Synchronized Swimming and Novel-Writing

Welcome to Scarlet Thread Sunday, the day I throw out a thread of something I’ve learned in the labyrinth of life. This past week, I attended an Immersion Master Class with writing coach Margie Lawson and seven other writers.

While in our immersion experience, I analogized writing to synchronized swimming–which got quite a bit of agreement from my fellow authors.

Synchronized Swimming Team
By Pierre-Yves Beaudouin (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Above the water are women with perfectly made-up faces, happy smiles, and poised bodies, while below the surface are constant movement, coordination, and control.

Reading a brilliant novel should be effortless. Readers know when it’s not–when something pops out as inconsistent, unbelievable, boring, or hackneyed. We know when the novel isn’t doing its job. But writing the novel that appears effortless takes real effort.

“It’s hard work to make a four-minute program look effortless and elegant.” – Olympic figure skater Katarina Witt

What does that effort entail? Here are some takeaways from my immersion experience.

Every word matters. Every word/phrase must push the story forward or inform the reader about the setting, character, or point of view. It’s easy to get lazy and include passages that sound lovely or describe the character, but don’t really matter in the overall scheme of the story.

In a well-written story, anything and everything can do double-duty. The weather in a setting can convey the mood of the scene or the characters. The way a person is described can illuminate the reader not only about the character described but the perception of the character doing the describing–the POV narrator. What do they notice? The dialogue and cues show what characters reveal to others as well as their subtext, creating tension for the reader.

Here’s a before-after example of lazy writing vs. revealing writing from my WIP, a young adult contemporary novel titled Sharing Hunter:

BEFORE: “No time to lose,” Chloe said. “Did you see those other girls tonight? The vultures are circling.”

AFTER: “Hey, no time to lose.” Chloe blew a smoke ring that hovered in the air before it broke apart and disappeared. “Carpe diem, and all that.”

In the first example, the message is there. Chloe is impatient and wanting to move forward. But the latter version tells you a lot more about her character. She’s a high school girl who’s not only smoking a tobacco pipe, but she’s taken the time to master blowing a smoke ring. She quotes the Latin phrase Carpe Diem, but brushes it away with the “all that.” You get a far better sense of who she is.

It takes longer to write version #2 (And who knows? There may be a version #3), but now the dialogue passage pulls its weight.

Rhetorical devices are an indispensable tool. Most of us know rhetorical devices like simile, alliteration, and allusion. But have you ever heard of epistrophe? Anadiplosis? Zeugma? These rhetorical devices are taught by Margie Lawson through her lecture packets, online courses, and in Immersion Master Class. When used well, they bring the writing to a deeper level.

Without telling you what zeugma is, here’s a before-after comparison from another scene in Sharing Hunter:

BEFORE: Couples weave through each other, holding hands and punch cups.

AFTER:  Couples wove through the crowd in tuxedos and dresses, grasping hands and punch cups and memories.

The first is descriptive; you see what’s happening. But the latter goes deeper, gives the reader a better sense of the mood of the prom with high-schoolers all swanked-up and taking mental snapshots that will last a lifetime. Didn’t you grasp a few memories from your prom? I did.

Time and persistence are key. There is a perception among non-writers–and sadly among some writers–that books can be turned out within a few short weeks or months. I heartily disagree. I can get a first draft out rather quickly, but a novel that sings takes far longer. Winston Churchill once said, “Continuous effort–not strength or intelligence–is the key to unlocking our potential.”

It takes time and persistence–continuous effort–to go through draft after draft making sure that you have created the best novel you can. And with life’s distractions and other story ideas tugging at us, it’s hard to keep that proverbial nose-to-the-grindstone attitude and push through.

Yet a well-written novel is a testament to language and beauty and the very best that humanity has to offer. Whether that novel is a literary masterpiece or a frolic-in-the-pages beach read, readers will savor that extra effort under the surface, even if they never see what’s going on in the deep end.

Community is a beautiful thing. One of the highlights was spending the week with some lovely ladies whose novels I can’t wait to read! I shared the immersion experience with Elizabeth Essex, Sylvia McDaniel, Chris Keniston, Christina Henderson, Jaye Wells, Lori Freeland, and Kathleen Baldwin. Not only were they a marvelous group of women and writers, but they helped me with several spots in my own novel.

Being able to walk in and say, “Does this passage work?” and get their feedback was awesome. In particular, they helped me turn one meh phrase into something awesome enough that three teenage girls (my target audience) later responded with, “YEAH!” It helped to have input–not simply from others, but from writers dedicated to craft.

I’ve been so blessed with the community I’ve met through Margie Lawson’s Immersion Class, through the #MyWANA community, and through the ROW80 writing challenge.

And thus, I transition to posting my final progress report on this round of ROW80.

ROW80 Update

  • Read 8 fiction books. Done. I read 11 this round.
  • Read one craft book: Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson. I finished half of this book and will read the rest in the next round.
  • Visit and comment on ROW80 blogs as a Round 2 sponsor. I missed two weeks, but otherwise I did well. If you’re on the fence about being an ROW80 sponsor, give it a shot!
  • Finish writing GOOD & GUILTY, YA mystery. Done.
  • Complete round of edits of GOOD & GUILTY SHARING HUNTER. I got about 3/4 done, but given what I’ve learned this week, I’ll be rewriting/editing again. But now I’m eager to get going and feel a renewed excitement about this story!
  • Write one short story. Done.
  • Edit two short stories–one needs a final polish, the other a full edit. Just didn’t do this one. My bad.
  • Prepare for and attend DFW Conference in May. Done.
  • Prepare for and attend Immersion Master Class with Margie Lawson in June. Done.

What have you learned about writing/editing recently? How was your ROW80  round? What compels you as a reader to keep reading?

8 thoughts on “Synchronized Swimming and Novel-Writing

  1. Thanks for sharing some of the highlights of the immersion class, Julie. Sounds really good. I agree with Catie.

  2. Isn’t Margie amazing! We just had her as our retreat speaker and she was marvelous.

    Thanks for sharing your examples. I hope your story takes flight.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  3. I’m so glad that your experience with Margie reinvigorated you! Wow! As you know, I’ve been a bit blue, and I’m leaving my evil manuscrit alone for a while. That said, I’ve seen some of those pages that Margie has marked up, and I’m inspired by this post that when the time is right, I might need to take her class. I really do see the differences in the revised draft.


    Before I even do the class, I think I need to revise the whole manuscript so it is reads like non-fiction. Third person is killing my story. I just don’t have it in me right now to do that kind of extensive revision. Maybe some day. For now? I’m just going to exist, exhale and enjoy summer. 😉

  4. Congratulations on achieving the majority of your goals in Round 2 of ROW80.

    As a reader, I’m interested in characters. I want to be drawn completely into the viewpoint character and see the story through his or her eyes. I enjoy reading first person viewpoint and close third the most because of that.

    The story also has to take me straight into some conflict as well. No flowery openings or foretelling what’s going to happen to the character. I ike the conflict to be immediate and big enough for me to care about how the character is going to get out of it.

    All the best with Round 3 – see you there. 🙂

  5. I read this last week, but didn’t get to comment. Time and persistence <– yes! I love this. So true. Sounds like you definitely had an experience that will always stay with you and give you strength.
    You ended the round so strong. I'm looking forward to watching your progress and cheering you on in round three. 🙂

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