Friday, August 29, 2014

Teaching Yourself to Write Better Dialogue: Three Steps That Will Make All the Difference

When one of my advanced students wanted to sharpen his dialogue, I gave him the task of modeling from a favorite book.  His dialogue improved dramatically in just weeks.  

Tuning the ear, and the creative brain, to the rhythms of written dialogue makes all the difference.

Here's a variation on that exercise, perfect for travel, vacations, and car listening.  You'll need a favorite book on CD or downloadable audio.  Two exceptional titles for listening and learning:  The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich and Nora Ephron's memoir I Remember Nothing. 

1.  Spend 30 minutes listening to a chapter or two.  Pay attention to the pauses, called "beats," between sentences and when the writer interrupts the dialogue to add gesture, movement, a setting cue, a sensory detail. 

2.  In the next section, listen beyond the dialogue rhythm for the undercurrent. of meaning, also called subtext.  Subtext is what's not being said, what reveals the character and conflict. 

3.  As you listen further, find moments of dialogue where there is a "reveal":  something real or factual or truthful is presented, without subtext.  This doesn't happen very often in the beginning, so you may have to wait until further into the book.  Not where it occurs within a scene, a chapter, or the book as a whole.  How does it change things?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Importance of Action: Do You Have Enough Happening?

All week, struggling to revise an early chapter in my novel-in-progress, I realized what was wrong:  nothing happens.  It's what I call a "traveling chapter."  After a plane crash, the character tries to get to a main road.  She walks through a forest at night.  She discovers she's lost an important item from her pack.  She can't go back, she panics, she keeps on. 

No matter how I massage the words, the result is the same.  Not enough is going on.  It's way too early in the book for a pause.  I decided to ditch the chapter--and everything worked so much better!

Of course I miss those stellar sentences I worked over for weeks.  But writers have to be ruthless, right?  Kill their darlings?

As I moved the blah chapter to my "extras" file (a holding tank for writing that hasn't found its home and may never), I remembered one of my early fiction teachers.  Her critique was far from easy!  She often X'ed out huge sections of purple prose and rambling pages.  Mostly she gave me critical feedback on action.  

I recall one lesson:  She took me through three of my rougher chapters.  Broke them apart by scene.  
Then wrote in the margin two excellent questions: 

1.  Purpose?
2.  What's actually happening? 
When taken apart this way, nonevent scenes and chapters reveal their lack.  
The lesson was truly embarrassing.  As a new fiction writer, I believed readers loved characters who sat around with great thoughts, great coffee, and pithy dialogue.  Scene after scene of this--caffeinated and verbose, they never did a thing.

Not one bit of action in ten pages!  (Well, the character moved to the refrigerator and back, but that didn't count, my teacher told me.)

Not long after, I read an interview with writer Dennis Lehane, most famous for his novel Mystic River.  In the interview, he spoke of a key lesson he learned from one of his writing teachers:  If characters are in the same room for more than a page, get them out.

Although my plane-crash survivor was moving--walking for pages in the dark forest--to a reader it was just time passing in the same room.  Not enough action.  
Readers learn the most about characters (real or imagined--so memoir writers, this is for you too!) from what they do, rather than what they think or even say.  Isn't that true about people you know?  Your friends may talk a fine story, but the real deal is when they try to live it.  
Same with people on the page. 

This Week's Writing Exercise
If you want to try the exercise that changed my writing life, here are the steps:

1.  Pick a chapter, series of scenes, or another section of your writing that just isn't getting off the ground.

2.  In the margin of each section, write the answers to the two questions:  What the purpose of this section? and What's actually happening here?

3.  See what can be trimmed, enlivened, or moved.

Bonus:  A cool link from a writer in my advanced (part 3) online book class is this blog post from The Algonquin Redux on writing action.  (Thanks, Anne!)  If you are at all confused about how to add action to your scenes, you'll enjoy it!

Friday, August 15, 2014

How Chapters Are Built--What to Include, What to Skip, and How to Know If You Actually Have One

This week's post is part of a weekly lesson in my online book-structuring classes, Your Book Starts Here, Part 2, sponsored by the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  To find out more about the fall session of this class, click here.

My approach to teaching book-writing is built from my years of publishing, working as an editor, and teaching thousands of writers.  I used to think books were built from outlines.  I used to believe that books are most easily constructed when the writer knows exactly where he or she is going at the start.   

I don't buy that anymore--too many writers never finish their books.   

So I teach a different approach:  let the random, creative self explore first.  Then organize the explorations into a rough map to get the big picture.  Then build skills to refine and expand the material.  Finally, create your chapters.

