Tag Archives: story

12 May

The Conversation of Literature: What Are They Saying About Your Book?

We don’t write in a vacuum. Your story is in the context of the whole of literature, and specifically, the literature of your genre. How does your story add to, change, enhance the conversation?

superman

Superman No. 1, Millennium Edition, a reprint of the first ever Superman Comic.

This question was brought home to me as I picked up my son’s comic book. It’s a reproduction of the original Superman comic book from 1938 (Millennium Edition, Superman 1, December 2000, originally published as Superman No. 1 Summer 1939). Wow! It’s bad. Really.The characterization, the back story, indeed the characters are all pretty stale and cliched. But that’s my evaluation from this time, from 2014.

The reproduction starts with an introduction to the comic:

Until 1938 most comics were usually filled with reprint material spotlighting the more successful newspaper strips of the day. And while ACTION COMICS was one of the first titles filled with original material–created from scratch for less money than it would have cost to reprint existing comic strips–few could have been ready for the sensation its cover-featured star would cause! ACTION #1 spotlighted the debut performance of the world’s first–and still foremost–superhero: SUPERMAN!

This puts the fist story of Superman into context. No wonder there’s no mention of Jor-el and the struggle on Krypton (which is expounded in recent films). Mr. and Mrs. Kent are just described as an elderly couple. Clark’s first exploit is to prevent a lynching, then catch a singer who “rubbed out” her lover for cheating on her, and then to stop an incident of domestic violence. Not the stuff of super-fame. The stakes are low–Superman isn’t saving the world here.

But in the context of comics that just reprinted comic strips from the newspapers, Wow! Again, Wow! This was great stuff.

Two things strike me here: First, Superman had a humble beginning. Too often today, humble beginnings are overlooked or not allowed to even see the light of day. We want a fully developed story, with super-hero characters. But these type characters often need a small beginning. They develop over time as the story becomes part of the culture and join the conversations of our time. If the story captures any part of our imagination, they will become part of the conversation and the characters, the story, the plotlines–everything–will grow and develop. I wish there was a way to let more stories do this, to begin small, to join the conversations and to develop. Witness the Superman legends today, with rich back story on his parents, his struggles to fit into Earth, the dangers from other Kryptonite survivors, his love life with Lois Lane and so on.

Second, Superman was a product of 1938. His story joined the conversation of his time. His first act was to prevent a lynching. Would that speak to today’s audience? No. Domestic violence? Shrug. We’ve seen so many stories that are much better than the nine panels devoted to this small subplot.

How Does Your Story Join the Conversation

Today, werewolves and zombies are having a rich conversation in our culture. You’d have to be an ostrich to know nothing at all of the influx of werewolves stories. Well–if truth be told, I am almost an ostrich on these two subjects. Until I read Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, who brings the werewolf story alive in new ways. (Actually, I’m linking here to the audio version because the author narrates his own story in an impossibly deep voice that is fascinating to listen to.) This is no “Cry Wolf” story, but a fascinating look at how the ancient legend could possibly affect our lives today; and it’s told with impeccable prose that fascinated me with its amazing storytelling.

I shunned the whole zombie thing until my hairdresser raved about “Warm Bodies,” a movie that took Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and updated it with zombies. Really? You could DO that? In other words, zombies were joining the conversation about romance and love. How do the things that separate men and women affect our lives? Can love really change things?

In other words, it’s almost impossible to live in today’s world and not know something about zombies and werewolves. The literary conversation is littered with these conversations that make connections which weave in and out of the canon of English and Western literature.

Saucy and Bubba. A Contemporary Hansel and Gretel Story.

Saucy and Bubba. A Contemporary Hansel and Gretel Story.

I call my recent story, SAUCY AND BUBBA, a contemporary Hansel and Gretel story because it puts it into a certain context: the discussion of step-mothers and how they treat the step-children. Mine is a twist on the old story–of course! In fact, it MUST be a twist on the old story, or it adds nothing to the conversation. Why would you rehash the same thing again. One reviewer said, “When a story can get me to even start to like the antagonist – like Saucy and Bubba does here – I know there’s a good book in my hands.” That’s what I wanted, a more nuanced look at the step-mother. I wanted the reader to have sympathy for her, even as they condemn her actions.

