Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part One

Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.

Let’s get started.

Where Are We?  Location, Location, Location.

The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come.  Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances.  Is this a contemporary story?  Are we in Victorian England?  In a galaxy far, far away?  Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story.  Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time.  The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.

Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.

Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?

Whose journey are we following?  Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold.  What’s their name?  Their profession?  What relationships do they have?  What conflicts do they have in their lives?  What’s their personality?  

In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14).  These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:

•          Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)

•          An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)

•          Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)

•          Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)

•          Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)

•          In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)

•          Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)

•          Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)

•          Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)

These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:

Active or Passive Protagonist?

In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active.  This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal.  Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him.  Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him.  His actions move the story in a new direction.

Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery.  She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.

A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening.  Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others.  When you watch TwisterDante’s PeakSan Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.

What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues?  What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it?  They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.

Is It Really “The Beginning”?

A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element.  We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life. 

You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming.  We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.

A character’s story is on a continuum.  What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary.  Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…

What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.

Things are pretty normal for your main character.  They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse.  This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.

Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead.  Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth.  It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.

Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.

Homework

Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced.  How does the main character react when something new happens?  What’s the first thing they do?  How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward?  What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?

Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.

Writing Tip of the Week: Avoiding Procrastination [Repost]

So, you’ve finally sat down to write your story.  Your hands are poised over the keys.  The cursor blinks invitingly at the top of the blank Word page.  You have notes about your story scrawled on legal pads in mostly illegible writing.  The time has come to write.

But did you finish that last episode of Hoarders on Hulu?  You think you did, but you’re not sure if Dr. Zasio and Matt Paxton were able to help that woman with the 50 cats.  So, you look, and you did.  But the screenshot for the next one looks intriguing, so you start the episode.  Just to see if the home is as bad as you think it was.  And it’s worse!  Now you have to watch.

Three episodes later and it’s time for bed.  You decide you’ll write tomorrow, but after watching multiple episodes of Hoarders you’re now motivated to clean your house the next evening.

Welcome to procrastination.

Everyone procrastinates. We all put off stuff we either want to do or don’t want to do for some reason or another.  When it comes to writing, procrastination makes perfect sense: writing is work.  Hard work. And if you’ve spent all week at a desk in front of a computer, the thought of doing that at night or on the weekend becomes something you want to avoid at all costs.

To me, procrastination is okay.  To a point. But while you are binge-watching TV shows or going down the YouTube video rabbit hole, ask yourself why you’re avoiding writing.  It’s more than just the whole desk/computer/work thing.  Is there a problem with the story?  Do you not like the story?  Would you rather write something else?

With any form procrastination, there is a root cause for its existence.  But when participating in the act of procrastination, I say you need to embrace it.  Don’t kick yourself or beat yourself up.  What’s the point?  If you really wanted to write right now, you would be. 

At some point, however, you need to realize that your story needs to be written, and that all the TV shows, cleaning, and reading of junk mail won’t solve your procrastination problem. Is there a better time for you to write other than the evenings or weekend?  Could you stay a little after work and write at your desk?  Could you go to a local bookstore, library, or coffee shop with fewer distractions, turn off your phone, and write there? 

Also remember that all the shows, movies, and other things that you use as tools of procrastination will still be there when you’re done writing.  And you’ll feel better when you do finally sit down to watch because you’ve accomplished your writing tasks for the day.

Sometimes the Procrastination Resolution (sounds like the title of an episode of The Big Bang Theory) comes by changing environments and limiting the distractions.  By subtracting your distractions, you then give yourself and your brain the freedom to get down to business and write.

Now it’s time for me to stop procrastinating and write some new posts for the coming weeks!

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

Writing Tip of the Week: A Cinematic Writing Assignment

What’s your favorite movie?  What makes that particular film stand out from the rest of the millions that exist?  What is it about that story, its characters, or its themes that left an impression on you?

Time to do a little homework.

I know, I know.  Homework.  Booooooring!  I get it.  But, this is creative homework.  This is your chance to do a deep dive into your favorite film and get to the heart of why it affects you and why you enjoy it.  In turn, this exercise will help you as a writer by giving insight into how they create a compelling story, how they utilize storytelling structure, and how they create compelling characters.

What You Need

  • Grab a notepad or legal pad and a pen or pencil.
  • A copy of your favorite movie.
  • Your Analytical Cap.
  • Good Pause Button skills (you’ll be using this a lot).

Think of yourself as a story archaeologist.  Your mission is to unearth the storytelling secrets hidden beneath the surface of the film you chose.  

