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Stories often begin with a lone kernel of an idea. Mine tend to begin when a few characters appear in my mind and don’t want to leave me alone. A single interaction between them can cause an entire book to be built around it. Generally, that’s how I plot, too. My process is basically just me figuring out how to construct a story around scenes that must happen.
But when I first started writing seriously, it would trip me up. I’d be writing the scene I’d been waiting a year to write, and all would be great. I’d create a setting in which the interaction would take place and go nuts pounding out the words that had been living in my head for so long. It’d be done before I knew it and after a night of sleep and letting it rest I would come back to it and realize I’d made a grave, grave error.
My characters would be so influenced by my neurotic imaginings of their interaction that they wouldn’t at all be influenced by the actual environment in which they were. Outside the sky would be heavy with clouds but they would still squint against the sun to see things better. Loud music would be playing but soft conversations from across the room would still be overheard. The room would be so dark only silhouettes should’ve been clear but for some reason the colour of the wallpaper would be discernable.
It was a result of the scene not evolving in my mind along with the rest of the story. I would have strong plot reasons for it to be a very cloudy day, but because the scene in my mind had always been an arbitrarily sunny one, I would subconsciously impose a completely different kind of weather. It was an issue of continuity.
Since becoming aware of the issue, I came up with a way to resolve it. It’s juvenile in its simplicity.
Keep a list of logistics. These can include light quality, temperature, weather, sound, and architecture.
Here’s an example. First, the wrong way to do it.
Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. He heard her approach quietly behind him.
“Are you alright?” she whispered. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
She hurried to him and helped him up before he could stop her. Prompted by an ingrained memory of his strict mother, he automatically brushed dirt off his knees.
“Leave,” he said.
He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. His breath caught at her beauty. Tears streaked down her flushed cheeks, and her dark hair billowed and flowed in the breeze. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.
There are a number of problems here. Taking the first paragraph where I describe the environment, these are our logistics: it’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. So how does he hear her approach quietly? How does he hear her whisper when she’s nowhere near close enough to be heard through the storm? How can he brush dirt off his knees when he was soaked in seconds? It’d be mud and it would seep into his clothing. When he sees her beauty, how can he see? He’s blinded by darkness. On that note, how does she even see him fall? And why is her hair billowing and flowing when it should be slick against her head? How does he know those are tears on her face when it could just be rain?
These are the kinds of continuity errors that come up very often in first drafts, but they’re easily avoidable. All you have to do is keep in mind the main aspects of the environment. It’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. Add occasional lightning to the storm and suddenly you have a source of light. It does nothing to change your actual story; the weather’s already bad. If she approaches him quietly, have her surprise him with a hand on his shoulder while he’s still on the ground. Now she’s close to him, which means he’d be able to hear her even if her voice isn’t very loud. When she helps him up, have him wipe his muddy hands on his pants and cringe at his mother’s memory instead of trying to respect it.
Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Lightning flashed weakly and the forest floor glowed, tangles of vines and roots glistening.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked away. He stilled at the familiar voice by his ear.
“Are you alright?” she whispered, voice carrying over the din of the rain, her warm breath puffing against his skin. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
She hooked an arm under his and helped him up before he could stop her. He wiped his muddy hands on his wet pants with a grimace and a silent apology to his mother.
“Leave,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear.
He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. Lightning forked across the sky and his breath caught. Even with her hair plastered to her head, cheeks wet with what he told himself was only rain, she was beautiful. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.
Fundamentally, the scene hasn’t changed. All I did was tweak a few actions to make it plausible. But another thing you’ll notice is that the scene was actually made more intimate. He heard her whisper above the rain because she was so close to him, which wouldn’t have had to be true if it hadn’t been raining or if, as in the first attempt, I hadn’t followed the rules of the logistics I’d set. What I’m left with is a scene that not only takes into account the environment so it can play out naturally, but also gave me an opportunity to flesh out a more meaningful interaction.
And it doesn’t stop there. This scene could be even more tellingly intimate. Again, it comes down to logistics.
The rain is cold. She puts a hand on his shoulder. Her hand is warm. Instant awareness. Even if he jerks away, maybe the warmth could be familiar. Of course, warmth in and of itself isn’t only applicable to humans, but having him think of a certain someone in the moment of that warmth tells quite a bit about his psychological state of mind. When she’s that close to him, does he really want to run? What is he remembering when her breath is puffing into his ear? When she hooks an arm under his to help him, that human contact in a time of desperation would maybe be comforting. When she tugs at his sleeve, do her fingers graze the skin of his wrist?
We know how the environment affects him. How does she affect him? How do her actions impact his state of mind?
Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Lightning flashed weakly and the forest floor glowed, tangles of vines and roots glistening.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was nearly hot in contrast to the rain. In the split second before he instinctively jerked away, he thought of her. He froze when she spoke into his ear.
“Are you alright?” she whispered, voice carrying over the din of the rain, her warm breath puffing against his skin. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. She’d always been afraid they would hear. He shivered when she spoke again and blamed it on the wind. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” he said and quickly bowed his head away from her.
She hooked an arm under his and helped him up before he could stop her. The contact made his knees weak with longing. He needed comfort, wanted heat, and at that moment he felt she was the only thing that could banish the damp from his bones. He stepped away and wiped his muddy hands on his wet pants with a grimace and a silent, desperately out-of-place apology to his mother for dirtying his clothes.
“Leave,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear. He hoped she hadn’t heard it crack, too.
He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. Lightning forked across the sky and his breath caught. Even with her hair plastered to her head, cheeks wet with what he told himself was only rain, she was beautiful.
The night succumbed to darkness once more and his only awareness of her became the brands that were her fingers brushing against the skin of his wrist. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.
The people around your main character are also part of the environment. So now, your new logistics are: it’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. He is greatly in love with the woman, and she keeps touching him.
Keeping all this in mind is how you go from point A to point B. What was at first a rough draft passage, a bare-bones scene, has turned into a psychologically important event necessary for the growth of the main character. All just by considering where things are, why they’re there, what the weather’s like, and how he feels about it.
Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and just completed her BA, soon to be starting her MA in September, where she can’t wait till she’s done so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.
We all know that showing is generally better than telling. How you do it is a trickier question, and passages that establish setting have the highest risk of suffering from info-dumping. It’s a dilemma, because setting is one of the most important things in writing. Not knowing where a character is is extremely distracting and can lead to confusion. The obvious solution to that is to describe the setting.
But you can’t just say the character’s in a kitchen. It wouldn’t be very dynamic. You have to give details. But you can’t just give any details, you have to only give details that are pertinent to the story.
This, for example, is pure “telling”, a massive info-dump:
The back room was a small parlour. A thick creamy carpet covered the floor. The oval rosewood coffee table was surrounded by a loveseat and two chairs, and a small pianoforte sat in the corner by the window. The pianoforte’s white keys were yellowing ivory with a few chips from years of use. They were illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the gardens, whose heavy red drapes had been pulled back by hefty gold cords of silk. The mirror between the two windows was old and smoky, reflecting the fireplace on the opposite side of the room.
Well I’ve established setting, all right, but that’s all I’ve done. I haven’t made clear why you would need to know what’s in this parlour. I don’t have a single character using it, so all I’ve ended up with is a room with a bunch of stuff in it.