It’s like the original Superman comic: in today’s terms, it’s cliched. But it was hugely original for it’s time. It added to the conversations about justice and law-enforcement in interesting ways. If I simply repeated the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, it would be a flop. Instead, we must think about how our stories fit into the context of our times. We must strive to join the conversation and to have something to add to the conversation. How can we add something different, interesting, conflicting, nuanced and so on? How are you enriching the conversation? How are you changing the conversation?

How does YOUR story join the conversation of our times?

22 Apr

Abandoned Story? Pick up the Story Lines Again and Create Magic

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.

fear of half-written page

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.
“Doesn’t matter.”
“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!

14 Feb

How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

16 Dec

Novelists: You are Gifted & Talented

Gifted and Talented

If you have finished a draft of a novel (however messy!), you are Gifted and Talented.

The fact that you are Gifted and Talented has an important implication for revising your story.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrphotoshop/3425641634/GT Learners. First, I’ve talked with Gifted and Talented Teachers about how their students learn. When they learn something new, there’s a stage where they are very uncomfortable. Usually, GTs learn quickly and easily; they catch on. But sometimes the material is more difficult than usual, or more complex, or more puzzling. For some reason, they don’t catch on. They are unsure of what to do next.

At that point, GTs get uncomfortable and since they are rarely uncomfortable with learning, they often bail out. Anger, frustration, fear, impatience–do you experience some of these emotions when you face a revision that just doesn’t seem to be working?

The very fact that writing well is a process of revision is frustrating to a GT. They are used to getting things right the first time around. Maybe the first obstacle is embracing writing as a process.

Once you accept the process, though, you must also accept that facing difficulties in the revision process is normal! But if you’re a GT (and you are!), then it’s doubly frustrating because you so rarely face things that are hard. When I do the Novel Revision retreat, I warn the writers that they may hit a brick wall sometime during the weekend. The process of thinking about revision may start to overwhelm them.

Forewarned is forearmed. I try to head off the problem of frustration by warning that it is inevitable. When revising your story, you will face difficulties. This is normal! Let me say that again: Difficulties are normal. To be expected. Inevitable. A normal part of the process.

You have two choices: face them squarely and deal with them; avoid them and quit. And of course–you can’t quit!

As a GT, you are uniquely qualified to solve difficulties in revising because you do catch on quickly. You know how to locate and use resources that will help. You absorb information from a wide variety of sources. Given a day or so, you could probably tell me 30 ways that others have solved similar problems.

If you have a complete draft of a novel done, you are Gifted and Talented. That’s good news. It might mean you have a lower threshold for frustration, but in the end, it means you’ll make it through the writing process in great shape.

Perseverance or just plain Stubbornness

http://www.flickr.com/photos/myworks/1948152277/We’ve heard the stories: Dr. Seuss? first book, To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) was rejected twenty-eight times. Neil Simon, in Rewrites: A Memoir tells of over twenty drafts needed for his first play.

Most of us would have to agree with Vladimir Nabokov, “I have written–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasures.”

Or Dorothy Parker, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Or John Kenneth Galbraith who jokes, “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.”

Or Truman Capote, “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

We understand that revising means doing it again until it’s right. But psychologically, that means the best trait a writer can have is stubbornness. On days when there is no hope sheer perseverance takes over.

Help

On those days, I highly recommend Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It?s my favorite books on the psychology of making art and goes into much more detail on many more subjects than I can here in five days. There have been days–like when I got that rejection of a novel after two revisions and fourteen months of dealing with an editor–that all I can do is sit at my desk and cry and re-read this book.

And start again.

Perseverance comes in two forms: revising until the story is right and making your art your way over a lifetime. It took Dr. Seuss twenty years after his first book to write The Cat in the Hat. ( 2007 annotated version). It often takes the work of years to hit your stride and produce your best work. We are in this for the long haul and this current book is just one of the waystations. Think career. Get stubborn. Persevere!

How do you deal with those deadly rejections?

06 Nov

Point of View: Inside a Character’s Head

Ivan

How does an author take a reader deeply into a character’s POV? By using direct interior monologue and a stream of consciousness techniques.