Viewing #1

I know it’s your favorite, but as you go through this first time, write down your favorite moments and note at what time or on what page number they occur.  Was it a plot point that intrigued you?  A clever line of dialogue?  A character moment?  Write it down and write down why you reacted the way you did to that element.

Do this for the whole movie, then read back through what you observed.

Viewing #2

This round is all about the story.  In one or two sentences, write down what happens in each scene that moves the story forward.  What’s the main conflict in each scene?  You can number the scenes or write a general location of where the scene takes place.

If scenes are revolving around a sub-plot, see how that smaller story is resolved or if it dovetails into the main story.

By the end, you should be able to go back through your notes and see the primary story arc evolve throughout the film.  Does each scene feed into the next?  Do you notice a pattern as to when the story has significant changes?  

All screenplays have a basic story structure.  There are dozens of ways to break down that structure, but for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll refer you to The Syd Field Paradigm below:

If the screenwriter did their job correctly, these elements should be crystal clear and easy to identify as you review your notes.  Highlight or underline what you feel these moments are.

Viewing #3

This final round is all about character.  Your job is to watch how the main character changes over the course of the story.  What traits do they have at the start of the story?  Do they become a better person or a worse person by the end?  

This is another scene-by-scene breakdown.  Write down in a couple sentences what the main character is doing, how they’re acting, what you feel their motivation or conflict is in the scene.  As you go through, you should be able to see their discernable character arc as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of the plot.  How does the story impact who they are as a character?  How do they impact the events of the story?  

Read back through and see if you can clearly identify when the writer began to make changes in the character and how those changes altered the main character by the end of the story.

So, What Did We Learn?

So, now you’ve watched your favorite film three more times and have done some digging into its inner workings.  By breaking the movie into its basic components, you have a clearer picture of how this screenwriter crafted a compelling story with an interesting main character.  You can see where the story beats are, where the direction of the story changes, and how those elements either impact the main character’s arc or how their arc impacts the story.

Keep this exercise in mind when you finish a draft of your screenplay, play, or novel.  If you were to sit down and do this exercise with your work, could you summarize what’s happening in each scene in a sentence or two?  Would those sentences be enough to show the main story’s arc throughout the narrative?  Does your main character evolve over the course of the story?  What happens to cause the change from start to finish?

Consider doing this exercise with your own work to help you strengthen your story and main character in your different drafts.

Extra Credit

Now, if you enjoyed that exercise, why not try it with a movie you strongly dislike?  I know it can be hard to stomach a film you can’t stand, but take the emotion out and look at it from an analytical perspective. 

The first time through, write down all the elements you dislike and why.  If anything does work for you, write it down.

The second and third viewings should be done similar to the ones stated above.  You may find that the story arc and/or main character arc are weak and lacking in a lot of ways.

How would you, as this film’s screenwriter, fix these weaknesses?  When you read back through, brainstorm what you would have done to make the story and character elements stronger and more effective.

You can learn a lot from both good and bad films by breaking their stories down into their component parts.  I highly recommend reading screenplays for films as well.  Screenplays give you the nuts and bolts of story and character without the distraction and spectacle so you can analyze things even more in-depth.  I recommend checking out the link below to find screenplays to break down and analyze.

Happy writing and analyzing. I’ll see you next week!

Writing Tip: Ideas in Action

Ideas.  We all have them.  Billions of people all around the planet have ideas every day.  Some good.  Some bad.  Some brilliant.  Some ridiculous.  From kids to the elderly, ideas are racing through the minds of people 24/7.  But what are they doing with them?

A coworker of mine used to pitch me several game show ideas a week.  And every time, I would tell him to write them down.  He never did.  Just kept coming up with them week after week.  But what if he had written them down?  What if one of them had actually been an idea worth exploring further?

If you think of an idea, write it down.  You can use a notebook, the Notes app on your phone, or a computer file.  Sounds simple enough.  But most people don’t take the time to do this.

And they need to.

There are tens of millions of creative people out there. Still, most don’t take the time to write down their ideas and cultivate the good ones into possible stories.

Having an idea is easy.  Building on an idea is the hard part.

Good ideas deserve action.  If you have a story idea that intrigues you, something that makes you pause and wonder what happens next, this is the time to act and get to work.  The biggest mistake is to let the idea dissolve into memory, only to be forgotten and never expanded upon.

Sit down and take the time to brainstorm and hash out the idea’s finer points and details.  Possible characters, conflicts, locations.  How the story begins.  How it ends.  Is there something compelling for you to continue the journey to make it more than an simple idea?

If so, continue.  If not, move on but don’t throw any of those notes away.  You never know when something from one idea could be merged into another.  It happens.

