Tag Archives: writing craft

Setting and Plot

If you’re thinking you can plunk your action scene in any old gritty dark alley in Generic City, USA, then you’re shortchanging the dramatic potential of your story. For one thing, there are no generic cities in America–or anywhere else in the world. (I would love to plunge into the character of European cities, for example, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the US.) Each major metropolis has its own unique vibe, character, and tempo whether it’s a planned retirement community in Miami, where the condos are sleek, modern, too manicured to look real, and the inhabitants wear Bermuda shorts and sweaters tied around their necks, or winding narrow streets and back ways in Baltimore, or avenues of abandoned old mansions in Detroit. Yes, there are elements common to nearly all large cities, but the atmospheres of New York City, Ft. Worth, and St. Louis are far from identical. What could be more divergent than New Orleans, El Paso, and San Diego? Are you dodging the selection of a big city because you don’t want to do the research? If so, why choose a location you don’t know?

Let’s move on to the dark alley as a scene locale:

While not all real alleys are dark–or even gloomy–writers of many genres find them to be practical places for various sorts of nefarious activities and/or danger. If you haven’t ventured into an alley lately, try it. Even in broad daylight, an alley can have a decidedly creepy, abandoned, utilitarian vibe that makes you feel surreptitious, as though you shouldn’t be there. Darkness, naturally, adds to dramatic tension and helps build suspense. After all, darkness hinders the physical sense of sight, which humans depend on. Darkness triggers primitive survival instincts. Darkness offers crime the opportunity to flourish. Therefore, alleys–both creepy and dark–are infinitely useful to fiction writers.

I am not taking dark alleys away from you. Instead, for this post, I want you to reason through an impulse to use a dark alley. We’ll take it one step at a time:

Why is this alley dark? Is it just because alleys are always dark and spooky? Or is it because Vinny the Villain is laying a trap and has shot out all the mercury vapor lights on the backs of the buildings? Aha, it’s a trap. Okay, good. Now we understand that Vinny is luring someone there. Why? For revenge? For a shakedown? For a kidnapping?

More importantly, who is Vinny after? The protagonist, perhaps? Is Vinny planning to ambush Henry Hero? What if Vinny is instead after Lucy Love, the light of Henry’s life?

What, specifically, is Vinny’s objective here, and what else besides breaking the lights has he done in preparation for his trap? Are henchmen or minions scattered around to put the odds in Vinny’s favor? Will Vinny be helped or hindered by the darkness? Will the confrontation go as planned? What if it doesn’t?

Such questions as these are designed to guide you through plotting in a logical and cohesive way. They serve to help you shape plot and visualize what your characters might encounter as they move into confrontations with each other. By mulling over questions like these, liking some of them and discarding others, you’re systematically planning your story instead of just jumping impulsively from one character action to another.

I have some additional questions:

Firstly, why this particular alley? A big city has many, so why choose this one? Did Vinny select it because of its proximity to the location where Henry Hero is expected to be? Or does he like it because it’s a dead end and Henry can be trapped into a shootout? Maybe, instead, this alley cuts through an area and provides a shortcut? No, wait. If Vinny is planning an ambush, then a shortcut doesn’t fit story needs. On the other hand, if Vinny is planning a shakedown instead of an assassination, then maybe an alley that goes somewhere is best for his purposes.

Plotting, you see, is always about making choices and weighing options that are in line with each other. Plotting is not really about plunking your characters into a bland, one-size-fits-all location and forcing them into haphazard confrontation.

Let’s ask some more questions:

What else is present in this metropolitan alley? Remember that alleys in Smalltown are different from those in Metropolis. Some alleys in Smalltown will be unpaved, muddy, full of broken glass. In Metropolis, some are designed to give people parking spaces off the street. Others are for the use of delivery or garbage trucks, so these byways are often filled with litter and feature Dumpsters and recycling receptacles, loading docks, ramps, and utility doors.

Do homeless people shelter in this alley? If so, what types of detritus, cardboard-box sleeping quarters, and trash are scattered around? Are there narrow side yards containing guard dogs that will snarl, bite, and bark? Are there security cameras? What does this alley look and smell like? Are there rats?

