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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.
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.
I’ve been reading manuscripts lately and one thing keeps jumping out at me: dialogue that is too perfect. It’s grammatically correct, perfectly punctuated. And totally unreal.
Characters don’t talk that way. Kid-characters, especially, in the midst of an exciting bowling tournament or soccer or other sports games do NOT talk in complete sentences.
Use Sentence Fragments for Realistic Dialogue
You must get over the fear of sentence fragments in order to write believable dialogue. Really. Right now. Commit to at least one sentence fragment on every page of your manuscript, just for practice.
Here’s an example from Clementine, Friend of the Week by Sara Pennypacker:
“What does that stand for, M.V.P.?” I asked.
Margaret scratched her head like she was fake-remembering. “Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest,” she said. “He wins it every year. No competition.”
That is three sentence fragments: Oh, right! Moron-Villain-Pest. No competition.
What if Pennypacker had filled out those sentences?
“Oh, you are right! M.V.P. means Moron-Villain-Pest. He wins it every year. There is no competition.”
That is clumsy to read, more boring, and destroys the voice of the novel. Sentence fragments work better here to keep the rhythm, keep the pace interesting and maintain the ironically-innocent voice of Clementine.
Sentence fragments also allow the writer to put emphasis where needed to direct the reader’s attention. Here, the emphasis is on the definition of M.V.P and how well the M.V.P fulfills his role. No competition.
Are you struggling with believable dialogue? Look at writers like Elmore Leonard, David Mamet and Woody Allen.
Yesterday, I went to a local elementary school to tutor, something I’ve recently started. My second grader, CL, brought a nonfiction, information worksheet to go over. He read through the information on what makes popcorn pop and did pretty well in the reading. But his understanding was weak.
The paper said that popcorn kernels pop because the water in the kernel gets heated up into steam, which cracks open the hard cover and the popcorn pops out.
OK. I asked CL, “What is a kernel?
He didn’t know. In fact, he consistently had trouble pronouncing the word. And yet one of the exercises was to draw popcorn before and after popped.
Even more crucial to understanding the text, I asked CL, “What is steam?”
He didn’t know.
The writer of this informational piece made assumptions about his audience, that they would understand certain vocabulary words: kernel and steam. Further, these words were crucial to understanding the piece. In my opinion, the writer failed in communicating. (Yes, in the context of a school assignment, maybe CL just needed to learn a couple words. But these weren’t presented as vocabulary words; instead it was an informational piece that he needed to comprehend, but crucial information was missing from the text.)
How often do we fail to engage our audience because of our vocabulary, our sentence structures, the organization of our stories. Do you consider audience at every turn?
For fun, go to Up-Goer Five and try to write something only using the Ten Hundred most common English words. How does this compare to your usual writing? How should it compare?
Of course, even when writing picture books you don’t have to worry about vocabulary level because these books are usually read by an adult to a kid. However, you do need to make sure the adult will understand the book. Also, many unfamiliar words can be understood in context.
Vocabulary Level. Make sure your vocabulary levels will be understood by the reader. For unfamiliar words, create a strong context, or define it in the text.
Dialect or Diction.THE HELP was written in dialect and it almost turned me off from reading it. It wasn’t the topic or the events, just how it was told. It’s also part of the charm of the story.
Insult or Bless. Remember, too, that your words have the power to tear down or build up. Yes, in fiction, there are awful conflicts that must be expressed honestly. Yes, characters tear each other down. But overall, does your story end in a note of hope? Does good triumph over evil? I know there are dark stories without hope, without success. But they aren’t the type of stories I want to write. My stories end with hope.
Too Intellectual? When I write fiction, I use the words that are appropriate for my story, words that convey exactly what I mean. And yet, I also know that I tend to be a bit too much in love with my words. Sometimes, I will replace words–for my audience’s sake.
What do you do for your audience’s sake? What are you assuming they will know that will make your communication fail?
A friend and I are working on an idea for a picture book based on a true life event. The challenges in doing this are multiple.
First, it has to has to interest the audience of small children and adults, because picture books really have two audiences, the kids and the adults who read to the kids. It means that there has to be a surface story and a deeper story.
Second, while I must remain true to the events, there still needs to be a story. I know there is a lot of discussion about some kids wanting “straight up science”, you don’t have to use a narrative arc; nevertheless, narrative nonfiction is my preference. The biggest challenge, though, is to find a story in the facts, one that resonates with the audience(s).
Third, one reason to write a nonfiction picture book is to educate readers about topics that are important. In this case, the topic is endangered species and how loss of habitat is putting stress on certain populations of animals. It’s also about some successful intervention strategies that are current and could be a hot topic. Oh, wow, that sounds SO boring, even to me. And therein lies the challenge: how do you make the information accessible to a picture book audience, i.e. put it in words they can understand? And how do you make them care about the issues at stake?
Fourth, all the while, you must tell a story and it must be under 1000 words. It must have a beginning, middle and end, setting up a conflict and resolving it someway.
I kept asking my friend: “Where is the story?”
She had no answer. I had to find it myself.
To do this, I looked at primary source materials: I looked up the exact place the event occurred on Google Earth and looked at photos uploaded from nearby locations; I read original reports on the event from scientists involved; I researched the animal in question and its habitats. I immersed myself in everything I could for 48 hours. I slept. Then, I wrote.
I didn’t outline, because the story line was totally clear. What was at stake was the writing itself. How you write it is everything.
And the process worked. This is a time when I could not have predicted that the story would turn out as it did. Sometimes, you simply have to write a first draft and see where it goes, let your subconscious do its work. But at the same time, my analytic side was watching: where was there a spark of emotion? where did something get written that might create a pattern?
In the end, I am thrilled with the draft. I didn’t think the story would work as a picture book. But I trusted the process: I wrote.
What do you need to write today? Trust the process.
A narrative arc is a necessary part of fiction and is often a key component of nonfiction, especially narrative nonfiction. The arc indicates that there is some sort of progression.
Emotional Progression. The most common sort of progression is for the emotions to build to a climax. If two characters are arguing, the intensity, complexity and depth of the argument grows over the course of the story. It is mad, madder, maddest. If it is a verbal argument, it spills over into physical actions.