This is radically different than many methods to book-writing.  And it may not appeal to you.  Most writers want to know exactly where they are going, when they begin.  But it's almost impossible to know where your book will take you on its journey, or so I've found.

For me, the freedom of exploring an idea must come first.  Then I need a glimpse of the larger structure, an image to write towards, as novelist Roxanna Robinson once said.  Even if that image gets changed, it keeps my goal of a whole book in sight.  I tracked my own experiences with writer's block for many years; they mostly happened whenever I got too hung up in the little moments of my story, the fine details.

A Chapter's Internal Pacing Informs the Narrative Arc
The inner story of a book is the transformation of a person, the main character or narrator, through a series of outer events.  Without a narrative arc, a book is just like reading a list of crises.  Readers want to witness growth.  The narrative arc is the journey of growth.

You can track the inner story, or narrative arc, of your whole book via your storyboard--click here for more about storyboards.  But each chapter must also contribute to that narrative arc, via its build up of scenes and tension.

Each chapter has a purpose, not just to provide information, but also to show the incremental steps a character (real or imagined) takes as they move through the story.

The movement will rarely be linear, straightforward, because a human journey is mostly one step forward, two steps back.  But movement has to be apparent to the reader to keep the arc alive.  This is what makes up the internal pacing, the perceived changes in someone's character.  The growth we track as readers.  
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that an "island" (thanks to Ken Atchity for that term) is a fragment of writing--it can be anything, really, a setting description, a flashback, whatever.  No limits.  Eventually islands might grow into scenes, which are developed islands, also called dramatic moments.  Let's start by defining the difference between a scene, or dramatic moment, and a chapter. 
What's a Scene?
One great definition of a scene is a moment when an emotion is articulated in some way, usually via action. 

In fiction or memoir, this might be a run-in between two characters.  Or a memory of a past event that still brings a surge of shame or delight.  Or a conversation where someone doesn't get their hopes realized--or does. 

Scenes are small time capsules.  They are potent because they contain more than is openly revealed. 

In nonfiction, a scene might be considered an anecdote that demonstrates the book's theory or a step of that theory.  For instance, a weight loss book might contain a scene where a man stands in front of a pastry counter at the local grocery store, calculating his chances of getting a doughnut and getting outside before his wife, shopping in another aisle, notices.  A nonfiction book on how to play the piano might contain "scenes" of information (like developed "islands") that explain the keyboard.

Important:  Scenes are not necessarily complete.  They don't require a beginning, middle, and end.  But they usually offer developed ideas, developed characters and setting and action or information.  Scenes often leave us hanging, which tells us there will be another scene later to finish the story.  We'll read on to find out where the thread continues. 

Chapters are very different.

What's a Chapter? 
A chapter is a sequence of scenes that carry the reader to some new level of understanding about the story or the book's topic. 

In books, chapters are less wrapped up--you want the reader to read into the next chapter, right?  Not close the book at the end of a chapter and perhaps not pick it up again.  William Goldman and David Morrell wrote this about chapters:  "Jump in late, leave early."  Those two ideas are so helpful to crafting strong chapters.

Jump in late, or "enter late," means to begin your chapter in the middle of the action, rather than with a preamble.  Why?  The reader gets engaged faster.   

They'll more likely read on.

Leave early means to end the chapter with a question, something unresolved.  Again, why?  Because this helps the reader want to start the next chapter immediately.  It creates a page-turner.

In nonfiction, a chapter concludes more overtly.  There's a hook to future material, certainly; otherwise, why would we read on?  But nonfiction chapters deliver information and there's a sense at chapter's end that we've received enough to ponder and absorb.  Nonfiction chapters often end with completion of  
thought, while fiction and memoir leave something deliberately unfinished. 

So, as we build chapters, we need to consider three things:
1.  Choose an island or scene that jumps right into action.
2.  Have enough scenes that something changes in the character or narrator, creating a narrative arc.
3.  End with something unresolved.

These are the building blocks.  One long scene can create a good chapter, but it must satisfy these three requirements.

There's a fourth:  if you use scenes or islands, you must piece them together.  You must craft transitions between them so the reader follows along without any stumbles.

Creating Transitions between Scenes and Chapters
Transitions are sentences, images, dialogue, repeated objects, a setting feature, and other elements that bridge two sections in a chapter.  They allow the reader to move smoothly between the emotions/meaning of one scene into the next.  

Example:  Oranges are peeled at the end of one scene and an orange glow is in the sky at sunrise in the beginning of the next.  These scenes might be in different times, even take place in different eras if one is a flashback, but the reader will be able to transition because of the repeating image.