An idea is actionable when you decide for it to be.  No one can stop you from developing what you’ve thought of into a more dimensional creative work.

The ideas start and stop with you.  It is your choice what to do with them.  

Choose action.  

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part Five

Last week, I talked about getting feedback, finalizing your manuscript, and getting it ready to publish. In this final post about the process of publishing Midnight House, I wanted to touch on the indie publishing process, marketing, and other aspects of getting your manuscript out in a professional form.

Let’s get started!

To Self-Publish, or Not to Self-Publish…

Your hard work has paid off. You have written, edited, and copyrighted your manuscript and are ready to move to the next step: publication. Here, you can go one of two ways: traditional publishers or independent publishing.

If you go the traditional route, you’ll want to craft an eye-catching query letter that hooks the reader, and hopefully, you get a request for your manuscript to be sent for review.  

If you go the independent publishing route, you are in control of the publishing process.  

I went independent for several reasons with The Field and Midnight House:

  • The novels are professionally published in both eBook and paperback form for sale and distribution;
  • The books are sold in the same online marketplaces as traditionally published works (Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, etc.);
  • I have the same access to social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, personal website) as other authors.

Now, the downside, of course, is that it does cost money to self-publish. I recommend you do your research and find a publishing company that fits your needs and your budget. Many have packages for just eBooks or for an eBook/paperback bundle.  

I cannot stress this enough: Make sure if you invest the money to self-publish that you have a plan in place to pay yourself back via your 9 to 5 or other income. Being an independent author is great, but don’t expect to make Stephen King money with your first novel.

Author Dan Brown had written three novels before the DaVinci Code. After that hit big, the other three became bestsellers.

Be patient, keep writing, and don’t get discouraged.

Sometimes You Should Judge a Book By Its Cover…Especially If It’s Yours

If you do decide to self-publish, many publishing companies offer in-house cover art services. If you wish to seek out your own cover artist that fits your stylistic needs, I recommend checking out my post on the topic, Finding a Cover Artist.

It’s a Team Effort, But You’re Coach

Once you’ve taken the leap to publish independently, keep in mind that you are the boss. You are in control and give final approval to every aspect of the publishing process. It’s essential to be engaged, respond quickly to any questions the publisher may have, and don’t be afraid to ask any and all questions before and during the process. This is a financial investment on your part, so making sure things are exactly as you want them to be is critical.

I highly recommend keeping all correspondence upbeat and positive with everyone you are working with throughout the process. As Team Coach, you set the tone, and you have to make sure all parties involved stay focused and motivated to create a great final product. If you have issues with something, inquire nicely—no need to be an egomaniac or a jerk. Everyone has the same goal: to get your novel professionally published and out to the world.

When each step is complete, take the time to email those who helped you and thank them for their hard work and assistance. A little professional courtesy can go a long way, especially if you plan to use the same cover artist or publisher again in the future.

Have I Got a Novel for You!

Marketing starts with you. You control the message. You control what people initially know about your book. You are the point-person when it comes to getting the word out. 

Utilize your social media and let people know you have a novel coming out soon (I recommend you start putting the word out six weeks before the book comes out). Post the cover. Post the blurb from the back of the book. Work on generating interest among people you know who can help get the word out to others.

But you don’t have to stop there.

If you desire, you can work with a marketing firm that specializes in independent publishers. They can help you craft a press release for your book and get copies in the hands of book reviewers who can help get the word out about your novel. A marketing firm can target a specific market and demographic for your book to reach the right people who can help sell your book.

This, too, costs money, so budget accordingly.

The key here is to get your book in front of as many eyes and ears as possible. When the book is released, there will be buzz about your book online, with reviewers, and hopefully, you can snag an interview or two to talk about your book.

Writing a novel, a non-fiction book, a screenplay, a play, and any other creative work takes time. It truly is a marathon that requires hard work, dedication, professionalism, focus, and energy to get to the final stage of the product’s release. I’m very proud of my independent publishing team’s work on The Field and Midnight House. And when you get that box of paperbacks in the mail and open it and see a book’s cover with your name on it, it really is a thrill.

I hope this five-part series was helpful to you and will help you on your publishing journey. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment, and I will get back to you.

Happy writing, and happy publishing!

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The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part Four

Last week, I talked about the drafting and editing process I went through while writing Midnight House.  Needless to say, this part of the process takes time and should be taken seriously by anyone with an eye for publishing their novel.  The more professional you take the process, the better the result. 

This week, I wanted to talk about getting feedback, finalizing your manuscript, and getting it ready to publish.

