So Are You Still Writing or What?

If you are an older follower of the blog, or perhaps have just read its tagline, “A New Author Navigates the World of Publishing,” you might be a little confused. When I started this blog I mostly wrote about the craft of writing, and some tips about the publishing market. For the last several months I’ve had posts on fall pilots, cooking, how to button tuft a couch, exercise, etc. Occasionally, this has led to someone asking me, “Hey, what’s the deal?”

In case you didn’t read the articles and statistics that lead up to the switch (according to my blog stats, few of you did), I realized that no one but other aspiring authors care about dialogue and how to write a convincing antagonist. So, I started writing blog posts about other things that interested me: food, home décor, TV, and whatever else I thought others might find informative. Turns out, you guys seem to find these topics more interesting as well.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I’ve abandoned writing my trilogy. Around last July, I wrote about the book that ruined my life. It was one of many books on writing that I read last summer that made me realize that I needed to step up my game. I had written the first drafts of all three novels by that point and was feeling pretty good. It was an accomplishment, but I began to realize that the amount of work required to write a really good book instead of a decent book was vastly different. If I wanted to write novels I was proud of, then I needed to almost start from scratch.

That’s a hard decision to make when you’ve already spent a year writing 300,000 words. Still, after a short pity party I got about the business of writing a better book.  Surprisingly, I have found I really enjoy even the nitty gritty background work of research, outlining, and character development. So, here’s a peek into what I’ve been doing.

I set up an office upstairs with a door and everything so I can work without letting myself get distracted.

my office

I’ve got a desk for editing, but I do my writing in that recliner with my laptop. I’ve found it’s a lot harder to get back and shoulder pain in a recliner. Stooping over a desk is for the birds.

The art on the walls is large pieces of paper and post-its I’m using to plot out various events and character arcs. I also use them as brainstorming boards. No use straining your eyes for spoilers. I purposely took the pictures far away and then compressed them.

brainstorming board

This one is the board right over my desk, so functions as the brainstorming board for whatever current story problem I’m chewing on. Right now, that’s making my villain a lot more robust. I took this picture a couple weeks ago, so my board’s so full now I might have to spill out onto the adjoining wall.

book one postits

Here’s a chapter-by-chapter layout for the first book, where the different colored post-its represent different character’s points of view. Extra points for the nerds that noticed the Napoleon Dynamite Liger notes and the Doctor Who TARDIS notes.

what to keep what to pitch

Another board for book two, where I was trying to decide what events to keep from an outline of the first draft I wrote. The outline is the typewritten pages at the top, and the post-its at the bottom are what I eventually decided to use. To help you get a perspective of how much I’m changing, the occasional green highlights you see in the outline were the only “must keep” events I had.

character profiles

Character profiles were another project that kept me busy for a few months. That binder is as thick as printouts of my novel manuscripts. Every character in my trilogy got a full work up. I can tell you everything from what they smell like to the layout of their apartment. Yes, those are Dalek flag markers. What can I say?  My sister bought me a set of Doctor Who post-its and I use them liberally.

Anyway, I thought I’d give all of you a peek into what I’ve been up to. The writing is still happening and going well. It’s just happening a bit slower than the breakneck speed it was at before.

Do You Need a Yoda? How about a Q? Casting Your Hero’s Journey

On Monday, I wrote about the monomyth known as the Hero’s Journey. In addition to following a set structural pattern, the Journey also has a cast of characters. They overlap quite a bit with Jung’s Archetypes, another source of universal characters. Do you need all of them if you are writing a myth based novel? No.

Think about each of them and whether they would advance your particular story, and if they won’t, discard the character and move to the next. It is also perfectly acceptable to have a character in your novel take on more than one role. The Threshold Guardian and the Mentor can be the same person. Likewise, the Armorer and Magical Helper are often rolled into one.

So here’s your cast:

The Hero:  Your protagonist, male or female, needs to have a certain set of characteristics. I’ll be doing an entire post on this because they are so specific.

The Villain/Evil One:  Again, whether male or female, the villain is much more structured in a myth, so I’ll go into more detail in another post. Note that this role is called the Evil One, not The Antagonist.  You are not allowed to ultimately redeem your villain or just make him/her misunderstood. They have to be old fashioned evil.

