STEPPING STONES – A LOOK BACK (PART 2/3)

Stepping Stones - FinalIn anticipation of Stepping Stones’ release on August 25th, I’ve dug out my old manuscripts and, along with some amazing friends, torn them to shreds. I’ve been writing consistently for 6 or 7 years now, and I’ve come a long way. What you see below is progress. Sometimes (READ: ALWAYS) you don’t get it right on the first try. It takes multiple drafts, a lot of heartache, and tons of hair pulling to finish a manuscript. It’s worth it. Learning to write in a way that affects people has no comparison.  I’ll never forget when I read at Flint Area Writers and one of the other authors (who I respect immensely!) turned to me and said, “I hate you.” You can read the piece she loved. It’s in the inaugural issue of Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. The point is, it took me YEARS to reach that point. And it made all the work worth it. (Getting published certainly helped, too.)

Joining me today are my partners in crime, Stephanie Keyes (of The Star Child fame) and Hannah R. Goodman (Founder and Editor of Sucker Literary and All the Way YA). These ladies have taken off their gloves and given me their honest opinions and suggestions. When you’re a new writer, you NEED people like this. Grow some thick skin and let’s get down to it.

STEPPING STONES VERSION TWO – 2010 (CATCH UP Read Version One HERE.)

KACEY: I will prequel Version Two by saying that I shared Version One with a few close friends who I love dearly. They, bless them, LOVED it! This bolstered my courage. “I am a writer,” I shouted. “Hear me roar!” Which essentially means I sought out some writers online. Writing groups. Writing websites. Things about *gasp* publishing.

Here’s what I learned between Version One and Version Two:

*Agents won’t look at a YA manuscript that has 125,000 words.

*As a writer, you can’t just ramble on and on for no reason.

*Self-editing sucks, and it’s not something you learn how to do overnight. (HANNAH: Toughest rookie lessons to learn but once you let go of taking anything personally, this is a game changer in a manuscript.)

The first bell rang forcing me into my final year of high school. The last two weeks of summer had passed quickly. My mother moved out and away without a backward glance. My dad and I still reeled from the shock of it. Even though she’d served the divorce papers I’d never really believed she would go through with it. She wasn’t my mother anymore—her entire personality had changed.

HANNAH: Aha! Yes! We are in the moment! Things are HAPPENING! And backstory is given with succinct, action-oriented language. “Moved out” and “still reeled” although simple, get the idea across with a feeling of movement in the wording. Much better!

I should’ve been excited to start the final year. I’d looked forward to it since fifth grade when I realized that school ended eventually. But instead, I thought about my mom and worried about my dad.

KACEY: BEHOLD! The condensed version of the INFO DUMP. At least it’s condensed, but it still doesn’t belong here. Slightly fewer HADS, still FAR TOO MANY.

STEPH: I like this better, but there’s still no emotion in this. Also, it needs to be more active for an opening paragraph. Everything’s still happening to her. Her mom ditched her entire family. How does she feel on the first day of school with that news weighing her down? That’s a big deal. We should feel the weight bearing down on her shoulders from this.

I slammed my locker door and wound my way through the familiar hallway flanked by red lockers. Halfway down the hall Hunter joined me, already talking a mile a minute about the new guy. I’d heard snippets from other students in the halls.

KACEY: Hot guy? What is this? Better yet, WHO is this? That’s right. I discovered that it’s important to introduce BOTH main characters in the first scene. This is a CATALYST. Something needs to happen to the character that gets her story going.

And let me warn you about all the adverbs coming. ADVERBS are like dialogue tags. They should occur rarely, if ever, and only if they’re super special. I have a friend who uses prettily to describe sighs and I’m down with it. I’m sure there are a few in my final version. But adverbs are not our friends. They’re distant relatives that you visited once when you were a kid but can’t really remember.

HANNAH: I will point out the words that improve this…slammed, flanked. Strong verbs that evoke immediate feelings and images. Cliché alert! “Mile a minute”.

STEPH: So what feels familiar about this hallway? How does she feel seeing it and knowing her mother isn’t around? That the last time she was there they were a family? Describe it more fully. What else is there besides red lockers. Are they freshly-painted, chipped, older than God? We need to see this. Also, what does Hunter look like? Can we have dialogue with Hunter talking about the new guy? Describing him?

“And, oh my gosh, Onna!! I cannot believe how hot he is.” She sighed longingly, “If only I wasn’t still with Brody. I would be all over that.” She pulled a tube of watermelon lip gloss from her newly acquired Coach purse and applied it liberally, smacking her lips. “I mean, I love Brody…” She smiled, “Of course I do.”

“Who are you trying to convince?” I asked. Hunter rolled her eyes.

I couldn’t comment on the supposed hot new guy. I hadn’t met him yet, but news traveled fast at Swartz Creek High School. I wondered how long it would take for everyone to know the details of my parents separation.

KACEY: INFO DUMP

STEPH: Most people don’t use one another’s names in casual conversation that often. Hunter is a girl? I missed this! It could just be me, but let’s be clear on Hunter’s gender. A good description of her above would help.

We passed the library. It was empty except for the frumpy librarian who was steadily stamping newly donated books, looking as menial as her job.

I was distracted, thinking about my mom again. She was going to miss my senior year, my senior prom, graduation, all of it. I hadn’t heard from her since the day she left nearly two weeks ago. I was beginning to think that she didn’t even care. The morning she left, I’d woken to pancakes. It was almost a normal day; her heading off to work at the salon, my dad was already gone for the day. We ate breakfast in oppressive silence—not that I’d worried about it. I went school shopping for a few hours and when I returned all of her stuff was gone. I hadn’t seen her pack. She left her wedding ring on the kitchen counter where Dad was sure to see it.