This is where the principle of Chekhov’s gun comes in handy. According to Chekhov, only the things that are relevant to the story should be in it. Everything extra is dead weight. In other words, as he said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” So by this logic, in this parlour, somebody must use the carpet, the furniture, the pianoforte, the drapes, the mirror, the fireplace, etc. in a way that drives the plot. If one of these things isn’t being used, take them out of your descriptions. They’re not important.
But then you still have to be careful, because too few details can put your character in setting limbo and confuse the reader. You can also lose a lot of your world’s richness. If your world is set in a historical time drastically different from ours, talking about the sunlight lighting up the chipped ivory keys of a pianoforte in a parlour is pretty romantic, and gives a clear sense of an older time. So how do you tell us about the piano? Make your character use it in a significant way. They don’t have to play it; they just have to interact with it.
However, then you have the problem where an entire chapter is just a character wandering around a parlour using and touching things and experiencing revelations about themselves and their quandaries through contemplation of window drapes. In that case, you stop, take a deep breath, and accept that this parlour can’t be adequately described all at once. The key is in breaking it up. Have several scenes that happen in the parlour, and each time, give it new details. If you don’t have several scenes in the parlour, then it’s likely not important enough to be so heavily described. It’s not the lavish tomb your character finds at the end of the story whose riches will end world hunger. It’s just a parlour.
The first time your character enters the parlour might go like this:
Their tour took them to the back of the house.
“This is the private parlour,” he said, opening the door for her.
She took a few steps inside. Her slippers sank into the lushness of the cream carpet. It felt especially soft after the hardwood of the hallway. She went past the furniture and stepped up to the large windows to look out to the gardens.
What she saw made her uneasy. In the middle of a paved circle surrounded by rose bushes, a person was standing with his back to her, arms outstretched, face to the sky.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
He looked where she was pointing, paled, and said, “Nobody.”
She shifted on her feet.
“He’s just the landscaper,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Let me show you the second floor.”
In the first scene, the parlour isn’t important. The man in the garden, however, is. Waxing lyrical about the contents of the room would divert attention and power away from the man, so you leave it for the next time she’s there.
The next time your character enters the parlour might look like this:
She went into the parlour and shut the door behind her. It was very dark. She tossed the sheet music onto the bench of the pianoforte and heaved the red drapes away from the windows, securing them with their gold silk cords. Sunlight poured into the room.
Lifting the lid of the pianoforte, she ran a finger along the edges of the white keys. Chips in the ivory bit into her skin. She rubbed the ache away, sat down, and began to play.
She hadn’t been practicing long before someone knocked.
“Come in,” she said.
In was the man from the rose garden. He gave her a small smile.
“Coffee?” he said.
She nodded, clasping her hands in her lap. A servant was ready at the door and entered to set up the coffee table. Delicate porcelain clinked against the polished surface of the rosewood. The man moved with a cool grace and eased himself into one of the dark pink chairs. She stood and went to the loveseat opposite him.
This scene focuses more on the furniture in greater detail. I’ve pretty effectively furnished the parlour by now. The only things I still haven’t mentioned are the mirror and the fireplace. I have, however, given my character a reason to become familiar with the room: the piano. By the time she needs to use the parlour to save herself from whatever dangers Creepy Garden Man is cooking up, the reader will know its layout as well as she will, including whatever stuff she can use to fight back, or what might be a hindrance to her safety. By pointing out new details each time the parlour is introduced, the compounding information builds a room with a rich setting.
The last thing that must be taken into account with setting is your character’s mood. How your character is feeling will affect what the character notices. If they’re anxious, they notice the ticking clock on the mantle. If they’re self-conscious, the mirror looks blotchier and older than usual, marring their appearance—or they can’t stand their reflection at all and actively avoid looking at it. The sun that made everything bright will just expose dirt and grime if they’re in a bad mood, and heavy drapes stop being elegant when they’re preventing them from opening a window to make a desperate escape.
Each and every thing in the parlour can be manipulated towards the character’s state of mind. Yesterday the parlous was rustic, quaint, and loved with its chipped-keys pianoforte. Today it’s dusty, old, and out of style, trapping them in a past they can’t escape. Tomorrow it’s a comforting safe haven of the known protecting them from the dangers of the unfamiliar.
And exactly that is the difference between showing and telling. Showing is borderline clinical. No matter how well you describe something, if you info-dump like I did in the first example, you’ll be locking the description of the setting into place. But if you make the reader experience it through your characters and their moods, and build the parlour up from scratch by adding new details each time you revisit the setting, you create a space that’s alive. It goes through transformations parallel to the growth of the character, giving you a setting whose fullness rivals reality.
Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and just completed her BA, soon to be starting her MA in September, where she can’t wait till she’s done so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.
The topic of critique partners is something that’s been covered several times on Pub Crawl. But today I want to talk specifically about giving feedback.
The best critique partner relationships occur when there is trust and respect between the two writers. If you’re working with someone whose work you despise, you’re never going to trust their feedback about yours. Similarly, if you don’t respect them as a writer, or if they don’t seem to be respectful in how they give you feedback, that relationship is going to crash and burn.
Last summer I was on the Young Authors Give Back Tour with fellow Pub Crawlers. Part of our tour included free writing workshops with young aspiring writers. When we talked about the necessity of finding a good critique partner, Pub Crawl alum Sarah Maas suggested giving your CP feedback in what she coined a “critique sandwich.”
I’m not sure if this is a term of her invention, or something adapted from other advice she’s heard, but her advice to the young writers stuck with me. Essentially, your feedback should be a balance of good and bad, and crafted with care; a delicious crit sandwich, if you will.
You open with with something positive about your CP’s story – What’s working, what you loved, elements you thought were done especially well. Think of this as the bottom roll of a deli sandwich.
Then the bulk of your critique should focus on the less-than-positive aspects of the story — What’s not working, plot holes, character inconsistencies, world building issues, and so on. This is the meat of the sandwich. You can layer on some toppings too (mention smaller issues), but as a critique partner (rather than a beta reader), you want to focus most of your energy on big picture issues.
Finally, end your critique with additional positive remarks — Something else you loved, or better yet, cheerleading. You want your CP to feel motivated and encouraged about making the story better, not overwhelmed and lost. Think of this last bit of positive feedback as the top roll of your sandwich.
And just like that, you have a delicious, carefully crafted crit sandwich for your CP. (I can still picture Sarah holding an invisible sandwich in the air and pretending to bite into it as I say this.)
Here’s a real-world critique sandwich example. Sooz recently read my first draft of VENGEANCE ROAD. (Well, more like the 20th draft, but it was her first time reading, and I’d revised the book as far as I could on my own.) Sooz’s feedback (paraphrased and simplified), went something like this:
First of all, your world is fantastic. I could picture everything, feel the dust and the plains and the heat. Really great.
I think you need to take a closer look at your characters and their emotional arcs. Kate has this mission of revenge, but she’s so focused on it that she almost becomes one-dimensional and selfish in her goals. Why are so many people helping her when she offers nothing in return? Maybe there’s a way to make her more sympathetic. [Sooz threw out some ideas] Similarly, [more thoughts on secondary characters and their motives]
Lastly, I think you have the bones of a greatstory here. The plot is there, and the world-building is great. Making the characters more nuanced and realistic is only going to make the story as a whole that much more compelling.
This feedback was actually given to me by video chat, so we spent several hours on point #2, brainstorming together and bouncing ideas back and forth. (If you have the means, I highly suggest this route when working with a CP. Beta reading feedback is usually fine via email, but for the heavy lifting, it is so nice to hash things out in real-time, face-to-face.)
