Thursday, August 31, 2017

Where to Find Precision Editing Group

We have temporarily put our blog posting on hold. Many of our editors have their own writing how-to books, and we've found that blogging isn't the best use of our time right now.

For questions: editor @ precisioneditinggroup (dot) com
Facebook: Precision Editing Group
Twitter: PEG Editors

Check out Annette Lyon's books on writing:

Heather Moore's book on marketing:

Blog page of our list of Utah Writer's Conferences

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Things We Say

A popular post from April 2008

by Julie Wight
Everyone says writing should mirror real life, I am here to say, okay. But not mirror exactly. It has to resemble real life, but you don’t want an exact replica. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was: "life, with the dull parts taken out."

Keep this in mind when revising dialogue. Think of two teenagers having a conversation “Did you hear about Jane?”
“Oh I know. What a sitch huh?”
“Yeah, crazy.”

We have no idea what these girls just said. Teenagers speak in tongues sometimes, and readers, even teenage readers aren’t going to put up with pages of this circular sort of dialogue. You do not want to mimic this language unless you’re intentionally mocking it.

Something else to avoid is sounding stiff and stilted in your writing with dialogue. People don’t speak properly when talking to one another. They slur their words together. We don’t say “you will.” We say “you’ll.” In conversations, there are umm’s and errrr’s, and while now and again that works perfect in dialogue, if you do it too much your readers are going to skip whole passages to try to get back into the meat of your story or worse, they’ll put your book down.

Be careful with your dialogue. Mimic reality while making sure to shave out the unnecessary.

Don’t info dump in dialogue. I’ve seen it happen where someone will have two characters having a conversation for the sole purpose of cluing in the reader. It goes something like this, “As you know, Bob, the facility was shut down due to an outbreak of purple spots.”

Here we have two issues. First, in reality we don’t use names all the time.
“Mary would you like some cake?”
“Why Yes, Joe. I’d love some cake.”
“I thought you might, Mary.”

Does that sound like a normal conversation? Not a chance.

Second issue with the first example. Bob already knows the facility was shut down due to the purple spots epidemic so they wouldn’t really be having this conversation. Do not use dialogue to info dump.

Some really fast tips are:
Dialogue tags--Do not veer too far away from he said/she said. If you are always adding clever replacements, they call attention to themselves. He cried . . . She spouted . . . They queried . . . He growled . . . She stuttered.

Using he said or she said is invisible to the reader. The others draw attention to themselves in a negative way.

On the same lines be careful about adverb usage. He said excitedly, she said dejectedly, he cried angrily, she whispered sexily. That gets really irritating really fast. It looks amateurish and you will be embarrassed if your book ever makes it to print (trust me on this one).

Weave conversation naturally with action and a dash of exposition (remember, I said DASH!). Break up the dialogue with action and internal thought.
An example:

“I came to say I’m sorry.” He bent down and rubbed his hands in the dirt
for a minute to clean them off. Hap preferred dirt to tomatoes any

She turned to him, her pulsating hazel eyes glowered. If she’d had the
superpower of heat vision, he’d have been nothing but a pile of ash. “What
exactly are you sorry for?” she asked.

What? Was this a quiz? Wasn’t it enough to apologize without having to
consider the details? He shrugged. It was the best answer he had. The fewer
words, the faster he could get back and figure what Tolvan meant by an’ icy

“I’m asking,” she said, while climbing down from the boulder. “I’m asking
because I want to know if you’re sorry for making fun of my magic trick, or for
my application qualifications, or if you’re sorry you made me look stupid in
front of your grandfather, who might have given me a job if you hadn’t been
there slapping buzzers on my hand.”

Hap blinked and scratched his hand through his hair. “Um . . . I’m sorry
for all that.” He almost said he was only sorry for the buzzer, but felt pretty
certain she expected him to be sorry for all of the above. Girls were funny that way.

By breaking up the dialogue, you create a scene that moves along.

Think about the things you say and the things you hold back. Think about emotions involved in your situations so your dialogue can reflect those emotions. Our conversations reveal so much about us. Make your conversations reveal your characters.

In summary:
  • Don't info dump
  • don't get repetitious with name usage
  • use adverbs sparingly
  • use said instead of clever dialogue tag replacements.
  • utilize action and internal thought along with your dialogue to break it up and make it flow.

Friday, June 30, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #5

A popular post from April 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

The fifth lesson in revision as per Jordan Rosenfeld's article, Revision for the Faint of Heart, is to purge those non-necessities. The steps leading to this place have gotten you very familiar with your weaknesses, have allowed you to look at your manuscript as a whole and not it's time to, as Stephen King says, "Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heard, kill your darlings."

Darlings are not characters--though they could be--but in my mind I picture a dour old woman of eccentric means petting a horrible dog in her lap that bites everyone but her. And as you pull your hand back from yet another attempt to get into the monster's good graces, she pets it again and says in a tone lighter and kinder than she ever uses in addressing another human "Oh, darling , are you alright?" And you know in an instant she's not talking about you or your punctured flesh, she's asking if somehow her precious canine has hurt itself in it's attack upon you. Do not be that woman! Do not cherish a flea-infested nightmare simply because you've grown attached to it. Consider the other people that will come across it and how they will feel when they're walking into the ER for their rabies shot.

Here are some examples:
*Adverbs, similes, cliches--or in other words, lazy words. Rather than using 'sadly' show us a drooping shoulder, a stifled tear, a quick turning away in dispair. Rather than using cliches like "a turtle coming out of it's shell" show her pulling herself to her full height and breaking into a smile that draws attention from every person in that room because they've never seen her with so much confidence. This goes along with showing rather than telling, and it doesn't work in every instance and ever scene, but look for those times they can be fixed, lazy words replaced with energetic ones

*Overt explanations and back story. I call this spoonfeeding, where you are just scooping up information and plopping it on their tongue. It sounds like "You see, when she was a child everyone thought she was fat and ugly, and now as an adult she can't see herself as anything different." You could tell that in such a different way and give it life-- "Even though she knew she was no longer that awkward child, with more size than shape, and even though she knew that at times she had been beautiful, all she could think about was that she was only one donut, one chocolate shake, one raspberry torte away from being that child again--the girl who got stuck on the jungle gym, the one that could never keep up and finally stopped trying, hiding in the bushes at recess to escape the taunts of her thiner counterparts." Though I recommend you don't do it one horribly run on sentence as I did, I hope you get the point :-)

*Scenes unnecessary to the plot. I call these 'author moments' when you get toward the end of a scene and think "The only reason this is here is because the author wants it here" and I believe we all have those scenes. Ones that for one reason or another speak to us, but don't speak to the story. If you can rewrite it and work in a plot point, go for it, but if there is no way around it accept that it's a pause button and junk it.
-Remember that too much emotion can spoil a great scene. Even if you tend to be on the melodramatic side of life, ask yourself if it's reasonable. When I edit other peoples work I'll underline these sentences and write "Too Much" or "Really?" to draw the authors attention to the fact that I'm not buying it. Keep it real.

*Verbal diarrhea--when your characters are just talking too dang much. We've all read this, and we've likely all been annoyed with it--it's one of the reasons, in my opionin, that books that are made up of a collection of letters are hard to read, nothing happens. I don't mean that the letters, or the dialogue, isn't necessary, but let your characters pause and glance out a window. Let them rub a hand across their forehead or order another drink. Don't let paragraphs of talking go on and on--you'll lose your reader.

This is the point in which you are transitioning from 'what do I want to write' into 'what will other people read' and you have to be very objective about this. It's not easy--I promise you it isn't--but to create your best work you have to keep your reader in mind and realize that some dogs are just plain mean. If it can't be trained, it's best not seen amid polite company.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Editing: It's not over 'til it's over

A popular post from April 2008

by Heather Moore

Part of the writing journey is, of course, rewriting

Many new writers are surprised to learn that a book goes through a number of drafts or revisions before it's even accepted for publication. Of course there's a point in time when you need to stop revising and start submitting.

On average, I have my manuscript reviewed/edited by 5-7 people before submitting to a publisher. My publisher will send my manuscript to three readers, who in turn write up evaluations that outline the strengths and weaknesses and suggest whether or not the manuscript is publishable.

IF the evaluations are favorable overall, the publisher will officially "accept" the book. Then the publisher sends me the three evalutations (sometimes they are quite long: 10-13 pages), and I go through each comment and use the advice to make my manuscript stronger. I don't agree with all comments, but I try to explain to my editor why I don't want to change something.

Then, I'm assigned an editor, who goes through my new revision and gives his/her comments. I edit from the editor's comments. This is when the edits "really" count and a writer has to weigh each suggestion or correction with care. It's not the time to brush off a suggestion with "Sally from my critique group just doesn't get me . . . so I'll ignore her character motivation comment . . ."

