QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cobwebs Got Your Story?

Image courtesy of relliott3
In honor of October, I think a horror story is in order--at least for fellow perfectionists!

I slump back in my chair, caressing the last two words I just wrote with my eyes.

The End.

I can't believe it. After 60,000+ words and many brushes with death and disaster, most of my characters survived to see those two glorious—magical—words. It was the moment they've been waiting for ever since I first began tortur—exploring their story. 

The end.

I bask in its light, feeling slightly giddy and exhausted. This is it. I've done it! I've finished the freaking novel that's been hounding me to give it a voice ever since I came across it leaning against a back alley wall with a nonchalant, devil may care look on its face.

I hit "Save" one last time, gleeful and happy. And then I tuck the story away for about a month and focus on Other Things. (And by Other Things, I mean things like other stories. Laundry and dishes are on the to-do list. Somewhere. Probably.) Every so often I dream of the day when I'll pluck it up and drop it off of its electronic branch into the realm of my out box where it will brush against the sky as it soars toward the sun. Because, I mean, what's not to love? My characters and I gaze at each other fondly and share a quiet smile.

And then the month passes by and it's time for me to open the document again. I pull up the story, the sweet memories of yesterday fresh on my mind. And then I pause.


The light isn't nearly as bright as I remember it, and everything seems smaller somehow. Unsettled, I peer around the corners into the nooks and crannies of the story only to find sheets of lacy cobwebs and the mummified remains of plot bunnies that didn't quiet make it out to the green pasture before I tucked the story away. Dust coats nearly everything, giving my story a surreal, fuzzy feeling. I search in vain for the story I remember, but find only this.

Cobwebs and dust:

  • oft repeated phrases
  • flat description, stilted dialogue
  • inconsistencies
  • places where it's clear the characters are as clueless as their author
  • crutch words: felt, there were/was, it, smiled, nodded, blinked, that, bit, etc.
  • illogical parts
  • awkward phrases that need tightening
  • wordiness that must die
  • verbs that are okay, but could be stronger
  • verbs that are so full of pip and vinegar they burn a hole through the page
  • grammatical accidents
  • places that lose both me and the reader
  • characters not acting like themselves

And then I see a gleam. A very small, very weak, bit of light. I crawl forward, hoping that whatever made the webs has either cleared out or is lying among the plot bunny remains. I rub my thumb across the surface, revealing something golden and gleaming beneath. Aha! There is something here. I knew it. But then I look around in despair. How on earth am I going to clear everything away until the story gleams like a newly made star?

  • Go through the manuscript two to three times. The first sweep is to gauge the effort that's going to be required to fix the story up. Make notes and doodle faces at myself. Then go through a second and third time to employ those changes. The story transforms before my eyes. And while it maybe wasn't as good as I thought at first, this is where I learn that the story isn't nearly as bad as I feared.
  • Employ the first round of betas. I cannot stress how important it is to have a trusted group--large or small--that can go through and point out all the cobwebs and corners I missed. Something that's really helped me, both with the query and the story, is to send the query first and see what they think before I send out the manuscript. Not only does this help me see whether I've got the right focus or a gaping hole in a mildewed wall for the query, but it also forces me to determine whether I've paid attention to the right things for the right amount of time in the story itself. While they're letting in the light, so to speak, this is where I start tightening my query. 
  • Go through the manuscript again. Evaluate the suggestions and ideas. Don't shirk from the ones that mean the most work simply because more effort is required, but don't incorporate them unless they serve to strengthen the story overall. This is when I remind myself that what doesn't kill me can be put in my next novel and used to torture my characters.
  • Listen to my story. There's nothing like hearing the story out loud. This can be done a number of ways. I could read it out loud, employ one of my minions to read it to me, or have my laptop read it out loud. Check the query again. Is it breathing yet or still lying there on the table all bent limbs and smelling worse than the dump at the height of summer?
  • Send it off to another group of betas. For some reason, whenever I send out a manuscript, my confidence heads for parts unknown. This is generally a good time to focus on the Other Things as well as returning the beta favor.
  • Read through the critiques. Part of me is smacking my forehead that there are still cobwebs I missed, but the other part is feeling elated that the cobwebs are now more like a few forgotten doilies than a force to be reckoned with that clogs the story. Check the quer--is it me or did the query just twitch?
  • Go through and make the changes that scrub and polish the story to a high gloss. This is generally where I print the story out and go through chapter by chapter, hunting for even the suggestion of dust. And then I peer out and realize I'm standing at the edge of a cliff my arms full of imaginary people stuffed full of paper hearts. Do I open my arm and give them a chance to fly or pull them back and give them a few more lessons on aerodynamics first? This stage is always the tricky one for me, but ultimately it comes down to listening to my gut and those I trust most--not because they tell me what I want to hear, but because they tell me what I NEED to hear.*

And that's it. What once began as a hodgepodge of various bits and pieces of my internal universe now blazes out of the sky at me. The cobwebs and dust incinerated in the soft glow of the sunset.

What kinds of cobwebs do you find lurking between the pages of your story?

*What happens after: I go with my gut and open my arms wide. I watch as my characters, my story swirl on the wind. Some of them, I know, will smash into rocks, be eaten my bugs, and used by birds to line their nests. But some, I am equally sure, will find the right air current and find themselves lifting and gliding rather than gritting their teeth for the crash landing. Because, after all, stories were meant to fly.

Danyelle collects dragons, talking frogs, and fairy godmothers in her spare time. She is currently getting ready to query SLIPPERS OF PEARL, a YA fantasy. She also enjoys making new friends, and can be found at http://myth-takes.blogspot.com.


GalaktioNova said...

This is absolutely great, thank you so much! I've saved this page and will refer to your list as I edit.

She Wrote said...

This is so "on target." It is easy, with our anxiousness, to believe the first "the end" makes the story done, ready for submission somewhere. Having a writers' group has been the best thing ever for me. Not only have I improved my writing, I've learned to put the "finished" story away to age a bit and then return for a follow-up review. With objectivity there are always cobwebs needing to be swept away.

Thanks for a great column.

Deb Salisbury said...

Wonderful post and great advice! I'm heading back to my war with cobwebs and dust.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Yep, I noticed all these in my ms . . . until I brushed them away (I hope) with my broom.

Great post, Danyelle! I'll visit it again once I've finished the new first draft of my new project (after I give it some space). :D

Shannon O'Donnell said...

So true! All of it. *sigh* Time to get back to my dusting. :-)

Cynthia Watson said...

Danyelle: Thanks for sharing this excellent advice - I love your methodology, and so engagingly written! I can't wait to read, "Slippers of Pearl."

Renae said...

Great advice! I'm in the middle of my very own cobweb war right now. Thanks for sharing!

lbdiamond said...

Nice post! LOVE these tips! :D

Suzette Saxton said...

LOVED this post!!

Krispy said...

This is such a Danyelle post! Great tips wrapped inside lovely writing. I didn't know it was you until I got to the end, but I kept thinking the writing style was familiar. :)

Vivian Zabel said...

Helpful and interesting both. You give tips everyone needs posted by her computer in a manner which makes her want to read them.

Victoria Dixon said...

Must find Betas. Must find Betas. I missed the chat on this topic last night, so I'm glad you had this link posted! Thanks. :)