As you can see, Sooz, whether she meant to or not, provided me with a delicious critique sandwich. If you’ve been working with a dedicated CP for awhile and have a good rapport, there’s a good chance you subconsciously give each other feedback like this, too.
But if you’re new to critiquing, or working with a new critique partner for the first time, I highly recommend keeping the “critique sandwich” in mind as you provide your feedback. It’s the perfect balance of encouragement and criticism. No one writes a perfect first draft (or book for that matter), but feedback that focuses entirely on negative or broken aspects of the book is a sure way to kill someone’s drive. As writers, we know 99% of writing is revision, but it so inspirational to hear what is working in any given draft. I can’t stress enough how important it is to cap your feedback with these positive aspects.
Before you go, I’m curious: Do you give your CP feedback (subconsciously or purposely) in a sandwich format? What other tips do you have providing tactful feedback?
Erin Bowman is a YA writer, letterpress lover, and Harry Potter enthusiast living in New Hampshire. Her TAKEN trilogy is available from HarperTeen (book three out 4/14/15), and VENGEANCE ROAD publishes with HMH in fall 2015. You can visit Erin’s blog (updated occasionally) or find her on twitter (updated obsessively).
Today, I stare failure in the face.
Today, I am scared.
Today, I see possibilities as the possibility of failing.
In other words, I have finished all my self-imposed deadlines on other projects and cleared my plate of other tasks, so that I can start a new novel. And it terrifies me.
It’s an ambitious project, something I expect to turn into a trilogy. I have such hopes for this project: hopes that it will reach new readers; hopes that it will be fun to write and promote; hopes that it will be (I’m afraid to even say it!) a breakout novel for me.
And I am scared.
I’ve done my homework. Volcanoes feature large in this story, so last month while I was in the Pacific Northwest, I visited Mt. St. Helens.
I recently visited Mt. St. Helens for research on the background for a new novel.
I’ve written samples for this story from different points of view, and even sold a short story based on the back story.
I SHOULD see the great possibilities of success.
I SHOULD approach this with excitement.
I SHOULD be so ramped up by now that the words would flow, as if bestowed from above, with angelic music swelling and…
No. Writing is work. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done or ever hope to do. But it’s also the most exciting, most fun, and most rewarding work I will ever do.
So, at 8:30 this morning, I’ll turn on my Freedom app, giving myself three hours of uninterrupted time. I will make a start. A messy start. But a start. And that will be enough for today. Just make a start, that’s my goal for today.
Note from Sooz: I am so excited to share this post from critically acclaimed Ben H. Winters, author of seven novels, including Countdown City (an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award). He has a great post for you today, in honor of his upcoming release, the third book in the Last Policement series: World of Trouble.
Now take it away, Ben! (And don’t miss the giveaway at the end!)
From Vonnegut: Start the Story
The legendary Kurt Vonnegut came to Washington University in St. Louis in May of my senior year, and I got to interview him for the school paper. Two things he said stuck with me. The first was that the internet was just a fad, and he was wrong about that, although sometimes I wish he hadn’t been.
The other thing he said was, when you’re done with your first draft, take the first 30 pages and throw them away. Like a lot of great writerly advice it was hyperbolic (see also Elmore Leonard’s much-quoted and rarely obeyed “rules”), but built around a gem of pure truth: we writers, especially novelists, have a tendency to start slow, to clear our throats, to give all the background at the beginning—which is exactly where it <span “>doesn’t belong, if indeed it belongs anywhere. Start with the story in motion , is what Vonnegut was saying, and let the reader run to catch up.
I live in Indianapolis now, where Vonnegut is a hometown hero, and where a mural of him towers over hip Massachusetts Avenue. Every time I walk past I thank him for teaching me how to to start my books.
From Terkel: Don’t be a fancy-pants writer jerk
As a young journalist working at a free weekly in Chicago, I got to interview Studs Terkel, at his house. Studs told me that one of his tricks to gaining the confidence of the ordinary people he chronicled so vividly in his oral histories was to pretend that his tape recorder was broken. Then he would fuss with it for a while, cursing and mopping his brow, letting them see that he wasn’t some egghead, but just an average fella, like them. Then they’d be comfortable and open up.
In the innumerable interviews I have done since, both as a journalist and now as a novelist, when I’m interviewing cops and astronomers and pathologists and insurance salesmen—and please, for the love of God, if you’re writing a book, hang out with actual humans with relevant experiences, and let them inform the truth of your text—I have done some version of this maneuver over and over. By doing something foolish and klutzy—drop my phone, borrow a pen, forget my questions—I enter into a sort of conversational intimacy with my subject, which is the kind of place that real deep truth comes out of.
And unlike Studs Terkel, I am a total klutz, and I always do forget to bring a pen, so I rarely have to pretend.
From William Penn: Get to Work
This one is kind of a cheat, because the founder of Pennsylvania died three centuries ago, and I just got this quote from a magazine article or something. But it’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, as a writer and as a human being: Time is what we want most, and use worst.
Because here’s what we writers always do—we complain about not having enough time to write. When will I get to write? Oh, man, I have no time to write. If only I had time to write!
And then when we do have time, when that magical hour or two hours appears, when a plan-free Saturday miraculously turns up on the calendar, what do we do? We waste all that time. Check email, check Facebook, clean the house, read the newspaper, check email again, and then it’s Oh, God, where did all the time go! If only I had time to write!
Take it from someone who wrote a whole series about civilization’s impending destruction: time is a precious resource. Embrace Penn’s dictum; train your mind (and you can train it) to get to work, even when it’s hard, even when you don’t feel like. There is no other way to be a writer.
Wow. I can’t believe Ben met Kurt Vonnegut. Also, Vonnegut’s advice is perfectly timed for me right now (I just spent >1 month “clearing my throat” with a new beginning). Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this, Ben!
Now, for our dear Pub Crawl readers, there’s an awesome World of Trouble pre-order campaign going on here. Basically, if you pre-order you get all sorts of cool extras. AND, of course, we’re doing a giveaway for all 3 books in the Last Policemen series right here on Pub(lishing) Crawl! WOOHOO! Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below to be entered to win!
Ben H. Winters is the author of seven novels, including most recently Countdown City (Quirk),an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award. Ben grew up in suburban Maryland, went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, and has subsequently lived in six different cities—seven if you count Brooklyn twice for two different times. Presently he lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife Diana, a law professor, and their three children.
I am working on a first draft of a story and am reminded of a couple things.
First, you must write the story. You can plan all you want, but the story comes alive in the actual writing. A small thing this week: my main character is afraid of all bugs. That includes insects and anthropods (spiders)–anything that crawls or flies. So, there they are, the Main Character(MC) and Best Friend (BF) sitting in art class and painting. Guess what the BF paints? An anteater! It’s a perfect addition to the story but I hadn’t planned on it. It came about simply because I wrote the first draft of the first chapter. And there it was.
We don’t know what we think until we write.
We don’t know what the story is until we write.
It’s like sports. You can predict who will win or lose a game, but the teams must still play the game. And there are always surprises.
Write your story. It will surprise you.
The second thing that is happening is not as nice. The story is boring.
