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.

When You’re Writing, Don’t Be Afraid to Act It Out

To the casual observer, writing can appear to be a low-energy, even passive activity.  But we as writers know that this is not the case. While our fingers may be the only thing moving externally, our minds are alive and active with ideas, thoughts, dialogue, and description that help bring our story to life on paper.  

But sometimes, even in that state of inner active creativity, we can get a little stuck.  Maybe a sequence isn’t coming together as effectively on the page as you want, or there’s an element missing from the dialogue or action.  

When this happens, get out of that chair and work through the scene.  As a writer, you are the creator, director, actor, and stunt coordinator of everything in your story.  It is your job to do whatever you can to get the story right.  And if you have to workshop it in your living room like a play, that’s 100% acceptable.

Here are some ways to do it.

Get On Your Feet and Move

As Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) demonstrates in this clip from I Love Lucy, working through the emotion, the conflict, and the drama of a scene as you write can help you create more realistic dialogue and scenes. 

Reading your dialogue aloud can also be a great benefit to ensure that the characters speak like human beings and not as literary characters on a page (unless that’s the style you are aiming for).  

If you have someone to assist you, you can improvise a scene you’re having issues with and work out what problems you may be having.  Often as writers, we internalize too often.  Getting your story’s words and situations into an external space can help you see them from a better perspective and make more substantial story choices.

Make a Model

Perhaps your story has a big fight sequence or chase that involves several characters and would be complicated to stage at home.  Legos, action figures, water bottles, or even cups can be used to create a mock version of your characters (I suggest labeling the characters so they don’t get mixed up while your working).  You can use boxes or other objects to create the setting, then position your characters accordingly during the sequence.  

In doing so, you can now visually see how things would work, where the character would be positioned throughout the sequence, and how best to end the sequence given your parameters.

Seeing clear visuals can also help you see any problems, so you fix them before writing out the entire sequence.  

Hollywood does this all the time with big sequences using animatics.  While their aim is to save money on costly reshoots, your aim is to save time on headache-inducing rewrites.

Use Name Cards and Drawings

Another method can be used for even bigger sequences like a giant battle or even a murder mystery with a dinner party.  In this exercise, you write the names of all the characters on separate index cards, then use poster board or another large piece of paper to map out what the room or battlefield will look like.  Then you can move the “characters” around and see where they are in relation to other characters and locations.  

In doing so, you can see if there is logic in who is conversing with who, helping who, and fighting who depending on where they are in the diagram.

This exercise was done by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for the final battle involving three pirate ships, three crews of pirates, and the main cast.  As they were writing, they used the diagrams to see where characters started when the sequence began and how to effectively move them from ship to ship throughout the battle.

As you can see from the movement of characters in the clip below, this would have been very useful in the writer’s room!

With all three, I recommend filming and talking through each exercise so you don’t forget any details that may change or pop into your head while you’re working.  Once it’s done, and on the page, you can delete the footage, and no one has to know what great lengths you went through to make that big sequence work.

Happy Acting, and Happy Writing!

The Myth of the “Aspiring” Artist

I like to watch interviews with writers, actors, and other people in the arts. I find them fascinating and very educational. One of the things I find interesting is when they have a Q&A with the audience after their initial interview or talk. At the end, there’s usually an audience member who says, “I’m an aspiring writer” or “I’m an aspiring actor/actress.” This has always been a curiosity to me.

The word “aspire” or “aspiring,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means “desiring and working to achieve a particular goal: having aspirations to attain a specified profession, position, etc.” I would like to change the thinking about labeling oneself as an “aspiring artist” and show you that the act of creating is not, in fact, what you are aspiring to achieve.

Are You Doing It?

If you are writing, acting, painting, sculpting, writing music, or pursuing any other endeavor, you have moved out of the aspirational category and are now actively doing that particular activity.  If you’re aspiring to write, why?  What’s preventing you from taking those steps toward writing a story, a poem, a play, or a song?  

Nothing.

When we put the word “aspiring” in front of the creative activity we wish to do, there’s the perception that it lends importance to what we want to do.  I don’t believe it does.  If you can do it, don’t dream about doing it, do it.  If you are doing it, you no longer aspire to do the activity because you are actually doing it.

Working Toward an Artistic Goal

If you have mapped out plans to write a novel or a play, are working on an album, or are working on writing and shooting a short film, these are goals within the creative realm you inhabit.  But, again, you are working toward these goals, not just thinking or hoping for them to happen on their own.  

