In anticipation of Stepping Stones’ release this month, I dug into my archives and found the original manuscript that started it all. I’ll admit it: It’s terrible. I should be embarrassed to show you this, but in hindsight, it’s incredible to see how far I’ve come as a writer and what I’ve learned along the way. And because my opinion isn’t enough, I convinced the wonderful Stephanie Keyes (of The Star Child fame) and Hannah R. Goodman (Founder and Editor of Sucker Literary and All the Way YA) to give their opinions. What follows is a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a new writer, and some perfect examples of What. Not. To. Do.
There will be three versions of Stepping Stones, the one below, a rewrite, and then the final version that’ll publish later this month. (In reality, there are several more versions than this. For the sake of time, we’re only looking at three.) Just for sticking around and enduring, you’ll be rewarded with a sneak peek at the first scene of the book.
It’s my hope that showing Stepping Stones in various states of—how do I put it gently? Hot mess? Deconstruction? Editing?—will help other writers realize that we’ve all been there and sometimes it takes a village to make a manuscript what it should be. Feel free to chime in below and leave some comments or horror stories.
STEPPING STONES VERSION ONE – 2009
I had known this day would come, but I had tried to repress it. I had heard the hushed arguing, noticed my mother spending more and more time ‘at work’. I didn’t know if that was just an excuse, or if it was true, but at this point, it didn’t matter anymore. My bedroom was the only place that didn’t feel claustrophobic. The rest of the house seemed to have thick walls that pushed the agony back on you, so I spent a lot of time in my room.
Between my mom’s angry looks shot at my dad and his blatant refusal to acknowledge the situation, I was going crazy. I couldn’t figure out where it had all gone wrong, but my mom was very, very unhappy, and my dad, well he was just faking ambivalence.
KACEY: Wow. I don’t even know where to start with this opening. First of all, the HADS! Jeesh. So many of them. Cut as many HADS as you can. It’s a useless, clunky word that automatically makes your writing passive. Take the first sentence: I had known this day would come, but I had tried to repress it. Though I tried to repress it, I knew this day would come. <This is more immediate and eliminates all those ugly HADS.
This is a terrible place to start a novel. There isn’t any action, it’s just a character sitting in her room whining about how terrible her life is. We don’t care about her at this point, so we don’t want to listen to her whine. We want to see something HAPPEN!
Onna’s narrative sounds likes a poorly done voiceover at the opening of a movie where they need to catch the viewer up quick.
HANNAH: My first thought is, where and when are we in time and space? I want to see stuff, hear stuff, and smell stuff and you already nailed the “HADS” piece : ) Also, are we in the claustrophobic-feeling room? What color are the walls? Are there windows? If so, are they tiny, crank-out ones? Setting details seem necessary, not too many, coupled with some action, even if it is small. And…what is the situation? Not that you have to front load the opening, but maybe some kind of concrete object or gesture from a character to indicate the nature of the situation. Show the parents, maybe? Maybe she sees them, in the kitchen, through the crack of the door of her bedroom. Sitting across from one another at the kitchen table…her mom glaring and her dad staring at his drained glass of beer…the possibilities are endless : )
STEPH: Too many hads! It’s also completely told. Why not open with an exchange in the parents in real-time so we’re not experiencing things in backstory. What I would like to see is more description. Here are a few examples: Why doesn’t her bedroom feel claustrophobic? What’s different about it? So her parents are experiencing issues—how does this make her feel? I want more detail around the “crazy” feeling. What does that look like to the reader? Get me inside of her head.
My parents had sat me down and had the official talk, my father had cried, but my mother had been stone-faced, as though unaffected by the impending divorce. I wished that they would have just skipped it. Maybe they could have waited another year, for when I was away at college and oblivious to their inner marital turmoil. I knew that thinking that made me selfish because they were so unhappy. But how long had they been holding out, trying to stay together for me? If I was even a factor in their decisions.
KACEY: A better option for the argument instead of telling the reader it happened, would be for us to see it happening right now, which is “showing the reader” not “telling the reader.” Plus, making it happen RIGHT NOW would get rid of HADS. I hate HADS.
HANNAH: ALL tell and NO show. Should we see the talk? Should this be in “real time”? Or do we save this for another, separate scene? “Have been” and shortly after “would have just” are indications that the writer is struggling with whether or not this should be a moment in the present, actually happening, or if should be background information that trickles out later in this opening scene.