Character Progression. Similar to the first is the progression of a character through stages of change. This could be a change from doubt to faith, or loyalty to betrayal. The direction of the change can be in any direction, from moral to immoral or vice versa. The main thing is that there isn’t a steady state for the character, but there is change.
Plot Progression. This is partly the time-line of the story, but plot progression also implies that the events included int he story are intertwined in some way that leads to a bigger event or an event that means more than the previous events.
For narrative nonfiction, there can be other sorts of progressions, which will mimic or replace the narrative arc. Fiction writers will want to pay attention to these, too, because within a story, there may be places where some information would benefit from strategic organization. For example, my first picture book, THE RIVER DRAGON, had a series of descriptions of a dragon’s voice. Here’s the progression I used in which the metal mentioned became more base and the sounds became louder: a voice like the clink of copper coins, voice like the gong of a brass cymbal, and voice like a hammer on an iron anvil.
Here are some other options for progressions.
Time-line. The life and times of a scientist, for example, may be enough of an arc for some articles or simple books.
Physical progressions. For some nonfiction, it may be enough to organize the information around some physical characteristic. Perhaps discuss birds in order of size starting with the tiniest hummingbird and progressing through condors and other large birds. Or, you may discuss birds beaks and organize on that basis.
Logical progression. Often narrative nonfiction attempts to logically explain some issue. Here, the organization revolves around the logic of arguments, that of laying out the basic thesis and then providing supporting information.
Spatial progressions. Little used, but often effective, is a spatial progression. Here, you may describe the countryside to the north, then east, south and west. The progression may go from a person’s hat to their shoes.
When we write and readers read, we are looking for meaning, for coherence and cohesion. We want the writing to make sense of events, rather than a random collection of facts. Even browsable nonfiction imposes some sort of organization on facts, by grouping elephants on one page and mice on another. Look for narrative arcs and progressions to help you create the strongest organization possible.
When writing a novel, one common admonishment is to keep in mind the goal of entertaining the reader. Fiction’s purpose is to entertain; non-fiction’s purpose is to inform. But the lines between the two can often blur, as when non-fiction uses narrative techniques.
This week, I’ve been reading Cory Doctorow’s book, For the Win and he uses info dumps like crazy, putting in lots of technical discussions, potentially boring information. He does it–and it works? What is he doing right?
Story comes first.For the Win is first and foremost a wide-ranging global story of online gaming and how the workers across the world join together to fight for better working conditions. There’s a strong plot, strong goal and an interesting series of developments.
Interesting characters. Doctorow also pulls together a fascinating cast of characters, drawn from the four corners of the globe. There’s the uneducated, but smart Indian girl from the slums, a disillusioned teen from California, Worker activist from Singapore, determined striker from China, and equally fascinating radio personality from the Pearl Delta of China. They are all fleshed out with real-world needs, wants, goals, and their individual circumstances come alive.
Setting. For each character, their setting is particularized with specific sensory details. You get spicy chai and well-water in an Indian slum juxtaposed with the luxury of a wealthy California home.
In short, Doctorow tells a stirring, interesting tale.
But he goes a step farther. As long as he has your attention, he wants you to know something about the online gaming world. If you look at the top ten world economies, many of them are virtual worlds and economies of an online game. Sometimes, he stops and gives an info dump on economics, gaming rules, worker unions and so on. And sometimes, he has one character ask another to explain something.
For example, the Indian girl who is such a great gamer they call her General is uncertain about economics. She asks the college-graduate economist to explain something, then because the General dosen’t understand the complicated economics, the Economist explains further, in simpler terms.
It works. Really, it shouldn’t work, it’s an info dump and at that point of the novel, Doctorow is just trying to teach me–the reader–something about economics. (I am denser than the General sometimes!) And I don’t mind a bit. I keep reading. Because in the context of the exciting story, I don’t mind a bit of explanation, in fact, it adds to the enjoyment of the story, because I understand motivations and the worker’s dilemmas better. Doctorow makes me root for the worker’s revolution because I understand it better.
If I was just reading about economics, my eyes would glaze over. Reading this novel, though, I am fascinated and I try harder to understand. It matters because he’s made me like the General and hope that her life gets better.
Likewise, if you need another example of how an info dump works well in a novel, read Doctorow’s book, Little Brother.
Go ahead: break the rules and give us an info dump in your novel. But please–tell a story first.
To understand novel revision, there are three basic concepts you must grasp.
First, is the idea that when you finish a novel, there are now two novels. There’s the one on paper and the one in your head–and they are not the same. One of the major tasks of revising your novel is to make sure everything in your head is on the paper. How many times do readers say to you things like this: I don’t understand. I can’t visualize how that happened. I am confused.
And you are totally surprised, because of course, it’s right there in the story. No. You didn’t put it on the page.
Second, you are also trying to match up your story to your concept of an ideal story. An ideal story–according to you–might be one with lots of action, stirring emotions and a great love story that resolves at the end. Or it might be one of slowly peeling back the layers of action to reveal a character. Whatever your ideal story is–you didn’t hit it on the first draft and the second draft is your chance to try it again.
Third, and related to the first two, the function of a revision is different from the first draft. In the first draft, you are figuring out what story you want to tell. In the second and subsequent drafts, you are figuring out what is the most dramatic way to tell that story. What can you change, how can you structure it differently, so that your reader stays engaged the whole way through?
Revision is the only way to achieve a publishable novel and it’s not scary. It’s just a different phase of writing the story from the first draft–making sure what’s in your head is on the page, and one of matching up a story to an ideal story, and one of considering your reader and making sure you keep that reader the whole way through.
Every scene must end in disaster. Really? EVERY scene?
OK. Most scenes.
I only say that every scene must end in disaster because if I give writers wriggle room, they run with it. So, yes, let’s work on the premise that every scene must end in disaster. What disaster? How do you choose?
Progressions. In general, your disasters need to be some sort of progression from bad to worse to absolute worst. Look at your story to find the natural progressions and then try to exaggerate a bit. For example, if a ballerina wants to try out for a dance part, what would be the absolute worst? Showing up drunk, out of shape and sloppily dressed–looking and acting like a bum.
