Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Bottom Line...By Line

Last week we talked about structural rewriting for your new manuscript. This week we’ll begin rewriting on the sentence level, sometimes called line editing when you get someone else to do it. This means it’s time to set theory aside and focus on the mechanics.

Hopefully you’ve had others read your draft. They can spot on thing you are not likely to: words and phrases you overuse. Over time you’ll develop a list of such words. My list includes suddenly, good, very, just and not quite. When you know what yours are you can search for them and replace them with greater variety.

Now read through your work and look for clichés. Sometimes it will seem that something did happen in the nick of time, or that “diamond in the rough” is the best way to describe a character. But in truth, a phrase everyone has heard before is never the best choice. Either cut such phrases or change them. Sometimes replacing one word in a cliché will make your sentence seem very fresh. Describing a woman as a rare opal in the rough might make a reader consider what that might really mean.

You’ll want to examine every sentence for unnecessary words. If a word (or a phrase, or a sentence) can be deleted without affecting the story flow, get rid of it.

My next step is to seek out passive writing. I’m looking for examples like this:
“It was reported today that policy was not followed during the recent election.  Mistakes were made.  Excuses will be given.  And we have been assured that appropriate punishment will be meted out.”

You may have seen something of the sort in your local newspaper.  You may even be wondering what’s wrong with it.  This kind of bureaucratic, stilted language is common in government circles.  It’s called passive language, which just means that instead of leading the sentence with the subject you begin with the object. Most of your sentences should be in active construction – John hit the ball – as opposed to passive - the ball was hit by John. The problem with passive writing is it’s easy to lose the subject entirely.  In the sentence “Mistakes were made” the mistakes are the OBJECT.  But who made them? Maybe this is why politicians and government workers often write this way. But I want my fiction to be clearer than that.

There’s more to be done during the write, but that’s a start. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Let's Do It Again

If your good idea became a strong plot, if you wrote a good outline and overcame all the blocks that arise, you may now have what you’d call a manuscript. Unless you’re a seasoned writer, in which case, you’d call it a first draft.

Writing is rewriting. We hear it all the time but new writers may not know exactly what it means. When you move back to the start of your first draft it’s easy to get caught up in the line edit process – working at the sentence level, changing or deleting words to strengthen the prose. However I would suggest that rewriting begins with a more structural approach.

So step one: toss that draft in a drawer, or put that fine where you won’t see it, for a couple of weeks. You’re going to need to look at your story with fresh eyes.

Now, read your book like it’s someone else’s. Look at it as big-picture as possible. Is this the right genre? (I thought I was writing a mystery but the romance could take over.) Do events happen in the best order? (Maybe the elves should attack before the dragon appears.) You might want to reconsider the setting, relationships between characters, even the point of view. Rethink every structural underpinning of your story and be willing to make real changes.

Also try to feel the level of narrative tension throughout the book. Does the threat or danger increase too quickly or too predictably? Is your protagonist too confident, or too tough? Fix it in the rewrite.

BTW, the most common positive structural change is to cut the opening and start the story later. Many great writers still tend to start the story too early and go into too much detail. Be certain that your novel starts at the best point.

And what about the ending? Did you tie up all the loose ends or did you leave unanswered questions that will keep the reader from being satisfied?

This structural process may involve a lot more thinking and re-reading than actual writing. And when it’s finished your manuscript may be quite the tumbled mess. But that’s okay. Because now it’s time to start the sentence level rewriting. We’ll talk about that next week

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Writing Through It

We started the year getting you started on your novel, and have spent recent weeks trying to keep you going despite the many inner demons that try to stop you.

Sometimes you hit a wall and suspect that the reason is a bad choice you made several chapters back. You can even see where the story would be if you hadn’t added that one plot element. This is devastating to the confidence. But, in my opinion, when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. If you know what your story ought to be at this point, go on from there as if it has gone the right way all along. Yes, that leaves you with a big hole you will have to fill in later, but you’re no longer stuck. At the end you’ll look back and realize you have two different timelines in your story. Go back and make everything fit the new timeline and let the original one die.