STEPH: Show me this discussion happening. When something is portrayed in backstory, we lose the pace. I’d like to see the argument taking place, experience her feelings about it. Is she relieved? How about embarrassed that they may have tried to stay together for her? Fear for what her life will become? She’s too detached.
My only plans for the day were to sunbathe by the community pool and maybe read a good book, but now I wasn’t sure if I was up for any of it. I was instead lying across my bed, cell phone in hand wondering who I could call to make me feel better. Maybe someone to just distract me. There was a guy that I had been seeing on and off for the summer, but lately he had been blowing me off for his friends all the time. Not that I was really into him anyways. He had more brawn than brains, but could always scrounge up a good party to go to. I could call Hunter, my best friend, but it was Tuesday and she usually spent half the day at the gym, toning her already perfect body. Yuck…not my idea of fun.
KACEY: Now she’s telling us her plans, which are pretty dull. We don’t know anything about her so we don’t care either. She just talks and talks and talks and nobody is listening. Allow me to introduce you to the INFO DUMP. I’m telling you a lot about Onna’s history. Her parents, her best friend, her boyfriends. TELLING being the operative word here. Basically, an INFO DUMP is when the author drops a whole lot of boring info on the reader. A better way is to sneak in the back story when it feels natural, and usually in the middle of ACTION. We LOVE ACTION! Plus, we’re inside her head a little too much, so she sounds melodramatic, and since we don’t know or care about her, this will make the reader dislike her.
HANNAH: Tacking on to your comments, I would take this and revise it so that it has more punch and so that it also SHOWS the character’s personality and hints at her conflict. “Sprawled across my bed, I scrolled through my list of contacts, searching for the perfect person to make me feel better.”
STEPH: So I just missed something. She’s having the talk and now she’s at the pool, or talking about her plans as though none of the above happened. There’s a lot of passive voice going on. I’d like to see this eliminated so we have a more active paragraph. Also, does this information push the story forward? This seems like an info dump so we can meet her best friend.
After the family HEART TO HEART, my Mom had STORMED OFF to ‘work’ and my Dad had locked himself in his office, his usual hiding place where he goes to brood and ignore the rest of us. It’s not like divorce was uncommon where I lived. I knew plenty of people whose parents were divorced. Some who acted perfectly normal and others who were questionable.
HANNAH: It’s not like divorce was uncommon where I lived. For some reason, this sounds like something a writer or author would have in a book from the 70s or 80s. I think it’s the phrasing of it, implying that divorce was actually an alien concept . Also, since you pretty much deconstruct this so nicely below and I agree with your comments, I will point out some of the wording that could be stronger and more unique or even deleted. These (BOLDED) are phrases that are clichés or have cliché overtones.
Would they want me to choose who to live with? I couldn’t even if they wanted me to. Maybe I could choose neither. I sighed, and looked at the still blank screen of my cell phone.
I gave up on calling a friend and instead decided to call Ethan, my older brother. He was nine years older than me, and somehow managed to escape before ALL THE CRAZINESS started around our house. I wished I could have been so lucky, but I was born late, and unexpectedly. He answered on the third ring sounding out of breath and in a hurry.
“Hey, Ethan, it’s me,” I said, happy that he answered but worried that I caught him at a BAD TIME.
KACEY: FINALLY! Our heroine is doing something. Even if it’s just calling her brother. Let’s examine the last sentence. “Hey, Ethan, it’s me,” I said, happy that he answered but worried that I caught him at a bad time. This is a clunky, useless sentence. She already commented on him being out of breath, so a simple “Hey Ethan, bad time?” could’ve saved the reader (and writer!) all those words. Dialogue is an excellent way to move the story along and convey emotion in a relatable way.
STEPH: So her mother is really that cold that she goes to work after having this conversation? What a bitch! So what is Onna’s reaction to this? Is she so used to this is doesn’t even sting? How could it not? Also, why didn’t she ask these questions in the actual conversation? At this point I’m viewing the heroine as a whiner. Is that your intention?
“Onna!” He exclaimed. No matter when I called him, he always seemed happy to hear from me. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have a great older brother, but I was sure I didn’t deserve him. “What’s up kid?” I cringed. I hated when he called me kid, which he did, at every available opportunity.
“I got the talk today,” I told him, no explanation necessary, we talked frequently enough that he knew the SITUATION. Ethan was the one who talked me through most of my SITUATIONS, and sometimes I felt like he was more a best friend and confidant to me than anyone else, even Hunter.