But even after submitting the next revision . . . it's still not over. A disk changer will implement my fixes, and any approved fixes by the editor, and sometimes the disk changer will come back with comments. THEN the manuscript is typeset and goes to two copyeditors. The copyeditors are mainly proofing, but they may also find an inconsistency that needs to be fixed.

Through this process, the author is reading each new version, checking for errors that can creep up through the typeset or the disk-changer process.

So, by the time the book is sent the press, I don't want to ever see it again. Yes, I'm excited to hold the book in my hands and to gaze at the cover when it hits shelves. But open it and read it? No.

My excitement comes from getting good reviews, hearing comments from readers, and knowing that all of the hard work was worth it. And of course, undying gratitude for all of the "editors" who helped me on the path.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Playing with Tense

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

Don't. Unless you know what you're doing. Really.

In some of my editing work recently, I've come across an interesting trend among aspiring writers: a huge number of them seem to think that writing in first-person present tense makes their work better or sound more literary or intellectual.

The truth is that it's the author's voice, word choice, pacing, description, and so much more that make them sound good, literary, or intellectual.

If the author has the skill to pull off both first person and present tense, it's a nice layer of icing. But it's not the cake.

Worse, when done poorly, first-person present tense can turn into a real mess, like a lopsided cake with crumbs in the icing and entire chunks missing.

Most fiction, even with first-person point of view, is written in the simple past tense:

I walked, I ate, we drove.

There's a lot of excellent first-person present tense fiction out there:

I walk, I eat, I drive.

In other words, the piece feels like it's happening right now as you read it.

One of my personal favorite books written in first-person present is Lolly Winston's Good Grief. It's a fantastic book, one that's funny, poignant, and abounding in excellent writing all around. In a discussion with some friends recently, one pointed out that it was written in present-tense, and another friend, who counts that book as one of her favorites, had to go pull it off her shelf to check. Sure enough, it was present tense. Huh. She hadn't noticed.

And that's how it should be. The nifty tools you use as a writer shouldn't be out there flashing in the reader's face. They should be used for a reason, and that reason needs to be more than, "It'll make me look good." Because chances are, it won't.

Present tense can provide a different style and feel to your work than past tense. It can make the story feel more immediate. And it does have its place. One of the pieces I edited did it very well—and really needed to be in present tense because of the structure, tone, and events of the piece. But most of the others that used it would have been better off with plain old past tense.

Those pieces felt like awkward toddlers trying to get their feet under them as they try to use first-present present, as if they're declaring, "Look at me! I'm a writer! I really am!" Instead, they should have analyzed why they wanted to use present tense—what effect were they trying to create, and will present tense help them get there? In the vast majority of cases, the answer was unclear at best and a resounding, "NO" at worst.

One major problem that creeps in with trying to write this way is accidentally falling into the wrong tense.

For example, if a writer includes a brief flashback into the past, it's all well and good, if they're now using past tense. You can't stay in present tense for a flashback. Doing so confuses the timeline for the reader.

("Wait. Isn't this a memory? Then why does it say it's happening now?")

Similarly, when you come back from the flashback, be sure to stay in the present tense. It's easy for a writer to accidentally slip into past tense (we're all more familiar with it, after all) and then go back to present tense, but it's very hard on a reader to keep everything straight. The back-and-forth reads clunky and amateurish.

And a lot of times, a story can be told more effectively in the simple past tense. It's a voice most readers are very familiar and comfortable with. A present tense version might call attention to itself . . . in a bad way.

If you do decide to use first-person, present tense, fine. But be sure you can handle it. It's one more plate to keep in the air, and if you let that one fall, it's going to make a huge crash.

The great news: you don't need present tense to be a great writer. In fact, I recommend not using it at all unless and until you have a great handle on all those other plates you need to keep in the air. (Things like plot, characterization, pacing, point of view, dialogue and more . . . that's a lot of plates.)

Don't assume that this is a plate you need to sound good. Some of the best writers in history never gave it a passing glance. Using it well doesn't mean you're extraordinary.

But if you do eventually decide to pick it up, don't do it until you know precisely why it might make your piece more effective and you know—really know—how to juggle it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Advice from the Experts

A popular post from March 2008

by Heather Moore

This past weekend I attended the LDStorymakers Writers Conference. The name may be deceiving because national publishing was discussed even more than LDS publishing. We had two special guests I'd like to highlight.

Jamie Weiss Chilton: Agent with Andrea Brown Literary. Since I was her "host" I had a lot of time to pick her brain. Probably one of the most significant things she told me was that she doesn't read queries/cover letters first. She doesn't think an author should spend hours and hours working on the perfect cover letter--because it will be your story that sells her. When she receives a submission she sets the cover/query aside and starts reading the first pages of the book. If she falls in love with the story and the writing, then she'll finally read the cover letter to find out more about the author.

Timothy Travaglini: Senior Editor at G.P. Putnam & Sons. He said that his publisher is one of the few big publishers that accept unagented submissions. He said that one of the most important things that we can do is read a lot and know our craft. Also, it's important to submit to the right editor or the right imprint. There are so many imprints under one publishing house that it saves you time and the editor time to research and know which one accepts your type of work. He also recommended approaching a junior editor over a senior editor--the junior editors are actively seeking new clients. He recommended (for childrens writers) to attend the one-on-one conference: Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature At this conference each attendee is assigned to a junior editor for mentoring purposes. Mr. Travaglini also said to spell his name right.

In the next weeks, I'll continue to blog about more tidbits learned from the great presenters at the conference.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #4

A popular post from April 2008

Yeah, so I haven't posted in, oh, six weeks. I realized this morning that if I hadn't missed so many weeks we'd be done with this article by now. But, hey, I like to drag out the lovin.

So here we are with point #4 from Jordan Rosenfeld in Writer's Digest February 2008 edition.

In this point, Rosenfeld tells us to highlight what she calls "High Voltage" passages in our manuscript. These are particularly well written portions of our story that make us smile, that give us the tingle, the moment of "Dang, that is awesome!" They are the sentences, paragraphs, and even whole scenes that make us proud to have been the one to have written them.

Once you've identified these portions, figure out what it is that makes them so "Poppin" (my kids will be so embarrassed I used that word). Is it the actual event that's taking place? Is it a particularly well-done description? Is the cadence nice? Does the variety of sentence lengths pack the punch? Basically, what is it that makes it so snappy, that caught your attention.

This is cerebral work--really dissecting it in your mind, or on paper, so that you can diagnose the specifics that make it so dang brilliant. Then, once you've figured it out and cemented it in your brain, look for other places in your book where you can apply those discovered elements.

What you've done here is you've found a strength. A lot of writing, and learning to write well, is done through finding our faults and weaknesses. A lot of revision orbits around the same thing--what's broken. This is the opportunity for you to find the sparkle, the shine, the glimmer and figure out how to broaden it to more of your work. It's an exercise in positive affirmation and polishing your skills. Don't deny yourself the chance to see the greatness of your creation. And consider making a separate folder or document where you save these gems. You never know when you'll need that inspiration of knowing you done good kid!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sunsets are Fatal

A popular post from April 2008

by Heather Moore

In Jack Bickham’s The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (Chapter 6), he warns us not to BEGIN our book with a lengthy description.

When you start describing a pretty sunset, a dark, leafy forest, or a calm blue ocean, the action of the story stops. So you want to make sure that you don’t BEGIN your book with a lengthy description. When you begin a book, you want to start with dialog, action or thought (internal dialog).

Also, watch for cliché descriptions. There are isolated circumstances when lengthy descriptions work. But until you get published, you need to follow the rules and make yourself competitive against the thousands of other writers out there. In fact, in writers and publishing circles, according the Bickham, cliché descriptions have become a hallmark of poor fiction writing—a red flag that signals the “beginning writer”. i.e. “the rosy fingers of dawn”.

Why? Bickham notes: Fiction is movement. Description is static. In other words, to describe something in detail means that you have to . . . stop . . . describe it . . . then move onto the action again.

Ask yourself this question. When you are reading a book, what do YOU skim over? Have you ever “skimmed” over descriptions to get to “what is happening next”?

It's important to find a good balance with description. Of course, you still need description, but you don’t need a page describing the desert terrain, or even a paragraph. Description must be worked in carefully in small doses.

Description isn't just about describing sunsets, landscape, details of a house . . . Description can also include writing about every single thought and every single action a character has. The seasoned writer will describe a little (tell), and demonstrate a lot (show).

Over the past decade or two, readers have changed. Readers today want you to move your story forward, not stand around picking apart the scenery or discussing every little movement.