This is part 3 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series.

  • Outside
  • Outside/Inside
  • Inside
  • Going Inside a Character’s Head, Heart and Emotions

    IvanOmniscience.Jauss says, “In direct interior monologue, the character’s thoughts are not just ‘reflected,’ they are presented directly, without altering person or tense. As a result, the external narrator disappears, if only for a moment, and the character takes over as ‘narrator.’” (p. 51)

    Here, “. . . the narrator is not consciously narrating.” In much of IVAN, he is consciously narrating the story. Sometimes, it might be hard to distinguish the difference because the character and narrator are the same, and it’s written in present tense (except when he is telling about the background of each animal). This closeness of the character and narrator is one reason to choose first-person, present tense. But there are still times when it is clear that IVAN is narrating his story.

    But there also times when that narrator’s role is absent. In the “nine thousand eight hundred and seventy-six days” chapter, Ivan is worried about what Mack will do after the small elephant Ruby hits Mack with her trunk:

    “Mack groans. He stumbles to his feet and hobbles off toward his office. Ruby watches him leave. I can’t read her expression. Is she afraid? Relieved? Proud?”

    The last three questions remove the narrator-Ivan and give us what Ivan is thinking at the moment. The direct interior monologue gives the reader direct access to the character. With a third person narrator, those rhetorical questions might be indirect interior monologue; but here, because of the first person narration, it feels like direct interior monologue.

    Or, in the “click” chapter, Ivan is about to be moved to a zoo:

    The door to my cage is propped open. I can’t stop staring at it.
    My door. Open.

    The first two sentences still feel like a narrator is reporting. But “My door. Open.” feels like direct access to Ivan’s thought at that precise moment. He’s not looking back and reporting, but this is direct access to his thoughts.

    A last technique for diving straight into a character’s head is stream-of-consciousness. Jauss says, “. . . unlike direct interior monologue, it presents those thoughts as they exist before the character’s mind has ‘edited’ them or arranged them into complete sentences.” (P. 54)

    When Ivan is finally in a new home at a local zoo, he is allowed to venture outside for the first time. The “outside at last” chapter is stream-of-consciousness.

    Sky.
    Grass.
    Tree.
    Ant.
    Stick.
    Bird. . . .
    Mine.
    Mine.
    Mine.

    What the reader feels here is Ivan’s wonder at the great outdoors. It’s a direct expression of Ivan’s joy in being outside after decades of being caged. We are one with this great beast and it gives the reader joy to be there.

    Or look at the “romance” chapter, where Ivan is courting another gorilla.

    A final note: Sometimes, an author breaks the “fourth wall,” the “imaginary wall that separates us from the actors,” and speaks directly to the reader. This is technically a switch from 1st person POV to 2nd person POV. But it is very effective in IVAN in the second chapter, “names.” Here, Ivan acknowledges that you—the reader—are outside his cage, watching him. It was a stunning moment for me, as I read the story.

    “I suppose you think gorillas can’t understand you. Of course, you also probably think we can’t walk upright.
    Try knuckle walking for an hour. You tell me: which way is more fun?”

    Do stories and novels have to stay in one point of view throughout an entire scene or chapter? No. Not if you are thinking about point of view as a technique to draw the reader close to a character or shove the reader away. You can push and pull as you need. You can push the reader a little way outside to protect his/her emotions from a distressing scene. Or you can pull them into the character’s head to create empathy or hatred. You can manipulate the reader and his/her emotions. It’s a different way of thinking about point of view. For me, it’s an important distinction because my stories have often gotten characterization comments such as , “I just don’t feel connected to the characters enough.” I think a mastery of Outside, Outside/Inside, and Inside point of view techniques holds a key to a stronger story.

    In the end, it’s not about the labels we apply to this section or that section of a story. These techniques can blur, especially in a story like IVAN, written in first person, present tense. Instead, it’s about the reader identifying with the character in a deep enough way to be moved by the story. These techniques–such a different way to think about point of view!–are refreshing because they give us a way to gain control of another part of our story. These are what make novels better than movies. I’ve heard that many script-writers have trouble making the transition to novels and this is the precise place where the difficulty occurs. Unlike movies, novels go into a character’s head, heart and mind. And these point of view techniques are your road map to the reader’s head, heart and mind.


