GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTER – WITH A SECRET

We’ve been discussing how to find teen voices this month over at my YA authors blog, YA Outside the Lines. As we discussed the various techniques we all used to tap back into our younger selves (and younger voices), it became apparent to me that a character’s voice can be elusive, regardless of genre or age category. It can be elusive even if you’ve written several books before.

For the most part, when the voice is hard to find, I believe it’s because you don’t quite know who your character is yet.

And often, the best way to find out who they are is to get them to tell you a secret.

What is your character hiding? It could be anything–something they’ve done in the past, something they’re afraid might happen. They might have a secret plan or agenda. Do they have a relationship they’re trying to keep secret? That relationship might be romantic, but it might also be a familial one.  For example, in my first YA, A BLUE SO DARK, Aura is trying desperately to keep her mother’s deterioration (she’s schizophrenic) from the outside world.

The secret doesn’t have to be dark. Do they have a secret dream? A wish? A crush?

Do they have a secret passion? Or hobby? Do they have a secret friend?

The reason secrets work is that they’re the most private, personal parts of ourselves. When a character shares a secret, you know them in a new way. You’re instantly closer. And often, understanding them better means you’re well on your way to finding their voice.

TRIM SIZE FOR LINE EDITS & COPYEDITING

What a difference a page makes!

I’m actually being completely honest.

If you’ve never worked with a traditional publisher, the editorial process is something like this: you get an editorial letter from your editor telling you what’s great about your book and what needs improvement. You hit your manuscript and shoot it back to your editor. The initial global edits can be pretty extensive (I once deleted half of the book during this stage) or minor (I once changed two scenes). Depending on how many changes you make to the initial edits, you and your editor bounce your manuscript back and forth as a Word document a few times. As the changes get increasingly smaller, your editor will probably stops sending long formal letters and start adding small, trackable comments in the margins of your Word doc.

Then, when you’ve nailed the manuscript, it gets put through InDesign. Afterward, you get sent first (and sometimes second) pass pages for final copyedits. At this point, the book’s formatted. It looks like it’s going to when it’s bound and shelved in libraries and bookstores…

And it will feel completely different. I guarantee it.

I know with my own manuscripts, during the writing and (global) editorial process, I’d always been looking at a computer screen or computer paper…and no book is that size. Not one. They’re all smaller. Sometimes, a lot smaller (most of my traditionally pubbed books are 5X8). So after going through InDesign, my books’ paragraphs got longer. A lot longer. Pages featured fewer paragraphs. Chapters sometimes felt reeeeaaaally long.

In short, there was a different rhythm.

Now, after I feel I’m through with the big changes, I plug my own manuscripts into InDesign, using a common trim size for the genre. This gives me a better sense of what the final flow will feel like. I can identify and cut down long sentences and wordy phrases. I can further whittle down paragraphs and chapters. I can really see where the fat is that needs to be trimmed.

Reformatting a manuscript in this manner is also a great way to identify typos or copyedit, too. You go over your own manuscript so many times, you practically  memorize it. Reformatting makes it look different so the mistakes are easier to recognize.

Of course, you don’t have to use InDesign. You might compile into an .epub or .mobi to read on your e-reader, or you could simply adjust the margins in Word. But a smaller, more realistic trim size can do a world of good when you hit the final stages of revision.

WHY YOU SHOULD RETYPE YOUR REVISION (YES, THE WHOLE THING)

We’ve all got manuscripts we’ve had forever. Perhaps they haven’t sold, or we just don’t feel they’ve ever really found their way. We’ve written and rewritten them again.

At this point, one of the best things you can do for your manuscript is retype it.

I’ve offered this suggestion before to fellow writers. As soon as I do, they gasp with utter, complete, total horror.

But I’m serious. I’ve done it before, many times. Print your current manuscript, put it on the desk or table next to you, and start retyping.

WHY, you ask, WOULD I DO SUCH A TIME-WASTING, RIDICULOUS THING?????

Because by trying to save time with a quickie cutting and pasting job, we can wind up spending (or wasting, depending on your point of view) far more time (multiple rewrites + multiple submissions + multiple wait times). We can often get to the best manuscript in a shorter period of time by just giving a manuscript a fresh re-type.

Here’s what I mean:

TYPING MAKES YOU RETHINK EVERY SINGLE WORD

The speed of reading is fast. Without realizing it, our eyes zip through sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters when we re-examine our manuscripts. Often, they zip too quickly for us to fully reconsider if that’s what we want to say.

The speed of writing is slow. And even though I’m a fast typist, I’ll admit, retyping is just plain not fun. You don’t want to type anything that’s not the highest quality. We’re far more willing to delete during this process. We’re far more anxious to get to the good stuff. To cut to the chase. It leads to a far tighter story.

TYPING MAKES YOUR MANUSCRIPT FEEL MORE COHESIVE

By now, you know that “retyping” doesn’t literally mean just doing secretarial work. When you retype, you shouldn’t be mindlessly copying text. You should be rethinking every line in your book.

When we cut and paste and “spot-revise” (tackle specific scenes or chapters, leaving the rest of the manuscript in place), the voice of the book stops feeling cohesive, especially if those revisions took place over several months—maybe even years. An author is in a different mindset every single time he or she sits down to work on a manuscript. If you’re retyping—and rethinking every single word, tweaking and revising along the way—the voice of the book begins to tighten. It’s being told by a person in the same mindset from front to back.

RETYPING CREATES SPACE FOR AH-HA! MOMENTS

This goes back to the slow pace of writing. Retyping and rethinking along the way means that you’re now rethinking literally everything about your book. Two or three chapters in, you often get hit with new revelations—not just about phrasing or line edits, but about structure and plot. And because you’re already retyping, you won’t think twice about an overhaul. The chapter in the middle suddenly becomes the opening scene. It doesn’t matter—you’re already committed to retyping every single word, so you’re actually less worried about the implications of making such sweeping changes.

YES, RETYPING OFTEN LEADS TO WRITING

New scenes, new chapters. Fresh characters. New plot twists. A more satisfying ending. You can wind up writing large swaths of the book. It can, occasionally, become a completely different project. A better one. A more cohesive, tighter one. All because you simply sat down to retype.