Examples of Fix Notes
Fix Note 4
This sample fix note was created for fiction writer Karen, author of a horsey Young Adult novel
I spent an enjoyable few hours yesterday curled up with your manuscript. You’ll be pleased to hear that I found it a very entertaining story, with a likable main character and some lively writing. It will certainly engage the interest of horsey female YA readers, who like books about their passion.
Pretty well everything about your story DOES work; so let’s take all the good stuff as read, and focus right away on the things that can be done to make it better. Mostly this is just small stuff, which I’ll outline below.
(And take heart: almost none of these things are specific to you. Most could come from a textbook of “common mistakes that beginner writers make”!)
Minor Writerly Bad Habits
1) Happily, your dialogue is good – it sounds lifelike, not stilted and unnatural (the kind of speech many first-time authors produce). I can imagine real girls talking just the way your characters do.
That said, splitting up your speeches into separate lines would make a big difference to ease of reading. For instance, here's your original text:
“Here he is,” Mary announced with a flourish of her hand, “your steed for today!” Meli could only see a large, brown rump with a black tail nearly touching the ground. Old Bill’s head was deep in his manger. “C’mon Bill,” Mary said with exaggerated patience, “you can’t hide from me!”
The same passage, broken up and lightly edited:
“Here he is,” Mary announced, with a flourish of her hand. “Your steed for today!”
Meli could see only a large brown rump, with a black tail that nearly touched the ground. Old Bill’s head was deep in his manger.
“C’mon, Bill,” Mary said. “You can’t hide from me!”
You can use Word’s Find/Replace (F/R) function to do this – either on a “case by case” basis, choosing Find Next from the F/R box; or you can do a “global” replace, and then go through after fixing any split-ups you didn’t mean to make.
2) Your paragraphs could also use some breaking up. Every sentence needs a focus, a single thought; and every paragraph too. When stuff gets all smushed together, your readers have a harder time picking out what’s going on. (That doesn’t mean you can’t have long paragraphs, just that they need a unifying theme.)
3) Your punctuation could definitely use some work. One issue I noticed is your ... ellipses. A proper ellipsis is a space, three dots, and another space.
Also, you tend to insert commas where none are needed – such as between two adjectives modifying the same noun: “a large, brown rump” or “this calm, old horse.” And then you often leave out the commas – either when a sentence could use some breaking up, or anytime you mention a person’s name in direct speech. “Riding makes me nervous Meli” should properly be “Riding makes me nervous, Meli.”
Another issue is that you often end a para with a colon, like this:
… another voice answered:
“I’ll ride backup Mary.”
If you use a colon, you should put the sentence on the same line:
… another voice answered: “I’ll ride backup, Mary.”
4) Your word use. Mostly your language is just fine: it’s appropriate to the style of book, and to the age of your readers. And every now and again, you treat us to some really poetic visual images and nicely turned lines.
But occasionally you also use some needlessly long or complex word that doesn’t suit your style. I’ve flagged a few of these in the manuscript with “LWA” (= Long Word Alert):
kids buy things, they don't purchase them
people show sympathy, they don't exhibit it
people are told things, not instructed or informed
Meli saw, not perceived; etc. etc.
5) People do things, not their body parts. Don’t have eyes scanning, feet dancing, bodies flinging, etc.!
6) Many beginner writers go into way too much detail, just to prove they can visualize a scene. Happily, you avoid that temptation – so much, in fact, that I was sometimes tempted to think your style is TOO sparse. There are times when I wished you would give us more background, fill in more specifics, complete the scene, don’t skimp on the story. I’ve flagged a few of these places, where (if you choose) you can decide to plug any gaps.
7) In particular, I’d like to see more descriptions of people. They needn’t be lengthy ones, just enough to give us a quick visual idea of how your characters look. Mary, for instance, is an important person in the story; yet the only description you give us of her is “an older girl” when you first introduce her in the van. I have no idea if she’s tall or short, dark or fair, thin or fat, pretty or plain. Ditto with Henry, Chuck, Cynthia, Meli’s family, even Pete. The old gypsy in the tent gets a more complete description than the main people! The only person I can really visualize is Gussy, because you describe her so vividly.
8) As I mentioned before, sometimes you switch the reader’s point of view without warning. Your POV suddenly veers from Meli – through whose eyes the whole story takes place – to somebody else. (For instance, in the sample edit I did, we suddenly see Henry’s thoughts.) If you’re in omniscient-narrator mode, you can do this as much as you please; but when you stick to one POV for 97% of your book, those changes are a little jarring for your readers. I’m not convinced the extra info they give adds greatly to the story.