Is that too extreme? Probably. So, back off the Worst scenario to find something reasonable: an injured Achilles tendon; just recovering from emergency appendectomy; a secret habit of drinking; grieving from a family death or tragedy. I like to plan the worst possible then back off from that for about mid-story and back off from that for the story opening. Working backward from Worst seems to ensure for me that I actually GO to the Worst and don’t try to avoid it.
Multiple Disasters. Also think about the subplots and how each of their narrative arcs can add to the overall disasters. By the time you slot into your story plan the Bad/Worse/Worst for the main plot and for a couple subplots, then you’re on your way to every scene ending in disaster. Then, you’ll just have to find ways to create disasters for the extra needed scenes of your story.
One tool in your toolbox should be the ambiguous disaster. This is when the character appears to win, but in the end, s/he doesn’t. In this scene from Good Will Hunting, Will, Chuckie and their gang go into a Harvard bar (warning: PG-13 for language). Chuckie tries to pick up a couple girls and a Harvard guy steps in to humiliate him. Will steps in, though, to humiliate the Harvard guy. On the surface, Will’s intelligence wins out; but in the end, the Harvard guy wins simply because society recognizes a Harvard degree over native intelligence. It’s a great example of an ambiguous disaster: Will wins on one level but utterly fails on another. It demonstrates (Show-Don’t-Tell) exactly what Will faces in the rest of the story: society’s expectations about intelligence and the role of a college education in getting jobs.
Write what you want to write,
say the editors.
Write what you love,
say the editors.
I love this!
Well, say the editors, it lacks a plot.
I write what I love and
make sure it has a plot.
A good ‘un.
(Hey, I’ve studied Hunger Games,
and the Edgar winning mysteries;
I know a good plot
when I read it.)
I love this!
Well, say the editors, the voice doesn’t grab me.
OK. I write what I love and
make sure it has a plot and
make sure the voice is unique, compelling.
A good ‘un.
(Hey, I’ve studied the Newberys,
the Caldecotts, the Alexes,
the Edgars, and so on.
I know voice when I hear it;
and I know how to create it.)
I love this!
Well, say the editors, the plot
but I don’t really connect with the characters enough.
OK. I write what I love and
make sure it has a plot and
make sure the voice is unique and
make sure that the characters are connectable.
A really good ‘un.
(Hey, by now, I’ve read all the New York Time’s
Bestsellers, the National Book Award winners,
plus any other @#$#$@ novel
that anyone ever recommends.
I know a good book when I read it–
or write it.)
Hey, I really love this!
Well, says the editor, you got everything right:
plot, characters, voice–
but it’s too quiet.
Where, oh where is that sweet spot?
And how can I write something else
that I love,
no one else will love it?
Where is that sweet editor?
The kindergarten class in Room 9B was an odd class.
The kindergarten class in 9B was odd.
Which sentence is more effective?
What is the most important work in the sentences?
Odd. It’s an important word because it distinguishes this class from all others. The next sentence of my picture book 19 Girls and Me tell the reader that this class has “19 girls and one lone boy.”
My point here is that sentences can be structured to emphasize—or deemphasize—anything you choose. Where do you want the reader to pay attention?
When you read a sentence you remember or pay attention to the end of the sentence the most. The second best position for memorable information is the beginning of the sentence. When you bury a word or phrase in the middle of a sentence, it is less memorable.
In my picture book, WISDOM, THE MIDWAY ALBATROSS, I wanted to emphasize that when an albatross first migrated, it doesn’t come back to land for years. Look at the difference in these two sentences. The first emphasizes the time a bird flies. The second emphasizes that the bird soars.
She soared for five or six or seven or eight years.
For five or six or seven or eight years, she soared.
It’s a subtle difference, but an important one for me, because I find it totally amazing that for years, she does nothing but fly. I wanted the reader to feel that same amazement. I also used soar, instead of fly because it more accurately captures the bird’s movement of flying on the thermals. There’s no wing flapping here because she has a special elbow joint that locks into position, keeping her wings outstretched. That’s soaring. Not flying.
You can also, though, use the technique to hide information in plain sight. Writing a mystery, you might choose to put a specific clue into the middle of a sentence. What if a bag of donuts was an important clue? Which sentence would you choose to use and why? Do you want the reader to remember the donuts or not?
Picking up the bag of donuts, she wheeled her bicycle onto Broadway and headed toward the river.
She wheeled her bicycle, donuts balanced on the handlebars, onto Broadway and headed toward the river.
Making for the river, she balanced donuts on the handlebars and wheeled her bicycle onto Broadway.
She wheeled her bicycle onto Broadway and headed to the river, donuts safely stashed in her bicycle’s basket.
She wheeled her bicycle onto Broadway and headed to the river, her bicycle’s basket full of hot, fresh donuts.
Interesting, is the use of the passive construction for the purpose of emphasis. Usually passive constructions are frowned upon because they make the action seem once-removed. But a passive construction is useful to push words to the end of the sentence for emphasis.
The street woman pushed a noisy shopping cart.
The squeaky shopping cart was pushed by a strange street woman.
To emphasize the shopping cart, use the first sentence. To emphasize the street woman, use the second—a great use of passive construction.
I recently had the privilege of listening to Sara Pennypacker, author of the Clementine series of early-chapter books. Her books are widely recognized as a forte in capturing the reader and drawing them in. The opening scene of Book 1 has Clementine, a third grade dynamo, sitting in the principal’s office and a frequent comment is that the scene is hilarious (I’ve written about how well this scene orients the reader, too.)
But Pennypacker says she didn’t write it humorous. Rather, the reader wrote it funny. What does she mean?
Consider this line:
“Someone should tell you not to answer the phone in the principal’s office, if that’s a rule.”
It’s funny. You know from this line that Clementine has answered the principal’s phone line and it resulted in disaster. Even without details or without the usual “Tell-Don’t-Show,” it’s funny. But the humor is created in the reader’s mind, by your imagination.