From Bickham's book (15), I've modified his speed tracker idea below. If your story is moving too slowly, look at the form of writing you are using most, and speed it up with a higher “mph.” Or if it’s moving too fast, you can slow it down.

10 mph: Exposition—slowest of all.
1. Straight log of factual information—biographical, forensic, sociological, etc.

25 mph: Description
1. Some is necessary, but monitor it carefully.

40 mph: Narrative
1. Characters are in the story “now” and their actions, etc are presented moment by moment with nothing left out.
2. Similar to a stage play and what most of your story should be in. Moves swiftly.

55 mph: Dialogue
1. Talking, very little action or interior thought
2. Can be very quick, like a tennis match, when the characters are talking in short bursts

70 mph: Dramatic Summary
1. Summarizing. i.e. by Bickham: “A car chase or argument that might require six pages of narrative might be condensed into a single light-speed paragraph.”
2. Moves the story forward in leaps and bound.

Our ultimate goal as a writer is to keep the story moving. Don't let the description slow you down!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Speed Bumps

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

There are moments when a writer feels blocked. No words come. The story stalls. You're staring at a brick wall. Every writer needs their own bag of tricks for overcoming Writer's Block. (One of the best: a deadline.)

Another writerly "condition" is similar to Writer's Block, but it differs in a significant way. We'll call it Writer's Speed Bump.

Writer's Speed Bump slows you down. It can make the words harder to come, but you can still write. This can take place during drafting or during revisions.

The trick, however, is that unlike with Writer's Block, sometimes you really do need to pay attention to the speed bump and back off. In my experience, the "bump" is a moment where you could keep going, but something doesn't feel right. However, you don't know what's wrong or how to fix it.

Worse, if you keep plowing forward, you may just run the story off into a ditch that will require a backhoe to get you out of.

I've learned to trust the feeling that I've just hit a bump. Over the last several days as I worked on a rewrite of my latest novel, I hit many such moments. While I was tempted to drive right over them (I was on deadline, after all), I knew I'd better stop and take a break.

Walking away from the computer at those points was the best thing I could have done. I'd go do something else for a while and let my mind drift and wander to the story. I wouldn't sit down and concentrate on what the problem was. Sometimes I'd pick my husband's brain for ideas. Other times I'd let the issue percolate and simmer.

Stories are like shy animals; you try to grab them, and they'll elude you. You have to wait for them to come to you. Hold out your hand as an invitation, call to them sweetly, and don't make any sudden movements.

Without fail, each time I left the computer and thought a bit about the story while doing something else (nothing exciting--maybe emptying the dishwasher or sweeping the kitchen), I'd have an "aha" moment and know where to pick things up next time I sat down. I ended up taking the story in directions I hadn't anticipated--directions that never would have occurred to me if I hadn't paid attention to the "bump."

The resulting manuscript is a tighter, more focused story that works far better than the original version.

A caveat: Part of the writer brain is hesitant and fearful. Don't interpret the messages from that area as Speed Bumps, or you'll walk away from the keyboard with your fears wrapped around you like a parka, and when you return, you won't have anything new to add to the table.

But next time you're sitting at your computer and you feel that gentle nudge that . . . hmm, something's not quite clicking into place . . . listen. Walk away. Think about it. The answers will come.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Writer's Toolbox: The Semicolon

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

To some people, they're an outdated form of punctuation. To others, they're one more valuable tool in guiding a reader through their work so they hear the correct tempo and beat of the words.

The semicolon is a unique animal. It has a pause length longer than comma but shorter than a period. It's similar in length to the em dash, but it has a different feel to it.

The trick is knowing how to use it properly.

First off, what a semicolon isn't:

A semicolon is NOT a replacement for a regular colon. While it does connect two similar thoughts, it does so in a different way. Quite often (but not always), what comes after a plain old colon cannot stand by itself and still make sense. On the other hand, what comes after a semi colon is fully capable of standing alone as a complete sentence.

In other words, don't do this:

Laura peeked through the curtains and gasped at what she saw; at least a dozen cats walking around, cat food tins and cat poop everywhere, and in the middle of it all, Mrs. Porter sleeping on a lop-sided couch with a cat on her chest.

Replace that semicoon with a colon, and you're good to go.

Why? Reread it. While the portion after where the colon belongs is longer than the part before, it's still not a complete sentence. Yes, we need a pause there, but what comes next is just a series of visual details without the handy-dandy subject and verb that make a real sentence.

Another common mistake is using semicolons in place of em dashes. I am a fan of em dashes and use them all the time. Few rules apply to how you use them (quite possibly why they're so popular; they're hard to use wrong). But you can't take a spot where an em dash (and its lovely pause) would go and necessarily replace it with a semicolon.

Remember the rule of thumb: Both sides of a semicolon must be able to stand on their own.

Another wrong example:

The door burst open, revealing Steve's boss holding a clipboard and looking distraught; lay-off time.

Use an em dash there or add more to make it a full sentence: "lay-off time had arrived," or, "it was lay-off time."

One area of semicolon use is often debated: Can you use it in dialogue?

Many people say to forget about it, that semicolons are outdated nowadays and belong only in non-fiction. Instead, they argue, you should use em dashes in dialogue.

It's all well and good if that's your position. But I personally use semicolons in my fiction all the time, and I've been known to do it in dialogue as well. There are just moments where the pause length, the "breath" for the reader, and the feel I'm looking for can be achieved only with a semicolon.

There are other uses for the semicolon (splitting up items in a series that already have commas, for example), which we may cover another time, but for now, keep in mind the basic rule: Both sides of a semicolon have to made sense by themselves.

Think of the semicolon almost like a "yield" sign between two sentences that makes you look both ways before proceeding. You'll find connections and subtleties in the writing that couldn't be there any other way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

No One Likes a Boring Date

A popular post from March 2008

By Julie Wright
Have you ever been on a date where you think you might have been better off going alone? Where sure, yeah, the other person existed, but there was no sense of immediacy about the date? And then horror of horrors, your date tries to kiss you goodnight and for all the zing that there *isn't* you yawn and shrug and head into the house.
I've read books that leave me feeling the same way. on the scale of one to five, they rate a "meh." Life is short. Kisses and writing should have passion.
If you want your writing to zing, make them immediate--make them right now.
One way to do that is to get rid of your telling voice.
  • She felt the knife against her skin./The cold steel blade pressed against her skin.
  • She saw the flag waving over the soldier's lifeless body./The flag waved over the soldier's lifeless body.
  • They noticed the green ooze seeping from the chemical plant./The green ooze seeped from the chemical plant.
  • He was looking./He looked.
  • She started searching through her purse to find the mace spray./She searched through her purse to find the mace spray.
See the words highlighted in red? Get rid of them. Any time you have a verb ending in -ing, you can almost always drop the -ing and the is, was, or were (or your dead word of choice) in front of it to make it active.
I don't know why we write in passive voice. I can't tell you why that feels more comfortable to authors or why we fall into the trap of passive, but we do--a lot.
A highly illuminating activity when you finish a manuscript is to go back and run a search for the word was.
Don't panic if you have a whole bunch . . . that's what rewrites and edits are for. The first draft is to get it down; the second draft is to get it right.
Write (and kiss) with passion.

Friday, June 9, 2017


A popular post from December 2007

By Julie Wright

This isn't about you--the writer. If you're not motivated to write, go yell at your muse and get back to work.

This is about your character.

I recently finished the book Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George. Her characters intrigued me. I believed them--all of them. I believe the things they did, because I understood what motivated them. Jessica took a young girl, not destined to become much or do anything grand, and made her marvelous.

It didn't happen over a single page-turn, but throughout the entire book. Little by little her motivations were molded and shaped into a moment where she alone decided the fate of a country. In the beginning our heroine, Creel, would never have punched a princess in the nose or faced down a small army of dragons. But things change for characters--or at least they should.

What changes our characters? Motivation.

A woman who loves chocolate needs no motivation to eat a chocolate cake. She sees the cake and eats it because it's there. But that same woman who has a deathly fear of heights might need some motivation to cross an old rickety bridge spanning a deep chasm. She isn't going to cross the bridge merely because it's there. She needs some motivation.

Say we have that same woman, who has never so much as used a mousetrap to kill a mouse, and we need her to kill someone. She doesn't kill people, she can't even kill mice. But a properly motivated woman *could* kill another person.

That person she needs to kill might be standing in front of that bridge she has to cross. That person is blocking her way. On the other side of that bridge is her two year old son, who's been kidnapped by terrible people for terrible purposes. She's in a hurry. She's a mom. She is desperate and there is a person and a bridge standing in her way.

Now that she's properly motivated, she could conceivably kill the man in her way and cross her bridge.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that we could get the nefarious character to do something noble and even, dare we say, good. In the right circumstances anyone is capable of doing anything.