I am still feeling my way through the story to find the line of tension, the exciting bits. I’ll keep writing even if it’s boring, because I am digging up anteaters. To use another bug metaphor, I’ve spun a web and I am sitting like a spider monitoring the web for the slightest hint of movement. When the movement–or story excitement–happens, I’ll be ready to pounce. It’s called trusting the process. It’s the most exciting and satisfying thing about writing, when a story comes together on many levels. It’s also scary: I KNOW this is a boring chapter, too full of static action and talking heads. I KNOW it’s bad. I could throw up my hands and just quit. Instead, I’ll plod along and write through the problems until I find something exciting. I can delete this boring chapter later (and, I will!). For now, I am trusting the writing process to get me to a stronger story. And it will.
I am in the midst of a truly awful first draft. Really. I have NEVER written such a bad first draft.
This is a sequel and it must be written to roughly follow an outline, but the outline seems sorta dead.
Here’s what I am doing: Push on. I am pushing forward, trying to write something, anything. Sometimes, the story is flat and sometimes it sings. Doesn’t matter. My goal this week is to finish a draft.
Trust the process. I am trusting the process. I know that the story won’t end with this draft; there will be multiple drafts after this, plenty of time to fix the glaring problems of this draft. It’s the only reason I am allowing myself to forge ahead, because I know that this is a process, not a static thing that I work on once and never again.
Update: As I pushed forward this week, the story did indeed start to connect as a whole. There are still many elements that are unconnected, but I am confident that I can get there. I keep thinking about Linda Sue Parks comments about her Newbery title, A SINGLE SHARD (Clarion, 2001). She says that she tried to make sure each chapter has something that looks forward and something that looks backward. For example, if she has a character use a gourd to get a drink from a spring in one chapter, she makes it her rule to use that gourd again somewhere else. The story starts with a basket-backpack leaking rice; partly, it starts there because the main character uses a basket-backpack to carry his master’s pottery to the capitol. If the backpack was necessary to the story, according to her rules, she had to use it somewhere else. THAT is what is missing in my story right now. There are elements that I threw into the first draft–because that’s what first drafts are for–but I’m not sure yet, if they will weave into the fabric of the story. For example, the main character notices in chapter one that someone has a nickname and realizes that he doesn’t have one. Right now, the story doesn’t resolve that. I need to either remove the reference entirely–or the story has to deliver him with a really great, appropriate nickname.
Experiment. Everything is going so badly anyway, that I feel free to experiment. I am throwing in snatches of conversation, snippets of a scene, trying out wording for actions–in other words, experiment. I would say that I am playing, but this time, there is just the hint of despair in the writing, since it is going so very badly. I am really searching for a voice that works. Maybe it needs another narrator? Maybe it needs a different setting? Anyway, I am allowing tangents that I would normally cut off.
Role of First Drafts. Most of all, I remember: the purpose of the first draft is to figure out what story you are telling. The purpose of all other drafts is to figure out the most dramatic way to tell that story. I remember that I am figuring out what story I am telling. So–I allow myself to, well, to figure it out. Slowly, painfully–the story is starting to shine through. It will be there within this draft, waiting for me to recognize it and polish it. I am just trusting the process and writing a really lousy first draft.
How do you take an idea to a book? I am just starting the process again and every time, it overwhelms me. I know the process works, but it seems so daunting at this first stage. So, I only look forward to the next task, knowing that taking the first step will lead me onward.
For this story, I’ll approach it on several levels at once:
Outlining. This is the fourth book in an easy-reader series, so I know the general pattern that the book will follow over its ten chapters. Chapter one will introduce the story problem and chapter ten will wrap it up. That leaves eight chapters and each has a specific function in this short format. Chapter 2 introduces the subplot, chapter 4 intensifies it and chapter 6 resolves it. That leaves chapters 1, 3, 5, 7-10 for the wrap-up. Chapters 9 and 10 are the climax scene, split into two, with a cliff hanger at the end of chapter 9. In other words, I can slot actions into the functions of each chapter and make it work. Knowing each chapter’s function makes it easier–but not automatic. I’ll still need to shift things around and make allowances for this individual story.
Character Problem. Making my characters hurt is the second challenge. Squeezing them, making them uncomfortable, making them cry, dishing out grief and mayhem–it’s all part of the author’s job. I tend to be a peace-maker and find this to be quite difficult. But if I can manage to bring my character’s emotions to a breaking point by chapter 8, I’ll be able to move the reader. I’ll be searching for the pressure points for the character as the outline progresses. Hopefully, the emotional resolution in chapter 9-10 will be a twist, something unexpected by the reader.
Back and Forth Between Outline and Characters. The nice thing about focusing on just this much at first is that it is interactive. I’ll go back and forth between plot, character and the structure demanded by this series until the story starts to gel. Will it be easy and automatic? Oh, no. I’ll be pulling out my hair (metaphorically) for a couple days. But by the end of the week (I hope) there will be progress.
How do you start your story? Do you free-write, create a character background, or outline? Which parts interact as you create the basis for a new story?
What Character Are You? Click to Enlarge. Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bk/12392396893/
I used to do a lot of acting. I went to an arts high school, my major being drama. Acting isn’t a very big part of my life anymore, but the things I learned in drama class were a massive influence on my development as a writer. Writing is similar to acting, in that you have to connect to the characters you’re creating and that usually involves putting yourself in their shoes. This can be difficult. Motives aren’t always easy to decipher, and I there are times where I just plain don’t know why a character is doing something. Times like these, I remember drama class.
My teacher had this method. It was an all-encompassing method that she gave to us in answer to any issue we had with motives or tactics. What was it?
Find the love in the scene.
The man loves the woman, and the woman is indifferent. Why is she indifferent? She doesn’t love him back.
Boring! Negation doesn’t leave a very good impression compared to agreement. In acting, the first rule of improvisation is that you’re not allowed to negate what your partner says. Granted, a woman’s love isn’t improv, but the point here is that negation isn’t very interesting. It can’t go anywhere. If she doesn’t love him, then who does she love? Someone else? Her work? Her independence? A flat no, without reason, will stagnate. Find the love in her life, and suddenly her reasons for not loving him are clear, and they create deeper conflict that you can develop.
Since conflict makes the story-world go round, it’s fortunate that love is the kind of emotion that is strong enough to start wars. Somebody flying in the face of your love is a serious offense and if it’s bad enough, it will move you to defend your love with everything you have. Characters in a novel are no different. If you find yourself struggling with a plot hole made from a character’s lack of reasons for action, find the love in the scene. If they’re reacting with an anger or hate you can’t explain, all you have to do is consider why they might be angry or have hate. Which is so obvious, I know, but the simplest way of doing that is having the characters love the opposite of what they hate and building the scene around that. If you have a girl glaring at a guy for tossing her a wolf whistle, don’t make it about how she hates bigotry. Make it about how much she loves equality and respect. After that, the hate comes naturally, and its depth is exponential.
Another reason love is so damn important is because from love you can create nearly every kind of relationship or reaction possible. There are three big questions when it comes to acting that you have to ask yourself while developing your character: What does the character want? Why did the character move? Why did the character say that? It’s not a coincidence that those are the exact same questions that I ask myself when I’m struggling with a scene. In the end, the most effective method of answering them is by figuring out what they love. Their loves can be numerous. They can extend away from people and reach into the realm of both abstract and concrete concepts: I love humour, I love music, I love freedom. Take those away from me, and I will fight you. Give them to me and I will appreciate you. Tease me with them, string me along, and I’ll follow, because just the glimpse of those things, just the possibility of possessing them to a greater extent, will seduce me into a state of obedience.
Suddenly, I have three relationships, all three extremely different, all built around what I love, all with perfectly explicable motives that are true to myself and make me consistent about being who I am.