Lover:  As in any other plot structure, your love interest needs to be well-formed. You have the added responsibility, though, of making sure the Lover has enough of the same qualities of the hero to be worthy of him/her, but at the same time he/she must be as much of an opposing force as possible to create conflict. Remember, your lover is an antagonist, at least at first, not a helpmate.

Robin plays goofy sidekick to Batman.

Sidekicks/Allies: These guys/gals usually pull double duty and take on another one of the roles below. They can be heroic as well, but they can’t show up the hero. Watson is fun, but he’s not Holmes. Think Robin, not Batman.

Minions:  The Villian gets to have friends, too. The difference is the minions can be more powerful than the villain if you want.

Followers:  A level down from a trusted sidekick, your hero can have a band of merry men or women to accompany them. If you want something a little more modern, it could be a forensics team, or in what I felt was one of the most clever parts of the Hunger Games, a stylist team.

Wise One/Mentor:  The hero needs someone to guide him in this new world he has entered. Here’s your Yoda, or to use Hunger Games again, Haymitch. This person is always older. However, remember he/she doesn’t have to always look older. In the world of fantasy where you have a number of immortal creatures, this leaves you open to a mash-up other genres can’t do without being creepy. I made my Mentor and my Lover the same person.

Ollivander presents Harry with his wand.

Magical Helper:  The hero goes to this character for “magic” for the journey. This might mean spells, amulets, science, technology, a secret weapon, etc. In the Harry Potter books, all of Diagon Alley played this role to some degree, but especially Garrick Ollivander. The wand maker had the responsibility and talent of matching this most important of magicians’ tools with the right wizard to wield it.

Loved One:  The Loved One is often The Loved One Left Behind of the Tearful Parting. This can be a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, beloved talking goat—doesn’t matter. They often are also a Threshold Guardian.

Threshold Guardian:  These guys are your Debbie Downers, and you can have more than one in a story. They’ll tell your hero that going on the Journey is a bad idea. They’re not wrong, but it doesn’t matter, because your hero is going to ignore them.

Shape-shifter:  Let me be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about a werewolf type shape shifter although you can certainly let the character have more than one physical form. I’m talking about someone who emotionally/mentally is a metaphorical shape-shifter. A great recent example of this is Thomas Hardy’s character Eames in Inception. He can become whatever character is needed in a dream and thus is known as “The Forger.”

Sam and Dean can't escape the Trickster.

Trickster:  This is a common trope and great for laughs as your hero is thrown into sticky situations. One of the funniest episodes of Supernatural ever is “Changing Channels,” where Sam and Dean are stuck in a T.V. world created by the Trickster God. (Yes, I know he wasn’t actually a god, but no spoilers!)

Fool:  Slightly different from the Trickster, who is generally seen as clever, the Fool is regarded as dumb. However, the hero recognizes his/her wisdom, which becomes apparent to everyone by the end.

A God with Clay Feet:  I’m unsure if this character is ever a woman. This is a very, very common character in romances. He’s almost always the Lover for the Heroine at the beginning who is clearly wrong for her. He’s usually perfect on the surface. As the story goes on, though, we discover he’s cheating, is rude to her best friend, and is secretly kicking puppies.

The Herald:  The Herald doesn’t necessarily even have to be a person; it just has to issue the Call to Adventure. In the Mission Impossible movies, it’s just a recording that self destructs.

Q in Skyfall

The Armorer:  In Sword and Sorcery fantasy, this could very well be a blacksmith handing over a sword, knife, mace, or other things pointy. In Bond films, it’s Q giving 007 the latest gadget. The Armorer does not have to give your hero something made of metal. In Cinderella, her Fairy Godmother was the Armorer, providing her with gowns, glass slippers, and pumpkin coaches to win the war of love.

The Rival:  The Rival is in love with the Hero’s Lover, forcing the Hero to compete for the Lover’s affections. He/She is usually preferred by the Hero’s family and friends, providing more conflict for your story. The Rival doesn’t have to lose. A great example of this is My Best Friend’s Wedding. Cameron Diaz was Julia Robert’s Rival, but she got the Lover in the end.

The Saint:  There’s a bit of variety here. The Saint can be an innocent or a world-weary intellectual. They are often priests, monks, bishops, and the like, but you don’t have to be clichéd. Jean Valjean in Les Miserables was a Saint, and he also was an ex-con.