An Objective Outsider

Your manuscript is complete.  You’ve done multiple drafts.  You have painstakingly gone through each sentence, paragraph, and chapter to make sure they help tell the story you want to tell.  Now it’s time to let someone else read your work.

But who?

Finding a feedback partner is crucial to getting effective and objective feedback on your work.  Ideally, this should be someone familiar with your work, someone you trust to give you honest and constructive feedback, and hopefully a non-family member.  

I was fortunate enough to have a former co-worker become my feedback partner for Midnight House.  He was one of the first people to buy The Field, and he really enjoyed the book and the characters.  When I asked him to be my feedback partner for book two, he was more than happy to help.

If you have a few people in mind who haven’t read anything of yours, put some feelers out and see if they would be willing to read the first few chapters and give you feedback.  If one gets back to you with the constructive criticism you need to make the book better, you should consider offering them payment to read the whole manuscript.

Yes.  You should pay someone for their time when it comes to reading your manuscript.  This helps to ensure they won’t put it off, and it gives them an incentive to get back to you with their feedback.  

You also want to make sure that you give them specific things to focus on so they have a goal in mind as they begin to read.  Do you want them to focus on the main character’s story arc?  Do you want them to check for story continuity?  Is the book too graphic?  Is there anything that could be cut that slows down the pace of the story?  Giving your feedback partner something to actively be on the lookout for will help them stay engaged.

Once they have finished, schedule a phone call, Zoom meeting, or face-to-face (if available in your area), and let them speak first.  If they have questions about things that were unclear, make a note of them.  What did they like?  What didn’t they like?  What stood out to them?  What wasn’t effective?  Make sure you take notes and also ask them for any notes they may have written down as they were reading.

All of this is valuable information.

Remember, they are not attacking you or your work.  They have the same goal as you: to make the manuscript stronger.  Take their notes and feedback and – if you agree with what they had to say – apply them to a new draft of the manuscript.  If you want (and I recommend), make the changes, then ask them to reread it.

All of this will aid in making your final draft stronger and more engaging to future readers.

Editing on a Budget

The good news: Editing services exist.  The bad news: They can be rather pricey for an indie author on a budget.  Some charge between $7 and $10 a page, which can be pretty expensive if you have a 500-page manuscript.  

If you can do this, great.  If you can’t, consider alternatives.  I use Grammarly, which can help you with spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and other writing aspects to help improve your manuscript.  It’s about $150 a year, and I have found it to be an invaluable tool in my writing process.

I copy and paste one chapter into the program and work through it slowly to make sure that what I want to say and how I want to say it is still in my voice, but that mechanical issues are resolved to make the writing clearer and more professional.

You can do this at any phase in the drafting process, but I did it between feedback drafts on Midnight House.  It’s amazing how much we overlook when we are invested in the story.  I highly recommend Grammarly as a writing tool.

Ready?  Set?  Publish?

Once you are satisfied with what you’ve written, your feedback partner has assisted with giving you notes to make the manuscript better, and you’ve done some fine-tuning to the entire work as a whole, it’s time to consider next steps.

I know I’m in a place where it’s time to move on when the story begins to fade from my mind.  If I exhausted all story possibilities, my brain began to move on to other ideas and projects.  This is a good thing.  It means that you have done all you can for your story.  You have given it all the attention it needed to be the best it can be.

It’s time to finalize things.  If you are 100% satisfied with your manuscript, save it with “_FinalDraft” after the title.  

Then, I would strongly urge you to get it copyrighted through the U.S. Copyright Office.  It’s about $65, but you will have an official Copyright registration number, and your manuscript will be protected.

Your manuscript is done, finalized, and copyrighted.  So, let’s get it on the road to publication.  And next week, in the final post of this series, we’ll talk about the indie publishing process, marketing, and other aspects of getting your manuscript out in a professional form.

See you next week!

GET YOUR COPY OF MIDNIGHT HOUSE ON BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE HOUSE20 TO SAVE 20% OFF THE PAPERBACK AT CHECKOUT.  CLICK HERE TO ORDER

The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part Three

Last week, I talked about my seemingly haphazard writing process.  While I admit that this is how I generally operate, that is only in the beginning.  When it comes to the actual task of writing, I take the job very seriously.  It may take some time for me to sit down in front of the computer and begin the process, but I know – especially when it comes to my novels – that I am writing as professional as possible.  

During the initial phases, it’s okay to be a little loose with your grammar, spelling, syntax, etc.  But once you get past the rough/first draft phase, it’s time to hunker down and do the needed work to produce a professional product.

Let’s talk about the drafting process.

Don’t Try and Dodge the (First) Draft!