Characters need motivations that are compelling--motivations such as fear, anger, pain, desire, greed, hunger, love, and morality.

The nice man who cares for his sister's child isn't going to break a window and steal a loaf of bread. But if his sister's child is starving and close to death and he himself is starving, he would break that window.

The motivation has to exist--even if it is only imagined. Much Ado About Nothing is a perfectly executed plot driven by imagined motivation.

It's your job as the author to make certain I believe in your circumstances. Ask questions while you write. Ask your characters why they are doing something (and don't feel insane when they answer, writer's are allowed to be slightly schotzophrenic). If your why reasons sound shallow and even lame, you need to rework your story. If you aren't sure, ask someone who you trust to tell you the truth.

Always ask why.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Death and Rebirth

A popular post from December 2007

by Annette Lyon

One of the most powerful recurring themes in all of literature is that of death.

I'd go as far as to say that every story is about death, whether that's a literal death or a symbolic one. Quite often the death is followed by a rebirth of some sort.

If we use the 3-act screenplay format to describe a novel, the most dramatic death/rebirth generally occurs near the end of the second act, or with about 1/4 of the story yet to go, but others generally occur along the way as well.

Literal deaths include times when a character is experiencing or is around death, perhaps witnessing a loved one pass away.

Symbolic deaths can include cheating death and coming out the other side with a new perspective on life and the goal for the story, sort of a "NOW I get what it's about" moment. That realization turns the story in a new direction for the final act.

Stories often have a number of death/rebirth moments, because any time a character changes, leaving behind a former self, it's a symbolic death of the old self and rebirth of the new. It can take something dramatic to shake up a character's status quo, to make them change course, and a death/rebirth can do that.

These are powerful moments for the reader, which is why so many classic stories, blockbuster movies, and best-selling books include death and rebirth moments.

As an example, let's look at Disney's movie Beauty and the Beast, and at the Beast's character in particular. (Belle changes and has deaths/rebirths, too. Think how the concept applies to her as well.)

The beast's first brush with death is when he saves Belle from the attacking wolves. After he saves her, he collapses in the snow and even appears to be dead.

Belle decides not to abandon her rescuer and instead nurses him back to health. This prompts their first significant conversation ("Ouch! That hurts!") and provides the first turning point in their relationship from captor/prisoner to being icily tolerant allies.

As their friendship progresses, the Beast moves into the death of his old self. His pride and selfishness peel off like a snake's skin, and he learns to love another person. An outward expression of the birth of his new self is the scene where he bathes, dresses, gets a haircut, and otherwise gets ready for a special night with Belle.

(Side note here: An outward sign of Belle's inner death and rebirth occurs during their dinner that night, when she abandons her expectation that he use a spoon and instead raises her bowl and drinks from it. She's accepting who he is and no longer requiring him to fit her mold.)

Later on, the Beast frees Belle from her obligation, which shows his complete transformation but also sends him into essentially a death of the heart, which he doesn't recover from until Belle's return.

At that point we get the nearest to death the Beast ever comes: he and Gaston have it out, and the latter comes after the Beast from the back. In true villain fashion, such underhandedness is promptly punished, for after he stabs the Beast in the back, Gaston falls to his death. Belle pulls the Beast from a certain physical death (apparently with miraculous strength) onto the castle tower.

It is in that moment we see the final death/rebirth: the spell is broken when Belle declares her love for him, and the Beast melts away and transforms into the prince he's been inside this entire time.

Without such dramatic external and internal shifts between life and death, the story would lack much of its power.

As you read and watch movies in the next little while, pay attention to the deaths and rebirths. It might be Luke Skywalker apparently dying and in the trash compactor and managing to get out alive anyway. Or maybe it's Buzz Lightyear who faces the death of who he has always believed himself to be--a space ranger, not a toy--and in trying to hold onto his former identity, nearly kills himself physically by falling and breaking off his arm.

Look at your latest story and try to identify when your main characters face death, both literally and symbolically. What parts of them die? What parts are reborn? What do they learn from each death and rebirth? Does someone actually die? What is the rebirth that follows? Do you have one final, powerful death/rebirth scene that propels your character into the final act?

Don't start killing off characters for the sake of playing with your reader's emotions, but do take a look at where you can use those moments of change to enhance your characters, their problems, their goals, and their ultimate rewards.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Excuses are Lame

A popular post from March 2008 
by Julie Wright
A writer died and was given the option of going to heaven or hell. Being a good writer, she decided to do her research first and check out each place first.
As the writer descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were repeatedly whipped with thorny lashes.
"Oh my, this is awful," said the writer. "Let me see heaven now."
A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw rows of writers, chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they, too, were whipped with thorny lashes.
"Wait a minute," said the writer. "This is just as bad as hell!"
"Oh no, it's not," replied an angel. "Here, your work gets published."
Even in heaven the work is the same. There is no magical formula that makes a writer exempt from parking their backside in a chair and doing the work. There are a million and one excuses for not writing and they are all LAME.
The two biggest excuses for not writing are Time and Fear.
You've all heard me say it and I will say it again because I mean it: Time is Made not Found. Sometimes Time can be stolen, knocked out, and dragged off to do your bidding for a few minutes, but it is never found.
  • Cut out a half hour of TV (get TIVO if you have to . . . in the spirit of stealing time back).
  • Prepare several meals at the beginning of the week so you aren't doing last minute meal scrambling.
  • Teach your children to do for themselves (trust me; it won't kill them)
  • on your break at work, go out to your car and write instead of hanging out in the break room chatting with coworkers.
  • delegate tasks
Fear is the mind killer. So says Frank Herbert in the book Dune (great read) I believe him. Fear strangles your mind and all the fabulous ability you have to create and become.
Some people might call this writers block. I honestly think writer’s block stems from fear. Deep down, we writers are an odd lot. We’re egotistical enough to believe we can write something and have someone actually PAY to read what we wrote and yet, there are few people as filled with self doubt as writers.
“I’m afraid nothing will come of what I write and therefore it will not be WORTH my time.”
“What I fail?”
“What if what I write is so dumb, publishers, critics, and my own mother laugh at me?”
“What if what I write isn’t worth my time?”
Why wouldn't it be? Everything you write will have some merit, even if it's nothing more than practice. Do you think dancers twirl on their toes without a little practice? Besides if you have lots of practice fodder, it becomes good for salvage material to use in later works. I steal from my own work all the time.
I tell my kids all the time, "Courage is being afraid, but doing it anyway." This has enabled them to get on rides at Disneyland, go rock rappelling, and learn to snorkel in the ocean. I'm telling it to all of you in the hopes that it will enable you to take the chance on yourself and finish that manuscript so you can submit it to agents and editors and the people who can turn your dreams into reality.
Time and fear . . . not anymore
Excuses are like armpits. Everyone has two and they all stink. You are in charge of your life. Make your time and conquer your fear and do what you were meant to do.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Conflict--The Good Fight

A popular post from March 2008

by Heather Moore

Before reading Jack Bickham’s book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, I assumed that conflict in a novel was anything that stopped the character on his or her path. Anything that went wrong, anything that “conflicted” basically.

According to Bickham, conflict is simply defined as “a struggle between story people with opposing goals.” (25)

Conflict is NOT, he says, “bad luck or adversity. It isn’t fate.” Yes, these may play a part in your book too, but your character doesn’t try to reason with it or confront it.

“Conflict . . . is a fight with another person.” Not necessarily a physical fight, but a fight at some level.

Bickham recommends the following to bring true conflict into your story (26):
1. Make sure two characters are involved.
2. Give them opposing goals.
3. Put them onstage now.
4. Make sure both are motivated to struggle against each other now.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Format: A Refresher Course

A popular post from March 2008

by Annette Lyon

Several years ago I sat at a general session of a writers conference during a Q&A. I was surprised at the kinds of questions asked, things that were, I thought, obvious.

Then it dawned on me that four years prior, I hadn’t known the answers to those very same questions. Of course not. I had to learn them just like everyone else. I had really learned a lot over the last few years.

In the same vein, I’ve been surprised recently at some manuscripts that have crossed my path, or rather, I've been surprised at the format of some of them. They’ve had some really basic problems, and I finally clued in why. The writers just hadn't learned yet. It's not like there's a writer fairy that bestows knowledge about things like formatting the moment you declare you're a writer.

So in light of that, I thought I’d do a refresher on some basics about manuscript formatting. It’s something I think we often overlook, focusing instead of the craft of writing. But really, how your work looks will be the first thing the agent or editor ever sees.

If it’s wrong, you’ll look like an amateur, and that’s not a the best way to make a good impression.

