The Pitch Wars Experience

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Pitch Wars has come and gone and I’m just now sitting down to write about it. What can I tell you about this amazing contest hosted by Brenda Drake and crew?

First, if you have a manuscript ready to enter, DO. IT. The experience is invaluable.

I’ve run a gamut of emotions throughout the contest. Fear that I wouldn’t get in. Fear that I would. Worry that I wouldn’t be good enough. Worry that I couldn’t fulfill whatever work my mentor wanted me to do. Surprise. Elation. Some more fear.

I cried when I saw my name on the Mentor’s Picks List. I’ve found that writers are all about vindication. We want to know that we are good enough, smart enough, creative enough. And for some reason, that proof always has to come from outside. So, for a few moments, I felt worthy enough to call myself a writer.

Working with Katherine Fleet, my mentor, was a dream. Katherine and I have similar writing styles and come to our stories for the same kinds of things. My changes weren’t extensive, but they strengthened the story in ways I hadn’t considered before. Everyone’s Pitch Wars journey is different. Some had complete rewrites. Some had simple line edits. The goal is to prepare the manuscript for the Agent Round and everyone worked hard for two months (some worked for longer than two months). Specifically, I cut and rewrote a main character’s backstory. I changed the main setting of the story, and I strengthened character relationships and motivations.

Katherine and I went through the manuscript a total of three times before I sent it over to my mentee sister, Christine Webb, for a beta read. Lucky for me, Katherine drew a wild card and got to mentor two writers. Christine and I have hit it off since, and I’m so grateful to have someone to go through this process with.

In addition to Christine, the entire Pitch Wars class of 2017 is incredible. They’re supportive and kind and the most encouraging bunch I’ve seen. We have a secret Facebook group that’s one of my favorite places to lurk, especially if I’m frustrated. There is an awesome vibe of “we’re all in this together.” We’ve celebrated, we’ve mourned, but more than that, Pitch Wars has made me realize how different every writer’s journey to publication is. We have first time authors. We have authors who’ve been writing for 20+ years. Some have had agents in the past. Some are indie published. It’s definitely made me feel less alone in this big, big writing world.

The agent round came and went. Some manuscripts had over 40 agent requests. A very few had none. I was somewhere in the middle at 5. I thought the agent round was the hardest part of PW (at the time). Watching others get so many requests brought that good old fear back to the surface. I leaned pretty heavily on Katherine and Christine during this time (sorry Katherine, for the millions of emails). Just know, if you participate in Pitch Wars, you may not be the person who gets 40+ requests. You may be the person who gets zero. It’ll be okay. You’ll still wake up the next day. Your story isn’t over. You’re still valid.

But, it will still hurt. And it did. I looked at my five requests and I compared to those who had 40. I was warned not to do this. I did it anyway. I wish I hadn’t.

Then, the truly difficult part of PW started. The offers began rolling in. I’m SO HAPPY for all of those who’ve gotten offers, been agented because of PW. What an incredible opportunity it’s been and there are some AMAZING writers in PW17. I am constantly in awe of their creativity. They deserve their wins, and I fully support them.

As of today, there have been 44 offers of representation to the PW17 group.

I am not one of them.

I’ve been thoroughly checking my email daily, searching for my offer. It hasn’t come yet, but that’s okay. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made some great friends. And I shined up my manuscript, query, and synopsis. I’m so proud of the work I’ve done and everything PW stands for.

Let me reiterate how difficult PW has been. It’s an emotional roller coaster. If you choose to participate, make sure you have a great support group who gets it. And most importantly, remember that this is just one contest, and no matter what happens, you are still valid. Your writing is still valid. Rejection hurts, but it’s not the end of your journey.

I’m here. I’m still waiting. My offer is out there. I just have to find it. Best of all, I’ll always have the PW17 crew to back me. Would I do it again? Hell, yes. A million times over. I wouldn’t trade the experience and all I’ve learned.