Various Female Archetypes:  The Mother, Goddess, Nymph, Crone, Whore, Bitch, and Femme Fatale can all make appearances or be doubled up with another character. Your Lover can be a Femme Fatale, or your Mentor the Mother. The Rival is often a Whore or Bitch. If you are unsure of any of these archetypes, again, check out that article on Jung.

Whew!  That is a lot of people.

Related Reading:

Hero Archetypes

Of Arthurs and Lancelots: Mythic Origins of the Irritating Polygon (a lengthy, but interesting history of the love triangle, arguing that it might be an archetype in and of itself)

Up Next:  The Mythic Hero, or, Anti-heroes Need Not Apply

A Writer’s Best Resource For Showing Not Telling

The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi

Christmas came early for me this year in the form of Amazon’s marketing genius. While buying yet another book on writing, I spied an intriguing title under Amazon’s Frequently Bought Together headline:  The Emotion Thesaurus. What in the world is that?

It’s Christmas, your birthday, your anniversary, and Happy Writer’s Day all wrapped into one beautiful gift from authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. These attractive, talented, wonderful, intelligent, funny (No, I don’t really know them, but I’m grateful, okay?) women have compiled a resource that every writer would probably shell out fifty bucks at least for, but Amazon is only asking $12.32.

So let me unwrap this divine present from the writer goddesses for you. Pick an emotion that a character would feel. I’m feeling pretty Adoring towards Ackerman and Puglisi right now, so let’s use it. Keep in mind as I take you through this in depth entry for Adoration, that there are 74 more emotions covered in this book.

First you get Adoration’s definition. Next comes a list under the heading Physical Signals. This list includes thirty-two outward indicators that a character might be experiencing adoration. These signals would be obvious enough that not only your reader should pick up on them, but the other characters in a scene should be able to observe that the character exhibiting them is Adoring someone or something. For example: lips parting, nodding while the subject speaks, releasing an appreciative sigh, etc.

I would have been thrilled with just this first list. Instead of writing telling sentences like, “The heroine adored her big brother and listened to everything he said.”  I now had a list that helped me come up with showing sentences like, “Big Brother spoke of his most recent battle, and Heroine listened with her lips parted, nodding encouragement every time he paused.”  However, the entry doesn’t stop there.

The next heading under Adoration is Internal Sensations. Ackerman and Puglisi give us seven more ways to show Adoration from the perspective of the character experiencing it.  This list included descriptors like quickening heartbeat, breathlessness, and feeling one’s pulse in the throat.

If our heroine adored a love interest instead of her big brother, she might want to be a bit more subtle and hide those outward cues. The Internal Sensations then become very useful. “Love Interest drew closer to Heroine. She bit back a sigh, but she could not help the pulse pounding in her throat.”

But wait! There’s more. Our next section is Mental Responses, a list of five. These are great for helping you craft inner monologue for your POV character or providing her motivation in a dialogue scene. For example, using the authors’ suggestion of “an inability to see the subject’s flaws or faults” gave me the idea for the following short dialogue exchange:

Heroine:  “Love Interest would be a great father.”

Best Friend: “You mean the guy who can’t keep a goldfish alive?”

Heroine:  “That’s different. A kid would ask for food.”

With Cues of Acute or Long-Term Adoration, things really get fun. Thirteen more suggestions are listed, and these could lead to some intense conflict:  stalking, fantasizing, and taking on traits or mannerisms of the subject. “Heroine could almost feel Love Interest’s caress as she flushed goldfish number twelve.”

The authors note that acute or long-term adoration can escalate to Love, Desire, Frustration, or Hurt and give you the page numbers for each of those emotions, so you can look up all the goodies they’ve given you for them, too.

The final section of the Adoration entry is Cues of Suppressed Adoration. Nine more ways of showing instead of telling are provided for you. The list includes clenching or hiding one’s hands to hide sweating or shaking, avoiding conversations about the subject, and creating chance run ins.

I’d give you another example, but what you really want is the link. Merry Christmas. The Emotion Thesaurus by Ackerman and Puglisi.