What You Really Might Want…

The truth is that we don’t aspire to be a writer, an actor/actress, a painter, or a musician.  Our aspiration lies beyond that. It lies in our aspirations for success, money, and the ability to quit our day jobs and create full time.  This is what we want.  This is what we aspire toward.

But this should be secondary in your overarching aspirational plan.  Why?

Putting in the time, work, effort, energy, sweat, tears, frustration, excitement, and other emotions that come with creating makes you better at the art you are doing.  Your drive to create should be your focus when you’re starting out.  

Art should be your motivation, not money or fame.

Success is a byproduct of all the time you’ve spent honing your craft on your own, at home, for free.  It’s these thousands of hours of hard work that can eventually get you to where you aspire to be.  

But you have to do the work.

Final Thoughts

Aspiring toward something positive involving your art is excellent, but it should be something you can’t quickly achieve in the present.  You can write right now.  You can paint right now.  You can be creative right now.  It’s the steps after the hard work of creation are done that we aspire to: the published novel, the produced play, the award-winning poem.  

Everyone dreams of some level of success.  But the first step to getting there is to stop dreaming about it and start doing it.

You can do it!

See you next week!

Definition source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aspiring

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!

Are You a Writer Who Reads?

I love to read. If I see a book I think I would enjoy, I either buy it or add it to my wish list. My coworker buys me books for my birthday and Christmas. If there’s a topic I want to learn more about, I don’t Google it; I try and find a book about the topic instead.  Reading has always played a significant role in my life and my education post-school, and it’s an activity that I enjoy.

One of my favorite authors, Stephen King, has said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” I have a feeling King knows what he’s talking about.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to take the time to read.  Not books about writing, which I’ll talk about next week, but a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction books.  

Read Outside Your Genre

If you are an author who writes primarily in a specific genre – Young Adult, Romance, Thriller, Mystery, etc. – I encourage you to read novels that aren’t from your chosen realm. While it’s essential to know and understand your genre’s tropes, themes, and other elements, it’s equally important to see how different genres work within their various story conventions to see what you can learn. You can often glean some new bit of story structure or character development idea from a novel outside your chosen area of expertise.

Read Different Authors 

We often get comfy with a couple authors we enjoy and stick with them. Dare to pick authors you may not be familiar with and read their works as well.  Your favorite author isn’t going anywhere.  

Read Books from Other Decades

We are creatures of habit. Most of the time, if it’s a book that’s a current best-seller, or one on display at Target, it’s the book we grab to read. However, it’s also important to delve into the past and read authors whose work lives long after their passing. The classics have inspired authors for generations, and by looking at these works, you can learn new aspects of storytelling that you can possibly apply to your work.

Read History, Autobiographies, and Biographies

The real world can offer up some great story ideas, and you can learn a thing or two along the way. Real human beings, human behavior, and human drama can sometimes be more engaging and fascinating than fiction, and these types of books can give you a fresh perspective on topics you think you know about.

Read to Learn

As you read, observe how the author crafts their chapters, characters, and story arcs.  Look at how they format certain things.  For example, I’ve seen text messaging and phone calls formatted in many different ways in novels, depending on the author. 

If you found yourself up until 3 in the morning not wanting to put the books down, ask yourself why? What was it about the story, the characters, or the pacing that made you have to keep reading?  These are elements you can analyze and apply to your work as well.  

Always Go with Variety

If you’ve plotted out your 2021 reading list, consider adding books and authors you usually wouldn’t read. Maybe an author whose work you don’t enjoy, or one whose opinions bother you. Look at them less as annoying reading assignments and more like learning opportunities. Each book you open can inform your own writing methodology and how you create your worlds and story.  

And all you need to do is turn to Chapter One and start reading.

As a writer, how do you decide what books to read?  Leave a comment and let me know!

You Finished Your Manuscript! Now What?: Part Three – Feedback & The Final Edit

Welcome back. Now your manuscript is looking good. You’re happy with what you have; you’ve worked out all the problems, did an exhaustive grammar and spelling check, and made sure that continuity is solid throughout the story.  

Now, it’s time to let someone else read your work. I know, I know. This can cause a lot of anxiety for many writers. How will my work be perceived by outside eyes? Can I trust their opinions? Can I trust their judgment? Who do I ask?  

Let’s talk about it.