Okay, maybe my questions are starting to overwhelm you. You’re thinking I go way overboard with too many questions and details. But my alley is coming to life. It’s becoming vivid in my imagination. How’s your generic one doing?

Maybe you don’t want to deal with Vinny the Villain at all. Maybe you just need a corpse found in a dark alley so you can insert a crime scene into your story. No problem! Let’s consider this body and where it’s been dumped.

How did it end up in this alley? Was the victim killed here, or was the victim murdered elsewhere and brought to this place? If the latter, how was the body transported? What forensic evidence will be left? Were there any witnesses? If you’re writing about Smalltown and it’s a graveled alley where the trash cans are kept at the back of people’s yards, does anyone’s dog bark? Is the killer seen by a teenage girl sneaking into her house long after curfew? If your story is in Metropolis, is the killer observed by a homeless man? And if that scenario has worn too thin for you, is the killer seen by a well-dressed couple out walking after going to the theater? After all, in NYC’s Broadway district, that’s when cabs are hard to get. In San Diego, the couple might be walking because it’s a beautiful evening and they want to watch the moon shining over the bay.

Why was this particular alley chosen as a dumping point for the body, as opposed to any other alley in the community? Please don’t tell me it was just random, and the villain didn’t plan anything. Because if so, then why wasn’t the murder planned? And if not planned, what are the consequences for the killer who now must weigh options or else be caught immediately?

The more you think through the details involved in where your story action takes place, the more specific and non-generic you’ll be. The more specific you are, the more believable your setting becomes. And the more vivid and plausible your setting, the more your story comes alive.

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The Power of Setting

This post launches a new series of tips and strategies for handling fiction locales.

In the realms of science fiction and fantasy, the setting–or story world–is so important that it’s considered a character.

But what about other genres? How important is setting to the success of romances, mysteries, thrillers, horror, or westerns? Won’t any old backdrop do? After all, it’s the story people and plot that matter, right?

Uh, not entirely.

The backdrop matters a great deal. It should not be bland and generic, interchangeable, or forgettable. Balance is important, of course. You don’t want your story’s setting to overwhelm everything else. It’s fiction, after all, not a travelogue. However, the vague, one-setting-fits-all location will bring nothing to your fiction party.

Therefore, consider the following questions:

How will your setting affect the plot?

How will your setting affect your characters?

How will your setting affect the imagery, tone, and mood of the story?

Is your setting bland or vivid? Why?

Is your setting stereotypical or fresh?

How much research will your setting require?

In the posts to come, I’ll be addressing each of these questions in further detail.

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Swamp Strategies

I was driving recently atop a levee built to contain swamp land. It’s spring. The rains are falling in drizzles and torrents. The rivers and lakes are swelling, backing extra water into sludgy swampy places where varmints like snakes and alligators await the unwary who dare venture there.

Sounds fanciful, right? Well, the man who taught me most of the writing craft I know–Jack Bickham–had an apt term for what fancy book writers now tend to call the second act. Jack called it the “Great Swampy Middle.” In my books on writing craft, I refer to it as the “Dark Dismal Middle.” Neither term makes it sound appealing, but they are–I think–apt descriptors.

It’s the longest section of a book manuscript. It’s possibly the most challenging segment to write. It’s where a writer can become lost, flounder, and sometimes sink. It’s the perfect portion of a story to release plot twists that Jack used to call “alligators.”

Although ideally a novel should start in an intriguing or exciting way, escalate strategically through increasing trouble and conflict, and wind up the story problem in a smashing climax, all of that is easier said than done. Once the thrilling opening of your story loses momentum and you reach that section of your plot outline where everything becomes vague because you hoped you’d be inspired by the time you got there, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a slump. The story’s not so fun anymore. It can seem bewildering and endless. It can become a flat, dull slog. Savvy writers equip themselves with multiple techniques of the writing craft to fend off such problems.