Transitions are not just visual:  they can be smells, sounds, heat or cold, light or dark, a piece of furniture or a room or an object--whatever has meaning and can be repeated without too much fanfare.

The idea is to plant the image then return to it, creating a good transition as you do.  They are fun to think of--and worth studying in books you admire!  I bet you don't even notice them in these admired books at first.  That's good writing.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Taking Back Control of What We Write--and Read: Moving Past Our Training and Culture

Voice and theme were the topic of a recent workshop I taught at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We had a lively discussion about the way we are writing--and reading--today.  A writer from the class emailed this week with more thought-provoking ideas. 

My premise:  We are being taught to write a certain way, in school, in business, a way that goes for appearance over substance.  It's changing the way we approach creative writing (books) and also reading.

Studies document our brains changing, our attention span growing shorter.  Nicholas Carr's The Shallows:  What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains was a finalist for both the 2011 Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner awards.  As writers, we are very interested in this change!   

The writer in my class added this idea:  we are also taught to focus on the main ideas, not just when we write but when we read.  "This makes it tough to engage someone to read a whole book," she said. 

What if the world is being split into two camps:  those who love books, who have been avid readers their entire lives, who somehow survived the training and still kept their love of complex literature, and those who find literature confusing, uninteresting--perhaps because the ability to read for shown meaning was trained out of them?

The writer in my class says she last read fiction books in junior high, "an occasional non-fiction book since then but I usually have a high motivation to learn something on the topic and am thus more effective at forcing myself to read it to the end.  When I read setting, I skim right over it."  She is looking for the main ideas just like she was trained to, but setting usually only has images and description.  "Not surprisingly," she adds,  "I resist writing setting."
Voice and theme come from shown meaning, from images, primarily used in setting.  Images that arise organically from the writer's core and life passions.   

Uh-oh.  If our ability to enjoy theme, understand shown meaning (versus told meaning, which nonfiction uses) is being trained out of our brains, will we be able to find the meaning that emerges as theme, as authentic voice?

I'm not talking about the structure experiments that are stretching the norm:  the cinematic books, the rise of graphic novels, the shorter chapters in many novels and memoirs (sometimes one paragraph or one page), or the new overall structures like Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index and episodic novels like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.

Evolution happens in any creative art.  Neither good nor bad, it reflects the changes in our culture.  What I don't want to see:  our training away from substance dictating the new forms.  Do we want only literature that tells us what to think, rather than asks us to think deeply, reflect, mine the story for personal and universal meaning?  Have our brains become too impatient for this?   

Training away from meaning in school and the corporate world may not be stoppable.  We're quicker now, flashing through our lives.  Sadness is when the speed creates a sense of disconnect with art.  When writers begin to think that appearance (proper punctuation, spelling, sentence structure) is more important to readers than what we have to say, we die a small death as literary artists. 

Early in my teaching career, I came across the writings of Carol Bly, most notably author of The Passionate, Accurate Story.  In that book, Bly tells about a young writer who tried to write about her parents' divorce and its devastation on her and her siblings.  But before Carol worked with her, she had only received feedback on her mistakes in punctuation.  Easy to see why this writer learned that how her papers looked was top priority--the substance didn't count.

Creative writing classes try to train back in the time it takes to understand meaning.  Bly's classes were famous for this.

Are you coming from a school or business writing backward which values obtuse language over directness, appearance over meaning?  I thought I'd escaped it in my school years only to encounter it in corporations where I worked:  concerns over litigation ruled the page, when a company can't say what they mean.  I learned to write a lot about basically nothing.  Our words show up on the page, but they lack any sense of us.  I had to relearn how to first find my meaning, then to write it.

Good books are made up of three equally important parts: content, structure, and language.  Content is what's happening, the events, the characters or real players onstage, the setting.  Structure is the sequencing of the content, how it flows to the reader, the order you present each event or information.  The plot.  Language is the appearance, the fine-tuning of voice, pacing, and theme. 

If you zero in on language first--from your training that appearance is what counts--you may try to perfect one sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter, and never bring a book into being.  You may never give yourself time to explore the substance of what you want to say, what means the most to you.

Allow yourself time to explore--without censorship--what you want to write about.  What means the most to you.  What you are passionate about.  If that schoolteacher or boss in your mind whispers, "Watch out, that comma is in the wrong place" or "Terrible word choice, you must go back and find a better one now," first let yourself become aware of this critical voice inside.  Acknowledge where it came from, where you learned it.  Know that there is another way. 

