Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.
My first agent used to circle entire sentences in my manuscripts and write "BE SPECIFIC!" in the margin. I remember one time it was a sentence where my character came home from school and found her mom baking cookies. My agent wrote "BE SPECIFIC! What kind of cookies?"
Not only did I need to be more specific about my cookie choice, but "baking cookies" is a broad term that applies to many steps. What specifically did she find her mom doing? Was she scooping the cookie dough onto the baking sheet? Pulling the freshly baked cookies from the oven?
This has now become one of the highest priorities of my edits, to deal with my specifics. Sometimes this takes the form of reconsidering the specifics that I've chosen, and other times I'm making vague details not-vague. Here’s what I mean:
In brainstorming, I let myself get away with being vague. You see the language all the time on back cover copy, and you probably use it yourself when you write a synopsis or explain your book to a friend. I'm talking about phrases like, “And then after a series of weird events, my character decides the house is haunted.”
Then I get into my first draft, and I have that head-scratching moment of, “So…what weird events?”
Sometimes the choices I make in my first drafts are good ones. Other times when I read them in edits, I have that gut feeling of, “No, that’s not quite 'it' yet.” Maybe it seems too obvious, too cliche, or my character never would have made that choice.
Whatever the reason is that the choice doesn't feel right, I always take the time to explore other options. Edits are the time to poke and prod at all those decisions you made back before you had experienced the story as a whole.
Making details more clear:
Like the story I shared in the beginning, in my first drafts I'm often unintentionally vague with my story details. A first draft sentence might read like this:
I take off my shoes and leave them by the door.
This is a fine sentence, but it's not yet living up to its potential.
For starters, there are many ways to take off your shoes. You can slip out of them, untie them, yank them off your feet. You might unzip them, if they're boots, or pry them off if they're too small.
And what kinds of shoes is the character wearing? Sneakers? Flip-flops? Loafers? Snow boots? This sentence offers an opportunity to describe the character's wardrobe without stopping the flow of the story.
Lastly, let's look at where the character leaves the shoes. This is a moment to show a bit of characterization. Dropping the shoes by the door suggests one type of character, while tucking shoelaces into the shoes and putting them in the closet suggests another, right?
Dealing with my "it" problem:
This tiny word causes big problems for me.
We're so used to it, that we often don't think about considering replacements. Just think of the cliché story opening, "It was a dark and stormy night." Why is "it" there? What is "it" doing to improve that sentence?
Let's consider how much more specific we could be:
Monday was a dark and stormy night.
The evening he walked back into my life was a dark and stormy night.
The evening I died was a dark and stormy night.
The passive sentence structure grates on me, but do you see how there are so many more interesting and specific choices than "it"?
This isn't to suggest that you should obliterate every "it" from your manuscript, but run a search in your story and see if there are a few that you can replace with more interesting, specific choices.
Since we're talking about editing, why don't we try a little exercise? Pull up your work in progress (WIP), and hunt down a sentence that would be enhanced by you getting more specific.
Leave your original and changed sentences in the comments section by this Friday, and that will automatically enter you to ask Jill, Shannon, and me a question for the next Go Teen Writers Live Episode. (So be sure to check back to see who was randomly selected!)