Will I stop comparing myself to others now? I sure hope so.

You can see my Pitch Wars Agent Round entry here. My Pimp My Bio here. And check out my interviews here and here.

Next up, my #Pitmad experience!

 

All the best,

Kacey

 

 

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Your First Retreat

*Cross posted from: Flint Area Writers

The Flint Area Writers are going on retreat in August. One weekend, Friday through Sunday, devoted to writing, critique, and camaraderie among like-minded people. To prepare, I’ve gathered some suggestions and advice from veteran members Martha J. Allard, Melodie Bolt, and yours truly, about the DOs and DON’Ts of writing retreats.

The most important, and also least important, aspect of your retreat is finding an amicable location. This can be a tiny cabin snuggled in sleepy woods, a tent parked in a campground, or even a friend’s house – anything that takes you out of your normal space and forces you to adapt. A favorite of FAW is Gilchrist in Three Rivers, Michigan. Another location I researched recently is the Highlights Foundation Unworkshops in Pennsylvania, where $129 gets you a cabin and three meals per day. Wherever you go, make sure it’s equipped enough to keep you comfortable and inspired.

No matter how long you set aside for a writing retreat, be it a day, a weekend, a month, that span of uninterrupted time can seem daunting. It’s nothing but you, your notebook or laptop, that inevitable blank page, and hello, writer’s block! Your retreat begins well before you leave home. Use the following list the week before to prepare.

  • Reconnect with your work. Reread your manuscript, peruse your notes or outline.

  • Complete any necessary research and pack it with your writing materials.

  • Read a new (or old favorite) book about writing and get excited for what’s to come.

  • Make a plan.

    • Be realistic. If you don’t normally write 50 pages in one sitting, don’t expect to do it on retreat.

    • Decide if you’re writing for quality or quantity and stick to it. Maybe you only want to revise or write one scene, perhaps you’re looking to spew as many words as you can because you’re still figuring out what you’re writing. Maybe you’re starting something new. Whatever it is, make a concise plan for how you will spend your time and then stick to it.

Now that you’re prepared, the fun part begins.

  • When you arrive, give yourself some time to acclimate to your surroundings. Go for a walk, peruse the items left behind from others (Gilchrist has a lovely collection of journals in every cabin.) Breathe. Appreciate being in the moment, because there is nothing better than having time and space for creativity.

  • Pick out your writing spot and get comfortable. We suggest snacks, tea, or if you’re like me, a GIANT cup of coffee. Headphones for music or a fan to block out noises. Keep your notes close so you don’t have to get up to cross the room if you’re lost in the moment. Don’t be afraid to make a bit of a mess. I prefer to work in chaos.

  • Revisit your plan and remind yourself to stick to it.

  • Get to work!

  • If the words are flowing, make sure you take breaks. I once came back from retreat with a knot the size of Texas in my shoulder. Since then, I always bring my yoga mat and stretch between writing. Vary positions, put your feet up, sit on the floor, take your work outside. Remember to move!

  • If you find yourself staring at that annoying blank page, repeat the above steps. Go for a walk and take your notebook. Read a bit of something you find inspiring. (I often read 1-2 books on retreat.) Knock on your neighbor’s door and ask for a cup of sugar. (Just kidding, you should respect your neighbors!)

  • Some retreats will be more productive than others. Remind yourself of your plans and goals for your work. Being a writer means deadlines, even if they’re self-imposed.

  • If something else draws your attention, go with it. I started my current manuscript on retreat when I was supposed to be writing something else. Don’t waste your time or creativity!

  • WRITE! Fill that blank page with words. Even if you’re feeling uninspired, write one sentence. Then another. Ignore the devil on your shoulder that says it’s not good enough. Worries are for rewrites.

  • Remember to take care of yourself.

    • Sleep! Retreat isn’t just for writing, it’s also for recharging. If you’re tired, sleep. If you’re awake, write. I usually go to bed early on retreat and wake up at 4:30am. There’s something about a sunrise that’s so beautifully inspiring.