Consider this with your characters, and clarity will follow.
Find the love in the scene.
Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and in her fourth year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.
Some fear the blank page. I fear the half-written page.
I was writing along, doing great on a story when life interrupted (how dare it!). Has that happened to you? You know where the story is going, you’re in the drafting mode and going strong and BANG! Something happens. You have to set the story aside for a while.
Momentum is lost.
The story almost seems lost, too.
When life interrupts your story, how do you get back into it?
Picking up the Threads of an Abandoned Story
The first thing I’ll do this week is re-read the story. It’s important to see what I actually put on the page.
Next, I’ll try to recapture the excitement and recreate my mindset. This means looking at notes, images, reference material or anything else that will help remind me of my place in the story. Maybe I’ll need to write a letter to myself about how excited I was when I was writing the story.
Retype a chapter. If that doesn’t help, I’ll retype a chapter and make small edits as I go.
Move the pen across the page. When I taught freshman composition, I used a technique that always worked. I insisted that the student move the pen across the page and write words. In other words, they had to go through the motions of writing.
“What do I write?” they moaned.
“I don’t know what to write.”
OK. Write this sentence and keep writing it until you want to write something else:
I don’t know what to write, so I am writing this dumb sentence.
Inevitably, after writing that sentence once or twice, the student segued into something else.
If all else fails to get me back into the story. I’ll do the same thing. I’ll sit and go through the motions of writing until I get so bored with the drivel that I’ll start to get creative and something will happen. I only hope what happens on the page is magic!
My growth as a writer included a phase of what might be termed hyper-realism. Or maybe just plain realism, depending on how you define it. Either way, during this phase, my writing was full of overly detailed description to make sure the reader saw exactly what I saw in my mind. Contrived punctuation abounded in attempt to better mimic a person’s speech. Inner monologues of a character took up pages of space that I considered crucial because if I didn’t write them, the reader wouldn’t have all the same opinions on the character as I did.
No surprise that sometimes it read more like a scientific paper than a freaking novel.
It took a while (and a few critique partners) for me to admit to myself that what I write will not always be read the way I want it to be read. Not everybody will catch clues I mistake as universal about a character’s state of mind. To me a blue dress is calming, to another it’s cold, to yet another it’s just a plain blue dress. Once I accepted this, I was able to reign in the amount of banal facts that my obsessive nature had a tough time omitting.
I still wanted my writing to reflect real life, though, regardless of my inability to have it done to my satisfaction. When I felt like life was gritty and unfair, I wrote about people who were forced to cut throats to survive. When I thought generously of thieves, I explored misunderstandings surrounding the events of a theft. When I held love in low regard, I wrote of its talent for cruelty. After all, desperate cutthroats, framed thieves, and twisted romances all exist in real life, which automatically made them fair game.
But damn, was it still limiting. I could write about anything in the world, anything at all—as long as it existed. That was the catch. I used to not be able to write any kind of fantasy. Creating a different world aside from Earth and coming up with altered laws of physics was way beyond anything I could do, because they weren’t real. In my quest for an untarnished mirror of truth, I had boxed myself into a place where nothing could exist that didn’t already exist, and where even if I wrote about it, nobody understood how I meant it, anyways. If I couldn’t accurately write about real things, how was I supposed to write about invented things?
Then it hit me. The most obvious thing about fiction: it’s fiction. Nothing exists in fiction. There is no such thing as real life in fiction. Everything, everything, is a literary construct created by an artist to tell whatever story they think is worth telling in a way they think appropriate.
Here is the single truest thing about the creation and consumption of fiction: There is no such thing as being unbiased.
I couldn’t tell you what it’s like to kill in order to survive. All I know about it is what I’ve soaked up from years of reading, listening, and watching. What I’ve read, listened, and watched was filtered through my life experiences, twenty-two blessed years of living in Toronto with a fine family and great friends. If I’ve ever met a misunderstood thief, I don’t know it, and what cruelty I see in love is likely just a fraction of what some warped relationships out there really experience. That’s not to say I don’t think I can write from these perspectives, but they will definitely be coloured by what I think is reality.
In other words, they will be coloured by my reality. The reason why I will never be able to say exactly, completely, 100% what I want to say when I write is because the thought process that led to it is unique to me. Just as I write with bias, readers read with bias and see things through their customized, one-of-a-kind filter. Now we’re all human, so assuming I have even a modicum of talent, I’ll be able to write in such a way that no matter what, readers will understand and relate to it at least objectively. But this bias is the ultimate source of both conflict and beauty in the relationship between writer and reader: I write what I want to write, you read what you want to read. My reality is not your reality, but since they’re both a reality, that exist here on Earth, no less, we’re able to work together in the giving and receiving of great art to create a new reality. A fictional one.
Once I realized that real life in fiction doesn’t exist, every single closed door was thrown open to me. Letting go of these anxieties, accepting the difficulties inherent in writing, I was finally able to relax into my role as a literal god of my fictional world. Writing fantasy isn’t beyond me anymore. I’m okay with different interpretations of my characters and I’ve come to terms with altered readings of actions and events. In return, I get the most passionate, remarkable, and profound thing that writing fiction has to offer:
Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and finishing up her fourth year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.
Never cry over first drafts! Instead, take heart in Katherine Paterson’s wise words: Make ice cream.
Once again, I am writing a really, really bad first draft.
I know that I can clean it up.
But every time I do this, I am slightly embarrassed. Really? That’s the best I can do?
I have avoided the draft of the last two chapters of this story for over a month, but finally, deadlines loomed and I had to buckle down and do this.
I tried my best to write two good chapter. Instead, they are very bad.
I knew that was going to happen!
That’s why I put it off.
But putting it off doesn’t change the reality. Sometimes, no matter how you try, you must just write the draft, even if it’s bad. Then, you can revise and refine ad nauseam. But you can’t revise what isn’t written. It’s a cold reality.
I should have embraced the bad.
Just done it a long time ago.
But I want so badly to write well. (That’s really all I ever want–to write well.)
The writing process is crazy. But it works. Bad first draft is done today! Now, for the joy of revising.
When writers get together, sometimes we talk about which we like better: first drafts or revisions. It seems that most of us like revising more, and there are many good reasons for this. I personally have a "grass is always greener" response: I like whichever one I'm not doing.
Currently, I'm in the midst of a revision on one YA novel and the first draft of another. While it feels and sounds somewhat schizophrenic, it kind of works for me.
I really love first drafts. Maybe everyone does. I mean, it's usually a fairly new idea, which means exciting, intriguing, fresh, not yet muddied with many critiques and different ideas about where it should go. You can experiment with voice and format, structure and characters. It's play time. No one can take their first draft seriously. And that's why I like it so much. I allow myself to be completely free to write crap, to not make sense, to not censor my ideas, and to just let it all be so very messy. How much fun is that? I can leave large gaps in narrative with just a note to myself that I need to add a scene here that is interesting. I don't actually have to write the interesting scene. I am getting to know my characters and their back stories. I get to create the world they will inhabit.
The hard thing about first drafts for me is that you have to create something out of nothing. While I find this creatively fulfilling and stimulating, it's also extremely hard. It's like being pregnant. You have to create one cell at a time until the whole being is there. It's exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Sometimes the creative spirit is there and the writing seems to fill the page almost magically. Oftentimes, the writing feels like concentrating on each single breath you take in a day, as if you have to make yourself breathe instead of it being an involuntary act your body does automatically.
