My own business bores me to death. I prefer other people's. Oscar Wilde

Putting on the Finishing Touches

Liz here:

I had to run out of the door unexpectedly yesterday, before I had a chance to put on my makeup. No eyeliner, no mascara, no lipstick. Boy, did I feel naked. Exposed. Men, imagine running out of the house with no shirt.

We need those little finishing touches to make ourselves ready to face the public. A little glam to be all set to go.

Our manuscripts are no different. The foundation is good. The plot is strong. The characters are real. But it's missing something. A little splash and zing to make it sing.

What will take your manuscript to the next level?

1. Pump up those verbs. To give your story more impact, use stronger verbs instead of a verb and adverb. The classic example is this: I ran quickly. Sort of like a kindergartner showing his muscles. More impactful: I sprinted. I jogged. I hustled. Even better: My heart pounded an irregular beat as I raced to pull the struggling child from the pool. Now we have a bodybuilder flexing his arm.

2. Intensify your character's emotions. You can see that in the final example above. The kid is drowning, and she's in a race against time. Her heart is beating fast. Can you feel your own heart ready to jump out of your chest? But be careful to keep your character's emotions fresh. The heart beating reaction is an easy one to pull out, but don't use it too often. You can express fear so many different ways. A dry mouth. Rapid breathing. Sweaty palms. Biting your lip. Here's a great resource with a list of nonverbal gestures and what they mean:

3. Leave them wanting more. The best way to keep your readers turning pages and staying up late at night to finish your book is to have powerful chapter endings that suck them in. The endings can be cliffhangers like on a soap opera. The child disappeared under the water. Bam, you've hooked your audience. They HAVE to turn the page to find out what happened to the child. A power word, alone on its own line, has great impact. She pressed her arm and drew her hand away. 
Pow. You want to start the next chapter. Who cares that it's 3 am and you have to get up for work in the morning? Ending with a question is also a powerful hook. He walked away. Would she ever see him again? Those are just a few examples of ways to draw in your reader and keep them wanting to read just one more chapter. Be careful, though, to not use one technique all the time. You'll lose your audience if you do.

Three easy ways to amp up the power and the glam factor of your manuscript. You'll catch an agent's eye, a publisher's eye, and your audience's attention.

What are some other ways to take your writing to the next level?

Don't be a Flabby Tabby

Jennifer here:

This is not a post about cats. Well, maybe it is. A little. I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen a cat with six-pack abs. Every cat I know has a soft, flabby belly. We had a cat growing up that we called Flabby Tabby.

How does that relate to writing? I’ve been judging a lot of contests, published and unpublished, for many years. And I find the same types of problems crop up over and over. A lot of flabby bellies in writing, if you will. So let’s discuss them here so you can look for them in your own writing and weed them out, whether you want to enter a contest or not.

Point of View
As I said in my earlier post here on deep POV, most people don’t realize how powerful it is. When we are truly inside your character’s skin and brain, and not just watching him or her, we develop that deep emotional connection that makes for a great reading experience. If readers love your characters, they’ll follow them anywhere, even through a bad plot.

Do Double Duty
Another big mistake I see in contests is that writers fail to make every action, thought, and word do more than just convey one piece of information. Use each as an opportunity to show emotion or convey something to us about your character’s personality.

For example, a character simply crossing the room to pick up her phone can tell us a lot. Don’t just tell us she went over and got her phone. Did she stalk? Did she drag her feet? Did she nearly skip? See how each one shows us her mood as well as showing us what she’s doing? And for the phone call. Do her actions convey dread? Excitement? Anger? Make each bit do double and triple duty and you won’t have the dreaded flab that must be cut.

Cut the Flab
When we read about what your character is doing (or has done) we expect it to mean something. If you tell us she went to the grocery story before going home, there should be a reason I need to know that. Did someone see here there? Did she need to avoid someone so she forgot the milk? Did that errand delay her arrival at home so she missed being there when the burglar broke in?

Just as your words need to do double duty, so do any actions that either appear on stage or are summarized in narrative. Keep asking yourself why we need to know this. And, what else can this action tell us?

Where to Begin
One of the most frequent errors I see is that writers don’t know where to start their story. See my post here about first impressions. That also applies to scenes. I often see scenes that flounder a bit in their beginning, giving us too much info about how we got here.