    This has been part 3 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Tomorrow, will be Inside: Deeply Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series:

  • Outside
  • Outside/Inside
  • Inside
  • 05 Nov

    Point of View: Outside/Inside a Character’s Head

    Partially Inside a Character’s Head: OUTSIDE AND INSIDE POV

    How deeply does a story take the reader into the head of a character. Many discussions of point of view skim over the idea that POV can related to how close a reader is to a reader. But David Jauss says there are two points of view that allow narrators to be both inside and outside a character: omniscience and indirect interior monologue.


    This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Here are links to parts 1 and 3.

    These posts are inspired by an essay by David Jauss, professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, in his book, On Writing Fiction: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About Craft. I am using Ivan, the One and Only, by Katherine Applegate, winner of the 2012 Newbery Award as the mentor text for the discussion.


    IvanOmniscience. Traditionally, “limited omniscience” means that the narrator is inside the head of only one character; “regular omniscience” means the narrator is inside the head of more than one character.

    I love Jauss’s comment: “I don’t believe dividing omniscience into ‘limited’ and regular’ tells us anything remotely useful. The technique in both cases is identical; it’s merely applied to a different number of characters.”

    He spends time proving that regular omniscience never enters into the heart and mind of every character in a novel. A glance at Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE, with its myriad of characters is enough to convince me of this truth.

    Rather, Jauss says the difference that matters here is that the omniscient POV uses the narrator’s language. This distinguishes it from indirect interior monologues, where the thoughts are given in the character’s language. This is a very different question about POV: is this story told in the narrator’s language or the character’s language?

    In IVAN, this is an interesting distinction because Ivan is the narrator of this story; it’s told in his voice. But as a narrator, there are times when he drops into omniscient POV. In the “artists” chapter, Ivan reports:

    “Mack soon realized that people will pay for a picture made by a gorilla, even if they don’t know what it is. Now I draw every day.”

    Ivan tells the reader what Mack is thinking (“soon realized”) and even what those who purchase his art are thinking (“even if they don’t know what it is”). Then, he pulls back into a dramatic reporting of his daily actions. Notice, too, that he makes this switch from dramatic POV to omniscient POV within the space of one sentence. And the omniscient POV dips into two places in that sentence, too.

    Because Mack is Ivan’s caretaker and has caused much of Ivan’s troubles, the reader needs to know something of Mack’s character. This inside/outside level is enough, though. The author has decided that a deep interior view of Mack’s life isn’t the focus of the story. It’s enough to get glimpses of his motivation by doing just a little ways into his head.

    Indirect Interior Monologue

    Another technique for the narrator and reader to be both inside and outside a character is indirect interior monologue. Here, Jauss says that the narrator “translates the character’s thoughts and feelings into his own language. “ (p. 45) The character’s interior thoughts aren’t given directly and verbatim. This is a subtle distinction, but an important one.

    Interior indirect monologue usually involves two things: changing the tense of a person’s thoughts; and changing the person of the thought from first to third. This signals that the narrator is outside the character, reflecting upon the character’s thoughts or actions.

    They are all waiting for the train. (dramatic)
    They were all waiting reasonably for the train. (Inside, indirect interior monologue)

    The word “reasonably” puts this into the head of the narrator, who is making a judgment call, interpreting the dramatic action.

    Interior indirect monologue most often seen with a third-person narrator reflecting another character’s thoughts. But in Ivan, we have a first-person narrator. Applegate stays strictly inside Ivan’s head, except for a few passages where Ivan reports indirectly on another character’s thoughts. Because the passages are already in present tense, she doesn’t have that tense change to rely on.

    Here’s a passage that could have been indirect interior monologue but Applegate won’t quite go there. Stella is an elephant in a cage close to Ivan.

    “Slowly Stella makes her way up the rest of the ramp. It groans under her weight and I can tell how much she is hurting by the awkward way she moves.”

    By adding “I can tell. . .” it stays firmly inside Ivan’s head. He tells us that this is true only because Ivan makes an observation. The story doesn’t dip into the interior of the other characters.