This isn't really a serious matter; but since there are only about half-a-dozen of these places, it also wouldn’t be a difficult matter to change them to Meli’s POV. Alternatively, you could go the other way: insert a few more of these changes, so your readers will get used to the occasional switch.
9) I like the way you sometimes break up your text with line spaces/pauses in the action, like this:
* * *
That's a useful technique, one that not all writers know about. Feel free to use it more often, if you like, since your story does jump around quite a bit.
I’m less keen, though, on the habit you sometimes have (particularly at chapter ends) of suddenly deserting the present story, and cutting away to the distant future. A prime example is at the end of Chapter 19, when I was all agog to learn about how Meli’s dance with Pete would go. And yet, instead of you telling us this interesting info, we get:
Many years later, Meli discovered the forgotten rodeo pictures in an old shoebox…
That’s kind of cheating your eager readers. Clue us in!
10) This too is something I mentioned in the sample edit: wherever possible, put your descriptions of people talking into direct speech. Instead of:
Gus adamantly reassured him that she could work and talk.
“Hey, I can work and talk!” Gus assured him.
Similarly, in Chapter 2, instead of:
The other kids were shouting out names, and commenting on their favourites.
You might write something like:
"Hey, there’s Comet! Hey, Comet, are you waiting for me!” cried [Name].
“Snowball, it’s been weeks since I saw you last!” whooped the pretty redhead.
“Wow, I can’t believe that old mare Rosie is still alive!” said [Name].
Or something along those lines – you can fill in the details better than I can.
1) I’ll start right at the beginning, with the most common words a writer usually hears from an editor: “Your opening needs some work.” Don’t be too put off by this – getting your readers into the story is always the hardest thing authors have to do!
In the first few lines you have to introduce us to your main character: her age, her character, her hopes and dreams, her family, her station in life, etc. From being somebody we’ve never met before, Meli has to suddenly turn into somebody we care about, and want to keep company with for the next 200-odd pages. That’s a tall order for any writer.
(You can get some tips from a pro on how to do this by Googling. For instance, I like this article: http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/10-ways-to-start-your-story-better.)
One problem with your present opening: it gives us a ton of back-story, but not much action. It tells us about what Meli thinks, without telling us who she is. It tells us about her dreams, but not what sort of person she is. At the beginning of the fourth para, for instance, we learn that Meli is now 11 – which is info we could use from the very first.
One way around this is to jump right in with a descriptive opening line such as: “Meli was ten years old, and crazy for horses.” (Another note: Meli seems a little old for an 11-year-old in the story – more like 13 or 14, esp. when she develops feelings for hunky Pete?)
It would be good if your revised opening could also accomplish these tasks:
Give us a scene, showing us vividly and directly how much Meli loves horses. How long has this being going on? Since she was five or six? What started it?
Introduce us to her family. Who’s her dad, what does he do? Is he a kind and indulgent dad (as your story seems to indicate)? If so, why does Meli’s horse passion go unanswered for so many years? You show the family as being comfortably off, so presumably money isn’t an issue?
Give us at least a few words on the topic of Meli’s relationship with her mother. You first address the subject in Chapter 13; that seems a long time to wait for such an important matter.
Give us a reasonable explanation for her lack of experience with actual horses. Do none of her friends take riding lessons either? Does none have a cousin who owns a horse? Are there no stables near or outside Ottawa, where she can at least go and watch the horses?
Delay the Ex information by at least a few paragraphs, instead of it making centre stage (para 2) the way it does. Yes, it’s important – but more important is us getting to know your heroine.
Include some dialogue in Meli’s own voice. Right now, the first words we hear spoken are by her bro and sis (minor characters). But we don’t actually hear Meli speak until page 10, and then it’s nothing especially revelatory:
“What tricks do the other horses play?” asked Meli.
Ten pages is waaay too long for a writer to withhold her main character’s voice. You need to work on that, and let us hear our heroine – and the other characters – a lot earlier than we do.
2) As well, since the topic of friendship is so important to the story, it’s something you should address up front too. I made a note in your MS when Meli and Gus first became such buds: “Did Meli have no friends before Gus came along?” Then in Chapter 21, you finally answer that question: “Meli had never had a best friend before Gussy.” Yet in the very first para, you talk of her and her friends pretending to be horses – indicating that she has at least a small circle of kindred spirits. Clarify that.