Rough drafts and first drafts are always pretty rough reads.  But that’s a good thing.  Why?  Because you are now able to visually read your story on the page and see exactly what works, what doesn’t, where to add, where to cut, and where things actually work the first time.  

You can’t edit what hasn’t been written, and this is now your chance to read through the draft and notate where things need to be changed, added, etc.  

With Midnight House, this was my tactic.  And the first draft was short, character arcs didn’t finish, the current opening didn’t exist, and there were missing elements that I knew had to be added ASAP.

And all of this takes time.  And it should take time. It’s all part of the process.

I also tend to write multiple drafts of chapters/scenes then merge the strongest parts of these versions together.  This, of course, can cause continuity issues if things aren’t fixed during the revision process. If Character A drives a Ford Mustang at the beginning of the story, you want to make sure they don’t suddenly drive a Dodge Charger later on because you wrote them driving a different car in a previous draft.

The urge will be strong to stop reading and start rewriting as you go, but be strong and keep reading and making notes about what you want to fix.  That way, you have a clear picture of the entire story as it’s currently assembled.

Once you’ve done this, you can now take that trusty editing sledgehammer and demolish the pieces of your draft don’t work and rebuild them with stronger, more effective structures.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

Writing a novel, a play, a screenplay, or a poem takes time.  It takes patience.  You won’t nail it 100% after your first rewrite, second, or even your sixth.  With your story now fleshed out and in a tangible, malleable space, your creative brain is now firing on all cylinders 24/7, fixing plot holes, revising dialogue, enhancing description, and making you a better writer.

Once I’m into a story, I keep it top of mind.  I work through the narrative in my head, figuring out issues and potential story problems.  Figuring out new twists and ideas to enhance the suspense, the excitement, the humor.  I have actually been on a walk at work and realized a significant plot hole existed and rushed back inside to email myself a potential fix to the problem.

Make sure that when you do begin a new draft, you date the draft in the filename to know that you’re working on the most current version.  I didn’t do this on The Field, and it was a headache trying to track down the most recent version. Don’t be like me.  Do something like The Field_DraftThree_02062018.  Then each day you revise, you Save As… and change the date.  

Take Your Time, and Take Some Time

As you complete each draft, give yourself some breathing room away from your story. Don’t worry; your brain won’t let you forget about it.  This gives you some distance and objectivity regarding your story and will help you make harder decisions easier when editing.  Sometimes it can be hard to let go of a favorite line of dialogue or a chapter that you love, even if it’s not working in a newer draft.  

Giving yourself a week or two between rewrites can help refresh your mind and allow your brain to subconsciously identify story issues in the previous draft.  Again, I’ve had this happen where I’m taking a break between drafts and realize that a chapter falls flat and needs to be cut.  

Keeps notes on any changes, cuts, or additions you want to make, but don’t go back to start a new draft until you feel you have to dive back in.

The Writer Wears Many Hats

Once you are secure in what you have written and have a strong story containing all you want the reader to experience, it’s time to think like an editor.  Yes, you want to pass your manuscript off to someone you trust to edit and give feedback, but you should be the first person who takes the initial pass as the manuscript’s editor.

You know what you want to say.  You know what story you want to tell.  The tone.  The themes.  The characters and their characterizations.  Who better to go through and ensure that all of those things are 100% how they are intended to be?  You are that person.

This is a systematic process.  Take it one sentence at a time.  Set small daily goals at first.  Read through. Does everything in this paragraph make sense?  Does it serve a purpose in the story?  Does it deliver information about character or plot?  Does each chapter move the story forward?  Are there moments where things lag?  Why? What’s the problem?  How can it be fixed?  Can that section be cut to tighten things up?  

Remember, you are Editor now, not Writer.  Your role here is to make sure things are clear for the reader as you want them to be.  If you feel new content needs to be added, make a note of it and keep going.  

I would like to also note that during this stage, cutting stuff is fine.  Adding new stuff should wait until after this editing process is complete.  That way, you know if what you think you need to add is redundant or even necessary as you progress through the story.

Midnight House has many characters involved in a lot of activities, so this was a great process to use multiple times to focus on each character.  This ensured that their arcs were solid, that their interactions with other characters and story arcs worked, and continuity in their characterizations and dialogue (especially if parts of merged drafts were used) were consistent.

You’ve done it!  Your hard work has paid off, and you now have a solid manuscript with a great story and characters.  Congratulations!

Now it’s time to give your story to a new set of trusted eyes and get their feedback, input, and editing suggestions.

Next week, we’ll talk about getting feedback, finalizing your manuscript, and getting it ready to publish.  