    But there are tiny places where the interior dialogue peeks through. This from the “bad guys” chapter. Bob is Ivan’s dog friend; Not-Tag is a stuffed animal; and Mack is Ivan’s owner.

    “Bob slips under Not-Tag. He prefers to keep a low profile around Mack.”

    Ivan can only know that Bob “prefers” something, when he, as the narrator, dips into Bob’s thoughts.

    But indirect interior monologue is also used by a first person narrator to report his/her prior thoughts. When the first person narrator tells a story about what happened in his past, he is both the actor in the story and the narrator of the story. Ivan tells the story of his capture by humans over the course of several short chapters. It begins in the “what they did” chapter:

    “We were clinging to our mother, my sister and I, when the humans killed her.”

    While Ivan’s story is most present tense, this is past tense because Ivan is reporting on prior events. Even here Applegate refuses to slip into interior indirect monologue. Instead, she just presents the facts in a dramatic manner and lets the reader imagine what Ivan felt. It’s interesting that withholding Ivan’s thoughts here evoke such an emotional response in the reader.

    On the other hand, in “the grunt” chapter, Ivan tells about his family. Again, he is the narrator telling about a past event when he was a main character of the event:

    “Oh, how I loved to play tag with my sister!”

    This could be called direct interior thought, but because he’s narrating a past event, it’s indirect interior thought. Otherwise, he would say, “Oh, how I love to play tag with my sister!”

    Or from the “vine” chapter, where Ivan talks about his thoughts after being captured by humans:

    “Somehow I knew that in order to live, I had to let my old life die. But sister could not let go of our home. It held her like a vine, stretching across the miles, comforting, strangling.
    We were still in our crate when she looked at me without seeing, and I knew that the vine had finally snapped.”

    If this was direct interior, it would be:
    “Somehow I know that in order to live, I must let my old life die.”

    Applegate could have chosen to stay inside Ivan, but here, she pulls back so the reader isn’t fully inside this emotionally disturbing moment. She uses indirect interior monologue, instead of direct.

    As Jauss says about a different passage, but it applies here, “This example also illustrates the extremely important but rarely acknowledged fact that narrators often shift point of view not only within a story or novel but also within a single paragraph.” (p.50)

    This has been proclaimed a mistake in writing point of view, but Jauss says it’s a normal technique. We dip into Mack’s point of view, but then pull back to a dramatic statement about what Ivan is doing.

    Indirect interior monologue often includes “rhetorical questions, exclamations, sentence fragments and associational leaps as well as diction appropriate to the character rather than the narrator. “ (p. 49) In one of my novels, I used a lot of rhetorical questions as a way to get into the character’s head and an editor complained about it. Now, that I know why I was using it (as a way to manipulate how close the reader was to the character), I could go back and use a variety of techniques. Knowledge of fiction techniques is freeing! Tomorrow, we’ll look at how to go deeply into a character’s head, heart and emotions.

    This is part 1 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Join us tomorrow for the final part of the series, Inside: Going Deep into a Character’s Head.


    This has been part 2 of a 3-part series on Point of View: Techniques for Getting Inside a Character’s Head. Tomorrow, will be Inside: Deeply Inside a Character’s Head. Read the whole series.

    04 Sep

    Excitement: Starting a New Novel

    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.

    Scheduling the Project

    When faced with a big project, how do you break it down into manageable pieces?
    I’ve already gone through the process of deciding what kind of novel this will be. Now, I just need to write it.

    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!

    If you can’t see this video, click here.

    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.

    29 Jul

    First Readers v. Manuscript Critique

    When you finish your draft, do you look for a manuscript critique or a first reader? They are different and serve different purposes.

    Manuscript Critique. The reader puts on his/her critical glasses and looks at your manuscript through that lenses. How does this story match up with the ideal novel? Of course, that assumes that you have common concepts about the ideal novel and that your concepts will match up with the editor’s understanding of ideal novels.

    For beginning to intermediate writers, or for those particularly difficult stories, a manuscript critique can be helpful. It shows you where the story fails to touch a reader. It points out weaknesses and strengths. For example, you may find out that you failed to write the climax of the story; instead, you skipped over that chapter and wrote the aftermath of the climax. That’s a common problem and a critique can remind you why you need to actually write it.