So in this blog series, I want to address what I call Seven Swamp Survival Strategies. They are as follows:

  1. Juggle plates
  2. Check plot progression
  3. Introduce subplots
  4. Use multiple viewpoints
  5. Execute a large or pivotal central story event
  6. Heighten plot suspense
  7. Reveal hidden and back story

They’re by no means all a writer can utilize to keep the middle from sagging or stalling, but in my career I have found them to be effective and useful. I’ll be explaining them one by one in the posts to come.

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Contradictions

My official stance on editing as you write your rough draft is don’t do it. I always say, keep going and don’t second-guess yourself until you’ve completed the draft.

Yet, how do you follow that sweeping advice if you honestly don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’ve never written fiction before, or are tackling your first novel? It’s like being trapped in a fun-house, with dead ends, distorted mirrors, and wobbly floors. Just as you think you see the path ahead of you in whatever scene you’re going to write next, the dialogue falls apart, or it doesn’t go as planned, or you hate it. How are you supposed to keep going while the whole structure of your premise is crumbling around you?

It’s next to impossible.

However, if you began your story with an ending in mind, you should keep floundering forward. You may have to rewrite certain passages or redesign certain scenes because your first effort flopped and the artist inside you is howling with frustration. But rewrite that troublesome character conversation once or twice and then–if you still dislike it–flag it for later and move on.

WHY?

QUESTION: If you’re rewriting chapter one for the fifteenth time and still not getting anywhere with it, what are you accomplishing?

ANSWER: A big case of writer’s block.

Grinding a problematic section over and over and over and over without having a clue how to fix it is only creating frustration. Meanwhile, the story isn’t advancing. And you aren’t making progress toward anything except the death of your idea.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the adage about the best way to learn how to write is to write, but while that’s glib and seems wise superficially, it can’t be your sole mantra.

If you perpetually write in error, violating story principles you don’t know, and you hit one dead end after another, grind your story to death, then abandon it–all you’re accomplishing is the reinforcement of error. You’re creating bad habits and training yourself never to bring any story you attempt to completion.

It’s been said that it takes 30 days of repeating a task or action to form a habit. If you start a story, get stuck, and toss it aside–how long until that variety of non-production becomes a habit?

Conversely, skipping over problems every time you hit one carries the danger of creating another bad habit–one of never solving plot holes. It’s entirely possible to blithely disregard a technical flaw in the cause of forcing a story forward no matter what. I did exactly that early in my writing career because I had a book deadline and I wanted to take a small vacation, so I hurried along by hammering out my daily page quota and paid no attention to a scene I goofed up. I took the trip, did not enjoy it because my story sense was screaming by then, and–once home again–had to work many long, hard hours to rewrite over 100 pages of material to correct my mistake and still meet deadline.

Now, here I’ve told you to keep going, but I’ve also told you not to skip/disregard problems. Is that contradictory? Yes, I think it qualifies, so I’ll explain:

Keep going, but when you stumble over a problem or find yourself facing a scene you don’t know how to write, pause and think it over. Is it an issue of changing viewpoint but you’ve never written multiple viewpoint before and you aren’t sure this is the right thing to do? Is it a difficulty in that your scene is long and complicated with six characters to juggle, and nothing is coming out where you want it to?

Pause and seek technical assistance. Look up scene construction in your books on writing technique. Consult the rules of changing viewpoint. Then think about what you’ve read and consider how your problematic passage is meeting those technique rules or falling short. Think about how you might approach your material differently and how the consequences of such change might affect your story outline.

In the viewpoint example, ask yourself why you want to change viewpoint at this point in the story. Is it to follow the story action? Has your protagonist suddenly become sidelined and is no longer central to the exciting story events? Why has this happened? Have you lost focus? Is another character becoming more intriguing to you than your dull protagonist? Why did you let your central, lead player become boring? What could you do to enliven your star again?

If you really want to show the villain making plans to ambush your protagonist and you think switching viewpoint will heighten the suspense, that’s a sound dramatic reason for doing so. However, do you plan to use the villain’s viewpoint more than once in the novel, and if so, have you plotted that? Before you make a decision, weigh the pros and cons of heightening suspense with the risk of giving too much away versus the advantage of an unexpected plot twist striking your hero without warning. It’s a judgment call of anticipatory suspense versus an unpredictable jolt of danger.

