So why am I taking it up again? Well, I figure if I'm going to seriously pitch it around, this is the time. Since it's a finalist in the Do It! Write! contest, I'm going to be able to say on my query letters that it placed [whatever] in a contest judged by an acquisitions editor from Harper-Collins, and I know that when a contest has a respected judge, that makes it worth mentioning in those letters.
So as much as I feel like I could polish and cut forever, I think the time to take that blind leap is coming quickly. If nobody takes it on, that's okay. The next book will be better. :-)
Anyway, I'm still finding places, mostly in the first third of the book, where the writing just isn't carrying its weight. Passive constructions (not passive voice per se, but telling more than showing), repeated phrases, and stuff that simply lacks polish. And I've got a good enough eye now to see what's bad, but sometimes the fixes can still be hard to find.
This is hardly new or Earth-shaking, but one thing I have to keep reminding myself is to ask myself how I know. That's my trick for making the writing vivid. Specifically, how do I know a character's mental or emotional state?
Here's an example:
“I just wanted to make sure you were all set,” she said. She seemed awkward herself for the first time all day.
What drew my attention to that sentence in the first place was that it was my third use of "for the first time" in the chapter, but the problems with this paragraph run deeper than that.
And that's actually an important point. For me, at least, repetitive phrasing is almost always an indicator of deeper problems. I use repetitive phrasing when I'm writing lazy. I'm trying to get the words on the screen, get the chapter done, whatever, and not looking for the best way to do it, which is okay, as long as I eventually revise. But clichés--even if they're just "house clichés"--are a symptom of the same underlying problem that leads to passive writing. (Again, for me, anyway.)
I struggled for a while to fix the superficial problems. One of the other two repetitions of the phrase was easy to get rid of, but one of them, I felt, needed to stay. There's no real reason not to leave this one too, but this paragraph was ringing clunky to my ear, and now is not the time to be lazy, anyway.
But I couldn't figure out how else to convey what I thought was important here--that it was noteworthy that Michelle seemed nervous, because she was the only person who had not shown any sign of nerves in what had been a very unusual day. How else could I distinguish this time from all the times she had not seemed nervous? Everything I came up with sounded even more clunky--in particular, everything I was coming up with was even more passive. Lots of "to be" verbs that indicate that you're seeing description or exposition and not action.
Then I asked myself an obvious question: How does Chris, the POV character, know Michelle is nervous?
When I thought of it like that, here is what I came up with:
The door opened partway and Michelle poked her head inside. “I wanted to make sure you were all set,” she said. She paused abruptly, as if she had been planning on saying something else and then changed her mind.
This may not be perfect. I'm telling you her pause was abrupt; is there a way I could show that instead? Maybe if I just say "she paused," and lose the "abruptly." It's still a work in progress. But for the most part, now I'm showing you nervous instead of telling you. Who knows? Maybe I could come up with a nice simile for her stopping-and-starting.
But the point is the question that broke the logjam was how do the characters know the thing I'm trying to convey? If I can't think of a way they would know, then I shouldn't even have it there, because I'm breaking POV by telling you things the POV character couldn't figure out.
This may be unbelievably obvious advice for anybody reading this. Hell, it's obvious for me, since this isn't a new advice. But what I'm working on is internalizing all the little techniques I've picked up--remembering things like that when it really counts.
Also, did you notice what else happened there? The point I was so anxious to make--the contrast between Michelle's earlier confidence and her awkwardness now, didn't actually make it to this revised version at all. And that's okay. If I've characterized well, readers will pick up on the fact that she's usually able to project confidence, but that this interaction is testing even her abilities. It won't seem out of character--readers will be able to distinguish between this quiet moment and her earlier displays of confidence. Or maybe not, but that's a chance I need to take. This is a recurring problem of mine, and a reason I tend to (tended to, really, since I've gotten a lot better with my more recent writing): Closed Captioning for the Dumb. (Heh . . . I like that so much I think I'll make it a tag. I bet I have cause to use it again.) I'm always so worried that readers will fail to pick up some subtlety or nuance that I intend that I hammer it home, over and over again. I need to have more faith in my readers, first of all. Second of all, if some readers don't see exactly what's in my mind, that's okay. Hopefully the story is entertaining and meaningful without having a direct dump of what's going on in my brain. And the things that sail over your head when you first read a story are the ones that make the story reward re-reading anyway.