The technique of leaving out the most dramatic part in favor of letting the reader create meaning is useful, especially in opening lines. The danger is when it’s used too often or if it is used as a lazy crutch or excuse for not Show-Don’t-Telling. In other words, most of the time, the important details should be shown, not told. But sometimes, leaving out details and letting the reader fill them in is OK. It’s effective in Clementine’s opening page because it fits Clementine’s voice as a naive character and because Pennypacker already gave the reader specific details: Hamburger Surprise at lunch, Margaret’s mother coming to get her and so on.
Also, while what is left out is not specific, it is absolutely clear. The reader is not confused by having something left out. Clarity rules.
Notice, though, that this introduction is swiftly followed by a conventional scene with a stricter adherence to the Show-Don’t-Tell maxim. Used too often, leaving out the most dramatic part would just confuse the reader.
Another place to leave out the most dramatic information is when you set up a new scene. The tendency is to provide a summary–that holdover from having to write a thesis statement, probably.
Emily knocked on Bruce’s door. She just had to make it through his Christmas party.
Here, we’re told in a summary statement what the upcoming scene will entail, “making it through his Christmas party.” Instead, you could use a scene cut and let the reader experience the party for themselves.
Emily knocked on the door.
* * *
Emily wanted to plug her ears against the jazzed up Christmas carols that blasted above the crowd noise. She edged around the edge of the room toward the punch table, avoiding an elbow here and barely keeping a cowboy boot from stomping on her foot, hoping to find someone familiar.
Here, we are experiencing the party with Emily. Leaving out the summary statement about making it through the party strengthens the reader’s curiosity about what happens next. That’s the only thing we leave in question: what happens next? Don’t undercut this natural curiosity by summarizing the action before you present it. Time enough later for Emily to gripe to Joe about the lousy party.
Pennypacker had a hard task, to introduce a specific scene, to set up a voice, a character, a situation, and eventually a series of books about this endearing third grader. She succeeded by letting the reader participate in creating humor.
When you write, do you put yourself on the page? Of course, you do. You can’t do otherwise. But the real issue is, how much of yourself do you allow to show through? Do you censor yourself? Do you deliberately reword because something you may say will reveal too much of yourself?
Admit it. It’s hard to talk about real issues, about how you really feel, with friends. And then, you expect to put it on the page? For example, I grew up with an alcoholic step-father and, believe me, those years are hard to talk about. Even the mention here is hard.
Our fears revolve around issues of shame. You would be embarrassed if someone knew this one thing about you. You wouldn’t be able to show your face, if you revealed such and so. (Once, I found one of his hidden bottles and opened it and dumped the whole thing out and then put the empty bottle back where I found it. He never said anything–because of his shame and embarrassment, I presume.)
Vulnerability–showing our real face to others–is essential if your fiction will have an authentic voice, a deep impact on readers. Sure, there’s fluff writing, pure entertainment. But what sells are stories about real issues, told in a way that impacts others deeply.
To resolve those issues of shame, to allow yourself to be vulnerable, I recommend you start by watching this video by Brene Brown, which has been viewed over 7 million times. The description sounds like a definition of the task of a novelist: “Brené Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity.”
If you can’t see this video, click here. TED also includes a transcript in multiple languages.
I am preaching to myself, most of all. I know that in 2013, I want to write the most honest, most vulnerable stories I’ve ever attempted. Someone once asked, “What are you scared to write?” Then, recommended that you attempt that very thing. I am most scared of stories which will lay my soul bare, leave me vulnerable. That’s what I need to attempt next.
As 2013 starts, it is traditional to write down writing goals and I am doing that. But I am also pondering the fact that I am in charge of my own writing, and that is a double-edged sword.
As 2012 drew to a close, the Congress was debating fiscal matters, trying to prevent the country from falling off a so-called fiscal cliff. As much as I might care one way or another, it was all out of my hands. I voted for a Congressman and for a President. But beyond that, the decisions were not a part of my daily life.
My writing, however, rests squarely on my own shoulders. Will I write today? (Duh!) What will I write–today? That isn’t President Obama’s business, it’s mine.
In the amazingly relevant book, ART AND FEAR, Bayles and Orland say that we daily face a specific fear: “. . .–the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.” (p. 3)
For me, the overriding drive isn’t the fear of failure, it is the fear of never-having-tried. I don’t want to hit 100 years old and look back and regret that I never tried. Tried what? The stories that scare me, that I think I am too weak, too bad a writer to pull off, too inadequate to tell such a moving story.
I don’t know what I will write this year, there are many factors to weigh. But one of those is the need to accept the challenge of telling stories that are important to me–even when I am terrified of trying. That’s my only goal for 2013: to write with more courage and determination than ever before. Because I am in charge of my own writing.
What story have you been too scared of writing? What story did you think you could NEVER write? Let’s do it together this year!
Guest post By Marcie Flinchum Atkins What is a mentor text?
As a writer, do you read as many books as you can get your hands on? When you are stuck on how to write a particular scene, or you can’t get your beginning quite right, do you go to some of your favorite books to see how that writer handled it? If you read like a writer, then you are using mentor texts.
Mentor texts are stellar pieces of writing that are used to “mentor” another writer. It’s teacher-speak for a book that a teacher uses as an exemplary example of how to write well.
Market Your Book as a Mentor Text
You are a professional writer. Just like athletes who want to become better observe and learn from the pros, young writers should look to your writing as a model.
As a teacher, I don’t teach kids how to write from a textbook. I use real examples from books they love. Of course, teachers love to find books that can be used to entice reluctant readers to read. We search for books that tie into our Social Studies and Science curriculums. But we also want to find books that can help us show kids how to write.
I’m not suggesting we are looking for how-to books. Teachers are using their favorite books to teach kids how to read like writers. As a writer, you can market your book to teachers to use as a mentor text. We aren’t just looking for an interesting story (although that is VERY important), we are also looking for ways to show kids how you put your story together. How did you use description to make the reader “see” the setting? How did you use shorter sentences to speed up the pace? We want to show students how you stitched your story together.
Mentor Text Lessons
There are hundreds of writing lessons that you could do with a text and each teacher will gear specific skills to his/her state standards and the level of the students. Take a look at the standards for the grade level of your book (Common Core or individual state standards) to see if you can capitalize on your writing strengths and pair it up with what teachers need to teach in the classroom.
Some common ideas for lessons include:
Word choice—including vivid verbs, specific vocabulary, sensory words
Word play—onomatopeoia, puns, figurative language, made up words
Description—including descriptions of setting and characters
Beginnings and Endings
Organization of text—this is useful in non-fiction
I teach fourth grade, and in the last month, I have used THE NIGHT FAIRY by Laura Amy Schlitz, SAVVY by Ingrid Law, and OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW by Kate Messner to help students use vivid verbs in their own writing. I used COME ON, RAIN! by Karen Hesse and HEAT WAVE by Eileen Spinelli to show them how sensory words can make their writing better. I find myself going back to some books over and over again because they are full of so many writing gems.
Do you do school visits? Speak at teacher conferences? Have a teacher resource area on your website? These are all good places to market your book to writing teachers and give examples of how your book can be used in the writing curriculum.
You have spent years perfecting your craft of writing. Help teachers not only inspire readers to enjoy your story, but also provide ways they can inspire budding writers in their classroom as well. Market your book as a mentor text for young writers.
Marcie Flinchum Atkins teaches fourth graders to write using mentor texts and trains teachers on how to use mentor texts in their classrooms. In the wee hours of the morning, she also writes picture books and novels. For more resources on mentor texts, check out her website: http://www.marcieatkins.com. Click on the “For Teachers” tab.
I am working on an short chapter book and I want it to be funny. My kids say I have no sense of humor and they are right. But fortunately, I have a quote for that:
I love revisions. Where else in life can spilled milk be transformed into ice cream?”
~ Katherine Paterson, Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (1982) p. 63
You can be funny–I’m told–if you just revise. Here are some ice cream recipes.
Place holders. First, it’s important to know that it’s OK to write a joke-lets or jokoids, places where it could be funny, but it isn’t yet. Or places where there is irony or humor, but I haven’t milked it yet. These placeholders mean that I’ve put into the story the elements that need to be there–I just haven’t exploited them yet. That comes in the revision.
Funny Technique #1: Setup, Setup, Payoff
Here’s a possible set up for a joke from my WIP. The two characters are discussing where to have an Alien Birthday Party.
“It will be at my house, maybe in the back yard. Is it big enough for an alien space ship to land there?”
“Oh, yes.” Her yard was huge enough for three of our spaceships. Of course, ours was just a tiny spaceship for one family. Back on planet Bix, there were spaceships large enough to fill up three Earth-sized football fields. Maybe more.
NOT a joke, not even a good joke-let. It’s nothing but a question and answer. But can I make it a joke? What if I use a Setup, setup, payoff: big, bigger, tiny.
Back on Bix, there were spaceships large enough to fill up three Earth-sized football fields. There were spaceships large enough to fill up Lake Michigan. Our family spaceship, though, was only as big as a bathroom.
Interesting, but not there yet. What I need is two comparisons and a third that is ridiculous in comparison? What small things are in a kid’s experience, what space or size would they think is tiny? The school janitor’s closet. The boy’s bathroom. A submarine. Kids packed into a school bus. A school bus would seem like a mansion compared to our family space ship. No, flip that and put the payoff last: Compared to our family space ship, a school bus would rank as a mansion. Let’s try that one.
“It will be at my house, maybe in the back yard. Is it big enough for an alien space ship to land there?”
“Oh, yes.” Back on Bix, there were spaceships large enough to fill up three Earth-sized football fields. There were spaceships large enough to carry a dozen blue whales. But compared to our family space ship, a school bus would rank as a mansion.
Is that better? Yes. Of course, it is. Not hilarious maybe, but sharper, bettet.
Funny Technique #2: Doorbell Effect or Setting up Expectations
“What kind of games could we play at the party?” Bree started jumping up and down. “I know. We could dress up in space suits and helmets and everything like that. Can your parents do that?”
Human girls do like to change clothes a lot. But what was a space suit? And why would you wear a helmet? It was another thing to look up later. “Yes,”
There are two types of first-drafters for novels: those who write too short and must expand and those who write too much and must cut. Today, we’ll talk to those who need to cut when they revise their story.
One complaint for drafts that are too long is that they have too many plots. The first draft is to help you figure out your story; the next drafts are to figure out how to tell that story in the most dramatic way. That’s good theory, but let’s make it more practical. Where do you cut? What criteria do you use?
Who hurts the most? The most dramatic stories will be the most emotional stories. One criteria for revising is to ask, “Who hurts the most?” Where in the story do you find the most emotion, where is the most at stake?
Drama means that something is at stake: the survival of the species, survival of a town or community, survival of a teen in the midst of teasing or bullying, survival of a closely held dream. As you look over your plot and subplot, one goal of revision is to cut subplots with nothing at stake, while raising the stakes in everything you have left.
Who hurts the most in your story?
For example, if a teen is worried about surviving a bout of teasing, raise the stakes by putting a love interest close by to watch. Now, the teen is risking both safety, pride and the love-of-her-life.
Does something actually happen in this subplot? Let’s say that you take out subplot A. Does the story change? Is this subplot integral to the story, so important that omitting it will change the whole tenor of the story or novel. Some subplots are just fun detours: omit them. Some subplots add flavor or setting or deepens a character; and yet, nothing really happens. If you take bits and pieces of the subplot and slot them into the remaining subplots, you won’t miss the subplot at all. Do the actions of this subplot really advance the story or not? Is this subplot crucial to the story or not? IF not, be ruthless and cut.
Add a subplot. What? I have a story that is too long, but you say to add a subplot. Not exactly. Maybe, though, you can take the extra bits and pieces and restructure them to create a subplot. Instead of disconnected bits, can you build a narrative arc–a subplot–from them? (And while you’re at it, make it all shorter!) Remember that a subplot, by definition, doesn’t have as many plot points as the main plot. So, pick and choose only the strongest scenes to create this new subplot. While you’re at it, try to interweave the subplots and plots to make a more coherent whole. Have the climax of the subplot become a plot-point in the main plot. Failure to defeat the bully means that the teen winds up in the hospital, which means she can’t attend the prom.
This week, I will be receiving a series of feedback letters from friends about a manuscript. Whether these are editorial letters or critiques from friends, it doesn’t matter, there are two destructive attitudes and a third attitude that has potential to smooth over the process. (And 10 Ways to Stop the Sting of Critiques.)
I’m Stupid: Destructive Attitude #1
When I first read a critique or editorial letter, my first reaction is often, “Wow, I am stupid.”
The litany varies but goes something like: how could I have done that? why didn’t I see that? oh, they are right, I am so stupid, Oh, crud, I should quit, I’ll never be able to fix this, I AM STUPID.
Wow. Not helpful. Typical, but not helpful.
It is sheer terror that your success is in your imperfect hands.
Stop undervaluing your work. Fear causes you to discount your work, to say the destructive, I AM STUPID words. But your work has great value, just as you as a writer have great value. When you allow fear to undermine that belief, then you paralyze your work.
Value your mistakes, your first drafts. They are the guide to what you are thinking, who you are and where you are going next. They aren’t enemies to be demolished. You can only do your work, your way. When someone critiques, or the editor writes a letter, it is your vision–imperfectly captured–butting up against someone else’s vision. That’s all. You’ll have to sort it out and see what comments of theirs will stick.
You’re Stupid: Destructive Attitude #2
You asked for it and you got it: another person’s opinion on your work. The defensive attitude, that their opinion is STUPID, is unhelpful. It is simply, their attitude.
Respect. You can respect another person’s opinion, even while disagreeing. You can disagree about aesthetics, or the ideals that you are measuring your story against. You disagree about the position of a comma, because we know–even if high school students don’t–that matters of punctuation are up for discussion.
Their opinion is valid because it is their opinion. We can value it just for that.
Openness: The Helpful Attitude
When we reject the extreme attitudes–I am stupid v. You are stupid–we are left with an attitude of openness. This does NOT mean you must do everything they suggest; nor does it mean you should stubbornly stick to your way.
Work to understand the critique. I am usually so flabbergasted by a critique that I can’t fathom what planet they are from. Sometimes, it takes me a while to figure out their bent and to consider if that is also the right bent for this story. For example, do you find Lemony Snicket funny? I don’t. I can respect and admire the skill of the story, while still saying that I don’t enjoy it. IF you, as a critiquer, tell me that I should be more like Lemony Snicket, well, reader, that would be ironic. Ironic means that you say something opposite of what you mean.
Today, I am working on rewriting the opening chapter of my story. Many authors say they must go back and rewrite the first chapter because they didn’t know what it needed until it the last chapter was written. The last chapter must be set up in the opening chapter, it must be the inevitable result of what came before it. That’s my case today, and why I am revising the opening of my novel.
I’ve done a previous post on 12 options for opening lines and decided to take my own advice. Here, then, are the 12 openings and I need your help. Which one grabs you and makes you want to know more? Please leave a comment and vote for your favorite; but also tell me WHY it works for you. Thanks!
It was a brisk spring morning, the day that Laurel and her Father went to inspect Sloth.
Viewpoint on life:
Cathedrals take time to build, sometimes decades; and as the walls grow, people come and go, live and die. So it was that Laurel came one day with her Father to inspect Sloth.
Laurel groped for Sloth’s cold cheek and caressed the rough stone.
“Has Sloth survived this bitter winter?”
From her perch atop a twenty foot ladder, Laurel looked across the rooftops of St. Stephens Cathedral at the graceful lines of the stone building and the gargoyles which capped every gutter.
Alternate for landscape: The city of Montague lay quiet on this early spring morning, except for a brisk wind romping about amidst the towers and gargoyles of the Cathedral of St. Stephens.
When Laurel turned up missing, her father and the priests of the Cathedral of St. Stephens lit candles in prayer and searched and pleaded with the heavens for news of her, but they didn’t think to look up.
It began on a spring day. . .
Meet Jack or Jill:
Laurel was tiny, like a hummingbird, her Father said.
Let’s meet Joe, My Friend:
If Laurel was a friend to all gargoyles, her Father was the god of the gargoyles, the master creator.
I am frozen in time, a girl who cannot move forward or backward.
I hate cathedrals, all that stone surrounding a person is creepy.
To: All Priests of the River Province
From: Cardinal Pater
We beseech you, brethren, to be on the lookout for a missing girl, one Laurel Raymond, daughter of Master Raymond, architect of the Cathedral of St. Stephens.
Date: Two weeks after the spring solstice
Where: City of Montague, home of the Cathedral of St. Stephens
The #1 Writing Lesson: Prewrite for Effective Essays
Paper Lightning: Prewriting Activities to Spark Creativity and Help Students Write Effectively
by Darcy Pattison. Prufrock Press
, 108 Pages. ISBN: 978-1-877673-77-1
When faced with an essay writing prompt, kids need to slow down and plan before they write. The best writing lesson you can teach students a variety of prewriting activities. Let your teaching go beyond simple outlining and graphic organizers to encourage new ideas and ways of thinking. In short, a rich prewriting environment encourages exploration and expansion of ideas that will result in stronger essays and creative writing
If You Teach Students To Do Multiple Pre Writing Activities, Essays Improve
If The #1 Writing Lesson is to prewrite, then The #2 Writing Lesson is to teach students to do multiple prewriting activities, focusing on different aspects of the writing process. For example, some prewriting lessons focus on expansion of ideas, while others focus on vocabulary or language used, which impacts voice. For personal narrative essays, teach students to remember or recall details for the essay. Descriptive essays benefit from lessons on sensory details. Other activities teach students to evaluate the information that research turned up. Some prewriting tasks teach kids to structure or outline the information in a convincing way for a persuasive essay. Prewriting can even direct the research needed for an expository, informational, descriptive, analytical or persuasive essay.
For any given writing prompt or writing assignment, you’ll likely teach four or five prewriting activities to strengthen the writing process. That’s where Paper Lightning: Prewriting Activities to Spark Creativity and Help Students Write Effectivelycan help.
For teachers: Over 30 Prewriting Activities, ready to teach, supports teaching the writing process for descriptive, expository, personal or persuasive essays; lesson plans for folktales and short story
For teachers: Printable Student Pages, easy to teach
For teachers: Sample Answers
For teachers: Use with any approach to teaching writing. Includes chart for correlations to 6 +1 Writing, Scaffolded Writing, Writer’s Workshop and the NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing.
DARCY PATTISON: Children’s Book Author and Writing Teacher
Children’s book author and writing teacher Darcy Pattison understands
the writing process from the inside out. She is the author of The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman (Harcourt), which received starred reviews in Kirkus and Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books and was included on the Best Book of the Year lists from Child magazine and Nick Jr. Family Magazine. MORE About Darcy Pattison
by Addy Farmer
Marcus in workshop mode at the SCBWI retreat
Alongside a 16 year career in publishing Marcus Sedgewick established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; he is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Branford-Boase Award for a debut novel Floodland, and the Booktrust Teenage Prize for My Swordhand is Singing. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other
I was recently asked this question: How do you get so much work done?
What have you found to be the single most important element to boost your writing productivity?
Office hours. About 8 years ago, my husband and I bought a 3-story Victorian house in downtown Little Rock. The bottom two floors are my husband’s real estate appraisal office, but I got the attic. I go to work. When I still had kids in school, it was 9-3 office hours; however, if the family needed something, well, I am self-employed and could take off. Just not too often. Now, my office hours are more like 8-4. If you’re at home with small kids, though, you can do office hours, too. 1-3 pm while the kids sleep and 9-10:30 at night. Just DVR that great 9 pm program and keep your office hours.
What are your three greatest productivity challenges and what ways have you found to counteract them?
Being self-employed is the biggest challenge, how to stay motivated when no one much cares what you do, except you. This Fiction Notes blog, gives me an audience, readers who expect me to post on a regular basis, at least 2x/week. I get regular feedback on the blog, so it’s not just shooting things out into space. In other words, I’ve found a real audience (YOU!) for something small, yet useful. If I am productive here, it carries over to the bigger fiction projects. Find a real audience, doesn’t matter where. It might be reading your fiction to your child’s class once a week, or writing the newsletter for your church. Real audiences motivate.
The second challenge is that as a freelance writer, I must juggle many different projects at once. I’ve tried without success things like calendars, online project management software, and finally went low-tech. I have a yellow legal pad that I turn landscape (sideways). Across the top, I hand write categories of things to do: speaking, writing, blog, PR, friends, publishing, other. Then, each week, I jot down tasks in each category. When I finish a task, I cross it off and look over the tasks written there to see what to tackle next. In other words, I am not saying to myself that I must do this first, then that. Instead, I list the range of tasks to be done that week and over the course of the week, try to make sure it all gets done. What doesn’t get done is carried over to a clean sheet for the next week and mentally, I prioritize those tasks. Notice that I have a category for Friends: It’s just as important for me to critique my friend’s manuscript as it is to write my 750 words. Or to meet a friend for coffee. I try to stay balanced, yet get things done.
Third, the challenge is that as writers, we work alone, with only our own thoughts for company. On days when I’ve gotten a rejection, or I have a cold, it’s hard to stay upbeat and productive. For those days, I talk to friends both on and off line. They keep me sane and working. Thanks, gals!
How do you organize your writing day?
Organized? Me? I just go with the flow of the day. My yellow legal pad is my only organization.
What does a productive writing day look like to you?
I usually start by answering emails, because that gets me writing. Next, I try to do some rough draft writing. Since January, I have been using 750words.com to make sure
Children’s book writer Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia, once wrote that she had finished a draft of a novel and dramatically announced to her husband that the draft was awful and she was quitting. He calmly said, “Oh, you’re at that stage.”
Yes, there are Stages of Writing that we go through. Recently, a new writer bemoaned his lack of progress and someone suggested that he read Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which talks beginning writers through some of the emotional stresses of learning to BE a writer.
OK. You’re at the Bird by Bird stage, too. Here are some other books to help you through this stage.
How To Write a Children’s Picture Book by Darcy Pattison (Kindle only).
After teaching children’s fiction for twenty years, I wrote this ebook that explains the typical 32-page children’s book and how digital formats may change the picture book. It includes chapters on every type of picture book.
Help for Revising Your Fiction
If you make it past the first draft, sorry, but you’re not done yet. Now, it’s time to move to the next stage and revise.
To improve your writing skills, there are a couple of books that I always recommend. They aren’t for the faint of heart–learning to improve your writing takes time and attention to detail. Take it slow, doing a lesson a week or so. But I guarantee your writing will improve if you work at it.
The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife Ph.D. and K.D. Sullivan.
Do semi-colons confuse you? Do complex-compound sentences scare you? Then you simply MUST work through these twenty sentence patterns. When I worked through this book with a friend, I found it made more difference in my writing than anything else I had ever tried. It freed me to express my thoughts in complex ways–and get it right.
I’ve written before about the importance of using strong body language for your characters. The September, 2011 Cosmopolitan magazine, featured an article by Mina Azodi on “Cool Mind Tricks that can Give you an Edge.” Really, she’s talking recent research on body language. Here are some extra body language tips to consider.
Give your character a pair of sunglasses. The classic gambit of hiding behind a pair of shades actually frees a person to do and say anything. With inhibitions lowered, look out. It often translates into selfish or hedonistic behavior.
Your character sits with one arm on a chair rest and the other draped along the chair’s back. Add an ankle crossed over the opposite knee. What do you have? Confidence. Only a confident character can pull off such an open, casual and yet commanding position.
Your character nods yes. Angela and Judd are about to explode at each other. What can prevent the relationship from self-destruction? A simple nod of the head tricks a person into being more agreeable, and stops the escalation of an argument. Bring the characters to the brink, then pause and let one of them do a simple head nod to turn the scene toward a resolution.
Your character washes his/her hands with soap. When Pilate washed his hands of Jesus death on the cross, he was practicing this body language technique. Studies show that when you make a decision, you are less likely to second-guess that decision if you wash your hands. Did Angela just lie to Judd? She’ll feel less guilty if she washes her hands. Even an antibacterial wipe works! So, after that argument when Angela just lied, send her to the kitchen to think about the relationship and let her wash away her worries.
Your character picks up and holds a heavy object, like a paperweight. Is your character considering something important, about to make a decision? People tend to give their opinion more weight when they are holding something like a heavy clipboard. In the midst of decision making, send Judd down to lift weights. It will make him more serious and it’s likely the decision will be a better one.
Your character presses up on the underside of a desktop or a table with his/her fingertips. Pressing up brings flexes the arm muscles you use to bring things closer to your body, which translates into more openness and creativity. Angela’s more likely to creatively solve a problem when she presses up with her fingertips. However, the opposite is also true: pressing down makes a person feel less accepting and more closed off. Press up and Angela gets creative about a problem; press down and she sulks.
Your female character hugs a guy. Angela hugs Judd and–what happens? When women smell a man’s hair or skin, they instantly feel more relaxed. She doesn’t need that glass of wine, she just needs a quick hug and whiff. And it doesn’t have to be a flame that she hugs, just a brother or father will do.
Your character takes a few steps backward. Stepping backwards seems to send your brain into problem-solving mode and you’ll be more likely to answer test questions with accuracy and speed. Angela and Judd fighting again (yes, fiction needs lots of conflict!)? This time, Judd takes a couple steps backward, away from Angela, which lets him see the big picture better and understand the correct next step for their relationship. In the end, it may send him into Angela’s arms, but he’s got to step backwards first in order to solve the problem.
Doodle! Wow, I am so glad to see this one because I always doodle. Turns out that doodling can actually increase your memory by about 30%. Scientists speculate that the drawings engage the area of the brain which might otherwise be used for daydreaming and zoning out. Keep part of your brain busy, so the rest can pay attention–nice.
Your character leans his/her upper body forward. Angela and Judd are discussing the possibility of getting married (I know, they argue so much, I am worried about them making it, too.) Scientists say that if you lean forward, it helps you visualize the future more vividly, so you’ll have an easier time planning. Angela leans forward and visualizes Prince Charming; Judd leans forward and Angela becomes the woman of his dreams. Together, leaning toward each other across the table, they might just imagine a future that will work.
I’ve been reading through the first book in Rick Riordian’s new series, The Lost Hero. He has a nice breezy style that is full of adventure. And I’ve especially been noticing the subplots. There is an overarching plot of overthrowing evil and setting the universe to rights again. But each character has a specific role in that plot and his/her own subplot. Jason, Piper and Leo must each struggle with their parental god and what that heritage means. Each must overcome weaknesses and obstacles.
In other words, built into the basic structure of these stories is a rich set of characters, each with his/her own subplot.
Plan for subplots in your novel
Before you write your next story, ask yourself if your cast of characters are richly and deeply drawn. Does each have a subplot that will feed into the main plot? For my WIP, I realized that the main character was rich and deep, but the supporting characters were vague, aimless. I am working now to enrich them before I start writing.
One main question is how will the secondary characters feed into the main plot. The subplot must be tangent to the main plot in some way, deal with similar issues or sub-issues or something that adds to the main plot. It can be a surprise, or an enrichment, or a contrast. But the relationship can’t be random.
I am also thinking about settings and wondering if some settings from one subplot can be reused in another subplot or the main plot. Props can also be reused. In other words, what can I use to tie the plot and subplot together in richer, deeper ways?
Writing a subplot in your novel
Subplots, by definition, are sub. They don’t take up as much space as the main plot; the emotional resonance isn’t as great as the main plot. Some subplots I’ve dealt with seem to take over a story. The challenge is to get the balance right, so the reader is never surprised at what happens. I’m monitoring the emotional impact of subplot scenes v. main plot scenes. How much space does each take up? What’s at stake in each? The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing; but at the same time, keep the sub thing a rich little thing that enriches the main thing.
Revising a subplot in your novel
Generally, I need to enrich subplots, my first drafts are thin. Again, I am looking for ways to interconnect subplots and the main plot, ways to reuse bits of dialogue, settings, props or otherwise mirror events. It’s a time to stand back and evaluate the subplot for what it adds to the story (or what it could add with revision) and make sure it is pulling it’s weight.
Subplots enrich and deepen stories. My job this week is to work on my secondary characters and give them substantial subplots.
Wow. What a vague comment. But immediately I knew what the problem was.
My story has a main plot — Parties– and two subplots, Bugs and Music. In the original draft. Chapter one focused on Parties/Bugs, but chapter two went to Music/Bugs.
What is the main plot? Parties.
But when chapter two went to Music/Bugs, it threw the main plot out of focus. Instead, I moved the Music/Bugs to chapter three and pulled a later Parties chapter up to the chapter two position. Of course, that meant smoothing out transitions and timelines, something easy to do; it was also easy to get wrong, because it was tiny things that indicated the timelines. “Later that day. . .” “. . .from yesterday.” I am very bad at finding all of these small edits and am relying on some critiques to make sure I didn’t miss something.
Besides the position of the subplots, I also realized that one subplot had too many scenes. In the short novel that I’m working on, I didn’t have much room for each subplot, so when Bugs got four pretty major scenes, it threw off the focus again. After evaluating the four scenes, I realized that one was slightly repetitious and I could cut it without affecting the overall story. That strengthened the Bug climax because the two lead-up scenes were enough and it left this remaining scene more fresh and fun.
Finally the Notes suggested that the climax of the main Parties plot was too short. Duh. It was only half a chapter. In the revision, it begins in the next-to-last chapter, and continues through most of the last chapter. Making the climax of the main plot longer, gives it more weight.
Overall, here’s what I did:
Cut a Bugs scene.
Rearranged the order of Parties plot, Bugs subplot, and Music subplot.
Strengthened the Parties main plot by enlarging the final Party scene.
Created more tension throughout by tweaking the emotional impacts of events.
All of that because the Notes said the story was out of focus and the final Party scene needed to be longer. It’s what we do: we revise.