I’ve gotten stuck on occasion because I get bored with my characters. They’re not doing anything interesting and I start to tell myself it’s their fault. Actually, if they’re boring it’s probably because I haven’t figured out what they really want. I’ve got to find the conflict that will push them into real action. And if I wrote pages and pages of doing boring things at least I learned more about them. Once I know what these people are really about, I’ll find their real central conflict. Then I need the courage to cut all those boring pages and get right to the stuff that matters.

Lack of confidence can cause writer’s block all by itself. You start imagining all the reasons some critic will say your story is bad, and that keeps you from making any decision. But trust me, the ideas you come up with are never as bad as your fear makes you believe. So drive on thru your first draft, knowing you can fix whatever’s flawed in the rewrite.

Sometimes it’s not the story, but the words. You can be blocked because you can’t find exactly the right word. Not that there’s anything wrong with spending a day fretting over one sentence. But you should have a limit. Maybe after three or four days you should just use the wrong word, or just write [verb] in the right place, and move on. In the flow of the rewrite the right word will probably appear.

Occasionally you might have a great story in your head, but when you start to put it into words looks kinda stupid. Now this COULD actually be your better instincts telling you there’s a problem with your idea. Sometimes just abandoning a novel and starting over is the right thing. Just don’t quit too fast. Maybe part of your cool idea is worth saving. Maybe the idea is genuinely cool and the problem is in your execution. Try writing a synopsis of what you have to that point. This step back can help you see how it fits together. Or, try writing part of your story from a different character's point of view. A different viewpoint can sometimes unstick you.

One more thing: writers can cruise thru that first draft and get bogged down in the rewrite. If you’re like me – I push quickly thru the first draft planning to fix it all in the rewrites – you have to accept that there’s no way to make the process go faster. You need to look at your words from different angles. And consider getting feedback from other writers. They may see structural weaknesses invisible to you.

In other words, getting stuck during revisions is not writer’s block. It’s part of the natural process of trying to improve your writing. You might end up rewriting whole sections from scratch. That’s okay. It’s often faster than trying to improve the words you’ve already put together. Just keep your eyes on the prize – getting to the end of that great manuscript!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Writing Through the Blocks

Last week we started talking about writer’s block, which is in reality many types of writing issues that all have the same symptom: your creative process grinds to a halt. This week I’ll toss out some more hints on how to get moving again when you’re stuck.

It’s easy for us to say “Outline first! If you follow your outline you won’t get stuck.” But the truth is, sometimes you just can’t get through a particular part of your outline. This could be a problem from past work. Maybe your outline has a big flaw that you just don’t want to admit. If you just finished chapter 10 but can’t seem to get to chapter 12, it might mean that chapter 11 doesn’t make any sense. Maybe this bit of action calls for characters to do things they don’t want to do. So it’s time to break from your outline. Either create new actions that will get your story to Chapter 12 or give your characters a good reason to do what you need them to do.

Or maybe your outline is fine, but the section you’re facing is boring. There’s great action in chapter 10 and more in chapter 12, but you’re not feeling how to get from one to the other. It’s tough, but the solution is the same. Take a detour and see what happens. You may well trip over a better transition scene. And if you relax and let your characters do as they will you may see something that needs to happen with them that you didn’t know about.

If you chose not to outline, or if you tossed the outline after you got rolling, you might find yourself stuck in the middle of your story with no clue what happens next. Other writers have told me that this often happens after a really good day. You write a LOT, with cool action and some developments that set up lots of neat future stuff. But the next day, you don’t quite remember where it was all going. If that’s the deal the first step is to stop, take a breath, and read what you wrote yesterday. You might rediscover the trail, or you might rethink some of what you wrote on your big day.

If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to do something to get the story moving again. Introduce a new twist, or a new complication for your characters to deal with and you will probably be off and running again.

You should be back on track now, but if you get derailed again, I’ll have more inspirational tips next week.