As for the complicated scene example, juggling six characters who are all upset, angry, or distraught is a difficult challenge for the most seasoned writer. Generally, scene conflict works most efficiently and dramatically when it’s narrowed down to two characters. Could you possibly divide your conflict into three smaller scenes, with your protagonist confronting one or two irate characters at a time? Or, could you push five characters into the background while the most vocal among them becomes the spokesperson?

After you’ve researched and thought, write a correction. It may wobble and still fall short, but chances are it will be on track enough for you to continue forward.

If it still doesn’t work, ask yourself if your story needs it at all. Experience has taught me that one or two futile attempts means I need to cut that section. There’s nothing to be gained by stubbornly beating your head against an immovable wall.

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Principle Guidance

The other morning I was cutting up a pineapple for my breakfast smoothie. Granted, using the canned variety is quicker, but I find something satisfying in taking one of these hefty chunks of weird-looking fruit and sawing it into edible bits.

pineapple

Being a writer, I wasn’t thinking about my list of to-do tasks for the day. Instead, I was thinking about my step-by-step process of taking off the top and bottom, then cutting the … um, whatdoyoucallit outer layer–the peeling, the scales, the skin, the armor plating?–bit by bit, taking care not to slice the plate-armor too thin because then it takes for-ev-er to pare out those prickles or eyes or thorns or whatsits. (Maybe I should have researched the various parts of a pineapple before writing this post.) I learned long ago by experience that you can’t and shouldn’t try to save too much of that luscious, delightful yellow fruit because it only makes the job difficult and frustrating. However you approach it–whether with all the super-nifty gadgets sold by Amazon or with a serrated kitchen knife and a bit of courage–it boils down to two primary tasks:  hacking off the plate-armor and then removing the core.

It’s a juicy, aromatic, sticky procedure. I just need big pieces to throw into my smoothie-maker, so they don’t have to be pretty. And I just need to focus on not letting any precious fruit skate off the cutting board onto the floor because the juice gets slippery.

Now what does pineapple carving have to do with writing? I was focused on my procedure–which is mainly to cut off the plate-armor instead of my finger and to drip as little juice as possible onto the floor–and from there my thoughts drifted to rules and how creative people usually loathe, despise, and abominate rules. Why? Because they hinder us and hamper us and handle us, and we want to do things our way.

In the past few lingering days of June, I’ve watched designer Rachel Ashwell–yes, the Shabby Chic creator–posting a series of visual tours of various homes of British designers and artists. While I’m not an aficionado of the Shabby Chic style or an Ashwell fan, I am finding these small Instagram tours of the shops and homes of highly creative people to be fascinating, and I appreciate her efforts to provide this diversion during lockdown.

These are not the highly stylized, commercialized, glossy designers featured on HGTV. These are makers of miniatures, wallpaper designers, milliners, leather artists, photographers, people who wrap their stairway railings in hand-stitched leather or pile children’s ballet slippers in unused fireplaces or hang scraps of exquisite, antique handmade lace from the ceiling in ethereal draperies to veil the room. They are NOT following design-school rules. Their sofa pillows are not karate chopped. The art on the walls is not color-coordinated to match the rug. Their kitchens are not regimented into efficient work triangles. They don’t have sectionals arranged around ginormous flat-screen TVs.

But the colors they use harmonize. The petals of peonies plunked in old jars drop delicately on table surfaces in natural just so patterns. There’s something magical and mysterious about veiling rooms in lengths of sheer voile and lace with low amber lighting beneath old paper parasols used as shades and mirrors so old and worn they barely reflect images, just shadows and flickers.

These are all images created by people that don’t worry about rules. Instead, they consciously or instinctively follow principles of design to make their rooms or creations work.

ballet costume imageparasol lampCB545_SERA_LACE_BATH-001_RT

The difference is key to taking yourself from basic wordsmithing to the next level, where  writing stories that soar and come alive is more than possible.

A rule is something arbitrary. It’s there for a reason. It works. It has boundaries. It is not flexible.

