When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
Writing the last word in a first draft brings joy to me and probably every other writer.
Dismay—call it the second-draft blues—follows the celebration. Much work remains to be done. How much? That’s almost impossible to say. Evaluating your own writing is difficult, particularly when you’ve just finished the draft.
That’s why I came up with a way to look at a manuscript objectively and judge how much revision it needs. I developed this visual assessment system years ago and have taught it in numerous nonfiction workshops.
I’ve adapted it for fiction. This week I shared the highlights on former judge and current mystery writer Debra H. Goldstein’s blog: https://debrahgoldstein.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/guest-blogger-carolyn-mulford-lookng-at-your-ms.
How have your characters developed over time? What’s your writing process? How true are you to the settings in your books?
I answered these and other questions in an online interview conducted by Lance Wright, editor of OmniMysteryNews.com.
Here’s part of my answer about the setting of the Show Me series: “I created a county in northern Missouri that resembles the one where I grew up. In a fictional place, no one can complain that a business was portrayed as a crime scene or a street runs the wrong direction. In made-up Vandiver County, real regional expressions and attitudes reveal the subculture. The setting functions as a character.”
By the way, I named the county after Congressman Willard D. Vandiver, the man responsible for Missouri becoming known as the Show-Me state. In 1899, he said, “I come from a country that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
To read the entire interview, go to http://www.omnimysterynews.com/2016/01/a-conversation-with-mystery-author-carolyn-mulford-5F6F5130.html.
After working on a manuscript almost a year, I’m waiting for my two chapter-by-chapter readers’ to offer comments on a one-gulp read before doing the final polish. This gives me time to start catching up on repairs (e.g., hinges on cabinet doors), life-business tasks (e.g., comparing rates for car insurance), and cleaning (e.g., the whole house).
More important to me, the short break gives me an opportunity to decide what to write next.
For three years I’ve concentrated on the Show Me mystery series. The latest manuscript completes a five-book arc. In the six months covered in the books, my major characters’ lives have changed significantly. Before I build a new three-book arc (three more years of work), I need a break.
A short project appeals to me. Short stories? Not my favorite medium, but I’ve used them before to explore the desirability of characters and situations for novels. One idea I really like could become a series of hefty short stories rather than a novel.
If I opt to go that route, I won’t seek a publisher, a time-consuming, frustrating, and likely fruitless process. Instead I’ll publish each short story online and, if readers like them, eventually turn the collection into a volume.
One idea that intrigues me is writing a short story from the point of view of Achilles, the Belgian Malinois popular with readers of the Show Me mysteries. Maybe I’ll try one short and, if it works, test it on my website as a free read. Or perhaps turn it into a children’s book.
Historicals for young readers?
Another possibility is to write more MG/YA historical novels. These run a third to a half as many words as the adult books and take less time to write and revise. For several years, I’ve been thinking about an MG/YA set during World War II. Or I could do a sequel to The Feedsack Dress, which many readers have loved, or to Thunder Beneath My Feet, which will be released in January.
Historical novels require considerable historical research. The libraries here provide excellent resources, and I enjoy digging into the past. On the other hand, research adds one to three months of work time to a manuscript.
Revise an earlier manuscript?
During another break several years ago, I pulled out the manuscript of The Feedsack Dress and revised it with the help of my critique group. Then I sold it.
I’ve learned a lot as I’ve written the Show Me series. Enough to turn an earlier manuscript into a viable series opener? Even a major revision would take much less time than writing a book-length manuscript from scratch. If, upon rereading the old manuscript, I still like my characters and plot, I’ll give the manuscript another chance at life.
Stay tuned. I’m determined to plunge into a new project by Labor Day.
Years of editing others’ work taught me that even good writers can’t see their own mistakes, particularly the big ones. Years of editing my own work proved I’m as fallible as other writers.
I also learned to guard against one particular problem in my own writing: failing to go far enough in fixing a problem. If I write a scene wrong the first time around, for example, my first or second revision may not get it right. So after I’ve completed a draft with advice from my chapter-by-chapter critiquers and revised accordingly, I ask two to four people to read the manuscript as though it were a book they checked out of the library.
I don’t ask these readers about specific things that may be wrong. That draws their attention to a single aspect rather than the whole. Instead I ask a few general questions, including the following.
Did you become bored anywhere?
Did anything confuse you?
When did you know who done it?
Could you keep the characters straight?
If you’d checked this out of the library, would you have finished it? If not, where would you have stopped reading.