HANNAH: Repeating words…and also a word used prior that is a little vague and not SHOW enough.
“Ouch, are you doing okay?”
“Yeah,” I shrugged, “I knew it was coming. Mom looked bored the whole time, but Dad was upset.” I had known, but it still hurt to think that two people who had pledged their love couldn’t hold up the bargain.
“Oh…well that’s Judith and Kurt for you,” He never called my parents Mom and Dad anymore, “Do you want me to come down later? We could go out to dinner or something,” he offered, willing to put off any of his plans for me, as usual. He didn’t even sound put out by it.
KACEY: ARG! Dialogue tags. Let me list all the awful ones in this section. He exclaimed. I told him. Oh? Only two really awful ones. Dialogue tags should be invisible to the reader. It’s true. They’re only necessary to root the reader in the story. If you have any sort of action going on around them that tells us which character is speaking, they are absolutely unnecessary. When and IF you need a tag, a simple he said or she said gets the job done. SAID is your friend. ASKED can be your friend, but only on Sundays. You can use other tags, such as he offered, or he promised, but SPARINGLY. The best option is to avoid the tags altogether, if possible.
HANNAH: I feel like this conversation is restating what we already know.
STEPH: Ethan isn’t going to greet her by her full first name unless he’s substantially older—maybe in his eighties. It’s going to be something like “Hey” or “What’s up, On.” Something fresher. Ethan’s reaction is pretty blasé for a brother. Wouldn’t he ask how she is? Or make an assumption about how she might be feeling if they know each other so well? Also, why wasn’t he a part of the conversation? Wouldn’t he have reached out to her? Maybe even known this was going to happen and been proactive? Also, some of the phrasing is a little old for high school. They might say “pissed off about it” instead of “put out by it.”
“Nah,” I said, though secretly wishing I was needy enough to say yes. “I can handle it. Just wanted to talk, you know?” I fingered the purple flowers on my bed spread. “So what are you up to today?” I heard him hesitate, so something was going on.
KACEY: She HEARD him hesitate. Why can’t he just hesitate? Filtering it through the main character makes this passive. A better way would be to stay Ethan hesitated. Bam. Short and sweet and gives the reader space to wonder WHY Ethan is hesitating.
STEPH: Hearing him hesitate is a point of view break. This needs to be shown. Example: He sucked in a breath and silence took over. Why is he hesitating? Also, how does she know something was going on? Is the pausing an indicator with him? Can she just read him so well that it’s obvious? We need to know.
“I’m meeting Cora later, we’re having lunch at my place,” his voice was higher than normal, excited. “I bought the ring last week. I even talked to her Dad, Onna.” He laughed a little, “I’m going to ask her today.”
I shrieked. “Oh my gosh, Ethan! I can’t believe it!”
He chuckled. “Yeah, finally.” He had been dating Cora for five years. They had met during his third year in college and had been inseparable since. Recently she had started bugging him about moving in together, but he had held her off because of his other plans, asking her to marry him, of course. I couldn’t believe he was holding out on me.
KACEY: The last paragraph is an example of how to sneak in backstory. Ethan announces he’s getting married, Onna reacts, and then gives the reader a little look into their history. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than the doozy of an INFO DUMP at the beginning.
STEPH: So what is higher than normal? Does he have a bass voice maybe a higher pitched tenor? Does his voice crack when he talks? Let us know how he sounds. Would he really propose to his girlfriend on the same day his parents announced their divorce? Not only is that cold, but it’s kind of a bad omen, isn’t it? Wouldn’t he be skeptical about marriage? If he isn’t, then why not?
I felt a little guilty that he was willing to put off Cora and his proposal to come take care of me, but that was Ethan. I was so excited for him; he truly deserved to be happy. “Do Mom and Dad know?” Right now, I wasn’t sure if a marriage proposal would bode well with them, even if Ethan and Cora were so right for each other.
KACEY: Ouch. It was hard for me to read that. So much telling, hardly any action. Many, MANY writer no-nos.
STEPH: Why should she feel guilty? He should be there. He’s her older brother. This is a big deal. Although you’re trying to paint him as caring, he’s coming off as a little selfish here. Also, this is really bad timing.
So there you have it, my first failure attempt at writing a novel. Pretty terrible, right? Come back next week for Version Two of Stepping Stones and see what I learned (or didn’t learn) along the way.
All the best,