Readers don’t need a lot of set up. Regardless if you’re a plotter or a seat-of-your-pants writer, you need to know what you want to accomplish in each scene. Scenes can take place close together or farther apart in time, but they should only contain actions that move your story forward.

If you’re writing a romance and the hero and heroine haven’t spoken in two weeks, you don’t need to spend a lot of time in your next scene explaining what they’ve been doing or why (unless it directly relates to the plot or subplot). You can easily say something like, “After not hearing from John for two weeks Jane was surprised to see his number pop up on her phone.”

You could change “surprised” to something that might more closely convey her feelings, like annoyed, irritated, elated, angry, miffed. But we don’t need a long explanation, just jump into the action. When in doubt, start with the action and add any explanation or transition later if you really need to.

When It’s Over, It’s Over
And then when the purpose of the scene is over, end it. It’s much better to leave your readers wanting more than to linger too long in the scene. Think about the purpose (or better, purposes) of each scene. How does it move the plot forward? How does it deepen characterization? What questions does it raise that will keep the reader turning pages? When that’s done, your scene is done.

The problem is that, as writers, we love our characters. They live in our heads; they are our friends. We want to hang out with them and spend time with them. And that’s fine, but do it elsewhere if it’s making your story flabby.

Use these tips to tighten up your writing, whether it’s for a contest or not. And your scenes won’t look as flabby as a cat’s belly.

Retreat but Don't Run Away

Diana here:

It seems every time you grab a moment to write, the phone rings, alerts pop up on your phone, your kids need something and by the way, can you bring cupcakes to church this week for Sunday School.

Most of the time you can handle the interruptions, pick up where the story, with it's half-written word patiently waits for it's last syllable to arrive.

But what do you do when that doesn't work anymore? The cursor mocks, the clock ticks loud behind you and the story you loved now feels old and stale.

So what can you do?

There is a quote that spoke to me and I want to share it with you. 

Start by doing what's necessary, then do what's possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible. Francis of Assisi

If you are stuck and daily life has you by the throat you must start with the necessary. 

Get away, retreat

"But I can't. I have responsibilities that keep me in place." you say. 

"Think small first, if you haven't the time and money to 'retreat' to a writer's paradise do something else." I say.

Yes, you've heard it all before, go to the coffee shop, the park, the mall. That seems impossible at times and often doesn't lend itself to being creative, just different distractions. I'm suggesting you collect your spare change until you have enough to go to a real retreat. 

"I can't leave my family for a week or three days!" 

I can see you closing the door, or rather getting ready to click away from this post. 

Stop. Read. Think.

How important is it to you that you write?
Do you need to recharge?

A retreat with other writers may be out of your comfort, financial or family needs zone. I get that. I've been there, am there. 

Do What's Possible

There are solutions. I know a writer who owns a pop up camper. She escapes to her backyard to her personal retreat to write. Cost? Zero. Trauma to her family? Zero. Boost to her writing? Amazing.

There are times I've shut down, carried my laptop to my bedroom and closed the door. I've taken books that inspire me, a candle to add ambiance and a bucket of cold soda and a bag of snacks. I'd slap on headphones and hit the play button for songs that inspire me. Then I'd write, read or draw until I felt renewed and ready to go back to the blinking cursor of life.

This year is the first time in my career that I have the funds to travel to a real writing retreat. Not a conference, where every minute is packed with learning and networking opportunities, but a place in Montana where writers write. There will be times I'll bump into other writers and brainstorm, and a learning session each night, but it will be low key and low stress.   

I hope to come back refreshed and recharged ready to take on a new story world. But if that fails, because I am an introvert and too many changes wear me out, and I come back tired and cranky I know what to do.

I'll start by retreating back to the simple places around my home where I am comfortable, where the words come freely and there isn't pressure to return with a masterpiece or agent or contract.

So start retreating today, anywhere, anyhow, any place that works for you. If not today, start planning so when the time comes you'll be ready.

Writing takes a lot of emotion and wears you down. Treat that blinking cursor as a warning sign that you need your own rebooting. 

Doing the impossible

Before long you'll be pounding the keyboard with excitement, firing up the dialogue and creating havoc for those characters you thought no longer had life and typing 'The End."