While publishers and specific types of manuscripts vary (screenplays, etc. are very different), in your average novel, you’re pretty safe using all of the following:
  • One-inch margins. That means all around: top, bottom, left, and right. A bigger margin (say 1.25 inches—1.5 at the most) is fine, but never go smaller than one inch.
  • Twelve-point font. Don’t go bigger, and don’t go smaller in an attempt to fit stuff onto the page.
  • A standard font, like Courier or Times New Roman. In the past, Courier was the standard, but that was in the days of typewriters, when editors needed a good way to estimate word counts. Courier was good for that, since every letter takes up the exact same amount of space, whether it’s an I or an M. Nowadays, Courier is still fine, but Times New Roman is also popular and accepted—and for some editors and agents, preferred, since it's a bit easier on the eyes. Just don’t use some funky script or cutesy font.
  • A header at the top of each and every page. On the left side, it needs to have your title (or an abbreviated version of it) and your last name, such as: SPIRES OF STONE/Lyon. This way, if manuscript pages get separated from the whole, the editor will still know which work—and which author—it belongs to.
  • Page numbers, beginning with 1, on every single page, preferably top right.
  • Basic contact information on the first page, top left. Including your name, address, phone number, and email address. You can also include a fax number. Single space this part.
  • Approximate word count. Either immediately under your contact information or flush right at the top of the first page.
  • Indent the first line of every paragraph by tabbing over once. Don’t use the space bar.
  • Create a new page for the beginning of each chapter.
  • Use italics instead of underlining, which is another fossil from the typewriter age.
  • Don’t use all caps or bold. Leave those for blogs, e-mail, and non-fiction.
  • Do ellipses properly. Always be sure there are only 3 dots, and each one has a space before and after it, like this . . . (Sometimes Word will try to smash them all together. Undo it.)
  • Know how to create an em dash, and use it properly. Don’t use a hyphen (or two hyphens) in its place.
  • Use plain white paper.
  • Print on only one side.
  • Double space throughout (except for your contact information on the first page).
  • Don’t include a copyright notice. That makes you look paranoid and unprofessional. Editors and agents know the copyright laws and that the moment you set your work into a tangible form, it’s already under protection by law.

You want the editor to notice your story, not your formatting. If you follow these basic guidelines, the formatting becomes invisible, and you’ll look polished and professional for that very first impression.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Give the Apple a Worm

A popular post from March 2008

by Julie Wright
There are three main elements to every story regardless of how short or how long. The three elements are:
  • Character
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

You need the first . . . the character . . . because people like to read about other people. Even when we read children’s books about animals or bugs, we always give those things human attributes.
We like to read about other’s lives because we like to escape our own lives. We want to become the character so we can sympathize, or at least be able to relate to the character so we can empathize. Without characters you cannot achieve emotional depth.
Jeff Savage has taught me to never solicit unearned emotion. Killing off a character in the beginning of the book and having the widow sobbing at the gravesite is kind of interesting, but we don’t really care. We don’t know the guy in the casket. So make sure your characters are in place. Properly introduce us to them so we want to like them, and root for them, and mourn with them. So we care when things go wrong. If you even give a small scene to that couple before the husband dies, then you come to like them and you’ve earned the emotion of pain when he dies.
Conflict stirs things up and makes things happen. Without conflict your story will be boring. I have found on the occasions where I’ve helped brand new writers with manuscripts that the most common issue their manuscripts have is not enough conflict. Too often people think that conflict is just the: you say tomato and I say tomahto. They consider the odd couple squabbling a good enough conflict
And while this has been used in several successful plots, there are always other subtle conflicts going on as well. There are opposing desires, death, stress, tension with work, tension with school, tension with family members. Every human being alive interacts on many levels with many different people. So you can use the ploy of differing personalities as your conflict, but make sure there is something more. Pride and Prejudice pulled this off expertly.
The whole concept was Elizabeth determined to hate this proud MR Darcy because he said tomato and she said tomahto. But there was so much more going on. You had the nefarious Wickham not only making Elizabeth’s heart race but also stealing the attention of her sister and causing disgrace for the family. You had ridiculous Mr. Collins proposing to sensible Elizabeth. You had Mr. Bingley who loved Jane, but was separated from her by his friends and family. And you had Mr. Bennett, an intelligent man who married an absurd woman for her beauty, and now has to live with the fact that she’s absurd. There are layers and layers of conflict within that novel. That’s how all of us should be writing.
Every day we all come in contact with personal conflict. (Ask someone what their conflict was in the last week.) It's that conflict and the struggle the characters has to undergo that keeps us readers interested and in suspense. Will the character succeed or won't he? And when is this all going to happen? And how is it all going to happen?
Imagine writing a children’s book with me for a moment.
There once was an apple. The apple was red. The apple hung from the tree until it rotted off the branch. The end.
There is not one kid in the world who would think that was an interesting children’s book. I don’t care how good the artist is who illustrates the thing, Harper Collins will never buy it. And no child would ever want to read it.
So make something happen. Give the apple a worm.
Or give the girl a boyfriend.
Or give the coworker that promotion your character worked so hard for.
Something that starts has to finish, one way or another.Once you have created great characters, which the reader will come to care about, and you have placed them in conflict, that conflict at the end of your story has to be resolved. The characters will achieve their goals or they won't.
That doesn't matter.
You can end your story as you please and as it suits your story - but you have to end it. Ending the story means resolving the conflict. In the end everyone must be happy. And being happy doesn’t always have to mean that everything is perfect, but loose ends must be tied up and the characters must have reconciled themselves to the imperfect life.
Each layer of conflict has been resolved in a daisy chain of inter-connectedness, one closure bringing the closure of another.
When creating problems for your main characters, think along two lines. A big, external conflict that forms the plot and keeps the story moving, and an internal conflict that forces your character to change, reflecting the theme. This will give your story depth, and give your readers something to think about.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

POINT OF VIEW: First Person vs Third Person

A popular original post from 2007

By Heather Moore
(Originally published April 26, 2007... but POV continues to be a struggle for many new writers)

If you just said, "Huh?" this blog is for you.

When we read a book, we don’t always pay attention to the point of view. Instead, we enjoy the story. But when you write a book, point of view becomes an integral method of telling the story through the character.

First person point of view is almost always used in YA novels. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly popular in adult fiction, especially the suspense genre.

In Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters and Viewpoint, he says: “When you use a first-person narrator, you are almost required to tell the story in someone else’s voice—the voice of the character telling the tale.” (143)

1st person/present tenseGood Grief by Lolly Winston

On Halloween, angels and ghosts and pirates flock to my doorstep. A tiny pumpkin hoists her leg over the threshold and clings to my calf like a koala bear.
“No Jenny,” the baby’s mom says, and laughs. “We don’t live here.”
This is a busy year for trick-or-treaters. It’s only seven and I’m already running low on candy, since I never made it back to Safeway to load up. (p.34)

1st person/ past tenseLife of Pi by Yann Martel

My fellow castaway came into view. He raised himself onto the gunnel and looked my way. The sudden appearance of a tiger is arresting in any environment, but it was all the more so here. The weird contrast between the bright, striped, living orange of his coat and the inert white of the boat’s hull was incredibly compelling. My overwrought senses screeched to a halt. (p.160)

Third person point of view is by far the most common and reaches across all genres and age groups. Third person has two methods: limited narrative and omniscient narrative.

Orson Scott Card says a reader is “led through the story by one character, seeing only what that character sees; aware of what that character thinks and wants and remembers, but unable to do more than guess at any other character’s inner life.” (155)

You can also change viewpoints with limited narrative, as long as you have a clear division like a scene break or new chapter.

3rd Person—Limited Narrative: At the Journey’s End by Annette Lyon (all in different scenes)

Maddie’s POV:
A rifle shot split the air with a crack.
The sound halted Maddie in her step, and she looked around for the source. Maybe Peter or James had bagged some game for dinner—a wild rabbit, perhaps. It would taste good after eating dried fruit and jerky for nearly two weeks. But something told her that wasn’t right. (1)

Clara’s POV:
Another coughing fit gripped Clara Franklin, one so intense she didn’t even reach for her handkerchief on the end table. Her frail body curled up against the pain piercing her chest with each cough. As the spell ended, she found her hands clenching the bedclothes like claws. She had to consciously release each finger and make her breath even out. (35)

Abe’s POV:
Taking his hat off, Abe entered the building and wiped his sleeve across his brow. He was tired of the heat. First Utah’s, now California’s. He knew he might as well get used to it, at least until he reached Snowflake. (55)

OMNISCIENT NARRATIVE:The narrator can see into more than one character’s mind, switching back and forth at will. (Card, 156)

3rd person—Omniscient: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (all in the same scene, 77-79)

Nora's POV:
“I already have calendars for next year.” That was news to Nora, who was biting a fingernail and holding her breath.

Luther's POV:
Luther caught himself for a second and allowed his anger to settle in. As if buying a calendar was the only measure of his pride in the local police force.

Treen's POV:
Since Treen could think of no intelligent retort, he grew hot too and decided he would get Krank’s license plate number and lie in ambush somewhere . . .

And finally . . .
Before you start writing your novel, decide on which point of view you’ll use. Do you want the readers to see the entire book through just one character’s eyes? Then try 1st person. Are you writing a romance and want the POV of the heroine and the hero? Try 3rd person narrative. Just be sure that you don’t POV hop when writing either 1st person or in 3rd person narrative. When in 3rd person narrative, you can switch POV when there is a scene or chapter break.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Your Platform

A popular post from March 2008

by Annette Lyon

The most important element of your book package, aside from the quality of the writing, is your platform.

Sadly, in the case of non-fiction books, platform can be far more important in convincing a publisher to take you on than having a quality manuscript.

So what is a platform?

Your platform is everything about you that helps to sell your book. Each item that makes up your platform is a "plank":
  • Credentials and expertise (If you wrote a book about diet and exercise, it helps if you have a Ph.D. in, say, exercise physiology.)
  • Publicity connections (Do you have an "in" with a popular radio personality? Can you get a review in a prestigious newspaper?)
  • Chances for speaking engagements (Can you get into schools, community organizations, etc. to speak and promote your work?)
  • Organizations you belong to (Nonprofit, hobby, etc. It helps if these relate to your book in some way; if you belong to a hiking and camping club and wrote a survival novel, you may already have potential buyers through your club.)
  • Professional organizations and networks you belong to.
  • Your general visibility (Do you have a newspaper column of your own? Do you appear semi-regularly as a contributor of a TV show?)
When you see what is involved with a platform, it's no wonder that celebrities "write" so many books. Their platform is who they are, and it sells books.
In those cases, really, who's kidding who? Those books aren't generally penned by the celebrity. They're ghost-written, first and foremost because celebrities are actors or singers or whatever else. They aren't writers.
But when it comes down to it, what's between the covers of those books doesn't matter all that much, because the public is already willing to plunk down $24.95 to read about Mr. Hollywood.
On the other hand, a "nobody" who has a drop-dead amazing memoir to tell may or may not be picked up simply because the marketing department will have to work so much harder to convince the public to buy the book.
Consider: Who has the better shot at getting onto the Today show: Joe Writer or Paris Hilton, who can barely spell her own name, let alone actually "author" a book?
Paris, by a mile. And she has been on that show promoting something she supposedly wrote.
That doesn't feel fair, but it's the reality. Think ahead to what your platform consists of and could consist of, because almost as important as the connections and possibilties that are in your platform now are the things you're willing to do to grow your platform.
When you submit your book propsoal, whether it's for fiction or non-fiction, write up your current platform plus your marketing plans for growing it.
If an editor loves your work, she'll have to sell it to those who hold the strings to the money bags. She'll have to convince them that they won't lose money by giving your piece shot, and that instead they'll turn a profit.
The stronger your platform, the easier it is to sell your piece to the final decision makers and to readers.
Build it plank by plank.

Friday, May 19, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #1

A popular post from February 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

About four years ago I first heard about Writer's Digest, a magazine written specifically for Writers (hence the title). It's a monthly publication that covers a wide range of writing topics and hits on all types of writing; freelance, poetry, novels, children's, short stories. They also often include author interviews which I find fascinating and they sponsor an annual writing contest (entries are due May 15). If you don't receive this magazine I would highly reccomend that you try it out. You can sign up for a free issue at

I specifically want to zone in on a fabo article they had in the February 08 issue. It's found on page 46 and is title "Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart" by Jordan E. Rosenfeld. It goes over 10 points of revision, all of which I can personally vouch for and yet I still needed the reminder since I tend to get lazy in my craft from time to time. I'd like to focus this blog on the first point; "Let Your Work Breathe," and will include other points over the next few weeks.

In this point of the article Rosenfeld talks about the state of your objectivity by the time you finish writing your book. He points out that we writer's often finish this process and think the book is garbage. I would submit that while that is often the case, there is the opposite result as well--we think the book is brilliant. Either way he's exactly right in that as we write our novel, weave the plot, get to know our characters and see them ultimately triumph (unless your writing a tragedy), we lose our ability to clearly assess our own work. Whatever it is we feel toward our book can not be trusted. That's why we need some distance before we can be capable of finding and fixing what needs to be fixed.

In this case the term "Absence makes the heart grow fonder" would more appropriately say "Absense makes the heard grow fairer". Giving yourself some space from your book allows your chemistries to equalize and your objectivity to rest and repair itself so that when you are ready to do the actual work of revision, you're capable of doing it. No matter how anxious you are submit your book you must remember that your first draft will not be good enough--let me say that again--YOUR FIRST DRAFT WILL NOT BE GOOD ENOUGH. Don't waste the time of editors, publishers or even the friend that is doing you the favor of reading it through by giving them a first draft. First off, it's ridiculous to expect them to see the greatness behind your unfinished product, and second they won't be able to help you find the mistakes because it might not even make sense. Before anyone gets to see the book, you need to give yourself the distance in order to go back and fairly revise it into a finished work. The first step is taking the time to reset your brain and gear up for that revision.

How you'll do that revising, once you've taken the break, will be covered in subsequent blogs, but for now ponder on the importance of the revision process and having a clear head when you begin to rework the book.

Lesson two will come next week.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

WD Revision lesson #3

A popular post from February 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

Welcome to lesson #3 of Jordan Rosenfeld's article from the February Writer's Digest magazine "Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart."

Suggestion #3 is titled "Taking Inventory" and it's where you make sure you know what's in each chapter, that the subplots are resolved , that transitions take place, and that you haven't left anything out. Rosenfeld suggests going through each chapter and writing up a couple sentences about what that chapter is about, for example:

Chapter One
January 22, Antagonist, later known as Colt but as yet unidentified by name, takes the body of Terezza and dumps it in an unofficial landfill in Canada. He reflects on the fact that she wasn't the right one, that he would wait two months and then try and find another girl online.

Chapter Two
March 22, chapter opens with first e-mail from "Emily" to Jess--Emily found her on and wants to be friends.
Scene: Kate Bradshaw, one of the main characters, is introduced--mother of six, wants another baby, has been sick, feels distant from her husband and oldest daughter, Jess. We see that she's rather controlling and perfectionistic.

You would then continue this on for the duration of the story, summarizing each chapter. What you would have when you finish is a chapter outline, something you want to hang on to and can come in handy when you're ready to write your synopsis. Breaking this down by chapter allows you to step back and look at each chapter from a new perspective. Is it necessary? Does the information discovered in this chapter feel repetitive? Does it lack anything important?

Once finished you will then be able to see your book as a big picture, rather than the smaller pictures of each chapter, and make sure that the overall look and feel is what it ought to be.

Another thing to look for is your chronology. In my second book, Surrounded By Strangers, I finished it, sent it off, had it accepted, they edited it, and then I got the galley copy to proof. As I was reading the last 100 pages I realized I had two Tuesdays and two Thursdays--I was operating on a nine day week. It took some juggling--uncomfortable to do that late in the game--but I was able to get it right. Ever since then I've calendered out each of my books by printing off a calendar (templates available through Microsoft Word) and writing in when different points of the story happen. I've saved myself a lot of embarrassment by double and triple checking things and making sure the chronology is possible. I also then have the calendar for reference later should I have a question about when something happened. I even add things like anniversarys and character's birthdays. Another benefit of calendaring is that I make sure I don't have a trial taking place on Sunday, or Memorial day on a Thursday.

The point is to, as Rosenfeld suggests, take inventory of your story and make sure it's all lining up the way it should. It's a more technical detail of the overall writing, but a very important one as it will reflect for good and bad upon your overall ability to tell a seamless story.

Lesson #4 next week.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Show 'Em Talking

A popular post from February 2008

by Annette Lyon

Recently I edited a couple of books by talented writers. In both cases, the bulk of my comments related to the old adage, "Show, don't tell."

Both writers knew how to show, but didn't do it quite often enough.

And in the vast majority of cases, the solution to switching the telling into showing was placing the situation into a concrete scene and getting the characters talking.

Basically, dialogue.

It's hands-down one of the best ways to show. Not only is it a relatively easy (just record the movie in your head), but characters speaking will transform your work from a simple narration into a story with life.

Read your work, and every time you see a section where someone "told" something or "thought" something (when implied as speech) highlight it. Each one is an opportunity to show with added dialogue. Be sure to include contextual details (Where are your characters? What are they doing?) so your characters aren't just voices in your readers' heads.

An example:

My sister thought I was nuts for singing a rock song at the auditions for the school musical.

Let's try again. Picture a movie camera recording the scene. What do we see? What do we hear? Don't report what happened. Make it happen before our eyes.

I stepped off the stage from my audition to thunderous applause coming from three of my buddies in the back corner. I raised my arm, acknowledging them with a humble nod as if performing to a sold out crowd. "Thank you, thank you," I said. "You're too kind."

As I sauntered down the aisle, my sister sunk down into her chair. When I sat beside her she rolled her eyes away from me. "Pink Floyd? For a Sound of Music audition? You're totally nuts. From here on, I'm denying that I'm related to you. There's no way we share the same genetics."

I grinned, resting the back of one foot on the chair in front of me and crossing the other on top. "Nuts?" I said, hands clasped behind my head. "Quite possibly. But memorable."

The magic is in the details.

If you have a character who is shy, put him in a situation where he has to speak shyly. If you have a boss who's mean, don't report it. Show him screaming at his employees. Let us hear his words.

Show, don't tell. It's a crucial element to fiction.

But if it helps you remember to apply it, change the phrase to, "Show 'em talking."

Friday, May 12, 2017

Know Your Genre

A popular post from February 2008

by Lu Ann Staheli

What is genre? Some people might think it’s just a silly sounding French word, but writers know genre is an important classification that will help them not only as they write, but also as they prepare to market their work. The definition states that “genre is a loose set of criteria for a category of composition which may be determined by literary technique, tone, content, or even length.”

You likely first learned about genre in grade school when you visited the library. Books are classified into two main subsets: fiction and non-fiction. Within each group, there are smaller divisions. In non-fiction, these divisions are classified by the Dewey Decimal System and books are shelved by topic. Although books in the fiction section are shelved by author’s last name, they can be divided into two groups—realism and fantastical—which can then be broken into smaller genres.

Realistic fiction are plausible stories about people and events that could really happen. Good realistic fiction illuminates life, presenting social and personal concerns in a human context.
Themes in realistic fiction often include coming of age and relationship stories. Fantasy often has good vs evil as its main theme, and the characters in traditional fantasy usually goes on a quest. modern fantasy includes magical creatures, futuristic worlds, or elements of magic in the human world. Science fiction and horror are sub-genres of fantasy fiction.

Non-fiction can be about any topic imaginable. Three popular genres within non-fiction are biography, autobiography and memoir. The memoir is different from autobiography in that it looks only at a slice of life, whereas the autobiography reviews the entire life up to the point the person stops writing.

In addition to knowing the kind of book you intend to write, you must also know your target audience. The type of book—picture book, chapter book, middle grade novel, young adult novel, adult novel, and the accompanying non-fiction subjects—help not only the author, but also the publisher know where your book best fits when it comes to selling.

Stick to no more than two genres and one target audience and you’ll not only improve your chances of being published, but also help readers find you. The more readers you have, the more sales you make, and that’s what marketing is all about—making the sale.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Choose Your Characters

A popular post from February 2008

by Lu Ann Staheli

Characters exist in both fiction and non-fiction. In fiction we know these people, animals, or creatures as protagonists and antagonists. The protagonist is the good guy, the one we root for to get what they wanted in the end. The antagonist is the one who tries to stop our hero from reaching his or her goal. In non-fiction, the character is the narrator. This may be the voice of teacher, the sage, or simply one who has been there. Character roles may also be played by businesses, natural disasters, disease, or any one of hundreds of other topics covered in a non-fiction book.

In both fiction and non-fiction, we will likely see characters of two types. Major characters are those who play a significant role in bringing change. Often they change within themselves, growing through the learning they do. Because of this growth, they are known as round characters. A flat character plays a minor role in the story. Like bit players on the stage, these characters make brief appearances that rarely effect the outcome of the story.

An author must choose a point of view from which we will get to know the characters. First-person is most often used in adolescent novels where the reader wants to have a close connection to the main character, see what she sees, feel what she feels. Although rarely used, second person point of view might find a place in a non-fiction How To book, but writers must be careful not to sound too demanding when they use this voice. Perhaps the most difficult for the novice writer, but also the most accepted by editors and readers is third person point of view. Whether third person omniscient—the all seeing, all knowing god who understands what everyone is feeling—or the third person limited, who follows around a single character, describing all from their own point of view, using third person allows more freedom to the storyteller than either first or second person does.

Once an author knows their character and point of view, they begin to use syntax, diction, punctuation, and dialogue to develop the character, adding their own style. This becomes the author’s unique voice, a trait highly sought after by editors. Using the right voice for the desired audience will form a winning combination, a book that editors can’t let pass them by.

Monday, May 8, 2017

WD Revision Lesson #2

A popular post from February 2008

By Josi S. Kilpack

I hope you all had the chance to see the comment from Jordan E. Rosenfeld in last week's post; another lesson on the power of proofreading and knowing your facts! I managed to mess up two rather important facts because I didn't take the time to figure them out. AND both of them were ones that I had wondered about when I wrote them, but then I quickly made my own assessment and moved on. Don't follow my bad example, it's a far better feeling to be right rather than corrected. That said, what a thrill to have the author, a WD writer, leave a comment. Maybe I can mess something else up so she'll comment again :-) I'm still a bit star struck when I run into big names, and anyone that regularly contributes to Writer's Digest is a big name. Also, when you get a minute check out Jordan's blog.

And so we are lesson #2 of "Novel Revision for the Faint of Heart" (Writer's Digest February 2008). This section is titled Deep Cleaning and it consists of exactly that--moving the refrigerator, scrubbing the baseboards, tackling the grout with a toothbrush. Rosenfeld points out that it's temping (and easier) to do a light dusting, sweep the corners a little "fixing words here, tacking on explanations there" but this will not "fix" the mess beneath the refrigerator or get the grout back to the appropriate color. She says in the article "True revision usually involves restructuring"

There's a very good reason this portion of revision comes after you've let it sit, you must be in your obective state in order to have what it takes to do this kind of work. This is where you go to Stephen King's advice of "Even when it breaks your egocentric little scribblers heart, kill your darlings".

Your darlings might be that beautifully poignant scene that brought tears to your eyes--but plays no part in plot. It might be the angst ridden characterization that is actually a reflection of your own issues with your childhood. It might be the insistence that this story take place in New York even though you've never been and your research for such a setting boils down to the first three seasons of Friends. The point is that you've had the distance necessary to cock your head to the side and ask questions like "Would he REALLY do that?" and "Does it matter that she was once locked in a closet overnight when she was twelve with nothing but a snickers bar?" If it DOES matter and if he really WOULD do that, fabulous, but if it doesn't fit--get rid of it.

To be most effective I think there are a few pinnacle questions you need to ask yourself. The challenge is that you must also be willing to answer them and then do whatever needs to be done to fix it.

1) Does your story start in the right place? It should start at the point of change, the beginning of conflict, just after the beginning of the story. If you find yourself justifying those first fifteen pages where nothing happens, then it's time for them to go.

2) Are you using the right POV? Switching from first to third person isn't as hard as it looks and some stories are better told using one or the other. Whichever POV you choose, make sure you're taking full advantage of it.

3) Are your conflicts worthy of your characters? The conflict in your books must have the ability to destroy your character. Harry Potter against Draco Mafroy is a waste of our time, we know Harry can beat him, but put him up against the most powerful dark wizard of all time and you've got good conflict. Whether your conflict is dragons or depression or terrorism make sure it's got the power to succeed. If it doesn't, if we can tell from day one that your character can beat it with half his brain tied behind his back, then you need to grow your conflict.

4) Does every scene and every chapter move the story forward? If any part of your book does not intensify conflict, allow your character to discover something important, or propel the action forward, cut it out. Every single scene needs to funnel into the story of the, well, story, and if it doesn't it's a waste of words.

5) Is your conclusion satisfying? This does not have to mean happily ever after, it means "exhale". Make sure your reader can let out a breath and put the book down without feeling ripped off or set up. EVEN IF YOU WILL WRITE A SEQUEL, we have to know that THIS book is finished.

This type of restructuring is hard to do, absolutely, but fully necessary if you really want to submit your very best work. It's a hard look at what you've created and a difficult assessment of what works and what doesn't.

There are times when we read a chapter and don't know if it deserves to be in our story or not. What then? Well, in my opinion it means the element is unnecessary. We should know with each scene whether it deserves a place or not and if we're unsure, the editor, agent, and reader will likely be unsure as well. I always keep a "cuts" folder of every book I write. Anything I take out of the book goes into this folder so that if I decide I do want that scene, or if I find it works better later on, I can get it. 99% of what goes into my cuts folder never comes out.

WARNING: It is tempting to pawn this job onto someone else. We like to tell ourselves that we have lost all objectivity, that we can't see the story for what it is anymore. If this is the case, you didn't let it sit long enough. If you can't find the faults yourself, then let it sit longer, don't make it someone else's problem to see what you should be seeing. Having someone else point these things out to you does not help you grow as a writer, does not hone your skill of revision, and it makes you look lazy when they do tell you what's wrong and you say "Yeah, I wondered about that too." Own your words, own your revision, kill your own darlings rather than handing the blade to someone else.

Lesson three next week.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Sketching and Shading

A popular post from February 2008

by Annette Lyon

When an artist draws a picture, he begins with basic sketches: the general shapes of the objects in the piece. Gradually he adds more details here and there, and eventually he'll finish up with subtle shading.

To expect those nuances of color and light right up front would be ridiculous.

The same goes for writing. Drafting is akin to sketching. You write out the bare bones, the general shape of the story. As you go through various rewrites, you'll add the shading, fleshing it out so now we can see the details on the leaf, the individual hairs on the woman's head, so to speak.

So many writers feel like failures when their drafts don't have those subtle shadings that make a work come alive, not realizing that what they're looking at is a sketch of their story. It's not the final draft. It might look a little flat. It might lack texture and depth.

That's what rewriting . . . shading . . . is all about.

At a writing conference years ago, one of the presenters (a successful novelist) admitted:

"I'm a terrible writer. But I'm a great rewriter."

I have to remind myself of this sometimes when I see drafts of friends which blow mine out of the water. It's all right if my rough drafts are, well, rough.

I can rewrite. Polish. Shade.

That's the key. A good writer is a rewriter.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Who do you listen to?

A popular post from February 2008

By Julie Wright

In tenth grade I had an English teacher who, for whatever reason, determined to hate me. This was the year I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. This was the year I really knew in the marrow of my bones that I could be a writer. I was fifteen.

My teacher didn't have the same marrow-in-the-bones feeling about me. He took a short story idea I'd outlined for an assignment, and told me it would never work. "Very few authors pull off the passage of years in one book--let alone a short story. You can't do this." His red scribble on the top of my outline made my stomach sink into my shoes, and made my confidence slip into the well of despair.

But I was stubborn.

I determined he was wrong. After all . . . he'd never been published, what did he know? I wrote the story, submitted it to the school writing contest, and won first place. I even beat out the seniors.

Feeling proud of myself (and rich with the 100 bucks I had in my pocket from prize money), I took the story to my grandmother. She loved me. She would tell me how wonderful I was.

Except she didn't.

She really loved me, and loved me enough to be brutal. Hard love sucks rocks sometimes. She told me how to change the story, how to make it better, how to make it work.

She told me not to give the story back to her to read until I fixed it.

I fixed it. It took me 297 pages to make it right, but I fixed it. She'd already passed away. She never got to see it complete and right.

The lesson learned? Ignore the comments that shatter your belief in yourself and accept the comments that will improve you, even when they hurt to hear.

There will be voices shouting at you from all sides when you start writing. There will be the blind love voices who tell you you're brilliant, even if your story needs a major overhaul. There will be the hurtful voices who work to undermine your security in yourself. There will be the demon voices whispering the cacophonous words, "You can't do this."

Then there will be the hard love voices . . . the voices with your best interest in mind. The editorial voices that say, "You can do this. Don't give up, but make it right."

Where you end up as a writer depends on what voice you choose to listen to.

Who are you listening to?

Monday, May 1, 2017

Plotting with Mythic Structure

A popular post from February 2008

by Annette Lyon

I've discussed elements in Vogler's book The Writer's Journey, which is all about the classic mythical structure of "The Hero's Journey" here and here.

Those earlier posts discussed character archetypes and one particular element of the journey (death and rebirth, or the "Resurrection" scene). I thought it was time to discuss the journey itself.

Each step along the way could take up several posts (and indeed takes up its own chapter in Vogler's book). Every story won't use every step, and they aren't always in this order. But I've found the mythic Hero's Journey to be a great guideline, a template that you can refer to when creating an infinite number of brand new storylines.

The mythical story structure has helped me to pack a greater punch in my own writing. If you can read some of Vogler's work, I highly recommend it. I know I'll never read books or watch movies the same way again. Note that The Writer's Journey is out of print, but Vogler has published other works since, and you can likely find a used copy of this one.

Using the classic movie Star Wars, here are the basic elements of the Hero's Journey:

The Ordinary World
We are introduced to the Hero and his/her circumstances. We learn who he is, what he stands for, and possibly what problem is bothering him. Very often the problem we learn about in the beginning isn't the same one we end up solving by the end, because the final problem usually has much higher stakes.

SW: Farm boy Luke Skywalker living a releatively peaceful existence. Although he's an orphan, he lives with his loving aunt and uncle.

Call to Adventure
We learn that the status quo is being upset and that our Hero must take action and go on an adventure. Often a person delivers this call (Gandalf), but sometimes it's an object (the letters from Hogwarts).

SW: We have two calls. First is for the audience, where we learn that Princess Leia has been kidnapped. The second is when Obi Wan wants Luke's help with C-3PO and R2-D2, because they hold the plans to the dangerous Death Star.

Refusal of the Call
The Hero declines the adventure, whether from a character flaw or other reason. He lacks the motivation to leave the Ordinary World, and the call must be issued again.

SW: Luke refuses to help Obi Wan. Luke's motivation changes when until Storm Troopers destroy his village and kill everyone in it, including his aunt and uncle. Now the stakes are higher, and he has a reason to fight.
Meeting with the MentorThis may happen earlier if the Mentor is acting as the Herald and delivering the Call to Adventure. Alternately, the Mentor can give the Hero a "kick in the pants" (as Vogler puts it) to get the Hero movitated and the story off to its real start.

The Mentor trains and/or teaches the Hero and often bestows a tangible gift to the Hero as well.

SW: As a Jedi himself, Obi Wan trains Luke to use the force. He give Luke his father’s light saber.
Crossing the First Threshold
The Hero leaves the comfort of the Ordinary World and enters the unfamiliar territory of the Special World. Once he crosses over, he has committed to the adventure, life (and The Ordinary World) will never be the same again.

Often the Hero will be tested by a Threshold Guardian (a character or situation) blocking his path, which he must get beyond to prove that he's committed and worthy of being the Hero. Arriving in the Special World can be another test, as we see how quickly the Hero adapts to the rules of the new World.

A "Watering Hole" scene is common after arrival, where the Hero meets locals in a tavern or other public place of food and refreshment. A brawl or other test may appear.

SW: Luke travels to find a pilot to help, and he meets Han Solo in a tavern.

Test, Allies, EnemiesThis portion covers a good chunk of the middle portion of the story. The Hero is tested in increasingly challenging ways. He learns who are his allies and who are his enemies.

SW: Han Solo & Chewbacca become Allies to aid in the rescue of Princess Leia. They get through an Imperial blockade, discover that the Princess's home planet of Alderaan has been destroyed by the Death Star, etc.
Approach to the Inmost CaveThe Hero is given an even greater test as he gets through more obstacles and must use his recently-learned skills as he approaches the darkest place that will hold the greatest danger and his ultimate Ordeal.

SW: They are pulled into the Death Star.
ResurrectionThe Hero dies or appears to die and is "reborn" with new life and determination, new lessons learned. This propels him into the final act.

SW: Luke appears to die in the Death Star's trash compactor, but reemerges triumphant and ready to fight again.

OrdealA true test of the Hero, that challenges him to draw upon all the lessons he's learned and all the skills he's acquired on the journey. He often battles the Shadow (the villain) and will have to sacrifice, often allies.

SW: The huge battle at the Death Star.

Reward—Seizing the SwordThe Hero emerges from the Ordeal triumphant, carrying the "sword," or whatever symbolizes that success, whether it's accomplishment of a mission or capture of a treasure.

SW: The Death Star is destroyed
The Road Back
The Hero begins heading back to the Ordinary World, but encounters new struggles along the way (chases are common here). He must cleanse himself of the battles he's been through.

SW: Darth Vader & his henchmen chase the heroes as they try to make their escape.
Return with the ElixirThe Hero returns triumphant, having proven himself a true Hero. He has the Elixer, which is a something valuble he has learned, acquired, or accomplished that he shares with others.

SW: Luke has (for now) defeated Darth Vader and restored peace to the galaxy.

That's a brief overview, but it should be enough to get you thinking of some of the plot structures in your own work. Do you have a death/rebirth? What is the Elixer your Hero will return with? Does your Hero have enough Threshold Guardians, blocking his way and proving his mettle?

Play with the forms and analyze some of your favorite stories to see what elements fit where. It's a great structural exercise that will enhance your writing.