Take a creative writing class (emphasis on creative) and unlearn these awful rules inside your head.  Know it will take time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Crafting Pathways in Your Book: Internal Conflict, External Conflict, and How They Form a Story

Some of the nicest moments in my life happen when nothing happens.  I think of kitchen conversations with friends, sitting in my garden, watching a sunset, taking a walk in the country with my sweetheart.  Peace is the reigning atmosphere, and it nourishes me.  It's what I most crave in my life.

But not in my writing.

A writing teacher once told me:  "If your story is too peaceful, if nothing happens to force change, it's not a story."  The definition of story is something happening and someone changing because of that event. 

Good story answers two questions: 
(1) What does this person (your narrator or character) want?  (2) What's preventing them from getting it?
Story structure gurus like John Truby say that if you know the answers to these two questions, you have the basis for a good story.  If you are still searching, you don't quite.

Answering These Questions Creates a Pathway
Each of these questions starts a journey.  The book's story answers the questions, but not all at once.  It takes time, a series of events in scenes and chapters, of course.  The sequencing of these scenes and chapters make a kind of pathway through the book, which your reader will walk along.

The pathway must be both easy to follow, with expected twists and turns, and it must present surprises.  We read on to find out what happens.  We hope to be surprised.  So part of the art of structuring a book is to plan the surprises.  When will they happen along the pathway?

A trick that makes this easier to understand and work with:

1.  What does the person want--this question creates a pathway of internal conflict.  The desire for something that is not easily achieved makes the person work harder, become more creative, change his or her desire, or give it up.  Conflict builds inside:  Why can't I have what I want!?  What else can I have?  It's a pathway of searching, inner discovery, and internal change.  Sometimes this is called the narrative arc or inner story.

2.  What prevents them from getting what they want--these are usually external forces.  An event, such as a death or move or breakup, changes the outer scenario.  It's no longer the world the person thought it was.  Not only that, but few books have only one crisis, or outer event, to trigger change.  There's usually a series of events, small and large, that continually batter the character.  This can be called the external conflict pathway.  Sometimes this is called the plot or outer story.

I find it easiest to think of these separately, to chart them separately at first, then see how and where they intersect in the book.  When does an external conflict trigger more internal conflict?  Or vice versa?

When I'm starting a new book, I begin with the pathway that calls out to me.  Maybe I first get a sense of character, so I'd start with the internal conflict pathway.  Or maybe I'm writing about an event that changed my life.  I'd start with the external conflict pathway. 

Using a storyboard's five turning points (see my video for more on this), I asked myself different questions for each point in each pathway. 

For the external conflict pathway:
1. What triggering event (outer event) could cause loss and a reaction?
2.  What changes in the plan because of this loss?
3.  What's the new plan, mid-story, that gives new hope but won't work out?
4.  What's the riskiest edge the person can face, where all is lost?
5.  What's the new reality?

You can see that this outer story structure is dependent on having a strong opening event that triggers a reaction, that shakes the status quo.  Points 2 and 4 are called "turning points" because they require a change in plans.  All that has been solid ground is now lost.  Point 4 is usually the worst moment in the story, the riskiest edge the person can face.  By point 5, the final chapters, there's a new reality, a new status quo.

For the internal conflict pathway:
1.  What does this person believe to be true?  What do they have to give up about this belief when the triggering event happens?  What do they have to become?
2.  What new reality do they face as the plan changes?
3.  What new hope do they have?  (Often at this point, the person believes things can go back to where they were before.) 
4.  What would make them the absolutely most vulnerable?  What do they learn?  What will they now fight for?
5.  What's the new reality?

You can see that the two pathways have intersections, similar questions being asked at similar points in the story.

If you're working with more than one narrative voice, multiple point-of-view characters, for instance, you'd create a list of questions for each.  Their external conflict pathways might be the same, but their internal conflict pathways will always be different because this makes them individual and unique in your story.

If you want to try this, start with the big questions:  What does this person want, and what is preventing them from getting it.  Then chart your external conflict pathway and internal conflict pathway, and see what you know so far. 

Likely, unless you've written and revised your manuscript, there will be holes.  This is normal.  Don't let it throw you.  Keep the question on simmer in your mind and let ideas begin to come.

I find that even asking these good questions start a creative spark inside. 

We can try to live calm, pleasant lives, not seek out conflict when we're not writing.  But good story is born of conflict.  If there's no conflict, if we all just sit around drinking coffee and talking, it's not a story.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Overwriting, Purple Prose, Sentence Fragments, and Other Things You May Not Know You're Doing--Until Your Writing Gets Rejected

I've been compiling a list I wish I had years ago, when I started writing books.  These are red flags to editors and publishers--signs of an amateur writer.  We've all been there, or are there now.  We make these kinds of goofs because we don't know any better.  I learned the hard way.  