Most people ignore these questions until after they’ve read the manuscript. And sometimes forever. That’s fine with me. Whatever feedback I receive is helpful.
While they’re reading, I take a mental vacation from the book. In the last stages of the first draft and in the immediate follow-up revision, I think about the manuscript day and night. I need to distance myself from it so that I can come back with a fresh, more objective view.
Doing something completely different helps. A change of environment, as in a short trip, works well. During this lull before the tackling the final draft, I’ve been updating my website, working on my neglected lawn, and preparing a book talk.
One reader’s report has come in. The manuscript reads fast, the complicated plot doesn’t confuse, the characters are distinctive. As usual, however, I still have one important problem to fix in the final draft.
Today I finished the first draft of the fifth book in my Show Me series. It runs 89,003 words.
My two invaluable critique partners have been commenting on each chapter as I wrote draft 1. They notice every questionable word and comma, illogical behavior or plot twist, information dump or lack of clarity.
I’ll probably cut about 2,000 words from draft 1 by weeding out paragraphs with unnecessary information, interactions with little point, jokes that don’t work, descriptions readers don’t need, and other distractions.
A big concern on draft 2 is checking for consistency, particularly in descriptions of setting and characters and in the way each character speaks. I also will make sure of consistency of spelling in such terms as dog walker/dogwalker.
The manuscript won’t get a lot shorter because I’ll look for places where I need to add or alter descriptions and dialogue to give depth to characters. Now that I’ve reached the end of the book, I know the new characters much better and can reveal them to readers in subtle ways I couldn’t when I first met them.
When I finish draft 2, I’ll give the manuscript to trusted readers who haven’t seen it before. They give me mostly big-picture feedback on plot and characters and comments on places they find hard to follow, slow, or even particularly entertaining.
Then I’m ready to do the final draft, the one in which I polish every chapter, page, paragraph, sentence, and word. I’ll read portions aloud as I go, and finally I’ll read the whole thing aloud. I always hear places where the cadence is off, a word has been overused, too many sentences have the same structure, a word has been left out or inserted or misspelled. I even find missing periods.
Draft 1 is done. On to draft 2.
To mark the publication of Show Me the Deadly Deer, novelist/poet/memoirist Judy Hogan interviewed me for her blog, Postmenopausal Zest.
She asked such questions as when I started writing mysteries, why my series features a former spy going after murderers in rural Missouri, and how being a published mystery writer changed my work life.
Like many readers, Judy took special interest in the duality in my protagonist’s character.
Question 13: I’m interested in the psychic mixture in Phoenix Smith, your sleuth. At times she’s extremely tough to go with an image of a sharp shooter, which she is, but other times she’s so compassionate. It puzzles me, and I wonder how you think about it?
Phoenix struggles to balance the idealism of her childhood in a small town and the darkness of her adulthood in Cold War Vienna. She grew up with a loving family believing in service and hard work. Her drive, diligence, and intelligence led her to succeed in a harsh world, one in which she lived the double life of an economist dealing with money-obsessed entrepreneurs and bankers in her day job and traitors in her covert work for the CIA. When the cynical adult returns to her hometown, her love for and loyalty to her childhood friend conflict with her cynicism and distrust, and she finds evil as common in Laycock, Missouri, as she has in Eastern Europe. She also sees goodness and generosity of spirit, sometimes where she least expects to find it.
Her duality is a theme in the series. In Show Me the Murder, Phoenix must learn to trust in order to identify the killer. In Show Me the Deadly Deer, she initially regards the investigation as a game, a contest with the killer. (I’ve observed that some police officers work that way.) Then she meets suspects and witnesses affected by the death and becomes, in some instances, a protector. Which was part of her motivation in becoming a covert operative. In the third book, Connie, who isn’t Phoenix’s biggest fan, comments that she has a black walnut shell with a marshmallow interior. Phoenix certainly values justice more than the law.
To read the rest of the interview, go to http://postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com.
While writing a book and rewriting trouble spots, I rely on critique partners. When I finish the penultimate draft, I recruit people who read but don’t write mysteries. I give them the manuscript with ten questions and suggest they look at the questions before and after they read. Some answer all questions; some write comments on the manuscript; some write a book report. If possible, I take my beta readers to dinner to discuss the book.
The questions serve two purposes:
They cover the general and a few specific things I need to know;
They guide insecure readers and assure them they can give helpful comments.
The questions below, written for Show Me the Murder, follow my typical pattern, touching on such key questions as when the reader identified the killer and such specific ones as whether romantic encounters ring true. The questions never give away the plot.