    • Stay hydrated! Tea, water, coffee, juice, whatever floats your boat. Keep that cup full and drink up. Sometimes an adult beverage or two will loosen up apprehension and help the words come. (Who am I to judge, right?)

    • Move! Go for walks, do twenty minutes of yoga, stretch your mind and your muscles.

That’s it for the list of dos. Now for the much shorter list of DON’Ts.

  • Don’t bother your fellow writers. Plan ahead of time when you’ll meet up to read aloud, commiserate, etc. Breakfast and dinner are usually good times to meet.

  • Don’t beat yourself up, but do reward yourself for meeting goals.

  • Don’t waste all your time on social media. If you MUST Facebook or Twitter, save it for break time.

  • Don’t make unrealistic goals. I said this earlier, but it bears repeating. If you aren’t a writing sprinter, don’t expect to suddenly change your habits. If you’re a slow writer, plan for a scene or two, and then make it happen.

What advice do you have for writing retreats? What’s your favorite part of getting away from it all? Let me know in the comments.

Thanks to Martha J. Allard and Melodie Bolt for the suggestions. I’ll see you on retreat!

Pitch Wars 2017: #PimpMyBio

Pitch Wars 2017 is here and I’ve decided to join in the mayhem. (Not sure what Pitch Wars is? Check out Brenda Drake’s blog HERE.) Below you will find a post that shamelessly pimps two things very near and dear to me: myself and my writing.

The left picture, where I look like a slightly distracted vampire, is my author photo. The right picture (that’s me on the right and my husband on the left in case you’re confused) is more of what I actually look like. Notice the cats, there’ll be a quiz later.

About Me:

  • I’m addicted to Starbucks, cats, and Oxford commas.
  • I LOVE learning. I’m the weirdo who enjoys writing research papers, listening to lectures, and taking tests. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and work full time as a sonographer. I’m also very modest. (Hard to believe, I know.)
  • I’m painfully introverted, but you can woo me with cat videos, alternative music, and bacon.
  • I live in Michigan but hate snow. Please pay me to move somewhere warm, preferably Key West. I like houseboats and sand between my toes.
  • I have a Forrest Gump quote for nearly every situation.
  • I love cats.
  • I have 4 cats. (Frodo, Minga, Lennox, and River.)
  • Did I mention cats?

About My Writing:

  • I write and read young adult. All genres, all shapes, sizes, and colors. If there are teenagers, give it to me.
  • I recently completed the Story Genius course and extension course from Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash. I also spent three months working on Hiding Hudson with a book coach (the ever wonderful MG Pitch Wars mentor, Julie Artz!) through Author Accelerator.
  • I tend to write about things that make people uncomfortable: depression, chronic illness, suicide, etc. My goal is to put a human face on the “issues” so they become tangible, relatable people instead of just concepts.
  • My short story, “Distraction,” is available in NYC’s Subway Library. (Possibly the coolest opportunity I’ve had yet!)

About Hiding Hudson:

Eventual suicide has been on Hudson Trent’s mind since his early symptoms of Huntington’s Disease appeared. He figures he has a few good years left, but when his older brother Coop, who’s debilitated by the same disease, wants his life support pulled on national TV, living and dying suddenly terrify Hudson equally.

Unable to face losing Coop, Hudson escapes to the top of a twelve-story building, ready to jump. But he’s interrupted by Remi, a firework of a girl with a suicidal plan of her own. She’s not interested in saving Hudson’s life, only filming a video that will turn their final hours into the ultimate suicide note.

The last thing Hudson expects is for Remi’s honest spontaneity to uncover a side of life he’s never known. When their night of firsts and lasts fades into morning, Hudson finds himself back on the ledge. There he must decide what makes death worth chasing, and what, if anything, is reason enough to keep living.

HIDING HUDSON, a 65,000 word Young Adult Contemporary novel, will appeal to fans of ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES by Jennifer Niven and MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga.