3) Your story action really begins in Chapter 2, when Meli first goes to the ranch. But this chapter felt very frustrating to me: it sets up a lot of what I know will be important scenes and people, yet you seem to skip over a lot of the actual details! It’s as if you’re rushing over the setup, intent on getting to the story beyond – even though for many readers, this part will be very satisfying in itself. Think of this chapter as foreplay: not to be hurried or skimped on!
This leads me to another thought: assuming your readers will be horsey girls themselves, they may fall into two sorts: actual riders, or wistful wannabes (like Meli herself up till now). The former will enjoy reading about a newbie being initiated into the world they know, and the latter will enjoy reading about stuff they may not know yet.
That means going into some detail, and clarifying for your readers, right from the first, all the background horsey information that non-riders might not know. You don’t have to go overboard with this, but a few telling details would help. For instance, on p. 7, Mary gets down a Western saddle for Old Bill, and I found myself wondering: did Meli know the difference between it and an English saddle?
As the story develops, can you share some tidbits of horsey info with your readers? You might include some lines like: “Mary patiently showed Meli how to put Bill’s bridle on, taking special care to show her the best way to (etc.).” Or “Henry taught Meli how clean Pride’s hoofs, using the knife to (etc.).”
4) Backing up from the ranch: even the scene in the van felt a bit skimpy to me. This is Meli’s first introduction to the people who will be a bit part of her life from that moment on, and yet we learn almost nothing about them. Again, we could use more detail. For instance, you write:
The drive passed quickly for Meli, absorbed as she was in the advice being given to her from every direction.
What kind of advice? Who was offering it? This is the kind of scene where you should follow the most basic piece of writerly advice: “Show, don’t tell.” You could give us a quick snapshot of the riders – including even the detestable Cynthia (though perhaps without yet revealing how nasty she is).
As well, something else I wanted to know was the whole set-up of the ranch. When I read Chapter 14 by itself, I just assumed that Mary was Henry’s wife: “Mary had insisted that it was his horse, and therefore his responsibility. Sometimes he wondered who really ran this ranch.” (I liked that, by the way, which is maybe an argument against deleting the non-Meli-POV lines!).
But we get no sense of Henry as a person, and only learn very late in the story that his wife had died. What’s Mary’s connection there? Is she an employee? Does she have a life, at all, other than being like a horse-mother to Meli? Does she have parents, a sister, a boyfriend, another job? Any of this information would help to round out an important character.
5) You’ve chosen to set your story in 1968 – is there any special reason for that? (Except that it allows you to get in that good line, in Chapter 20, about “a king who had been assassinated in the United States.”) But half a century back seems a bit unnecessarily dated. Can the story not be shifted to today? The only difference would be a lack of cell phones and computers; after all, the horsey world doesn’t change much, surely?
I’ve flagged the few places in your story where the date might make a difference – when you’re talking about things like phones and car seat belts, for instance.
6) Finally, I have this observation to make: you could very usefully end the story after the rodeo, at the end of Chapter 19. You’d already be around 35,000 words at that point; more if you take my advice about fleshing out some skimpy scenes. That’s a good enough length for a YA novel.
And then you could move the remaining chapters (15,000-odd words) to your next book. You could end this one with a “teaser” – a sample chapter from the next book, to whet your readers’ appetites for it. It could be called ... I dunno: The Ranch Kids: Meli and Pride?
A Few Final Points
Your title. As far as it goes, The Ranch Kids is fine. But if you think you might actually write more of these books, creating a whole Ranch Kids series, you might want to give this first book an extra title – something like The Ranch Kids: Meli’s First Adventure (or whatever).
Your glossary. I had the idea that you might write a short addendum for the back of the book, explaining (for the non-horse-cognoscenti) some of the technical terms you use.
Your illustrations. I really like the idea you suggested, of some horsey drawings; and I can definitely put out some feelers in my professional association to find you an illustrator.
Your editing. Despite the many notes I’ve made here, for coaching and for things you can fix yourself, the story would definitely benefit from a proper editing pass – to take care of all the fiddly little details that will be left.
That's it for now. I do hope you persevere with this book, which really is very promising. I liked the book a lot, much more than most manuscripts I read. Working together, we can get it out into the world — and into the hands of all those horsey teen and pre-teen girls!