less than ten, you should generally spell it out. More than ten, use Roman numerals. But most importantly, be consistent throughout your writing.

Non-grammar, but also useful

Wilsonn from Castaway– The mirror on the wall. Dialogue in stories is a good thing. We like to see people interacting; it’s a much more enjoyable way to convey information (character, setting, backstory) than narrative exposition. But what do you do when your characters is all alone? You use the mirror on the wall.

In the fairy tale, this is literally a mirror on the wall. But be creative. Say you were writing a screenplay about a guy stranded on a desert island. Who’s he going to talk to? Why not a volleyball named Wilson? Wilson is the mirror on the wall.

– Communication noise. Communication noise is anything that distracts your reader from the story you’re trying to tell. You could, of course, write a whole post just about this. Mis-use of further and father could be an example of communication noise. Unintentional repetition of words. Anything that makes them stop and realize they are reading a story instead of living it is communication noise. Avoid it at all costs.

– “There was.” This was a problem specific to my manuscript, but I share it in case someone else out there has the same problem. Perhaps we can form a club. For some reason, I used this construction a lot in my first ten pages: “there was nothing wrong with the water…”; “There would be tears of gratitude…”; “There was a section on interacting with servants…” And so on, and so on. See how it’s a great example of communication noise?

– Less is more. This is one of those things that someone will tell you early on as you begin to write, but you will not believe until you experience it yourself. Cutting almost always makes things better.

Here’s a specific example. Avoid phrases like “stood up,” “turned around,” and “sat down.” They sound okay, don’t they? But is there any other way you can stand besides up? Can you turn, but not around? How would you sit in a way that wasn’t down?

In their priceless book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King call this RUE–Resist the Urge to Explain. We all do it. I can’t tell you how many times I do this, and especially in a first draft. I want to describe every, single, detail. But when you edit, take it out.

On titles

We also talked some about titles. If you’re writing a novel, you’re probably not going to end up with the title you picked yourself. If you’re so lucky as to get published, a group of people will sit in a room somewhere, probably without you, and brainstorm a title for your book. This doesn’t mean you should blow off the title, though. If it’s a great one, it might make it through. Even if it doesn’t, it shapes the way readers think about your manuscript so you should always have one.

Titles should be short, generally around three words. People decide whether or not to read a book in about five seconds, so you want to make your title short enough to read. Your title should be honest; it should reflect be an accurate reflection of your book. It should be memorable.

Up next…

That’s just Day One, people. I haven’t even gotten to Jane Friedman’s advice on audience development, or Roxane Gay’s session on flash fiction, or Victoria Marini on how to write first lines that will keep agents reading. All very good stuff and only a small portion of what you can learn at this great conference.

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