Description Envy

In the last few weeks I have been captured by some particularly vivid description. The writing was so delightful that the image the author created has lingered with me. Even after just one reading or watching, I can remember the exact phrasing.

I know this case of description envy is worse because I need to improve my skill at adding detail and metaphor to my writing. For some reason, I just thought it came naturally to some people, but while reading yet another book on the craft of writing, I was disabused of this notion. Those perfect phrases I wish I wrote are the hard work of a writer who has discarded the first, second, and perhaps even the third or fourth thought that came to them. Only after digging deeper does the author reject the cliché, then the slightly overused, and the done before, to land on the fresh idea.

To help inspire you to excavate your own creativity, I thought I’d share some of the wonderful phrases that had made me so envious. The two sources are remarkably different, but both are impressive in their genres. I’d like to note here, too, that neither is the genre I write (fantasy). One of the best ways to get fresh ideas is to read and watch outside your niche.

House of Cards

Yes, it’s been available on Netflix for a while, but I was busy binge watching Arrested Development and Orphan Black. HoC’s recent Emmy nominations and a friend’s nagging finally prompted me to watch it this week. I’m only two episodes in at this point, but I might have to start watching with pen and paper in hand. Kevin Spacey’s character has a knack for metaphor that reveals as much about his character as what he’s describing. His dialogue repeatedly distills complex situations and emotions into perfect short phrases. Here are few of my favorites, which I wish had come out of my characters’ mouths:

In reference to his wife and their rather peculiar relationship: “I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood.”

On having breakfast with the Speaker and Majority Leader of the House: “They talk while I imagine their slightly salted faces frying in a skillet.”

While the martyr falling on his sword is a cliché, HoC did it in a fresh enough way it was clever again: “What a martyr craves more than anything is a sword to fall on. So, you sharpen the blade, hold it at just the right angle, and then…”  Spacey looks to the martyr character and waits, “3,2,1…” and the character metaphorically falls.

A Food Blog on Beer

I’m not really a beer drinker. There are a few I don’t mind, but in the hot of summer, I’d much prefer sangria or a good mojito. Honestly, if given the choice, I’ll drink water before beer. So why did I read an article online entitled 36 Cheap American Beers, Ranked?  Because a beer drinking friend of mine couldn’t stop laughing while he read it in my presence. After about the third excerpt he read out loud to me, I made him text me the link. Taste, smell, and touch are some of the least used senses in fiction writing. The descriptions of the beers were so overflowing with details from these neglected senses that I got grossed out a couple of times. I’m never going to drink any of these beers, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be challenged by word pictures like the following:

“Keystone separates itself from the rest of the crap pack by augmenting the typical stale/sour flavor profile with notes of brown bananas and green armpits. Keystone is worse than Heineken and murder.”

Rolling Rock. Smells like three fat guys in a two-man tent.”

Miller Genuine Draft. Tastes like the brown ends of corn silk, plus lemon.”

“It’s[Stroh’s] marred by a rubbery slickness that leaves your tongue feeling like third-day deli ham.”

In another brilliant example of changing a cliché for a startling and hilarious effect: “Milwaukee’s Best. It’s easy to mock the Beast, but it’s all I drank in college and I turned out.”

My friend’s personal favorite, which even two weeks later he’ll remember and then start laughing again: “Olympia. This one smells a little bit like the produce section of a carpeted grocery store, but it goes down pretty smooth otherwise.”

The whole article is worth reading.  Both because of its content and language, I would say the MPAA would give an R rating, so be advised. 36 Cheap American Beers, Ranked by Will Gordon.

Related Reading:

People Watching

Distinct Dialogue: How to Make Each of Your Characters Sound Unique

Last week I wrote a post on how Benedict Cumberbatch is able to convey a lot of depth to the characters he plays just by using his voice and speech patterns. Sadly, BC doesn’t come to my house a couple times a week and read my most recently written pages aloud for me, making even the dullest scenes sound amazing. If he did, I wouldn’t be spending so much time rewriting dialogue.

Authors should be reading their manuscripts aloud, especially the dialogue. Certain mistakes and clunky sentences that slipped past me even while reading a printout give me a verbal slap when I hear them out loud. If you can get someone else to read your pages to you, that’s even better.