7a. Finding the Right Feedback Partner

I believe a feedback partner is an essential part of the writing process. If you’re in a writing class, it can be easier to find someone willing to read your work in exchange for reading theirs. But if you’re flying solo, it’s time to look at your circle of friends and see if any of them might be willing to read your work.

I highly recommend not using family members for this process. With family, it can go one of two ways: heaps of praise that don’t help you strengthen the work; or criticism that leads to a rift in the relationship. Best to avoid both scenarios and let them read the work once it’s 100% complete.

Do you have a friend who has taken an interest in your writing? Is there someone you know who has asked about what you’re working on? Maybe you know someone who has read something you’ve written in the past, and their feedback helped improve the work? This is definitely a person to ask.

If they say yes, pay them for their time. Trust me, it’s worth it. Now, they have a reason to sit down and read the manuscript: money is coming! How much? It depends on your budget, but start low and then if you like their feedback, pay them more the next time they read it.  

7b. Tell Them Exactly What You’re Looking For

Once you find your feedback partner and offer them payment, tell them what you want them to do. Be specific. “Here, read this” won’t be helpful to you, and it won’t help them focus on what you are looking for.

You can be general – “Does the story work from start to finish?” or “Did the story hook you and keep you reading?” – or, you can be specific – “When you’re reading, can you see if my main character’s arc is strong enough?” or “Can you tell me if there are any moments that don’t work, and explain why you think they don’t?” By giving your feedback partner goals, they now have things to look for and can provide direct answers to items you may have questions about.

Once you’ve set the parameters, give them a reasonable deadline (2 to 4 weeks), then leave them alone. This can be tough. You want to know where they are, what they’re thinking, and what they think, but butting in can ruin their reading flow and also break their concentration if they are reading when you contact them. If they contact you and give you a general comment (I really like the opening chapters), don’t interrogate them. A brief response is fine, but that’s it.

Your goal once they have the manuscript is to keep them reading.

7c. They’re Done and Ready to Give Feedback. Now What?

I FaceTime with my feedback partner, but you can do a Zoom call, Skype, or a regular phone call. I prefer this to receiving pages of notes from them (unless you specifically ask for that). Schedule 30 minutes for a meeting, and then let them talk first. They will likely give their overall impressions of the work and deliver positive feedback at the outset.  

All good things.

Now, you can dig deeper. Have the initial questions you wanted them to answer ready, and have them delve into those. I like the phone/video chat discussions because you can discuss any issues or problems they had with the story. Staring it pages of notes is impersonal and one-sided. Take the time to have the dialogue.

This is also the time to take off your creative hat and put on your editor hat. You need to listen to what they have to say, answer their questions, and not get upset or offended if they didn’t like some aspect of the story or didn’t understand something. This is your opportunity to ask them for specifics about why they didn’t like something, why they feel they didn’t understand something, or why it didn’t work for them.

Listen. Clarify. Move on.

If you agree with their view on the specific item, change it. If you don’t, keep it the way it is. But I’ve learned that if you allow your feedback partner to be honest, so they don’t just tell you what you want to hear, they are pretty spot-on with finding issues that need fixing, clarity, or plot holes.

And that only helps strengthen your story even more.

Answer all their questions. If they wonder about something, or a character, or a moment that isn’t clear, write it down to look at later.

Once the session is over, pay them immediately if you are using PayPal, Venmo, or another payment app, process what you’ve heard, then get back to your manuscript the next day.

7d. Putting the Feedback to Good Use

If you liked their feedback, ask them if they want to be your feedback partner. If they yes, that’s great. If not, you have their feedback and can use that to make the next draft stronger. Take the time to go through their comments and see where they can be applied to make the story, characters, other aspects better.

I suggest giving all their feedback strong consideration. Sometimes there’s something in the story we’re holding onto that we really think works, but it falls flat to a reader or takes them out of the story. Be mindful of these comments. If your feedback partner makes it a point to say that something in the story took them out of the story, definitely consider cutting it. It could save your story in the long run.

7e. Back for Round Two, Three, Four…

Once you have made the changes – and probably made more on your own as you went through – send it back to your feedback partner with new questions for them to answer. Repeat the process as many times as you, your feedback partner, and your budget allows.  

BLOGGER’S NOTE: There are editing/feedback services available online that you are free to use if you don’t want to ask a friend. As a self-publishing author with a tight budget, these services can often get a bit pricey, so doing a little DIY for your first few books can be a less expensive way to get the job done. But, if you want to use these services, I encourage you to do so, just do some research to find one that fits your budget and will do a professional job.