See you next week!

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The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part Two

Last week, I talked about the beginning stages of developing Midnight House into the second book in The Field series. This week, I wanted to talk a little more about pre-writing, how I write, and a little about my drafting process.

What’s It All About?

Every book, every film, every TV series, documentary, and play are about something. Whether the issues presented are profound or topical, these themes are a way to help the writer structure a sense of meaning into the story. All writers want to tell a story about characters going through things they want to discuss with the reader/viewer. These themes can be expressed directly or indirectly, but they are an essential part of crafting a narrative.

For Midnight House, I knew I wanted to continue with Daniel’s story from the first book, so I researched the lasting effects of childhood trauma and its impact on the victim and their families. Needless to say, this was rather grim research, but I found the elements I was looking for to use in the story.

With Kyle, I wanted to explore high school sports but more specifically, sports hazing. This also sent me down a dark road that helped inform Kyle’s arc throughout the story.

This research helped me to nail down these thematic elements to ensure a truth to them while also allowing me to take creative license in how the characters dealt with these specific issues.

While there are many other themes explored in Midnight House, these two overarching story elements help the main characters change and evolve throughout the story.

Be Prepared

When you apply for a job, there are many steps people do to get ready. Most people don’t just jump online and start applying; there is work to be done before the hunt begins:

  • Research into available jobs one qualifies for.
  • Writing a cover letter.
  • Crafting a resume.
  • Committing people to be personal references or write letters of recommendations.

These steps can take time, and while you may be itching to apply for jobs, taking the time to get the prep work out the way will help you in the long run.

Writing a novel is a lot like this. You want to be prepared. You want to know where the story is going, have a sense of where the characters’ arcs are headed, and know what the story is about. Jumping in headfirst into writing a novel can be an exercise in futility; you probably will run out of steam pretty fast once you realize that you don’t have a plan.

This doesn’t mean you need to plan out every chapter, but you need to sit down and figure out the basics: beginning, middle, end; big story moments; relationships between characters; know your protagonist and antagonist and why they are in opposition. Now you have a basic roadmap to work from. You can change things and alter the route as you go, but giving your story a direction gives yourself a key to completion.

With Midnight House, I sat down with a legal pad and started to map out all these items listed above. It took time, but I needed to get the ideas on paper, figure out sequencing, figure out what story elements should go where, and work on how Daniel’s and Kyle’s stories would intersect throughout the novel.

Organizing Chaos

Last week, I talked about how I have story notes and ideas on my phone, on a legal pad, and on my laptop. Once I had a clearer picture of how the story would unfold, I took the notes from my legal pad and phone and added them to the Word doc on my computer. At this point, the goal was to get them on the computer to be saved; I wasn’t worried about the order they were being added in.

Not yet.

That was the next step. I started a new Word doc and started the painstaking process of going through the notes and putting them into a rough sequence in the new document. Midnight House happens over several days, so I was able to decide what events would happen on what days to help make a more organized – if still rough – outline.  

Now I could see the story taking shape. I could see what ideas worked and which ones didn’t in service of the story and characters. 

Organizing your notes like this will help you see your story in its rudimentary stages and show you how much more work is to be done to flesh out the story. Read through these organized notes and if an idea comes as you read, add it where you feel it belongs in the story.

Let Your Story Loose in Your Brain

When I’m working on a story, I let it invade my brain 24/7. If I’m on a walk or a run, I’m working out the story. If I’m reading or relaxing, I’m working on the story. If I’m asleep, my brain works on the story. You may not be sitting with a pad and pen or in front of a computer, but these moments of creative thinking allowing your conscious and subconscious mind to work on the story are part of the process.  

Make sure when something pops up that gets you excited to write it down and add it to the rough outline when you can.

I used this technique throughout the writing process for Midnight House. I would often find myself stuck on a story element, or maybe even a scene between two characters, and I would allow my brain to process through as many possible outcomes as possible. When the right decisions kicked in, and the ideas started to flow, I knew I had the missing piece to help me move the chapter and story forward.

This is all part of the process and a needed part at that.

My Writing Process

I’ll let you in on a little secret: as a writer, I lack discipline. I don’t write every day. I don’t set hard and fast goals for myself. I often will choose to watch a movie or a TV show instead of writing. I sometimes get anxious and overwhelmed at the thought of writing something as big as a novel.

And, yet, I’ve written two. So, how did that happen?