But when all is said and done, you have a mess of a first draft. Ugh. Now you have to make it into something that other people might want to read. This is really hard work. It's so natural to look at this beautiful baby we've created and think it is just perfect and needs no additional work. But we all know that's not true at all.
However, revisions can be a playful time as well. I love to get critiques from my writing group, from editors at workshops, from my daughters who are also writers. There are so many wonderful ideas and possibilities. I get to look at them all and decide which ones fit the story I'm trying to tell. It's a collaborative time for me. A social time.
The comforting aspect of revisions for me is that at least I have something already there to work with. However, much of it will be cut by the time I finish revising. I always save those sections, just in case I decide to use a certain turn of phrase or save the scene for some other book. So I never really delete things--just save them for another day. For example, one of the characters in my current revision project came to me more than 25 years ago, and waited around patiently until her turn came. Sometimes I cut several chapters completely. Less experienced authors sometimes gasp when I tell them this, but I never regret having written those scenes--or having to cut them. They were a piece I needed to write in order to know something important about my characters or my story. It just doesn't work in the storytelling.
Usually, for me, the first draft is fast and dirty. I just want to get the whole thing out so it's all there on the page. I rush too much and don't include enough detail. Structure and meaning often fall by the wayside. And I skip a lot of internal and emotional plot in order to get the bare bones set up.
So revision is my change to go back and add the rest of the parts to that skeleton, the sinew and the connective tissue. The guts and the muscle. It's often a layering process. I usually end of up a layer of skin first to keep it all held together, and then I add the internal organs to keep the life force flowing. Bit by bit, until I get the teeny nerve endings in there in the final revision, the ones that help it all make sense and transfer imagery and meaning. This part is more like raising the child you gave birth to--it takes a long time and a lot of work (hopefully not 18 years, though). Eventually, you launch it into the world.
My favorite part of all is the having done it. Being done, knowing I put my best into it. It's such a satisfying feeling to see what I have made. Just like the baby I raised into an adult--it is so amazing, beyond my imagination actually, what came from my efforts.
I am thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year, joining with thousands of others in trying to write 50,000 words–a novel–during the month of November.
You can’t count any words written before November 1, but I know I can’t do this if I don’t work on a plot before the mad rush officially begins. So far, I only have a situation.
What’s the difference in a plot and a situation?
A situation is a single event, a strange combination of story elements. For example, there’s an annual contest called Stuck on a Truck. The idea is for selected people to put their hands on a truck and keep them there. The last one standing–and still stuck on that truck–will win the truck. It usually takes 100 hours for the last ones to drop out. That’s 4-5 days with no sleep.
It’s an interesting situation and one that I’d like to write about. But it’s not a plot.
Transform a Situation into a Plot
For the situation to become a plot, I need to add characters with real problems they must overcome. I am sifting through the ideas for characters, looking for flaws, quirks and a heart for readers to connect with. I also need to add a setting, ground the story in a particular historical period (contemporary, historical, fantasy, etc.), a particular geographical place. And finally, I need to be mean, cruel, despicably unfair to my characters; in other words, I need intense complications that force my characters to make decisions they don’t want to make. Tension on every page.
When you want to sell a book, there are two options. First, you can write the book, hoping that it will sell. We call this writing “on speculation,” or “on spec.” It means you are taking the up-front risk of time and effort to write, in the hopes that someone will buy. It’s the usual method of writing fiction and almost all new authors must follow this.
A second way to write is to create the concept, a couple sample chapters and put together a book proposal. This is common for experienced writers, nonfiction topics and series.
What goes into a proposal?
A proposal includes a clear concept and samples of the writing that will appear in the finished manuscript. Let’s look at non-fiction and fiction separately.
Concept: For fiction, a book proposal a high-concept catchy one-liner is helpful. “Boy meets girl” isn’t enough. You’ll need something interesting enough to carry the proposal, so think about how to phrase the one-liner, the hook.
A love affair with a twist: she wants his bite, but he wants her humanity.
Chapter Breakdown: Usually the first book in a series must have a couple lines per chapter. The editors will want to know that you can, indeed, plot a tight story. Each chapter should include a couple lines about the major actions of the story.
Characters: Sometimes, it’s helpful to include short sketches of each major character. Nothing long, a paragraph at most. Make sure each is unique and interesting and contributes to the story.
Series Outline: If you’re proposing a series, then you’ll need half a page or so on each title. Include an overview with the main problem, major complications and a resolution.
Your Bio: Why are you the best person to write this story? What are your past publications, etc. Keep this specific to the proposal, yet general enough to cover your career.
Writing Sample: You must include a sample of the writing for this book, so the editor has a clear idea of what they will get for this contract. Don’t be skimpy. Write three solid chapters and polish them, put your best foot forward.
Letter: This is the usual business letter that you would include with any query or submission letter. Be sure to include the series hook and a hook for the first book.
The nonfiction proposal includes everything above, except maybe the character sketches. For a biography, though, you’d include it as well. The extra for a nonfiction proposal is the bibliography. You course, you’ll uncover many more resources as you write your story, but you need enough here to let the editor know you have material to write about.
Especially important here is your access to sources. If an editor gets two similar proposals for stories about George Washington, s/he’ll look at the access to sources. Writer A has done online research and has uncovered interesting info. Writer B, though, has contacted Mount Vernon and has an invitation
You might remember earlier in the month I posted about my March goals: four poems a day five days a week on my new historical verse novel. Here are my stats so far:
day 1: 4 poems day 2: 4 poems day 3: 4 poems day 4: 2.5 poems day 5: 2 poems day 6: 4 poems day 7: 3.5 poems day 8: read through and notes day 9: research day 10: research day 11: research
total: 48 poems overall
My day 8 read through showed me I couldn't move forward until I did some more research. So I've set writing aside in order to better ground myself in some historical specifics. I'll be honest: this has really frustrated me. I've felt like I'm shirking a goal. But as the all-wise Valerie Geary has reminded me, any work toward the draft is moving forward, even if there's nothing immediately added to the manuscript.
Here's to reading, thinking, and transforming facts into story.
Have your writing goals ever changed in order to benefit your story?
So, I've written three complete novels. One to be published late next year.
I just finished my third a week or two ago.
And now, as I stare at a blank Scrivener document, I can't remember how to write something new.
Oh sure, I have lots of stories percolating in my brain. I don't have writer's block per se.
I just can't remember how to get the ball rolling.
So I need your advice.
What are your tips and trade secrets to spewing out that first draft? Do you outline? Do you wing it? Do you write without chapter divisions? Do you write in scenes? Where do you go to generate plot ideas? What is your one, fail-proof step that helps you get the story flowing?
Your novel is progressing nicely and you finish a chapter. But then, the next chapter is calling and you procrastinate, you read blogs, you do laundry, you AVOID.
How can you get started on that next chapter?
Sensory details. I like to imagine where my character is in the next chapter, then close my eyes, put myself there and try to imagine all the things the character might see, hear, touch, taste or smell. Then, I push hard to find an interesting detail and I start writing there. The danger is that you might start with too much description. That’s OK, you can take care of that during revision. The goal here is to get started.
Action. Alternately, starting with a great verb can help jumpstart the story. Think beyond the usual: walk, run, turn head, whirl. Instead, go for something distinctive: salute, pirouette, regurgitate. (Please, avoid those pesky adverbs, which add so little. Not walked lazily. But strolled.) Get your character in motion and keep him/her in motion for a page or so, and you’ll figure out where to go next.