8. The Final Edit/Polish

At some point, your manuscript will be done…or done enough. It’s tempting to always want to tinker with a line of dialogue, a description, or other minutiae, but you have to tell yourself that it’s ready to publish at some point.

The way I know is when I stop thinking/obsessing over the story. My mind moves on to other projects, and this manuscript is no longer at the forefront. That’s when I’m pretty sure I’ve done all I can to make this story the best it can be at this time.

It’s time to let go and let others enjoy what you’ve created.

I hope you found these posts helpful. If you are a writer who has any advice to add, please leave a comment.

You can read about my self-publishing experience with The Field by clicking here.

See you next week!

You Finished Your Manuscript! Now What? – Part One

You did it! You stayed focused, sat down at your laptop or computer, and finished the manuscript of your novel.  This is an exhilarating moment. From Chapter One to The End, you have written a complete story that you’re proud of, and you know readers will love.  

I know from experience that once you get to the end of the manuscript, you can feel a sense of relief. You’re done. It’s over. Now you can go and binge-watch Pawn Stars.  But, this is not the end of your manuscript’s journey. Far from it.  So, let’s explore how best to proceed when getting ready for your manuscript’s adventure.

[Writer’s Note: When saving your manuscript files, always put the title and the revision date as the filename (Example: TheField_06102018). This will help when you start rewrites, and you can keep track of various drafts.]

1.         Take a Month Off!

Now, you can binge-watch those shows you’ve been putting off. You’ve earned it for all your hard work. But there’s a reason behind this month: to give you distance from your material. It’s hard to be objective right out of the gate when you’ve worked so hard and for so long on something as massive as a novel manuscript. During this time, don’t open the file, and don’t retrieve it from a drawer if you’ve printed it out. 

Leave. It. Alone.

This doesn’t mean you can’t THINK about the novel, and this is when your brain will start to work in mysterious ways. You’ll be on a walk, or watching TV, or reading, or in bed at 3AM, and all of a sudden, a new section of dialogue that links two sequences will pop into your head. A better sequencing of events, a better description of a character or location, even the idea that a chapter can be cut will all flow through your mind.

If you think of something during the time away, write it down. Have a legal pad, the notepad app on your phone, or a separate file on your computer available to write down any and all ideas, edits, additions, etc. that come to mind during this month away. You’re still creating, still working on the manuscript, but in a periphery way that allows you to think clearly about changes you might consider once you return to the manuscript.

Like it or not, that great draft you just wrote has a lot of problems, and your brain knows it and during this time will slowly begin to tell you what the issues are and ways to fix the problems. I know this from experience, and it’s 100% true that this phenomenon happens. “What if…” “Maybe I should…” “If I have them go right instead of left…” 

If you think of it, write it down. Even if you look back at it later and go, “That was a dumb idea!” at least you won’t be mad at yourself for not writing it down.

Now that it’s been about a month…

2.         Welcome Back! 

You have your new set of ideas and notes. You have written down notes on revised chapters, character moments, and description. Now is the time to start fleshing those out – again separately from the manuscript – indicating at the top of each new section where it goes in the story (Example: [Dialogue right before the campfire scene]).

Write it all out in any way you feel is best. Then, once you have all the new content written, rearrange the sections in the order they will be added to the manuscript.  Take a day or two away from these, see if anything else pops into your head (inevitably, it will), and then make any revisions you need to these new sections.

3.         Time to Return to Your Manuscript 

It’s been a while. You haven’t seen each other for a long time, but the feelings are still there. You’re a bit nervous – butterflies are fluttering in your stomach – as you begin to read the first chapter…and it’s not as good as you remember.  

Don’t panic.

The good news is that you A) recognize that there’s an issue, and B) you can resolve the problem at this early stage of the editing/rewriting.

As you read, if you find section you don’t like and want to rewrite them, highlight them in BOLD, and keep reading. That way, when you come back to start the rewrite process, you know what areas to focus on. If you are reading a printed version, use a highlighter to indicate where issues are. 

I recommend doing this initial read over a series of days. If your manuscript is 300 pages, read through 30 to 40 pages a day. This is your opportunity to dig deeper into your story and see opportunities to fix issues.  Read too much in one sitting, and you begin to gloss over things, and this exercise requires your full attention. 

