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As the weather has turned more summer-like over the past week I’ve been drawn to work outside and, since I don’t yet have a garden to speak of,  the lawn has dominated my attention. Fortunately for me, I guess, it needs a lot of work. It is overgrown with crabgrass, clovers (which I don’t mind as much), various kinds of moss, and of course dandelions. And not the normal dandelions. We’re talking ginormous dandelions, like the ones that were exposed to “ooze” in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. And as I stooped over to pull one of these freakishly large weeds out with the help of a very cool stabby tool, I was struck with a thought. “To make this a really nice lawn,” thought I, “all I have to do is get rid of everything that is not the lawn.”

And then I had an even bigger aha moment… That’s just like writing! To craft a really great story, you must get rid of everything that is not your story. Usually that means cutting unnecessary words or sentences. Sometimes it means striking chapters. As I worked, I was struck with more lawn maintenance/writing analogies. Morbidly curious? Read on!

1. Flowery words, like dandelions, are best removed before they take over.

2. A lawn looks best when it’s mowed, but not when it’s too short. The same goes for wordiness. If you can say it in fewer words, do. But don’t strip your prose down so far that all you can see is dirt.

3. Fixing the punctuation in your manuscript before taking care of major plot issues is like weeding a patch of lawn that you’re going to tear out the next day to build a planter.

4. Even if your house is really really great, it’s hard to see it past a lawn like this:

There are just some writing rules that should never be broken. Like proper punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. You can say that those things are the editor’s job to worry about, but I’m pretty sure most editors and agents aren’t looking for manuscripts that need quite that much work. A lawn that needs to be edged and mowed, maybe, but not a yard full of weeds.

5. When you’re pulling dandelions, make sure you get the roots too. If you don’t, they’ll just grow back again and again. In other words, when you receive feedback on your work, don’t just blindly make changes without finding where the problem is stemming from. If it’s good advice, break it down to its basic elements and incorporate it into your writing philosophy so it doesn’t keep popping up (some examples of this that I’ve seen are the misuse of it’s/its, there/their/they’re, etc.; the writing of characters that lack logical motivation; and being repetitive and redundant in an attempt at being descriptive).

And…..

6. If there are just too many weeds, it may be best to just kill everything and start over.

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Since I was a kid I’ve written New Year’s resolutions, and for the last, oh, ten years there has been at least one resolution regarding writing. Sometimes it pertains to setting aside more time to write, a couple times my publishing aspirations surfaced with the resolution to “get novel published!” when it should have read “make novel publishable.” This year I was much more specific.

1. Distribute Reader Copies of Novel By the Second Week of January.

As the holidays approached, I was also nearing the completion of my novel — for REAL this time. The outline had taken me a year, the first draft another year, and for the next five years the story alternated between the shelf and the editing block, moving to the back burner as my focus shifted to The Wizard Rockumentary. But after several consequent drafts and a complete rewrite of the first six chapters, I felt that the story was finally ready to set out into the world. But querying agents is a big deal and I didn’t want to mess it up. So I set deadlines for myself. I resolved to read through the novel twice more and make any necessary changes and then distribute reader copies for outside critique.

Everyone knows how difficult it is to wait… waiting to hear from my friends and family what they thought of my novel (some had read a previous version years ago, others had never read it at all) was, I think, even harder than the waiting I’m doing now: waiting to hear back from agents. But I’ll never forget how much easier my friend Kate made things for me. She sent me an email after reading each chapter to tell me what parts she liked and if there were areas that needed more attention. For about a week, I got a handful of emails a day (and the occasional phone call). It was delightful to get to share in her excitement and hear her theories of what was going to happen next, while chuckling to myself over how surprised she would be.

2. Compile List of Agents and Start Sending Out Query Letters the First Week of February.

I’ve been a longtime fan of several agents’ blogs and they are, obviously, great resources for finding out what agents are looking for in a query. At least as far as what information to include, their prefered format and submission guides, etc. But even if you were to do everything right with your query letter, it still gets down to whether they connect with your story. Scary! No one likes rejection, but luckily I’m a Gryffindor and I don’t scare that easily.

My query letter went through a few rounds of peer review and editing, and I am so glad that I didn’t skip this step. It was incredible the varied feedback I received, and since I had never met any of these folks I would be querying it seemed like I should take all strong reactions into account. When I had thought the letter was polished, I sent it to another member of my writing group for a last look-over, and she asked me out to coffee so she could gently tell me that the letter hadn’t excited her in the slightest. I was so grateful! (Thanks, Sue!) I went back and rewrote it again and was amazed by how much more I liked it too. The greatest challenge in writing the query was that, for me, each detail I included about the story represented a much bigger picture, and it was difficult to remember that all the agent would see was that one detail.

So now I get to wait and see what happens, and as a bonus I’ve actually kept my New Year’s resolutions this year, if you don’t count the resolution to get up early each morning and stretch out before work. That one only lasted about a week.

Mallory Battista’s Blog

Notes from an aspiring author, artist, and occasional gluten-free cook.

Storytelling isn’t just a thing to do, it is a way of seeing the world.

I am a storyteller. I live as though I am a hero on a quest and I strive to treat every person that crosses my path as the main character of an equally complex and exciting story. I find joy when their paths overlap with mine, and though some encounters are fleeting and others last a lifetime, I see the importance of each one to the continuation of Life's plot. I am grateful for the adversity that is set before me, as it makes me a more well-rounded character and adds challenge and excitement to my journey. And I always, ALWAYS have faith in happy endings.

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