So you’ve realized maybe your dialogue could use a bit of help. If you’re like me, the biggest problem is that all your characters speak pretty much the same way. So how do you get their individual personalities to pop off the page? Here’s some tips for making each of your characters distinct:

High and Low Diction:  I have one character that is the definition of otherworldly. She lives in a lofty spirit realm, completely out of touch with humans.  On my first pass at her dialogue, something about it wasn’t right. The problem finally dawned on me—diction. I got rid of the contractions and substituted words like “weep” instead of “cry.”    She’s the only person in the book who’s contraction-free and using phrases like, “I cannot linger here.”

Age appropriate:  I have more than one character that is immortal, so they’ve been alive a long time, even though they look young. Certainly, they had to learn to adapt to new slang and ways of talking to blend in, but a great way to distinguish these characters from my younger ones would be letting them slip up and use an out of date phrase. Likewise, they could be unable to adopt certain new ones. If I think about talking with my Grandpa, he is never going to use the words, “yeah, like, or cool” in the same way someone my age will.

Ethnicity and country of origin: I missed an opportunity here. Several of my characters are Russian immigrants, but they never slip up and say “da” instead of yes or mess up their English words. For example, they could say “Oofos” instead of UFOs, not knowing that it’s an acronym where you say each letter instead of a word they are trying to pronounce as a whole. I did think to occasionally sprinkle in a word or phrase in Russian, but these are used almost exclusively by those characters that Russian is their second language, not their first. So I inadvertently have my American-born Russians sounding more Russian than their ESL parents.

Vocation:  You would never know what my characters did for a living by how they speak. Job metaphors are a great way to distinguish your characters. I have a medic, a CNA, and a nurse. Do you think any of them make any medical comments? Nope. Not even anything as obvious as “code blue” when they are in a really sticky situation. Likewise, I have a dancer that could be “counting the beats” in a tense scene.

Education and Social Class: Some of this might come out in diction, vocation, or origin, but depending on how complicated your character, you could have an interesting mix. For example, I have a character whose parents were immigrants. An immigrant background might make readers think she had a modest upbringing, but in fact, her parents were talented artists, and her father was a professor at a prestigious university. Then her father died, and her family slowly descended to lower middle class, and finally she was on her own supporting her sister as a teenager. When my novel opens, she could qualify for food stamps, only has a high school education, and is living in an unsafe neighborhood. Still, she had educated parents, is very smart, and reads a lot. How would this character speak? Her neighbors who have always lived a lower class life do not speak Standard English, but I have her speaking it. Her younger sister might pick up more of the slang of the neighborhood since she was much younger when the family enjoyed the privilege of academia. Remember, you want to use just enough slang and accent to suggest a different way of speaking but not enough to irritate your reader.

Phrase length:  I like to compare and contrast two of the men in my novel frequently. I have descriptions of one being very quiet and speaking in “short, terse sentences bitten off at the end,” and the other “a schmoozer who loves the sound of his own voice.” Even if I overlook the obvious problem that I told my readers their speaking patterns instead of showing them, I also didn’t follow my own generalization. My so-called quiet character is given to mini-lectures, and the loquacious one ended up being surprisingly economical with his words. Again, this might be okay because it at least means they have speech patterns that distinguish them from one another, but they don’t fit their characterization.

Misdirection and manipulation:  I had a little bit of this in my dialogue on my first draft, but not enough, and certain characters needed a lot more of it. If you have a really awful villain who lies, why would they be straightforward in their dialogue? How often do you have a conversation with a friend where you go home and try to puzzle out what was truly said? How frequently do you commit to something you had no intention of doing at the beginning of a conversation with a coworker? I have some very multi-layered complicated characters speaking only in very straightforward dialogue. Not only is it not true to their characters, but I’m missing out on a wonderful opportunity for subtext and increased conflict.

Pet phrases:  Each character in your story should have a list of phrases they repeat. If you need inspiration, just pay attention to your friends for a week and take notes. I have one friend that always says, “In a way,” before he gives an example of something. Another grad student friend who reads a lot of academic texts is always using words I’d swear he made up, like “relationality.”  Spell check doesn’t think that’s a word, either. If you need an example from TV, think how Shawn and Gus from Psych have used “Suck it!” to such great effect for eight years.