As an editor, I easily saw these mistakes in other people's writing.  Easy to catch from that distant view:  the writing seemed off, the author intruding or not trusting the story, and closer examination revealed one of these problems. 

It's really tough to see these mistakes in our own work.  But maybe this list will alert you, educate you, and help you avoid those awful rejection letters!

Overwriting--Making Sure the Reader Gets the Point 
Overwriting is so common among writers and we are so blind to our own use of it. When we overwrite, we feel an uncontrollable urge to repeat a point--be it an emotional take-away from a scene or a memory, details of setting, or information.

It happens because we don't trust the reader's smarts.  We're putting up a little signpost:  You get it?  You get my point?  It smacks the reader right out of the dream of our story.  Author intrusion, big time.

How does overwriting appear?  Most often, when the writer both tells and shows the same thing. 

An example:
"Henry slammed his palm on the table and Megan's glass jumped.  He was mad." 

Slamming his palm is shown action.  It communicates anger.  Adding the interpretation (told) "He was mad" dilutes the emotion of the shown action.  It basically says to the reader:  "You're an idiot, I know.  Here's an extra clue."  It also signals that the writer isn't trusting the shown action to deliver the point--that Henry was mad.

Readers are super smart.  They love immersing in the story's dream.  They resent the author's voice whispering from the stage wings:  "You get it?  You sure?"  It's more than irritating.   It'll often cause them to stop reading.  Imagine what repeated overwriting does to your chances of being published. 
To look for overwriting in your own work, search for any place you're trying to make a point, communicate an emotion, deliver information.  Study the passage to and see if you've presented it more than once.  Did you choose to show or tell?  I find feedback essential to pinpoint where I overwrite--even experienced writers are blind to this occasionally.    

Purple Prose--Too in Love with Your Words? 
Sometimes we write something smooth and lovely, a simple sentence, and we feel proud of it.  But then on reread we think:  It's too simple.  It needs more adjectives, more stuff.  So we add on.  The original action gets lost in purple prose.  Ironically, we fall in love with the words more than the meaning
and can't remember what we were trying to say. 

One of my online students passed on this excellent essay on purple prose, which says it all.  Click here to read if you want to check the warning signs that invasive purple prose is creeping into your writing. 

Sentence Fragments--Try to Look Cool but Confuse the Reader?
Sentence fragments are trending--unfortunately.  Somewhere, a writer discovered them in a published book, thought they were a cool idea, decided to try them
too.  Sentence fragments are what's called a device.  They have a certain purpose, structurally, to speed up the writing. 

Like any device, once the reader catches on and sees the author's puppeteer actions, the purpose is lost.  Wizard of Oz stuff--behind the curtain is a tiny man playing with dials.  The dream goes away and the reader, disgusted, goes away too.

Would you recognize a sentence fragment in your own writing?  Here's an example:  "Sighing loudly after fitting the key into the lock."  Or "Before she went into the classroom and caused a scene."  Or "Snuggled up on the couch next to her."  These leave the reader hanging.  Who sighed?  What happened before?  Who snuggled?   

There are lots of kinds  of sentence fragments.  Here's a great article about them if you want to begin to identify these in your own writing and use them more cautiously. 

Using First Names instead of Pronouns--Hi, It's ME! ME! ME!
What's wrong with this writing?  (Not just that it's a rough, rough draft, but what else do you notice?)

Jessie ran up the stairs.  She pushed open the door, wondering what she'd see.  Jessie set her coat and backpack on the floor then crept toward the kitchen.  Nobody was there.  Nobody in the bathroom, or the hall.  She stood in front of the bedroom door.  Did she leave it closed that morning?  Jessie eased it open.

This writer used her character's proper name, Jessie, three times in one paragraph.  She went on to use it fifteen more times on the page.  There's nobody else around--we know it's only Jessie's voice, her viewpoint.  Each time this writer reminded us it was Jessie and no other, readers feel the itch of irritation--do we look stupid?  Of course it's Jessie.  Stop it already with her name!

But many writers, especially new writers, don't know the name-pronoun rule, so here it is:  Unless you're writing a scene where there is confusion potential--more than one person speaking or moving around--keep proper names to a minimum.  Aside from irritating the reader, they also call attention to themselves rather than the action, so they take us out of the dream of the story very sharply.  