When it comes to writing, I take a filmmaking approach. Films are shot out of sequence and reassembled in the editing bay once the shooting has wrapped. I write the stuff I want to write when I want to write it. If I feel inspired to write the final chapters of the story, I’ll work on those. If I want to take time to focus on chapters about one character, I write those. Maybe there’s an emotional scene that I know will be a challenge to write, so I only work on that for that day.  

Each element is saved in its own file on the computer, labeled, and dated, so I know what it is. And slowly but surely, the files, pages, and story begin to grow and emerge into a cohesive narrative.

All of these chapters will be rewritten later on, some will be cut entirely, and others will get moved around. But they do get written.

If you already have a writing process that works for you, keep it. Every author has a unique way, place, and time when they write. The key is to get the work done. Even if it takes longer than outsiders think it should. I believe that crafting a quality story that you’re proud of is far more important than rushing the process.

Find what works for you and try it for a while. If you want to be more productive, make the necessary changes. For example, for my next book, I will plan a more rigid writing schedule so I can get a draft done faster.  

Baby Steps

As I said above, I don’t always set hard and fast goals for my writing time, and there’s a reason I don’t: I tend to psych myself out. I will be at work and decide to write 10,000 words over the weekend. Then, I get home, and Saturday morning arrives, and I’ve overwhelmed myself with a goal that I’m not sure I can meet.

Don’t do this to yourself. Make a small choice: “I’m going to work on the chapter at the junkyard Saturday.” Done. Now that’s all you have to work on. If you decide to keep writing or realize there’s a chapter related to this later on that you want to write, keep going.  

If you know your story, your characters, and your themes, and a rough outline (thanks to your notes), you have the necessary information you need to start writing your story.

Take your time, and you’ll get there.

Remember, No One Likes Their First Draft

There’s a reason why it’s called a First Draft. It’s usually filled with chapters that go on too long. Characters that ooze BORING on the page. Dialogue that doesn’t flow or sound real. Plot points that just don’t work or go nowhere.

And we all have to accept this, deal with this, and make it better.

Every published book you have on your bookshelf or have seen in a bookstore or on Amazon began with a crappy first draft. It’s inevitable. But, here’s the neat part about that first draft: It exists.

That’s right. You can’t fix and edit and improve upon nothing, and that lackluster first draft is now an opportunity for you to elevate and bring to light a better story than the one drafted before you.

Next week, I’ll dive into what I do to make my initial draft better, how I get it ready to send to my editor and feedback partner, and how I deal with notes, and deciding when the book is done.

See you next week!

GET YOUR COPY OF MIDNIGHT HOUSE ON BOOKBABY AND USE THE PROMO CODE HOUSE20 TO SAVE 20% OFF THE PAPERBACK AT CHECKOUT.  CLICK HERE TO ORDER

The Road to Midnight House: An Author’s Journey – Part One

I learned a lot about the writing process while writing my first novel, The Field, but learned even more from writing Midnight House.  Over the next several weeks, I want to share my writing process, the publishing process, and the marketing process to help you succeed in publishing your book as an indie author.

The Idea

While working on The Field, I initially had no intention of turning it into a series.  After all, if I was going to publish the book myself, maybe one book was enough—something to check off my list of things I’ve always wanted to do.

And then, I let a few people read it.

It wasn’t the published version, but those who read it liked it and offered their notes.  When I met Kathleen, who became my editor, she read it and encouraged me to turn it into a series.  

So, I started to think about how I could do that, and a few years before The Field was a published novel, I began to work out possible story ideas for a second novel.

I knew that I wanted the characters to be older, but I was unsure of the second book’s storyline.  But I wrote down several ideas.  Like all brainstorming/pre-writing sessions, some of it was worth keeping, but most were ridiculous and would eventually be left in the dust.

The big question I had for myself was if I should continue the story from the first book or do a standalone with the characters doing something unrelated to the first story.

I wanted to do something with Kyle that was sports-related, which ended up happening, but Daniel at the early phases had no real place or direction in the story.  He was a school newspaper reporter.  He was in ASB.  He was this, that, and the other thing, but he didn’t feel grounded in the story.  

Early Development

That’s when I decided to dig deeper into the minds of my two main characters.  Who were they before the events of The Field?  How did those events change them not just externally but internally?  

Doing a deep dive into who your characters are, what makes them tick, and how traumatic events can impact them going forward can help you shape more dimensional and grounded characters.  So, as I sketched out Daniel and Kyle after the first book, I discovered things that would give Daniel and Kyle stronger story arcs in the second book and give the other characters material to work off of.  

I had to decide how old they would be in the second book, which would inform what they were able to do and not do in terms of their ages, and I also started to brainstorm ideas for new characters they would encounter in their new story.  I also had to decide who from the first novel would carry-over to book two and what they would be up to at that point.