A Lesson in Dialogue from Benedict Cumberbatch


Left to right, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, and Chris Pine as Kirk in Star Trek: Into Darkness

Benedict Cumberbatch (BC) is a magnificent actor—hardly a newsflash to anyone who has seen BBC’s series Sherlock. He’s been nominated for more than one Emmy and I’m sure an equal amount of awards in Britain. I enjoyed the first Star Trek, but I admit I was even more excited for the sequel when I heard BC was cast as the movie’s villain.

I saw Into Darkness opening night and was not disappointed by BC’s performance. He was so compelling that there were times I was secretly rooting for him, and I’m a fan of Pine’s Kirk and Quinto’s Spock.

As the weeks passed, I wondered why I found BC’s villain so gripping. Last week a friend who had been overseas when Star Trek was released returned home. She was searching for someone to go see it with her. I quickly volunteered to see it again, driven by my desire to study BC’s character.

Since I knew how the story turned out, I was more detached this time. From the first scene with BC, I scrutinized his movements, speech, and facial expressions. Was it just because I had grown fond of his Sherlock character? I didn’t think so, as his Star Trek character was markedly different.

As BC paced in his containment cell, lecturing Kirk, I realized even more than his costume, facial expressions, or movements, Cumberbatch’s character was conveyed with his speech. While I’m certain some of the credit here belongs to the screenwriter(s), BC’s delivery was critically important. Thinking back to episodes of Sherlock, which are written by a different person, I remembered that BC does the same thing with Sherlock, although in a way appropriate to that character.

I’m not talking about his British accent here. I’m talking about how he lorded over Kirk without touching him. He did this with his word choice, intelligent reasoning, short clipped commands followed by longer explanations spoken with a condescension that belittled Kirk. BC barely moved his hands or body throughout this, and his face was nearly frozen as well. His diction and cadence alone expressed that he was a dangerous man of great intelligence and brutality.

I have read a number of writing guides that state your characters should each have a distinct way of talking, so that even if you took away the speaker attributions, you should know which character is speaking. I had a hard time understanding this advice. How was that accomplished exactly? As I watched BC on the screen, I understood.

So how do you make your characters spring to life as if Benedict Cumberbatch had lent his magic to enliven their dialogue? On Monday, I’ll walk through some examples of how to make each of your characters’ dialogue distinct.

The Book That Ruined My Life

Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

The post title might be a teensy bit melodramatic, but I wish it were more for effect than it is. I’ll try to briefly explain. If you have written a book and not yet been published, or you self published, please stick with me. Learn from my pain, I beg of you.

What Happened

I finished the first draft of my novel at the end of last September. I sent it to my first round of beta readers and immediately started on book two. The book two draft was done in January, and I’m almost done with three. All of these novels are in the hands of at least one beta reader, and the first one has now been read by about ten people.

With each new reader, I’ve received helpful feedback, which I’ve implemented. I also hired a friend who was an English major to help me whip my grammar into shape. I read Yagoda’s and Strunk and White’s style manuals and spent weeks hunting down adverbs and killing them.

I really felt like the manuscript for the first novel, at least, was in good shape. I wrote an agent query letter that I felt confident about and thought in a week or two I would have the novel polished enough to send it.

This week at the library, I was perusing the 808 section to see if there were any other writing books I might like to read. Since I’m revising, I went ahead and checked out Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I thought there might be a couple of things I might have missed, which I could fix quickly before I sent out my manuscript at the end of July.

I read it in less than 24 hours, and then I really wanted to go have a good cry. The book had driven home a very humbling fact:  for all the efforts of the previous months, my writing was still amateurish. I realized my manuscript was nowhere close to being ready to send out. I needed to do extensive rewrites–like line-by-line, might be just as easy to start with a fresh Word document, kind of rewriting.

The Problem

My novel has multiple problems, but that’s not the problem. I’ve read extensively about new authors and the common mistakes they make. One that I’ve heard repeatedly is that new authors often think they are the exception.

Exception to what? You name it:  rejection, the time and effort it takes to be successful, that their first drafts are crap, etc. I read this numerous times and thought, “Well, that’s dumb. Why would anyone think that way?”  Even while I was thinking this to myself, another part of me was thinking, “But my first draft is pretty good. I have some stuff to fix, but my betas like it.”