- Was what happened clear? Did you need more explanation of who did it or what Boom had done? Did the plot seem credible as you read it?
- Were any of the characters unbelievable or inconsistent?
- When did you know who did it? Whom did you suspect as you were reading?
- Did any part of the book seem slow? Would you have put it down if you’d taken it from the library? Did the book seem long?
- Did Phoenix’s scenes with Neil and Stuart ring true?
- Could you visualize the settings of the major scenes?
- Did you expect to find out who shot Phoenix in Istanbul?
- Were the three main characters appealing and believable throughout? How did you like their relationship?
- Were there any characters you couldn’t keep straight?
- What did you like the most? The least?
Every writer turns into an editor at some point, but finding the weaknesses in your own manuscript challenges any writer. Years ago I developed a visual assessment system to help freelance writers evaluate short nonfiction work quickly and objectively.
This week I’m serving on a panel at Killer Nashville called Be Your Own Editor. I’ve expanded my assessment system into the handout below to help novelists spot problems and begin solving them.
1. Riffle or scroll through your entire manuscript.
If pages look gray, expect poor paragraphing, long descriptions, info dumps.
Watch for long sections with lots of dialogue or long sections with no dialogue.
2. Turn through each chapter.
Do the same visual check as above.
Summarize the chapter’s action in one sentence.
Read the end of each chapter to see if it propels the reader to the next chapter.
Read the opening to see if the reader who put down the book will be lost.
3. Look at each page.
If you see only two or three paragraphs, expect to rewrite.
Check the first word or phrase of each paragraph. Openings should vary.
Look for periods. If most sentences are long or the same length, rewrite.
Read the verbs. If they don’t tell you what happens on that page, rewrite.
4. Look at each paragraph.
If a paragraph is more than ten lines long, it may contain an info dump, etc.
If you have many short paragraphs of dialogue, you may need more tags.
Read the end of one paragraph and the opening of the next to check the flow.
5. Check the sentences.
Be sure the strongest structure (subject-verb-object) dominates.
Rewrite most sentences beginning with it’s or there’s.
If a sentence contains more than three prepositional phrases, rewrite it.
6. Study the words.
Look for excessive to be verbs and modified verbs (watch for ly).
Ferret out verbs hidden in nouns, such as make a decision, give a recommendation, reach a conclusion, do an analysis.
Look again at nouns modified with more than one adjective.
Trace all pronouns back to the intended antecedent.
Check all it’s/its, there’s (are), there/their, your/you’re.
Use your computer to find overused words, such as shrug, nod, just, smile.
7. Read aloud to check sound, rhythm, and pace.
In a first draft, most of us fall back on tip-of-the-tongue words rather than rummage through our brains or the thesaurus for the best ones.
Those overused words attract our attention when we polish a short piece—a poem, an article, a short story. In a long manuscript, one we write and rewrite for months, our favorite crutches may not stand out.
The computer’s Find can help us check an entire manuscript, but we need to tell it what words to search for. These searches not only guide us in improving our word choice but also show us where we need to make other changes.
Here’s a basic strategy to follow in your discovering your own words to avoid.
Start with to be verbs and their surrogates, particularly seem and feel. Don’t contort sentences to eliminate an occasional is or were, but rewrite if to be verbs outnumber active ones on any page.
Check common active verbs. My list includes look, watch, stare, glance, study, walk, run, hurry, turn, smile, grin, glare, and shrug, Any one of these may pop up dozens of time in a first draft. How many glances or shrugs constitute overuse? No one can say. I’d advise against using more than one per fifty pages.
Know thy nouns. If you don’t know what you overuse, skim a couple of chapters focusing on the nouns, particularly common objects, emotions, and actions. My list includes tea, Glock, interrogation, smile, and anger. Frequent use of a noun may indicate problems with plot or setting as well as word choice.
Certain adverbs reveal syntactical problems. If Find turns up numerous whens or wheres or whiles, the manuscript contains excessive complex sentences and, quite possibly, ineffective transitions. Frequent use of then and now also signals poor transitions. If ly adverbs flourish, come up with verbs that don’t need modifying. Strong verbs empower to your sentences.
Repeated use of certain adjectives points to poor descriptions. How many of your men are tall or rugged or muscular? How many of your women are slim or anxious or vivacious? How many of your rooms are elegant or messy or spacious? To make sure unique adjectives distinguish every character or setting, compare your word choices in each introduction.
The more you search for overused words, the less you need to. You come to recognize more and more ineffective words (and their attendant problems) and omit them during your first draft.