Dialogue. One of my favorite openings to a novel is Tom Sawyer, which opens with his aunt calling: “Tom!”
When in doubt, begin a new chapter with a bit of dialogue. Keep it going for about ten exchanges and then move on.
Dead End Ways to Start a Chapter
On the other hand, there are some dead-end ways to start chapters:
Waking up. Rarely does it work to have a character start a chapter in bed, then wake up. Boring. (OK. Prove me wrong! As long as it gets you going on a new chapter.)
Backstory. Long explanations of a character’s history rarely excite the reader either. We don’t need to know about Mary’s uncle’s horse and how it escaped and caused Mary to jump into a ditch where she broke her leg. Instead, show-don’t-tell how she is dealing with that broken leg. Past action is boring; current action is exciting.
Dull vocabulary. If there’s ever a place for brilliance of voice, phrasing, interesting vocabulary, it’s the opening of a chapter. Here is where you want to catch a reader’s attention. No, you don’t want it to be so overblown that it is out of character with the rest of the story; however, you do want it to catch a reader. And, the beauty is that if you do overwrite, it’s just a first draft.
These are ideas to help you get something—anything—on paper. There’s plenty of time for revision. But that first draft has to get written, one chapter at a time. Stop procrastinating. Write!
When you write a first draft of a novel, you may be prone to spaghetti problems. The term was coined by Jon Franklin in his book, Writing for Story, which is about writing nonficiton; but it’s a useful concept for any type of writing.
Spaghetting is when you are writing along without a clear idea of where your story should go and you wake up one morning and the story is so tangled it seems like a plate of spaghetti. This happens to organic writers (otherwise known as those who write by the seat of their pants, or pansters), but also to those who are semi-organic-semi-planners (sometimes known as plansters). Strict outliners might avoid this problem, but they will have problems of their own.
I am a Semi-planner: I know the overall thrust of the story, the character’s main emotional arc and where the story will end. With that in hand, I semi-plan the opening act, then start writing. I know that somewhere in there, I will have to stop and re-plan the next section of the story. That’s because the story tends to spaghetti.
Spaghetting can happen when you decide to take off on a tangent, just to see where the story might go. And it might go straight into spaghetti; or it might take off into space, with celestial angels channeling through you. Mostly, mine spaghettis.
When this happens, don’t panic. (Oh, it’s at THAT stage.) Instead, you must put on your left-brained analytic hat and look at what you’ve done. Where did the story start to get off track?
Try to pinpoint the exact place where something started going wrong. Put your cursor at that spot and highlight everything after it. Cut and paste that spaghetti section into a new file and call it Spaghetti-1. I hate to delete anything totally! There may be a couple things in that file that I need.
And then, analyze where you are in the story. What has happened up till now? Where is the character on his/her emotional arc? List possible scenes for what might happen next and work on plotting from this point onward. You may need to go back and clean up traces of spaghetti sauce in previous chapters, but you can probably go forward and wait till the full draft is done.
This is a much better strategy than abandoning a mss after 100 pages–something I’ve been known to do. Instead, get rid of spaghetti pages, replot and get that first draft done.
A cat says ________.
A dog says________.
A skunk says______. (We don't know!)
Watch this video to hear a skunk, a ground hog, a bison and more.
When a reader first opens your novel or story and reads the first line, the first paragraph, have you welcomed the reader and tried to put them at ease? It is imperative to invite the reader into a story in a way that puts them at ease. This means clarity must rule. The reader must never question where the story is taking place, or what—exactly—is happening in this scene. You do not have to spill all the backstory at this point—that doesn’t work. But the reader should know when, where and who and a hint of why.
Setting. The setting should be clear and specific, with sensory details appropriately sprinkled throughout the opening scene. This includes information on the geographic location, time frame (e.g. 6th century BC or 2017A.D), and something about the emotional territory.
Character. In the opening pages, the reader should meet a character that intrigues. Please, don’t name five characters on page one and expect the reader to stay oriented. Instead, give each important character a grand entrance. The inner life of the main character should start to come alive, as well. What does s/he fear, love, long for?
Cautions: The worse drafts hide information, wrongly believing that just giving a hint here or there is the best strategy. Instead, the reader becomes confused and closes the book, never to open it again. The great sff writer Orson Scott Card wisely said, “The only thing to withhold is what happens next.” Within the context of a scene, this is exactly right. The reader should understand exactly what is going on—and be so enthralled that s/he turns the page to find out “what happens next.”
Don’t use this as an excuse to include backstory, though! Backstory comes ONLY at the point at which it will create an emotional crisis in a reader. Instead, when the reader is deep within a scene, they should only care about what happens next.
Voice is too formal
In the search for a great voice, some writers fall back on their English class and write too formally. Great fiction is informal writing. This means you can use slang, jargon, curse words (when appropriate), incomplete sentences, sentence fragments. You can, and should, interrupt someone when they are speaking. Characters can be rude. A great novel is not a tea party! Stop being so polite, so formal.
Try making up rules for yourself–play with the formality of your novel; keep what works and discard the rest. Don’t like my rules? Make up your own. But play!
For every ten sentences, you must use a sentence fragment.
You must use one slang/jargon word per page.
You will write one section of dialogue (about 10 exchanges) and every bit of dialogue is incomplete sentences.
In every chapter, someone must be rude.
Yawn. What happened in this chapter?
Then, why is the reader turning pages?
A good exercise is to go through each chapter and write one sentence that summarizes what happens. Something important must develop or change in some way in every single chapter. Novelists do not have the luxury to stop and give us back story or tell every single detail of the setting. You must pick and choose from among the myriad of details, bits of dialogue, actions, thoughts and arrange them in an exciting, fascinating, intriguing order.
For every action, your main character should have an emotional reaction. Why else is the reader following this character around? OK. Not every single action. But it’s a good exercise to try: underline the actions, and circle the main character’s emotional reaction to what just happened. How do they correlate? Do we have 100 actions and only one emotional reaction? Where ever you are on the continuum from no emotional reaction to 100% emotional reactions, evaluate it in terms of your character, your novel. Is the reader getting enough of your MC’s inner life to keep turning the pages? From my experience as a first reader, most novelists err on the side of not enough emotion. If this is hard for you, push yourself toward too much emotion and you may wind up about right.
Writing a novel is a continual decision-making process. For each detail you might include, there are dozens of great ways to put that into words. We go from words to sentences to paragraphs—and each word selection carries connotations and denotations. It’s complex! The variety of ways to tell a story are amazing. What scenes do you include/exclude, and why? What character is the main character? The point of view character?
Throughout the process of writing a novel, it’s a balancing act all the way. We walk a tightrope upon which we build a story. One misstep and the reader falls off.
This is one of the main reasons why first pages go wrong. 90% of a story may be working, until a sentence here, a word there, a questionable emotion in the midst of the scene—and the reader puts the book down. Fine tuning the novel is crucial. Here is where first readers can really help, by marking the places that are “off.” Even if they can’t articulate WHY this section is OFF, they know it when they read it. You don’t want an English teacher marking up the story with red marks. You want a sensitive reader saying, nope, this doesn’t fit. Don’t know why, just know it doesn’t fit.
It’s a matter of balance: every word must belong. Nothing must be out of place. The reader must keep turning pages with no interruptions in the flow.
Today, there are no words on the page that I can point to and say, “I wrote that today.”
But it was still a successful writing day.