Now that I started to flesh out character arcs, I developed story ideas that would be interesting and provide the needed elements of action-adventure that are key elements of the series.  This is where things get fun for any writer since, at this stage, anything and everything is a possibility.  I chose Redding locations where I felt different action pieces could take place and worked through various scenarios.  Some over-the-top, some less so.

All the while, I’m thinking of how the main characters, other characters, the overall story, and these action moments will all come together in a clear and compelling narrative. 

But I was nowhere near that stage yet.

Notes, Notes, and More Notes

Part of the early brainstorming and development process is writing down your ideas.  All ideas.  I have my Notes app on my phone filled with snippets of dialogue or scenes that I thought of while I was at work.  A legal pad by my bed in case an idea strikes me at 3AM.  And a file on my laptop for ideas so I can type furiously as the ideas flow.  

I’m a writer that has a hard time just sitting and waiting for ideas to come.  I usually am doing something when they hit me, so having a way to jot down ideas on the go is much better than saying to yourself, “This is a great idea. Can’t wait to get home and write it down!” (SPOILER ALERT: The idea will probably be gone by then.)

Dozens of Note app files.  Lots of legal pad pages.  More than one Word document (I started breaking ideas into separate files by character).  Somewhere in all these places was a complete story.  Now I had to start taking these ideas, these fragments, these notes, and crafting them into a narrative.

Next week, I’ll take you through the outline process and the first draft’s early stages.  See you then!

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How Not to Play the Guitar – A Writing Analogy

Happy 2021! I’m sure by now you’ve thought about some goals you’d like to achieve in the new year. Whether those goals are big or small, it’s always good to have something new and exciting to look forward to as the calendar turns back to January.  

For many people, this may involve taking up and new hobby or learning a new skill, which can lead many down a fascinating rabbit hole of reading and research that may not be as productive as they may think.  

Let’s start with an example of this: You want to learn how to play the guitar in 2021.

A great goal. You’ve thought about playing the guitar for a while. You’ve seen people you know, and also famous people do it so effortlessly that you want to enjoy making music as much as they do. You go online and decide to buy several books about playing the guitar.

You wait for the books to arrive, eagerly awaiting the guitar-playing wisdom each book will reveal. Upon their arrival, you read three, and all three present different methods about how to play the guitar.

Now, this whole time, despite having the guitar, you haven’t picked it up once. Sure, you’ve looked at it, thought about playing it, but every time you read a book about playing the guitar and feel confident about playing, you still feel you need to find the “best” way to play.

And so, you read about playing the guitar. And the guitar sits there, alone, un-played.

Now, you’ve finished the books. You’ve highlighted paragraphs, bookmarked pages, told people about the books and how exciting guitar playing is…and suddenly you feel an unforeseen pressure. Not to pick up the guitar. It’s the pressure that with all the tips, tricks, tools, and methods you’ve just learned, your brain is suddenly overwhelmed. 

Now that thing you wanted to do, that wonderful music you wanted to create, your passion for actually learning is stamped out because you spent so long reading and not doing, and you psyched yourself out of it.

This can happen to aspiring writers, too. In fact, anything creative can have the excitement and adventure of discovery killed off by reading about it instead of doing it.  

I’m guilty of this, too.

I’ve written many screenplays and have dozens of screenwriting books. Each one has a different methodology of how a screenplay’s structure is composed. While the outcome is the same – a 110-page screenplay – the rules set forth by each author differ. Read a few of these books in succession, and you’ll be confused and terrified to break the “rules” you’ve read about screenwriting.

Put the books down.  

Do you have a story you want to write? Do you know the basics? Beginning? Middle? End? Do you have characters and a setting to go with those three pieces? A central conflict? If you do, great. Sit down and write it out. No books. No rules. No worksheets.  

Just story.

Now, as you expand and craft the story, if you need guidance about how to craft good dialogue or how to show and not tell, these are when those books can come in handy. They should be seen as reference guides to help your writing, not tutorials on how to write.

We are all storytellers. We know the basics. We’ve seen movies, TV shows, plays, short films, documentaries, and read novels. As a writer, your job is to take what you already know about how stories work and make it your own. 

Much like the guitar analogy, writers must do the work to get the experience. We all start as amateurs or beginners, but you will get better with time, patience, and actual hands-on practice. While reading about it or listening to interviews is fine, don’t let that take away from doing the work yourself. Those books and interviews will always be around.

Whether it’s writing, playing the guitar, sculpting, or running a marathon, take the time to invest your time in learning by doing. Future you will be grateful.

See you next week!