That's the fab four.  Watch out for them, learn where you slip into using them, and see what you can correct before your writing leaves your desktop.  As you begin to notice these, avoiding them will become more natural--you'll get fluent fast.   And hopefully publish more too!

Friday, July 4, 2014

When Is It Time to Send Out Your Manuscript? How to Be Smart about Next Steps

A blog reader from New York recently emailed me:  "I've finished my novel (again) and I'm thinking about what to do next.  My critiquers have been very helpful.  Should I now run it through beta readers, copy editors, etc., before I pitch to agents and editors?  I'm rather sure I'll self-publish, since the money (however much a pittance) is better than going through agents and editors.  However, I'd like to see how my book stacks up in the eyes of the pros and whether or not it's ready for (Amazon) prime time."

I only speak from many years of making mistakes.  First, we usually think our manuscript is more ready for prime time than it is.  I've sent mine out too early, in a rush of "I'm sick of working on this" or enthusiasm from recent writers' group feedback, with bad results.  I lost the goodwill of an agent I was courting.  I turned off at least one publisher.  The war wounds were hard to recover from.  So my advice, however hard to hear, is take your time. 

An experienced author once told me:  "You want to be proud of this book ten years down the road, after it has been published.  You don't want to pick up a dusty copy and cringe."

I followed his advice with my last three books (takes me a while to learn) and they are still in print, and I am still proud of them. 

So when do you know?  When is it really time to hit the streets with your hope?

1.  Hire an editor.  When you've done as much as you can, when you're cross-eyed with reading the manuscript yet again, shell out some money to be sure.  Editors are not cheap but they are happy additions to the process.  Two great resources:  Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  Both have listings of faculty who hire out as manuscript readers.   Find out their terms, test them with one sample chapter, see how the exchange feels to you.  Are their comments useful, encouraging, giving you the next step?  Or do you feel deflated and ready to ditch the project? 

2.  Spend time with the editorial comments.  I often take the hired editor's comments back to my writers' group or a writing partner to discuss.  Then I make a to-do list--and ask the editor for clarification if I cannot get a clear next step from the suggestions.  For instance, "This character is not quite coming alive on the page for me" translates to what?  What next step would you take?  If you're not sure, you'll stall out.  Discuss with your buddies, email the editor for ideas.  Get something solid to step on so you don't flounder.

3.  Go through your revision checklist again, after you've made the changes.  Remember that small changes in one chapter will ripple into others.  Pages added mean page references (in appendix, table of contents) are changed too.  Click here and here for past blog posts about my revision checklist.   Very important is the step of printing it out and looking for balance of white space and text (point #2 on the checklist).  Mark the changes on the printed manuscript this time, not in your computer--hold off on that step.

4.  With the same printed, marked-up manuscript, do an outloud read-through.  This is my most important tool.  After I've marked the new changes, gone through the revision checklist, and feel the changes I will make are solid, I read it aloud.  To myself.  Or to a tape recorder.  I use a yellow highlighter to mark ANY moment when I stumble, have to reread, feel something is missing, or hit an awkward passage/word/chapter.  I try not to be too frustrated by this--there is bound to be stuff I find, and I just have to accept that's the nature of the book writing process.  We miss our own mistakes.  This catches 99 percent of mine, usually.

5.  One more round.  Make a to-do list again of the places that need more attention.  Do the work.  Go through the revision checklist, read aloud once more.  The goal is to have it sail along completely smoothly when read out loud--the big test!

6.  Now find your beta readers.  These long-suffering friends are exchange partners--you do it for their books, they do it for yours.  Write a list of questions you want them to focus on.  Give them time to read and respond (I usually ask for 6-8 weeks turnaround, but that's not possible sometimes, so do your best).  Be sure to write their names down in a safe place for (1) mention in your book's acknowledgements page and (2) a thank-you copy of the printed version after publication. 

7.  When you get feedback from the beta readers, start with step 2 again.  This may send you running and screaming, but you're almost done!  Often, after this much work, the manuscript is very close to being ready.

8.  When it passes the final read-through out loud, it's done.  Ship it off!  And take yourself out for a celebration (or sleep for a week).  You've earned it.   

Friday, June 27, 2014

Working with Unexpected Character Questions: Finding Your Character's (or Narrator's) Inner Story

My summer writing goal is to bring one of my favorite characters to vividness on the pages of my novel-in-progress.  I've gotten good feedback about her, but she has a ways to go.  I haven't been listening to her as much as I ought, and it's showing in her scenes.  Some are sluggish, repetitive, and she's hiding much of her inner story from me still.

So this week I decided to ask her (I know, this is weird) to help me out.  Give me some clues.  Maybe in a song or a snippet of overheard conversation, let my creative brain hear some ideas on how to bring this character into more relief.