Wrong. My first draft was crap. Did it have a lot of potential? Yes. Did it have the makings of a great story with interesting characters? Yes. Was it still crap? Absolutely. Was I an exception? Nope.

I needed to assume that I was like every other newbie author and  that I was going to make every newbie author mistake. If I think I know what I’m doing, I probably don’t. However, if I assume I’m an idiot and research everything, I might get this right.

My Secondary Problem

After my biggest problem dawned on me, I realized I had a second one that had contributed to the first. Who was I getting my information from? When making decisions on how to edit, whose advice had I taken?

My readers’, which is fine–I needed that. Then I had consulted other writers, both those just starting out and the books of those who had been in the game a long time. Again, this probably didn’t hurt.

Plus, I had my English major friend, right? She was great for grammar, but she had never edited fiction before, only academic work, and that’s a whole different ballgame.

So whose expertise hadn’t I consulted about editing fiction? A fiction editor. Sure, I’d read On Writing. Who hasn’t heard of Stephen King? Have you heard of Browne & King? No. Well, let me tell you about them.

Renni Browne and Dave King are both professional editors of fiction whose combined years in editing exceed my age. They wrote a book that chapter by chapter, page by page ruined me. They opened my eyes to the problem, but they also told me how to fix it.

I hope one day I can meet them. No, not to punch them, no matter tempting that was a couple days ago. I want to thank them for challenging me to be a better writer.

Buy the book. Read it. Cry. Revise.

My Seven Deadly Stylistic Sins

Seven Stylistic Sins

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t understand why authors often only publish a book a year, two if they’re prolific. Several of my favorite authors publish even more infrequently than that, much to my chagrin. I can write a first draft in three months easily. What takes so long?

I started revisions. Now I understand.

Editing is taking FOR-EVE-R. Okay, it’s been six weeks, but it feels like an eternity. Part of the problem is that I have made a lot of common newbie errors that aren’t just in a scene or two, they’re pervasive. In hopes that I might save others from my revision torture, I thought I’d list the top seven mistakes that have sucked up the most time.

  1.  Seem/Appear/Suppose/Guess. I seem to appear very wishy-washy when writing. I guess my characters should just do things instead of seeming to do things, I suppose. Yuck!
  2. There is/There are. Starting a sentence with these words isn’t grammatically wrong, but it isn’t precise or interesting, either.
  3. “It” as subject. You can use “it” as the subject and be perfectly fine, but often when I do, my “it” is very vague. For example, I had a few different variations of this sentence:  “It was getting dark.”  Twice I meant the sun was setting, once I was referring to the lighting in a room, and another time a character was blacking out. My “it” was so vague as to make the situation unclear.
  4. Pet phrases. I know I’m not supposed to use clichés, but there were certain phrases I used often enough that they got just as annoying. I didn’t notice them while writing, but when rereading my chapters over and over, they began to make themselves known. I think I used the phrase, “for a moment” at least once a chapter. I’ve started keeping a list of my pet phrases, so I can do a search for them.
  5. Telling with dialogue. My problem wasn’t so much with the dialogue itself as the mess I caused around it. For example, I knew I wasn’t supposed to write:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!” the hero said menacingly. Menacingly is an adverb, and those are no-no’s. Instead, I’d write something like:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!” the hero yelled. He shot the villain a look that was menacing. The second attempt is not any better than the first. I’m still telling you the hero is menacing without showing you the menace. As I’m editing, I have to change the line to read more like this:  “Surrender or I’ll shoot!”  The hero leveled the revolver to the villain’s chest and cocked the hammer.
  6. Preposition party. Prepositions are like rabbits for me. If I put two together in a sentence, before I know it, I’ve got three or four. I had one sentence with six. To say that things got ambiguous and hard to follow was an understatement. I’m trying to limit myself to two a sentence.
  7. Qualifiers, intensifiers, and other words that don’t add much. I had to spend four hours just on “just.”  Put this list of words into your Find command and squash them dead. Most of the time a simple delete was all that was needed, no sentence reworking necessary. Pretty, somewhat, a little, kind of, kinda, sort of, rather, arguably, slightly, very, extremely, really, completely, totally, absolutely, unbelievably, remarkably, literally (you probably used this one wrong anyway), particular, personally, frankly, to tell the truth, I’m not going to lie, actually, just, only, simply

What else should I be looking for?  Is there something you do repeatedly?  As much as I hate to drag out the revision process, I also want to do it right.  What’s your best editing advice?