While you’re reading, you can now drop the new material into the areas of the story where it belongs, or you can indicate with brackets, ALL CAPS, and in bold where these new sections will go: [ADD NEW CAR CHASE ENDING HERE].  Sometimes, when I’ve noticed a chapter hits a dead end, I’ve added [MORE HERE] to indicate there’s an issue.

Now, you’ve read the whole manuscript. Let it sit for a week, then come back to it again.

4.         Time for a Deep Dive

Only you know your story. What you want to say. How you want to tell the story. Who your characters are. It’s all in your head. And now is the time to really start focusing on these things and making sure the story you want to tell ends up on the page.

This can be a lengthy process but a rewarding one. As you begin the rewriting process, you are wearing two hats: WRITER and READER. Your story should be something you enjoy reading as much as you enjoyed writing it.

During this phase, take your time. Read each chapter closely. Does it convey information about the characters and story? Does the chapter move the story forward? At the end of the chapter, do I feel the need to keep reading?  These are good indicators that your story is working, and it’s essential to take the time to make sure that every piece of the puzzle fits how you want it to.

Make sure to add in the new stuff you wrote during your month off if you still like it. Some you may decide you don’t need, or what you wrote doesn’t work with the new direction you’re taking the chapter. That’s fine. Your goal here is to do what’s best for the story.

As you rewrite, you will feel compelled to rewrite entire sections, revise dialogue, and maybe even cut sections or chapters entirely. Maybe there’s a character who’s just there with no purpose. Time for them to go. 

These are all positive things for your story and your manuscript. You are taking steps to make your story better, have more clarity, and flow smoother.  All good things.

Again, take the time to work things through. This could take a month, three months, six months. Whatever is needed to get the story to be exactly how you want it to be.

If you finish and want to take another pass, take a week off and start again.

5.         Remember, Writing a Novel is a Marathon, Editing is an Exploratory Nature Hike 

Outlines. First Drafts. Second through Sixth Drafts. You’re confident that you’ve got a solid story. That’s great. Now, the real fun begins. 

Editing!

This is the technical part of the process. Yes, you would think that your writing software catches grammar and spelling mistakes 100% of the time, but it doesn’t. It also doesn’t catch when you’ve used the wrong word, put the wrong character name, or left a line in from one draft that now makes no sense in the context of the latest one.

I have two pieces of advice as you begin this process: Pace Yourself, and Avoid Skimming.

Pace Yourself

Take your time to explore and read each chapter thoroughly to catch as many errors as possible. Break the novel down into manageable chunks so you can go into each section with a clear head and focused mind. Find it and fix it. And, trust me, you’ll find stuff.

Avoid Skimming

An easy thing to do, especially if you know your story and novel, but skimming could mean a missed extra word, the wrong tense, incorrect word usage, or other issue goes unfixed. Read. Every. Word. 

During this process, if you do feel something is missing and should be added, do so. Since you are reading the story so closely now, you may find that there’s a story problem or a set-up missing a pay-off that you missed. Fix it now.

I have also started to use the program Grammarly to assist with editing my manuscripts and writing. It’s been a great resource and help, but even it has missed one or two things.  The trick is to implement as many tools as possible to weed out as many errors as possible.

Next week, we’ll delve into the world of Continuity.  See you then!

As a Writer, Has This Ever Happened to You?

At work this evening, a coworker of mine asked me what I was doing this weekend.  I told them I was working on my second novel, to which they replied, “You’re still working on that?  What’s taking so long?”  I started to laugh, telling them that writing is a process that takes time.  As I was talking, a classic scene from Family Guy flashed into my mind, which I promptly found on YouTube and showed to them:

No matter where you are in the writing process, people often will be amazed that you’re still working on something.  But the important thing is that YOU ARE STILL WORKING ON IT.  In progress is better than no progress, and what matters most is that you know that work is being done and that you will finished with it when you know it’s ready.

So, that novel you’ve been working on?  Keep writing, and never stop creating!

Are You Holding Back in Your Writing Because of Social Media?

In a world where people seem to be offended by anything and everything, it can be a daunting task for a creative person to navigate the choppy waters of what will and won’t evoke controversy hour-by-hour.  No matter the topic, it seems like someone can find a way to twist it into their own meaning pretzel with plenty of negative connotations.  And when the world seems to be backfilling with these types of oftentimes innocuous offenses, many creative types may be afraid to truly express themselves.

The solution: Don’t allow hashtags and comments on social media to dictate what you want to express in your story.  If you have an idea for something a character does or says, then you start to think about how Twitter or Facebook of Reddit will react, the trolls have won even before you’ve expressed yourself.

You can’t let that happen.

You have a story to tell.  And you cannot let anonymous people online dictate what you want to say in your story.  You just can’t allow that type of false pressure to squelch your creativity.  Even before the internet there were people who hated and were offended by things they read or saw.  Just because those people have a larger more vocal platform now doesn’t mean you should allow them to get into your head and beat down your ideas.

Maybe your story has controversial elements or themes.  Maybe you explore domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, or other hot button topics.  Maybe you have a character who is a racist or sexist; who uses language that you wouldn’t use but they do.  As a creative person, you need to do what’s best for your project.  If it evokes anger, offense, or hashtags against you and your work, so be it. 

Hey, you can’t please everyone.

And that’s the main thing you have to remember.  More people when they dislike something are likely to comment on it than those who like or enjoy something.  And what is odd is that usually when reviews or comments are negative, people tend to want to find out the truth for themselves instead of just going off of what some person has posted online.

And example: Joker.  Here’s a recent film that was maligned in the press, by many critics, by people online, and other groups for weeks prior to its release.  The star and director were hounded with questions about the film’s violent content, the red carpet premiere did not allow the press to ask questions, and the fear of the film spawning violence led to the U.S. military issuing a warning, and some theaters adding extra security.

All pretty negative things against the movie, and yet it was the highest grossing film for an October release and is set to break other R-rated film box office records.  There’s also Oscar buzz around Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Joker. 

The filmmakers didn’t hold back.  They didn’t listen to the critics and edit the film down to a safe PG-13.  They stuck to their vision of the film and released it as is.  And the results were effective and the negative outcry probably had a positive outcome for the film overall.

Joker is the perfect example of how as creative individuals we need to do what’s best for our story.  We need to tell the story we want to tell.  Tell the story you want to tell without the fear of social media backlash churning in the back of your mind. 

Tell your story.  Not theirs.

Do you find yourself editing and toning elements of your story down due to fear of what may be said about you or your story on social media?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Keeping Your Characters Off-Balance

Should your main characters ever feel comfortable?  Should they ever feel like everything is okay and their life is going just fine?  Of course, the answer to these questions – especially when dealing with fictional characters – is an emphatic NO.  Over the course of the story, it is your job as a writer to keep them as off-balance as possible.

In the real world, we often have a strong desire for balance and calm in our daily lives.  Too much stress or anxiety can take its toll on the human mind, body, and spirit, so we often escape to places where we can refresh and recharge.  With fictional characters, this sense of calm should be a constant struggle to obtain.  It not only can make them more in-depth as characters, it can also make for a better story.

The old adage is that Conflict = Drama.  And drama is what drives the story forward.  Like most writers, I tend to want to protect my main characters from harm.  But in doing so you do a great disservice to your characters and your readers.  Putting your characters in harm’s way, giving them impossible situations to get out of, and relentlessly giving them obstacles to overcome makes for a better story and can help strengthen and add dimension to your characters.

This is where the concept of the Character Arc comes into play.  Your characters should evolve and change over the course of the story, and keeping them off-balance and having to find ways to try and resolve their problems helps them grow as characters.  Don’t forget that your main character should go through some sort of change or metamorphosis over the course of the story.

Granted, you want to give the reader a sense of what is a normal day for your characters before the inciting incident turns their world upside down.  That’s fine.  It’s what Joseph Campbell refers to as The Ordinary World.  But once that Ordinary World is thrown off, it’s time to take your characters on a very bumpy ride. 

Your main character’s primary goal – aside from the goals your set forth for them once the story gets underway – is to return to their normal as fast as possible.  Don’t let them get there.  And even once the goal of the story has been achieved and their world seems to be back to normal, the journey they have taken over the course of the story has forever changed them ion some significant way.

They can never return to the Old Normal they had before the story began.  And that’s a good thing.  They have grown as a character.  They have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  And they have come out the other side a stronger, more realized person because of their journey.

It is often during times of great stress or trauma that real people show their true colors.  It is your job as a writer to create these types of situations for your characters to keep them off-balance.  It doesn’t have to be a life-threatening event, but it should be something that will forever change them for the better…or worse.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and let me know.

Also check out my article: “Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist.”