Principles–whether in art, interior design, or writing stories–show us the why and how of the craft we’re using. Principles are about how something works and why it works. Rules tell us to do something a certain way because that’s the way it should be done.

A rule says, Don’t write in first-person present tense. Fiction is always written in past tense and has been for at least the last two centuries.

A principle says, Present tense–especially when combined with first-person viewpoint–creates the illusion of speed and intimacy that appeals to twenty-first-century young readers.

A rule says, Never change viewpoint within a scene.

A principle says, Scenes are more dramatically effective when written from a single perspective.

A rule says, Create high-intensity action in a thriller climax by setting a hook then breaking to a new chapter and different viewpoint.

A principle says, When intense story action is needed, cross-cutting two different viewpoints through the usage of scene fragments will add to the urgency and sense of danger.

When we understand our craft thoroughly so that we grasp the underlying principles that yield well-told stories, then we can begin to break the rules.

Not for the sake of being rebellious and wild and unfettered and ridiculous. Breaking the rules of writing and storytelling isn’t about dumping anything and everything into the story, ignoring punctuation, dodging craft, and jumbling events into a chaotic mess. Breaking the rules of writing is about balancing on the support beam of guiding principles and bringing your characters and plot to life.

To know and understand writing principles is to know and understand the art of writing. When we master our craft, we begin truly to create.

ben peck whitson

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In Defense of Story

So the other night I stayed up late, sieving Amazon’s books for my fall class on Category Fiction. (It’s a fun course designed to acquaint college students with a handful of the most popular genres in commercial fiction. I have them read selections from the various genres or subgenres I’ve chosen for the semester and let these budding writers rip the books apart for logic, writing craft, and plausibility.)

Each summer presents me with the challenge of reading potential novel after potential novel. This one’s too mainstream. That one’s plot falls apart in the middle. Another one sounds good in its description and reviews, but in reality it’s so darned silly I can’t read past Chapter Two. And on it goes, with me reading, evaluating, sifting, weighing a book’s solid technique in one area versus its flaws elsewhere, and trying to give my class a variety that will maybe ignite a renewed love of reading in them. The summer is never long enough, and if I land on an older book that really offers the craft I want the class to examine, chances are it’s out of print and only available from used book sellers in some rare hardcover edition costing $348.

I confess that so far this year I have maybe half or less of good contenders for my reading list. I’m aware that time’s ticking steadily away. And my rebellious streak wants to toss the stack aside in favor of books I really want to read for myself to suit my personal taste.

Nevertheless, it’s fun to have an official reason for browsing through Amazon the way I used to browse the shelves at my local Borders bookstore.

I was looking for mysteries, solid ones where the protagonist sleuth actually investigates and deduces instead of posing in descriptive passages, mouthing witty or surly dialogue, and somehow stumbling across the critical clue by sheer luck, the work of some minor individual deemed unimportant to the story, or through provoking the villain into coming out of hiding. The problem that evening was that I’d just finished reading a rock-solid investigative mystery where the English village inspector gumshoes back and forth like a basset hound on the trail of a rabbit, meticulously piecing together tiny bits of lies and information into an eventual whole. It was a book written by J.S. Fletcher called MURDER IN THE PALLANT. I think it was published in 1926. There were no forensics, not even fingerprints. It was refreshing to read as the sleuth questioned and re-questioned characters, turning the evidence this way and that like a giant puzzle to be solved. Trouble is, the book’s not readily available even in Kindle or audio formats. And maybe it’s a bit too stodgy for twenty-year-olds who’ve only heard of Perry Mason because HBO now has revived the show.

Even if I decide to assign one old-school mystery, I need to find a modern version for contrast. Somehow the other evening, as I tracked mystery authors across Amazon’s many trails, I ended up in science fiction to check out the new 2020 Nebula winners, then fantasy, and from fantasy browsed my way into juvenile fiction.

The past five years or so have brought a strong push from publishers to supply diverse books, most particularly in the sf, fantasy, and kid markets. Those genres are possibly the easiest to open up to different ethnicities, although they are by no means the only ones. I found Nigerian authors, writers of Middle-Eastern descent, and characters ranging from Asian to Hispanic to Indian.