    A disadvantage of the critique is that it is by nature a process of tearing apart your novel and matching up the parts to the ideal novel. It is destructive in many ways. The intent is to help you reconstruct, but it can be devastating. Editors, by and large, are manuscript critiquers and a ten-page revision letter is normal.

    First Reader. On the other hand, a first reader has one task: to monitor his/her impressions as s/he reads and report those impressions to you. Some suggest a structured approach and ask readers to write in the margins something like this. B=bored. C=confused. E=emotional.

    You can make up some sort of code like that, or you can just let the reader report as they wish.

    The advantage of this is that it gives you feedback on what you actually put on the page. I often think that I’ve communicated anger, but the reader is merely confused. Especially after a revision, I need a first reader–and a naive one who hasn’t read the story before–to find out if I inadvertently added or subtracted something in the process of revising.

    I am ALWAYS surprised by what a first reader will say. They are confused, bored, angry, or emotional in ways that surprise me–both good and bad. In other words, I need to fine-tune the story to the needs of a reader.

    The disadvantage of a first reader is that you don’t always know the structural and technical problems that a manuscript critique might point out. A first reader might report that s/he was bored with the ending and then you’ll have to figure out why. The manuscript critique will tell you that you left out the climax. You get to the same revision, but by different routes.

    Which do you prefer? A manuscript critique or a first reader?

    13 May

    Saying, “NO!” to an Editor

    Hurrah! You have a revision letter from an editor and you are going to make every single, solitary, revision the editor asks for. Right?

    Maybe.

    When can you say, “No,” to an editor?

    You can refuse a contract for any number of reasons. Money, vision for the published manuscript, an unkind word. You never have to sign a contract.

    Once a contract is signed, though, you are under contractual obligation to make reasonable changes to the manuscript. You should go into the revision process with a hopeful, positive attitude, expecting to do everything that the editor asks for. The mutual goal is a successful book, and the editor (presumably) knows what sells and how to improve your story to make it sell better.

    What if you disagree? The editor is asking for some particular change in your story, and you think the editor is wrong? It’s time to try the editor’s way. Yes, try. Let’s hope that it does work.

    If trying it the editor’s way doesn’t work, it’s time for diplomacy. Diplomacy is when you gently work through a difficult, sticky issue and wind up with a result that makes both parties happy.

    Explain. When I have faced the problem of disagreeing with an editor, I did a long, detailed explanation of why I wrote the manuscript the way I did. In one case, I had chosen words based on assonance, or certain vowel sounds. The editor’s alternative completely destroyed the voice and sound of the piece. As soon as I detailed my strategy for writing, the editor agreed.

    Suggest alternatives. On the other hand, you may be able to suggest a third alternative which incorporates part of the editor’s change, but keeps your ideas, too. The editor will likely agree because your mutual goal is a successful book.


    Do not bring in outside comments at this point. It isn’t a time to say that your critique group loved it this way or that way. At this point–when the editor has put down cash–the editor’s opinion is the only one that matters (besides yours.)

    Be kind and respectful. Your attitude is crucial. If you go into a conversation knowing that you disagree, you can still be courteous. Remember: your mutual goal is. . .

    Be confident. Sometimes, the editor has pinpointed a problem and really doesn’t care HOW you solve it, as long as it gets solved. Editors often don’t know what they want; they just know that what is in front of them doesn’t work. Be confident of your writing skills! you can make the right decisions about your story. Go deeper, into the heart of the issues raised. Solve the problem in a unique way that blows the editor away. S/he won’t mind. Not at all. Because the mutual goal is. . .

    The Ultimate No. Of course, you have the ultimate No. If you really, really disagree, and you can’t find that mutual agreement, you can–if you really have to–get out of the contract. It’s sticky and no one wants this. But you can back out. You probably have to repay advances, and know that this will affect your reputation. Weigh this action very seriously and carefully, and be sure you can accept the consequences. Don’t do it lightly. But yes, you are in control of your own story. You can say, “No,” to an editor.

    20 Mar

    Narrative Arcs and Progressions

    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.

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