Questions to Ask While Revising

Book cover of James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure

James Scott Bell’s book Plot and Structure has some useful information, but I would rank this one as more of library loan instead of a must own. Plot and pacing come more naturally to me.  Description and setting are generally my problems, so I ended up doing a lot of skimming. However, I did find the chapter about revision to be very helpful.  Here are some of the questions JSB suggests mulling over while editing:

Questions About Your Lead Character

  • Is the LC memorable? Compelling? Enough to carry a reader all the way through the plot?
  • Does this character avoid clichés? Is he capable of surprising us? What’s unique about the character?
  • Is the character’s objective strong enough?
  • How does the character grow over the course of the story?
  • How does the character demonstrate inner strength?

Questions About Your Opposition

  • Is your opposing character interesting?
  • Is he fully realized, not just a cardboard cutout?
  • Is he justified (at least in his own mind) in his actions?
  • Is he believable?
  • Is he as strong as or stronger than the Lead?

Questions About Your Story’s Adhesive Nature

  • Is the conflict between the Lead and opposition crucial for both?
  • Why can’t they just walk away? What holds them together?

Questions About Your Scenes

  • Are the big scenes big enough? Surprising enough? Can you make them more original, unanticipated, and draw them out for all they are worth?
  • Is there enough conflict in the scenes?
  • What is the least memorable scene? Cut it! Now we have a new “least memorable scene.” Consider cutting it, too.
  • What else can be cut in order to move the story relentlessly forward?
  • Does the climactic scene come to fast (through writer fatigue to finish)? Can you make it more, write it for all it’s worth? Set a ticking clock?
  • Do we need a new minor subplot to building up a sagging midsection? Do you need to cut a subplot to clarify a tangle of melodrama?

Questions About Your Minor Characters

  • What is their purpose in the plot?
  • Are they unique and colorful?

The Four Basic Science Fiction and Fantasy Story Models

A lot has been written on plot and whether you even need one.  Stephen King argued in On Writing that you don’t need a plot as much as good characters and an interesting premise.  He’s a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy.  That surprised me.  I wrote my first book that way, and I can’t say I was a fan of that model.  Not only is it stressful, but I think my lack of direction showed.  For my second and third novels, I’ve had at least an outline and sketched out the major themes I wanted to cover.  The first drafts of those two have gone much smoother.

I’ve been reading a few books lately by authors who do like a plot with more structure.  I’ll be doing a Ten Tips on James Scott Bell’s book on plot, but once again, the most helpful resource so far has been Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I swear, this the last post on it, and I’ll shut up, but only if you promise to read the whole thing.

OSC maintains that most stories follow one of the following four models (MICE):

The Wizard of Oz is an example of the milieu story model.

Milieu:  The story begins when you enter a strange land. It ends when you leave. The Wizard of Oz, Gulliver’s Travels

Sherlock Holmes is an example of the idea story model.

Idea:  The story begins by raising a question. It ends when the question is answered. Sherlock Holmes and nearly every other mystery

Perks is an example of the character story model.

Character:  This story is about transformation. It begins when the main character becomes so unhappy in his present role that he begins the process of change. It ends when the character either settles into a new role or gives up the struggle and remains in the old role. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and most coming of age stories

Lord of the Rings is an example of the event story model.

Event:  The world is out of order. This story begins not when the disorder starts, but when the character whose actions are most crucial to establishing the new order becomes involved in the struggle. It ends when a new order is established, the old order is restored, or the world descends into chaos and order is destroyed. Lord of the Rings and a kagillion other epic fantasies

The most important point to remember in plotting is to finish the story you started.  If you begin your story one way and end it another, you’ll frustrate your readers. Imagine if instead of solving the murder (idea), Holmes decided half way through to check into rehab, and the end of the book was about him conquering addiction (character). Bully for Holmes, but I want to know if the butler did it.  Likewise, how frustrating would Return of the King have been if Frodo decided instead of finishing his quest to destroy the ring (event), that after meeting Gollum he’d had enough adventure and headed back to his hobbit hole (milieu)?

Up Next:  Ten Tips from James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure