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.