Ways To Love Me:

Best of luck to everyone partcipating in Pitch Wars! “I’m pretty tired… I think I’ll go home now.” -Forrest Gump

Overhauling

For the past (almost) year, I’ve been surrounding myself with new writerly types. By new, I don’t mean new writers, I mean writers new to me. I’ve been basking in the shiny newness of their ways. And I’ve been learning.

Tuesday, I tuned into Jennie Nash’s AMA (Ask Me Anything). You can watch here. She holds them every Tuesday on the Author Accelerator Facebook page and answers any questions about writing and publishing. If you’re not familiar with Jennie Nash, YOU SHOULD BE. This woman is a wealth of writerly knowledge and she gives so much of it away for free. (And she has the best laugh, I swear.) Jennie Nash is the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Author Accelerator and she’s a book coach. Look her up, you won’t regret it.

During her AMA, Jennie talked about how the world does not want or ask for our writing. Yet here we are, day after day, month after month, toiling away at something that the WORLD DOESN’T WANT.

Wait, what?

As writers or artists or any creative type, we are harnessing our passion, something that no one else might ever care about, and we are pouring all our time and love into it. I won’t be the first person to say that writing a book is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You’re definitely not going to finish writing a book if you don’t love it. And then you have this thing that nobody asked for, and it’s such a subjective thing, an endless feedback loop between writer and reader. Everyone filters our words through their own world lens. Which means two things:

  1. Some people will LOVE it.
  2. Some people with HATE it.

It also means there is truly a market for anything that is well written. (And probably some things that aren’t so well written. You all know what I’m talking about.) There is a remarkable amount of hope in that. So, future readers, I’m thinking about you. XOXO.

Jennie also talked about marketing and how the brunt of it falls on writers (as if we don’t have enough to do with all the writing and brooding and drinking!). This got me thinking about the book Be the Gateway I picked up from Dan Blank a while back. Those of you who know me well know how much I despise marketing. I bought Dan’s book because Jennie raves about it. Then I let it sit beside my bathtub because that’s where I was going to read it. I suddenly discovered a deep love of showers, Dan, I swear. But Jennie said to make yourself do it. To learn, to grow. It’s part of the process. So, I opened Dan’s book and I read.

I’m only 70 pages in and already I feel my insights shifting into something different, something more productive. What if marketing doesn’t have to suck? What if it can be fun? What if I told you this blog post is a result of Dan’s suggested marketing? Go get yourself a copy of Dan’s book Be the Gateway. It’s inspiring. I’m sure you’ll see more and more of his suggestions popping up on my blog, which will be getting an overhaul in anticipation of Pitch Wars, which begins August 2nd.

Look for more frequent updates and peeks inside what I’m working on. I don’t want to be a ghost who only shows up when I’ve got news, after all!

What I’m reading now:

The Secret Garden (audiobook) by Frances Hodgson Burnett – A MUST classic. I remember reading this in school or possibly only watching the movie. Been listening to the audiobook in the car with my son, Patryk. Hands down for sure the book is better than the movie. I also think it’s a good example of tying up loose ends by the end.

Be the Gateway by Dan Blank – See above. Loving this book. Will post more about it as I progress.

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate – I have one chapter left. Redgate is a fantastic, witty author who takes on major things, such as bisexuality, cross-dressing?, and acapella. Not necessarily in that order. Redgate recently announced this book was optioned for television. It’s a bit like Glee meets Pitch Perfect, except with more coming of age bits.

Now I Rise by Kiersten White – And I Darken, the first book in this series is one of the BEST BOOKS I’ve ever read. Lada is a fierce, mean (often justified) girl, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE reading about her. Kick ass girls are the best thing ever.

Cruel Prince by Holly Black – I love Holly Black. Guys, I have a big old crush on her. Cruel Prince was dark and fierce and I read on her Facebook today that just she finished the sequel. I need it in my hands!! Unfortunately, Cruel Prince doesn’t release until 2018!! Soo long for you to wait. Preorder!

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera – Silvera is possibly the nicest most down to earth person you will ever meet. He’s sincere and sweet and I just love him. Aside from that, he’s an AMAZING writer. Just try not to cry reading his work. Try. I dare you. They Both Die at the End is available in September – be sure to preorder!!

 

 

STRENGTH IN UNLIKELY PLACES

I think as children we look at the world with an innocent wonder. The people surrounding us are meant to be trusted, not suspected. As we grow into adulthood, that wonder and trust is challenged by experience. We get hurt. We have our emotions taunted, our decisions questioned, and we learn that the world is not a safe place. It’s not even a welcoming place.

When I wrote Reflection Pond, Callie’s childhood shaped her character into someone I consider unwaveringly strong. She’s not flawless, but a road map of scars from every experience that nearly broke her. Nearly being the imperative word. She’s a survivor, she’s cautious, and though she’s suffered terrible abuse, she still holds that childlike wonder that the world, in general, isn’t a despicable place.

Throughout the series, Callie’s fragile trust is challenged. She learns that family is not synonymous with love and sometimes friendship come from the most unlikely of places. Most importantly, she realizes that trusting others is nowhere near as important as trusting yourself. I won’t give away the ending of Torch Rock (which releases April 26th! Preorder here.), but I will say that Callie in the final installment is miles away from the scared girl who fell through the Reflection Pond.

Callie’s character is based in part on my own experiences. I’ve seen betrayal firsthand. I’ve breathed it and lived it. It took time and no small amount of tears, but I found a way to drag myself off my bathroom floor and overcome devastation. There isn’t a recipe for climbing out of an emotional hole like that, you only have to have the determination to know that this isn’t the end. After all, if you’re reading this you’ve already survived every bad day you’ve had. Look at you! 100% success rate.

A lot of people have said they can’t relate to Callie or connect with her. Perhaps this has something to do with her horrific past. Violence and abuse leave marks on you. Though hidden, these marks admit you to a private survivors club.  Maybe relating to her comes with a price. Maybe I’d rather you couldn’t relate.

I’m proud of Callie. I know that readers love a strong female character, someone who takes no shit and kicks ass. But Callie isn’t that character. Sure, she can fight. Sure, she has cool faerie powers. But Callie’s real strength comes from her unwavering belief that she will find her place in this world, no matter how many times she has to pull herself to her feet.

I think, at the end of the day, regardless of our differing pasts, that’s all any of us hope for.

WHAT I LEARNED AT THE MICHIGAN WRITING WORKSHOP

Yesterday I attended an amazing conference hosted by Writer’s Digest featuring Chuck Sambuchino as the speaker. If you’re not familiar with Chuck’s work, YOU SHOULD BE. I’ve been using Writer’s Digest, and Chuck’s blog specifically for YEARS. You’ll find all kinds of good stuff over there about writing queries, querying agents, and even which agents are brand new and building their lists. I’ll wait while you explore.

While a lot of the conference discussed things I already knew, I did take some notes to bring back for you guys. Not only was Chuck Sambuchino awesome, I participated in “Writer’s Got Talent,” where a panel of agents read the first page of manuscripts and critiqued them. But we’ll get to that later.

Let’s talk about queries first. Everyone who’s ever queried knows how much writing a query SUCKS. As in, sucks the life out of your soul. It’s hard work choosing the right words. Agonizing, even. So while I won’t reiterate everything Chuck said (he has books for that kind of thing), I will hit on a few important points that I wrote down regarding query writing.

  1. Intro – Get in and get out quickly.
    1. Use the first sentence to give the technical details of your work. Genre, word count, title. Giving the genre first tells the agent how to feel about the query. (Don’t use a hook. Usually a hook is confusing and not explained until later anyway. Using an intro is the safest, most harmless method.)
    2. The second sentence is the reason you are contacting the agent. (Saw them at a conference, you read that they like super-secret spy thrillers on their blog, etc.) Side note—don’t say you’re contacting them because they rep BIGGEST BEST SELLING BOOK. Chuck suggests that you look farther down in their list and choose a book that wasn’t a best seller, but that the agent likely loves anyway. This will make you stand out because everyone else is using the best seller.
  2. Pitch –
    1. 3-10 sentences (Think back cover of a book.)
    2. DO NOT reveal the ending.
    3. Use specifics. Do not use language that has more than one meaning. (Don’t be vague or use cliché “suspense” tropes.)
    4. Read the back of debuts at the bookstore and see what language draws you in. Apply this to your query.
    5. Use evocative language that will “paint a picture” and help the agent know the tone of your work.
    6. Beware of subplots, extra characters, and proper names. Try to limit the number of names you use in the query, especially if they’re hard to understand (unusual, foreign, made up for sci-fi). Mention ONLY the main characters.
    7. Don’t say “My novel is…(funny, heartfelt, terrifying).” Show it within the query by using the right words to evoke a response.
    8. Some random things I wrote down –
      1. What does the character desire?
      2. What things go wrong?
      3. Layers of conflict.
      4. What happens if the character fails?
  3. Bio –
    1. Mention any serious and well-known writing groups. (SCBWI, for example.)
    2. Notable and relevant awards you’ve received. (Nothing from high school, please.)
    3. Any job where you’ve been paid to write, even if it was a long time ago. You don’t have to say it happened twenty years ago, just that you were a columnist at such and such a place.

Some DON’TS

  1. Don’t say it’s your first novel.
  2. Only pitch ONE THING at a time.
  3. Don’t mention how long it took you to write. Four weeks sounds bad. So does 10 years.
  4. Don’t use rhetorical questions. They sound silly and so do you.

The agent panel was immensely interesting and informative. Chuck read the first pages aloud and had the agents raise their hands when they would’ve stopped reading if this first page were a submission. Holy massacre! Sometimes we made it a few sentences, sometimes a few paragraphs. Very few authors had their first page read all the way to the end. This showed me that even though many of us think we’re ready to query, we’re nowhere near that final perfect submission. It also proved that agents read subjectively. Where one agent would raise their hand, another wouldn’t. Where one agent would love a particular turn of phrase, another found it cliché. (Want to know how my first page did? Ask in a comment and I’ll fess up!)

The biggest DON’TS the agents mentioned regarding the opening scene of a novel –

  1. Don’t use a phone call.
  2. Don’t have the main character waking up in the morning.
  3. Don’t use a description of the weather.
  4. Don’t use a dream.
  5. Don’t use a prologue. Some agents say ABSOLUTELY NOT to prologues. Better to be safe than sorry.

So what do you do? Put your character in the MIDDLE of an event or situation. Start with ACTION.

Later, Chuck told us not to fall victim to the TWO BIGGEST mistakes that get authors rejected. (And yes, I wrote them down for you.)

  1. The book starts too slow and is boring. (Start in the middle of something.)
  2. Too much info dump.
    1. Telling not showing.
    2. Description.
    3. Back story.
    4. Explaining the character motivation.

You want to give just enough that the reader isn’t confused because what you DON’T say is more interesting that what you DO. The unknown will keep the reader (or agent!) turning pages.

While I learned many more things from Chuck (he’s a FANTASTIC speaker), one last point really stuck out to me.

AS AN AUTHOR, SO MUCH IS OUTSIDE OF YOUR CONTROL.

This is true about So. Many. Things. Whether an agent will like your query or first pages. Whether they’ll pass or decide to give you a call. Whether you’ll actually sell your book even if you get an agent. Edits. The cover. The first run. Even if you self-publish, you don’t know if readers will like your story.

The most important thing you can do is WRITE THE BEST THING YOU CAN. (And be patient.)

All the best,

Kacey

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