One of my recent music favs is a singer/songwriter named Gretchen Peters.  I was driving to Vermont, listening to one of her CDs, Hello Cruel World.  And a favorite song, "The Matador."

Love that song.  Circles in my brain over and over, but since I asked my character for help--whoa.  Something clicked in these lyrics.   They may not speak to you, but did they ever speak to me!

His rage is made of many things: faithless women, wedding rings
Snakes and snails and alcohol, his daddy’s fist thrown through the wall
Ah but he’s beautiful when he’s in the ring, the devil howls, the angels sing
Sparks fly from his fingertips and words like birds fly from his lips

Read more here. 

These two concepts--my character's rage and when she's beautiful--really woke me up.  I've never imagined asking about these.  They are unexpected character questions.  They open up worlds inside.

When I got back to my writing office, I sat down at the computer and began to brainstorm.  I pretended I was interviewing my character on the page.  I asked her:

What is your rage made of?
When are you beautiful?

And I let it rip.  I got images, ideas, and enough material to build several new chapters and rework others.  Somehow, this dichotomy of rage and beauty--something that is in all humans--brought me the inner story.

Try it this week, if you have a reluctant player on your story's stage.  It works for memoir too, especially if you're writing a secondary character you think you know, but may not know as well as you think.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Writing Strong Transitions: Scene to Scene, Chapter to Chapter, How to Keep Your Reader Turning the Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study.  One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions.  "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me.  "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."
She was right.  As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I was trained to keep my thoughts short, and wrap them up with a flourish.  The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion.  Closure.

"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said.  "You want to keep your readers turning the page."

Most writers in revision--and some in early-draft stage--come to a point where they begin to look at transitions.  Transitions are the small but essential bridges that lead your reader from the end of one scene, one thought, one idea to the next.  Whether within a chapter or between chapters, unless transitions are solid, the reader will choose that moment to set down your book.  And maybe never pick it up again.

Transitions of Chronology
These are the simplest and easiest to write--but not always useful unless you stay in strict time sequence in your scenes.  Chronological transitions are phrases like these, placed in the next scene or chapter to indicate the passage of time, change of location, or change of point of view:  "By the next morning, he . . ." or "Two days later . . . " or  "It had only been three weeks since she'd last . . . "

Chronological transitions can feel clunky to the reader after a while.  They are like reading a chart of time passing, unless done well.  I use these, but sparingly.  More often, I play with word and image transitions.

Word and Image Transitions

A simple way to transition is to repeat an image or word.  In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel that tracks the lives of three separate women, he uses the image of yellow roses.  In one scene, yellow roses are being arranged in a vase for a party; in another, they are being piped on the top of a birthday cake.  The reader doesn't consciously go, "Oh, yeah, yellow roses again," but the image is registered and a sense of smoothness results.  We note it subconsciously and read on because the tiny bridge is there, making our transition easier.

Whenever I move within a chapter to backstory, or a memory, I will craft a transition.  Possibly I'll repeat an image, like the yellow roses.  One scene might have oranges on the table in a bowl, and the character or narrator as a child is staring at the strange light playing across them.  The next scene might have someone juicing those oranges the next morning. 

Senses are another excellent way to transition.  Say you are writing a book set in a doctors' offices.  What is common to these?  The paper on the exam table (repeat the feel of it under the skin, the crackle as you slide).  The antiseptic smell.  The well-used copies of Outside or People magazine that feel so worn as you turn the pages.  The cold air.

You would choose one of these and see if you can repeat it.  Use it in one scene, then again in a slightly different way in the next, to create the transition.  Smells and sounds are particularly strong transitions in a reader's subconscious.

Dialogue or Gesture Transitions
You can also use repeated dialogue or gestures.  Lighting a cigarette, coughing, picking at a torn cuticle, or a certain phrase repeated--these are embedded as transition in so many books!  We readers, again, don't necessarily notice them, but don't think they are placed by accident.  Skilled writers work hard at this.

Object of Obsession Transitions
If a certain object--in my last novel, Qualities of Light, a stolen jackknife--becomes the object of obsession in your book, carry it through as a transition tool.  Repeat mention of, or a sensory note about, this object as you move between chapters and from present time to backstory.  The reader will feel the smoothness of this repetition back and forth through time.

Beware of using the same language each time, though.  Brainstorm ten ways to describe aspects of this object, for instance.  Jackknife had "sharpness," "cutting edge," "shiny steel," and other descriptors.  I didn't always say the word jackknife, but when I used these knife-like images, it created the transition.

Transitions, when first created, may have a mechanical feel.  As if you are manipulating the language and it will be obvious to readers.  This is where feedback comes in handy.  I felt my transitions were awkward and obvious when I first wrote them in, but my editors loved them. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list:  read the current ending of each chapter and the beginning of the next, and note key images, words, objects, gestures, or dialogue you have in place that could serve as a transition.

2.  Do any transitions already exist--aside from time chronology?  How can you strengthen them?

3.  Where are transitions completely missing between your chapters?  How can you add them in? 

Once you have crafted strong transitions for the chapters, begin work within the chapters.  Each scene within a chapter ("islands" of writing) requires a good transition to keep your reader engaged.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pros and Cons of Feedback on Your Writing: Finding Out What You REALLY Need (and Getting It)

I teach all levels of writers, and I especially love working with brand-new writers.  Someone who has just gotten an idea for a novel.  Or a parent who has been meaning to write a nonfiction book about their special needs child and what this writer learned while navigating a difficult school system.  Or a beginning memoirist who is still reeling from childhood but driven to get the stories on paper.

They all want me to tell them how to write, but in the same breath they say, "And be sure to tell me what's not working.  Don't hold back."

This approach is a mark of new writers, I've learned.  Most experienced writers learn what makes them keep writing--and it isn't always critique.  But a new writer is still high on the energy of the idea.  They can't imagine the long haul ahead.  They think writing is easy.

One stand-out memory from a past class was such a new writer.  He was in one of the online classes I took before I began teaching.  When he introduced himself to the group, he said he was new but used to criticism.  He told us, "Give me all the critique you have!"   

In other words, don't just give constructive feedback but also what was totally wrong, what really sucked (his words) in our humble opinions.   

I watched, not really knowing yet about this phenomenon.  The group took him at his word.  They told him how much he still had to learn.

The writer lasted about 2 weeks before he stopped writing altogether.  He dropped the class, I think.  I wasn't surprised.   I was surprised that the teacher didn't step in, but maybe she felt it was good to weed out the weak early?  It's not my way, as an instructor.

I learned a lot from watching this feedback process.  It reinforced my approach, which is based on the stages of a writer's growth, finding the best level of feedback for where you are, so you keep writing.   
Stages of a Writer's Growth--and Feedback Needs
In the early years of our writing journey, we need mostly constructive feedback.  We need what will help us thrive, figure out our unique voice, explore story ideas without too much negative self-talk or external critique.  Our own critical voice is usually strong as we struggle through our learning curves.   

Best now to hear what's working.  Also, what can be improved, but via suggestions and questions given in a constructive way.  In my classes, I ask questions that open doors for the writer. 

Each time I read one of my student's pieces, I see (always!) things that are strong.  Things that are unique to that writer's experience, perspective, voice, and style.  I point them out.  Knowing what works, will help the writer at this stage.   

Then I look for areas where I want more, as a reader.  Where I felt things were missing.   

I want to know more about the setting, for instance, where this event is occurring.  What the narrator is actually doing physically in the scene as they reflect on their past or future challenge.  That's called the outer story (the outer details of what is happening) and grounds me, as a reader, in the inner story (the thinking or feeling).  So I might ask about this.   

Or I might ask to read more about the sensory details--what the character or narrator is smelling or hearing at that moment.  These elements bring out the inner story too and make the scene more intense for me as a reader.  That's a good thing.
Two steps to giving feedback:  (1) look at inner and outer story, and ask myself what could be developed more.  Then (2) ask a question or two about that missing area.   

Questions ignite ideas in the writer's mind and bring more good stuff to the page.

No use, truthfully, in saying to someone:  "This really didn't work for me."  What does this do for the writer?  Mostly, they begin to question if they should be writing at all.  Maybe they are stupid and (on and on) . . . The Inner Critic has a field day.   

The writer slinks off and becomes what we call in online classes a "lurker," if they even continue writing.  No way they will share their writing again.

We're trained in school to get criticized more than we get encouraged.  I was, at least.  When I was at revision stage in my MFA, I got a lot of critique and at that advanced level, I needed it.  But when I was beginning each of my books, I mostly needed to hear what was good, strong, and working.  Constructive feedback kept me going and opened the creative door wider and wider into new ideas.

Everyone's writing has strong areas and weak areas.  My teaching style is to first build up the strong areas until they are solid enough to stand on, so that when you do face your weak areas, your whole foundation won't collapse.   

What are you getting as a writer, right now, in terms of feedback?  Is it appropriate to where you are in your book journey?  How might you get more of what you really need?