I reread the first book of a series and got the voice and characters back in my head. In the early stages of prewriting, I need to see what went before and how I can play a variation on the them for this new book.
I worked on new characters and situations for the second book. And it will take me a couple more planning days, as I try something, reject it, and try something new. The firs things that come to mind are likely the weakest and I need to push past those cliches to something more fun. Unfortuntately, that means there has to be something there to push past. Which means grunt work of writing bad ideas to reject, so the good ideas can come forward.
I set up a folder for Book 2 and added two documents to it. Getting organized mentally, getting files organized, setting up work folders–all of that prepares me mentally to work. I am setting myself up for success. I will have all the tools and processes in place.
I decided to start on this next Tuesday, September 3. By setting up a “trigger,” or a deadline, it gives me a mental head start on what I need to get done before then and encourages/forces me to make decisions this week that will create a successful start to a new project.
I also set a deadline for finishing the first draft of the project. By adding the end-date to the project, it also sets me up to be professional in the writing, to set a goal of writing a certain amount per week.
In everything I do this week, I plan to set myself up for success. What are you doing to set yourself up for success?
There’s an excitement in the air! I’ve started a new novel project.
Here’s what I don’t want to happen:
I don’t want the excitement for this project to get bogged down and dribble away. It happens too easily, as life issues take over, as problems arise with the project, or just as the work drags on.
I don’t want to talk bad about this project to anyone. Sometimes, I fall into the habit of complaining. This chapter or that character just aren’t cooperating! Why is this so hard? ARGH! I hate this project because it’s not going like I want. Nope. None of that this time. I love this project and I’m excited about it. I think my readers will love it, too. Hurrah! It’s such a joy to be working on such a great project.
I don’t want this project to drag on forever. I have scheduled two months to get a first draft done and I’m working hard on keeping to that schedule.
Here’s things I want to happen:
Joy. Excitement. Productivity.
Here are the steps I plan to follow: One page synopsis. I’ve written a one-page summary of the story, knowing full well that it would need to be fleshed out when the time comes. Now that the time is here, it’s easy to see where I want the story to go. There are huge gaps in the story, of course, but the one-page synopsis grounds the story in some particular issues.
Subplots to Detailed Plot.I am taking a day to flesh out some of the subplots. For example, one subplot will involve kids planning a parade. I spent today researching fun ideas to add to the parade and parade planning. Did you know that some parades these days require horses to wear diapers? It’s true. Horse poop on city streets–though once the norm–is now a no-no. There are special bags which are strapped to horses to catch their “meadow muffins.” (Now, see, isn’t that great language to use in a book? Meadow muffins. Horse apples.) Real life can be stranger than fiction: horse diapers.
I’ll take a day to research the other subplots and layout some ideas for developing the plot lines. Then, I’ll spend a day picking and choosing scenes to include and weaving them into the main plot line to create a detailed plot. That breaks the task of plotting into steps that I can manage. By approaching it from the subplot angle, I am free to make leaps and make errors: it doesn’t matter, it’s just a subplot. But in the end, I am sure that I’ll find some unique things to add to this story to make it more fun and funny.
WARNING: THIS 24-SECOND VIDEO SHOWS A HORSE POOPING. Your kids will probably love it!
Characterization and character continuity. With a detailed plot in hand, I’ll double check the characterization needed. Because this is a second book in a series, much of the characterization is set up and I’ll need to continue it on, create an emotional arc for this book and make sure there is continuity. The first step will be the emotional arc for the character. I’ll need to make sure the external plot echoes the internal arc. This means a detailed summary of the story that includes the plot, subplots and character issues.
Revise. With a very long, detailed synopsis of the story, I’ll look for holes in logic, characterization and plot.
Write. Finally, I’ll use the synopsis to create a full draft–by Halloween.
This is a slightly different process for me, with more upfront planning. I’d like the full synopsis to be about 1/3 of the finished book, which will be enough detail to help me get the whole story done.
First drafts never come easy. They rarely turn out exactly how you’ve planned them, if you’ve even planned them at all. The other day, fellow pantser and Pub Crawler JJ posted about endings being one of the most challenging things for her, and offered useful advice on how she deals with the inevitable wall blocking her way to the goal.
I’m the total opposite. I always know my endings. I know from the start how everything will turn out, which characters, if any, will die, and what kind of world order will be in place. If I don’t, then I have no will to write. I can have the perfect world constructed, but if I don’t have an ending to suit a story, I may as well have never created it.
But this far from makes things easier, nor does it make them necessarily harder. It’s just a different way of writing. Beside my shining, glittering, golden ending is a looming pit of darkness in need of filling. It’s true, the edges are faintly lined with tentative opening chapters, and there are some generic filler ideas peeking through the gloom, but mostly it’s a pit of darkness.
The most effective method I’ve found to defeat the pit of darkness is by making mistakes.
This is something we’ve all heard before: You’ll never learn until you’ve made mistakes. And it’s usually followed by sagely uttered words about knowledge gained in how to avoid them. But here’s an idea. If you’re writing your first draft and you start making mistakes, don’t fix them. If you’re in a place where your ideas aren’t set in stone anyways, you have nothing to lose. Explore the notion that the mistake you made is actually the right answer.
Here’s an example of what I mean. A few months ago, I was writing a wedding scene. I was writing it out of sheer desperation because I had no idea how to progress the story even though my ending looked so beautiful in the distance. The bride had recently lost her parents under suspicious circumstances, and was unhappily getting married to a man who employs her very close family friend. Naturally, this family friend will be present at the wedding. The bride needs all the support she can get, especially since she’s pretty much getting married against her will. The family friend hates the groom despite working for him, but will be there because he knows that the bride will need a friendly face in the crowd. Let’s be honest here; the only reason this character exists is because she needs an ally.
It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized I’d totally forgotten to include him in the wedding ceremony. And the reception. And all the subsequent scenes of the bride feeling abysmally lonely. In other words, a character whose sole function of being a person’s support system collapsed into a heap of moot possibilities.
I couldn’t believe my stupidity. I mean, this guy was best friends with her father. He’s known her since she was born. This was going to be his shining moment. What the frak was he doing that was more important than the wedding?!
I was about to go all the way back to the beginning of the event to start writing in cameos heavily featuring trivial exchanges and encouraging smiles when I started thinking…
…What was he doing that was more important than the wedding?
That one mistake, followed by that one question, ended up giving me enough fodder for ten thousand words of new plot and created a conspiracy theory that will last me the entire story.
I can’t even imagine the story anymore where the family friend is present at the wedding. I can’t stop the eye-roll when I think about how useless he was. And you have to be a pretty damn useless character for a writer to forget about you completely during a scene where you should be excelling at your purpose.
This is what I mean by making mistakes. Rather than fixing them, explore them.
Obviously, some mistakes lead to plot holes, and this way of writing is mostly beneficial to people who don’t plan details. But even so, it’s easy to get stuck on a concept just because you feel you have no choice but to keep it. In some ways, committing to these kinds of mistakes is the equivalent of murdering your darlings before they’ve even been created. Sometimes choices are hard to come by. Other times the imperfect human memory hands them to you so elegantly you think you made the mistake on purpose.
In any case, next time you realize you’ve made a huge error, try to think of its possibilities before chucking it. You may have subconsciously created a better situation for yourself.
After all, most great things are discovered by accident.
Biljana Likic is currently revising her first novel. She’s in her fourth year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her personal blog and follow her on Twitter.