I think of my childhood and how I would have reveled in such books, eager to learn about all sorts of people and cultures.

Yet as I read descriptions and critical reviews that were so persuasive in selling many of these offerings, I would then dive into the reader reviews and find comments like, “Don’t believe all the hype about how good this book is, ’cause it was all fancy language and no substance.” Or, “Everyone says this is a really great book, but I thought it was too slow getting started. Who wants to read half the book before anything happens?” Or, “You’ll really like this story if you don’t mind its lack of ending. It’s just manipulation to get you to buy the next one.”

I’m trying hard not to be overly critical or make sweeping generalizations, but for the past few years I’ve been increasingly concerned by the emphasis on publishing according to a social agenda instead of publishing to provide youngsters–or any reader–with a rousing good yarn.

Admittedly I’m the very worst type of book consumer. I want new, fresh, different, diverse, and and and I want a well-crafted, dynamic, engrossing plot about layered, intriguing characters.

You see, I’m seldom an “either, or” person. I’m very much an “and” person. I want it all. I expect it all, or at the least I expect a darned good try to provide me with it all from the authors I read.

And too many of the current crop of new fresh voices are not giving me the “and.” I’m getting “or.”

That’s not good enough.

I think of children readers–some wide open and receptive to what’s new and different; others cautious and reluctant to try anything beyond their comfort zone–and are they being served only novelty at the expense of good story? When plots are stretched and manipulated to deliberately incorporate certain elements desired at present by acquisitions editors and librarians–to fit an agenda, if you will–the contrivance starts to show. The plot starts to wobble like a planet knocked off its axis by a passing comet.

Here’s what I want:

*Strong plot focused on an objective;

*Vivid protagonist with much to learn and willing to strive hard to achieve the objective;

*Powerful villain seeking to thwart or destroy the protagonist;

*Exciting conflict and story action;

*Intriguing setting;

*Dimensional sidekicks and companions to both protagonist and villain;

*Clear direction; and

*A suspenseful, nail-biting, enthralling climax that resolves the story question.

Give me all or most of that, at any age level young or older, and I’ll happily read about David Weber’s starship captain Honor Harrington, or Walter Mosley’s mid-century Los Angeles, or a Tess Gerritsen medical thriller, or talking dragons in Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE series, or Hispanic mythological creatures in Ryan Calejo’s CHARLIE HERNANDEZ AND THE LEAGUE OF SHADOWS, or WWII villains, or Asian children in training to combine martial arts with ice skating in Henry Lien’s PEASPROUT CHEN, or whatever silly school adventure Gordon Korman has cooked up next.

Henry Lien author photoTemeraire covercharlie hernandez coverdevil in a blue dress coverhonor harrington covergordon korman cover

Children need to read many things and be exposed to many topics and situations. Children also need to read well-crafted stories, not agendas. When a writer can do that, then that writer is truly opening a new world in their minds.

Consider THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak. It’s mainstream. It’s long. Its narrator is Death. It deals with Nazi confiscation of people’s books and how those books were burned in community after community across Germany during World War II. None of these issues seems like something children would read, yet it has been hugely successful in capturing both young and adult readers. Its message is very strong, and its voice is fresh, yet it offers story first.

book thief covermarkus zusak

Social agendas may be well-intentioned, but don’t sacrifice story for them.

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Revising the Revision

The book in progress sits atop my printer as a hard-copy draft, awaiting revision. I’m letting it cool down before I start editing. I need some time and distance to gain objectivity. I need to find a hot-pink editing pen for when I’m ready to spread out the pages to slash and burn.

Meanwhile, I’m mulling over cover art and branding strategies. I’m brooding about the tentative title, FICTION FORMULA REVISION, which I dislike but can’t think of anything better. (Why is it so easy to invent a pun or quip for an Instagram caption, but a book title won’t come?)

My thanks to those of you that sent “likes” of the last book update but asked no questions. Normally I welcome questions, but my email has been down and inaccessible for the past three or four weeks. While the problem hasn’t been solved, a Band-Aid has been applied so I’m operational again. I think it will hold well enough for the time being. (Fingers crossed.)

And boo hiss to this darned plague that has all technical-support agents overworked and under-helpful. Doesn’t the universe understand that when I’m at this stage with a book, the least computer hiccup freaks me out?

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Quote for the Day

Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

I stumbled across a variant of this saying a few weeks ago. I don’t recall now where I saw it. A niggling thought in my brain suggests I might have seen it on Instagram. Anyway, I scrawled it on a scrap of paper and promptly forgot about it. Yesterday, I came across the scrap of paper and tried to hunt down who said this.

Apparently no one and everyone. It’s so good people of various professions have used it, tweaked it, applied it, and shared it. I have no doubt you’ve encountered it or some variation of it as well.

It speaks to me for obvious reasons, chiefly because I make a living teaching college students how to change their status from amateur to professional. Of course, I help others besides students. Anytime I share writing craft or explain how a story is structured, I am focused on the professional approach, which is writing with the aim of being published and paid.

There are, of course, many who write for the sheer pleasure of self-expression. They fill journals with the joys and tribulations of their lives. (They may even make the journal itself.) Others sustain the fading art of letter writing. Some amuse themselves penning character sketches or generate blogs or share inspiration on Instagram. Countless individuals write stories for their children or grandchildren. And there are those who go about their lives and occupations with a yen to share the stories swimming in their imaginations but who are stymied by having no idea of how to express them.

When I chose writing as my dream, my life, and my profession, I focused my practicing toward one chief aim:  to have my novel on the public library shelf in my hometown. In my childhood, the library was the most magical place I knew. I daydreamed about living there among the towering shelves filled with books. I didn’t mind that it was housed in a ramshackle old building next to the railroad tracks, with brick walls, uneven floors, and large plate-glass front windows from the days when the building was a store. Those details added to the magical kingdom, and as a child I used to plot ways and means of being locked in by mistake so I could spend the night there.

So when I realized I wanted to be a writer I could think of no achievement higher than being shelved in that wondrous, shadowy place. I would choose an armload of books to check out and then go and stand next to the shelf in the “C” section, where someday my novel would belong.

But to reach that objective, I had to get published. And to get published, I had to submit my work. And to submit work that would be accepted by the editors that kindly, or curtly, or impatiently rejected what I sent to them, I had to write stories that were good. And to write good stories, I had to learn what I was doing. And to learn what I was doing, I had to practice. And to practice properly, I needed training.

Fortunately, I received training in the Professional Writing program at the University of Oklahoma. The objective there was not to write creatively, but instead professionally. Oh, the hours of practice I put in, trying to master scene conflict and moment-by-moment dramatization. I would write a scene, only to realize when I read it over that I’d left out some critical plot point. Inserting it would mess up the moment-by-moment/stimulus-response order of dialogue. Then I’d have to rip apart the scene and rewrite it.

I learned to place a small checklist of plot points next to my typewriter–yes, I started my career back then–so I wouldn’t forget key comments. I learned that even as I grew more adept at my craft I would still have to edit and edit and edit. I grew to understand that no matter how delicious breaking a rule of technique felt during the heat of composition, that in the cold light of revision it was far less effective than I’d believed. Of course that meant I had to go back and rewrite the section properly.

And finally, after so much trying, practice, writing, rewriting, and care–I found I didn’t need the checklist. I could park two opposing characters in the same locale and know they would go where they should.

I’m not boasting that I’m as polished and smooth as I’ve always wanted to be. I’m not bragging that I never feel the urge to toss the rules of good craft. I’m not saying that I don’t indulge that urge. I still check my copy. I still edit. I still go back and undo the rule-breaking for something better.

But I get the quote. I live the quote. After so many years of hard effort, it’s good to know this is how I roll.

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Manageable Revision

While I’ve met a few–very few–working authors that profess to love revising their fiction, the rest seem to react with groans, eye rolls, or resigned shrugs. Amateur writers, by contrast, tend to respond with varying degrees of panic and/or bewilderment.

Whether professional, newbie, or hobbyist, any writer worth some salt should know that revision is part of the job. A story isn’t completed in the rough draft. It’s completed when it’s written, rewritten, polished, and right.

However, whether a writer enjoys it, accepts it, or loathes it, there’s no need to panic or feel lost during the process.

If you’re at the stage where you’re still learning the writing craft and have little to no experience with the revision aspect of putting a story together, let me say right now there’s no need to be afraid.

Fear is unproductive, and while it’s possibly responsible for more than a few manuscript files never being opened again, you can vanquish it by facing it and understanding how to deal with it.

Maybe fear is too dramatic a term. Maybe you’re simply confused, puzzled, nervous, or unsure about a few areas in your story line. Perhaps you’re willing to tackle revisions, but you just don’t know where to begin.

Here’s what I always tell my classroom students regarding the very first step of revision. And that’s to type “The End” on the last page of your rough-draft manuscript. If you haven’t written an entire draft from start to finish–however wobbly–you’re not ready to make changes or decisions.

It’s best to write your rough draft with as much focus as you can sustain. Don’t write while second-guessing yourself. Don’t write with mental reservations. Don’t write with the idea that your weakly designed sidekick will have to be redone. Trying to work with that kind of split-focus in play means your scenes will be choppy or fragmented, characters will act or speak in contrived ways, the plot will jump here and there without cohesion, and the conflict will continuously weaken as you try to push events forward.

Ray Bradbury advised writers to plan slowly and coolly and then write as hot and fast as possible. Train yourself to outline ahead of time. Writing by the seat of your pants is so very appealing because it makes you feel defiant, rebellious, and artistic, but it really tends to result in a lot of dead ends, restarts, and confusion that could otherwise be mitigated. If you want to feel defiant, rebellious, and artistic, wear mismatched socks that clash with the rest of your clothing, but by all means plan your story up front.

Even if you can only plot the first and third acts of your great American novel-to-be and you’re vague about the middle, if you must launch your story right now or die, then leap in and swim as though you’re crossing the Gulf of Mexico with sharks snapping at your toes. Go fast. Go big.

Whatever you do, don’t stop and rewrite while you’re still in rough draft.

Type it all the way through the ending. You may be exhausted, half-drowned, and missing a foot, but finish the rough draft before you fix anything.

Then assess what you have as coolly as you can. The revision process takes time. It should be addressed in small, manageable chunks. Deal with one task before you tackle another. Don’t try to do everything at once. You’ll only confuse yourself and end up overwhelmed.

Remember how long it took you to write your first draft. A week, if it’s a short story? A month? Five months if it’s a novel? Two years?

Do you really think revision can be wrapped up in a matter of hours?

Not going to happen.

Like writing, revision is accomplished one small bit at a time.

Assessment is all about facing the weaknesses and repairing them. It’s about solidifying your plot and plugging its holes. It’s about adding complexity to your major characters and governing viewpoint. It’s about making the antagonist tougher so that your hero is forced to be stronger, try harder, and reach farther than expected. It’s about owning up to your poor punctuation habits, turning on your computer’s spell check function, and cleaning up your grammar.

Revision isn’t a matter of jumping here and there through the manuscript like a feral rabbit hunting clover in a suburban Bermuda-lawn. It’s not about hiding things you don’t know how to fix or hoping no editor will notice them. It’s not about ignoring the flaws or, worse, dwelling on them until you’re in such despair you delete your files permanently.

Most importantly, revision isn’t about throwing out the good along with the bad. It’s about learning your craft, then finding the courage to trust that craft. Whatever is weak, make it better. If you don’t know how, find out. Whatever works–even if you doubt it–leave it alone. As you hone your story instincts, find the strength to rely on them.

 

 

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Grab ’em quick!

Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?

Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?

Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?

Open with a hook.

Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)

Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.

Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:

Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES:  She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]

Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW:  Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]

James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER:  1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]

Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET:  DAUNTLESS:  The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]

Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL:  They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]

Jude Watson’s LOOT:  No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]

And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE:  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]

Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.

In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.

You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.

So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month:  school begins. Consider August, a good month:  school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine:  there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

See what I mean?

Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.

Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.

Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.

Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.

 

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