KACEY: So I moved on from HAD and developed a love for WAS. WAS is HAD’s illegitimate brother that always gets drunk at weddings and embarrasses the family. Almost always, WAS sits in front of what could be an awesome VERB. She was going to miss my senior year, my senior prom, graduation, all of it. WAS GOING…so ugly. Simple fix? Mom would miss my senior year… Better fix? Mom abandoned me. ABANDONED. Hits you right in the feels! Also, Onna’s inner monologue makes her sound super selfish, which she isn’t, I promise.

HANNAH: I just wonder if we could skip all the narrative and get to the immediate, present day action.

STEPH: So explain a little more clearly that they are still walking. Where are they going? What’s her goal. YES! I want these thoughts about her mom. I want them sooner. Again, we’re slipping into backstory here. Show this all to me as it’s happening. I’m getting everything after the fact.

“Um, hello. Are you in there?” I forced myself to meet Hunter’s insistent stare, her watermelon lip gloss shimmered on her pursed lips. Her summer blonde hair flounced around her shoulders as she nodded towards the door. “Are you going to go in, or are you just going to stand here looking dazed?”

KACEY: Oh gosh. That description of Hunter’s lip gloss and hair. Less is more, people. Less is more.

STEPH: If you spend that much time on the lip gloss, we’re gonna think it has magical properties. : ) Also, I’m not sure who’s speaking here. Just be clear.

Inside, I could see students milling about, chatting with friends and already looking bored at the prospect of a new school year. I could relate.

The sociology classroom was unusually full, which forced Hunter and I to sit on opposite ends of the room. She blew me a kiss and headed to an empty seat in the back. I had to take the last seat in the front of the room, directly facing the teacher’s desk. I wasn’t a bookworm, but sitting in front of the class wasn’t unusual for me. My grades were important because I wanted to go away to college—not just any college, either. Only a big university would do. But it was all just dreams, even though it was my senior year.

The second bell rang and the teacher bustled into the room. She was intimidating at six foot two. She had a short, no nonsense haircut that left brown strands fringing her face.

“Full house,” she joked, her voice sugary, more fitting to a preteen girl than a forty something woman. “Okay, this is Sociology 304, if this isn’t your class, get out your schedule and we’ll help you find it.” She smiled as five students, including the boy seated beside me, stood up, looking slightly embarrassed. I assumed they were freshman, as lost as an Alzheimer’s patient at Detroit Metro Airport.

KACEY: This is a lot of description for the teacher. She’s not even important to the story. Save your words for people and things that matter. Also, what’s happened so far in this scene? A whole lot of nothing. It’s Onna’s first day of school. There’s a new hot guy. This is normal, boring, everyday stuff. The reader is bored. I’m bored. Somebody please throw this manuscript in the trash.

Just kidding…

Kind of.

HANNAH: I hate to say this, but I agree. I keep waiting for the “something-big-to-happen” and I’m waiting too long as a reader.

STEPH: Inside what? I need more transition so I know their walking to Onna’s first class. Did they have their schedules before they came to school? Wouldn’t they swap schedules? Alzheimer’s patient at Detroit Metro Airport.—love this image.

As she assisted them in finding their respective classrooms, I stared blankly at the wall. I wondered what Mom was doing, and if she was happy. Should I pop in for a visit at the salon she worked at?

I thought better of it. If she wanted to see me, she would come home, or call, even.

Dad was taking it hard. He still went to work, but I’d noticed the dark circles forming under his eyes. When he came home he no longer wanted to watch television or play pool like we used to. He just went into his office and shut the door. We didn’t eat dinner together anymore either.

Though I was capable of taking care of myself, I worried about him. I’d cooked dinner since my mom left; though it used to be something my dad enjoyed doing. Now he wasn’t interested in anything. His portion of the food usually went uneaten, even if I wrapped it up and left it in the fridge. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how to make it easier for him. I cleaned the house, I did his laundry, but he wasn’t seeing anything anymore. He just went through the motions of living, but didn’t feel any of it, like a zombie or a robot.

I could only imagine what he was feeling because he refused to talk about it. He’d slammed his office door in my face one too many times, and I’d lost the will to pursue it. I wanted my dad to be happy, but I didn’t think he was ready to deal with his grief yet.

I didn’t know if I was ready to deal with his grief yet, let alone my own.

The teacher handed out papers about the course and the required project, and I forced myself to take notes. I refused to let my grades slip. I wanted to apply to Yale, and it was a stretch if I didn’t have perfect grades. So I settled into the mundane task of recording every word she said.

KACEY: We spend SO MUCH TIME in Onna’s yet when we’re not yet invested in her story. She thinking about her life, which is code for INFO DUMP. Are you sick of me saying that word? Because I am! There’s hardly any dialogue, nothing to move the scene along. Nothing happens! This makes the opening COMPETELY USELESS. Nobody cares about Onna. Nobody cares that her parents are getting divorced or that she wants to go to Yale. Nobody likes her best friend. INFO DUMPS don’t make friends.  

Moral of the story? ACTION! DIALOGUE! PLEASE GOD LET SOMETHING HAPPEN.

HANNAH: You said it all perfectly for me : )

STEPH: While this is interesting, it’s all told. We aren’t seeing any of this happen. If this is all important enough to mention then the book should start with the scene between Mom and Dad. If it’s so pivotal then show it to us, don’t cheat us. Inquiring minds want to know!

Version Two is in the books…well, sort of. What do you think? Is it better? Did I learn a thing or two those first couple years? Writing is a JOURNEY. It’s a lifelong learning experience. I get better at it every day.

Hang around. The final version is coming!

All the best,

Kacey

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